Thursday, March 30, 2023

March 30: "Don't Hesitate," Experience Joy, Gorge Yourself

Mary Oliver gives some advice . . . 

Don't Hesitate

by:  Mary Oliver

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don't hesitate.  Give in to it.  There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be.  We are not wise, and not very often kind.  And much can never be redeemed.  Still, life has some possibility left.  Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches and power in the world.  It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins.  Anyway, that's often the case.  Anyway, whatever it is, don't be afraid of its plenty.  Joy is not made to be a crumb.

My favorite line in that whole stunning poem:  "Joy is not made to be a crumb."

I think that most people think of joy as something rare, like seeing the aurora borealis in a midnight sky or an albino skunk.  We don't know what to do when joy descends on us, because it feels alien.  I know that, when I experience any type of happiness, I'm always waiting for mayhem to come knocking on the door.

Maybe it's a matter of not feeling like I've earned the right to be happy or experience joy.  I was brought up by parents who believed in hard work.  From a very young age, I was taught that nothing in life was free.  As a cradle Catholic, I was spoon-fed guilt along with my strained carrots and peas.  Happiness comes after a whole lot of hard work, like planting and tending a garden all summer, waiting for the harvest in autumn.

Yet, I know that joy isn't some kind of divine reward.  God doesn't look down from on high and say, "Wow, Saint Marty worked his ass off this week.  I'm going to send him a little something special today."  That's not the way the universe works.  If it did, we'd all be Pavlov dogs, performing tasks to receive crumbs of joy to drool over.

That isn't joy.  Joy, as Oliver says, comes quickly, unexpectedly.  When it appears, there are two choices:  grab it with both hands and enjoy every moment of it; or shut the door, turn off the lights, and wait for it to disappear.  Too often, I've done the latter.  Because it's hard for me to trust in joy.  Just like there can't be light without dark, there can't be joy without sadness and grief.  They can't be separated.

The question then becomes whether or not joy is worth the sadness and grief.  That's the price you pay.  If you love someone deeply, you accept the 100% probability that you will lose that person eventually (or that person will lose you).  There's no way around that.  

Oliver says that joy happens when love begins, and I agree with her advice:  don't be afraid of joy.  Sit down at the table and eat all you can.  Gorge yourself on it.  Joy isn't about crumbs.  It's about heaping bowls of mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and slabs of turkey (or beef or chicken or ham).

Here is my joy for today:  I sat on my couch this evening with my dog.  She hunkered down on her blankets, curled into a comma, and fell asleep.  It was the first time I've seen her really relax since she was attacked last weekend.  She grunted and groaned and snored and twitched.  As I watched her, scratched her slumbering back, I thought of how close we came to losing her, and there it was:  joy and despair.  Two sides of the coin.

Saint Marty embraced this plenty and gave thanks.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

March 29: "I Own a House," Things, Dog Attack

Mary Oliver on owning things . . . 

I Own a House

by:  Mary Oliver

I own a house, small but comfortable.  In it is a bed, a desk, a kitchen, a closet, a telephone.  And so forth--you know how it is:  things collect.

Outside the summer clouds are drifting by, all of them with vague and beautiful faces.  And there are the pines that bush out spicy and ambitious, although they do not even know their names.  And there is the mockingbird; over and over he rises from his thorn-tree and dances--he actually dances, in the air.  And there are days I wish I owned nothing, like the grass.

Ownership ties you down.  That's what Mary Oliver is saying here.  If you own a lot of "things," you will spend a lot of time worrying about caring for, breaking, or losing them.  Things can weigh you down, not allow you to dance in the air like the mockingbird in Oliver's poem.

It has been a while since I wrote a blog post.  I apologize for that.  As most of you know, I've been struggling with sadness a great deal.  Most days, my energies are monopolized by work and teaching.  By the time I get home, I don't have much fuel left in my tank.  I just want to sleep.

This past weekend, however, something happened that reminded me of my preoccupation with things that, for the most part, don't mean a whole lot.  Most of my life is a rush from one obligation to another--from the library to the classroom to the library to meetings to events.  In order to survive on a day-to-day basis, I have developed a tunnel vision.  I move forward, eyes on the prize all the time.  It's how I have been able to function for about a year.

So, this past Saturday morning, my wife texted me.  She'd forgotten her computer glasses, and she needed them for work.  About 9 a.m., I packed up our little puppy, Juno, and drove the 20 miles to deliver my wife's glasses.  When I arrived, I called my wife to let her know I was at the back door of the business, and she should come out.  

As my wife opened the door, our puppy did what she normally does when she sees someone she loves:  butt wagging, she pulled on her leash to get to my wife.  Just as Juno got to my wife, another dog came charging out of the door.  A very big, 80-pound Black Mouth Cur.

To be honest, things happened so fast, it's difficult for me to remember the order of events.  The other dog grabbed Juno by the neck and began shaking her violently.  Juno started making sounds that were terrible to hear--part howl, part cry of pain and shock.  I threw myself on the dog and grabbed at its jaws, trying to free Juno.  I knew that if I didn't get Juno away, the dog was going to shake her to death.  I jammed my hands in the dog's mouth and pulled.

Juno fell from the dog's mouth.  She started running away, but then rolled on her belly to show submission.  The other dog started mauling and chewing at Juno's abdomen.  Juno kept making those sounds--pain, fear, desperation.   I was pulling on the dog, trying to put myself in front of Juno to protect her.  The dog was huge, muscular, and impossible to stop.

Eventually, someone somehow pulled the dog off and back into the building.  I didn't see who it was.  And Juno just lay on the ground, bleeding, whimpering, white-eyed.  There was so much blood.  My hands were covered in it.  I reached down to try to pick Juno up, but she snarled when I touched her leg, which was at a strange angle to her body.

My wife called our vet's office, told them about the attack.  Juno started going into shock, so I wrapped her in a towel, got her in the car, and drove the 20 miles to the vet in about ten minutes.  On the way, Juno started to lose consciousness, and we kept talking to her, keeping her awake.

When we arrived, the vet went into action quickly.  Juno was bleeding from her belly and neck, couldn't stand on her back leg.  X-rays were taken.  Her leg was out of joint at the hip.  Her belly wound was large, but it didn't look like the other dog had punctured the stomach.  Lots of muscles and ligaments were torn.  She needed surgery.

While Juno went to surgery, I went to the ER.  My hands were really chewed up.  Deep punctures in both of my palms.  The dog bit through one of my nails, as well.  The doctor cleaned up the wounds, gave me a tetanus shot, and a prescription for antibiotics.  My hands were throbbing.  (They still are sometimes, and it's been almost four days since the attack.)

Juno was in surgery for a couple hours.  The vet was able to manipulate her hip back into place and sew up her muscles, ligaments, belly, and neck.  By the evening, Juno was able to walk for a short distance outside to pee.  But she was in a lot of pain.

Juno spent the night at the vet's office.  We picked her up late the following morning.  She has drains in her wounds, to relieve swelling and bleeding.  Juno has always been a very active little dog, fearless in climbing snowbanks, jumping on the back of the couch to bark at passing cars.  She can't do that right now.  She wants to, but can't.  The most walking she does is short strolls around the house to go to the bathroom.  

Before, you ask--yes, we filed a police report.  Yes, we have made it very clear to the owner of the other dog that she is responsible for the vet bills.  Yes, we are talking to an attorney.  

The other dog was supposedly and emotional support animal.  That is why she was allowed to be in the office where my wife works.  However, the dog hasn't gone through the classes or training to be an emotional support animal.  The owner was planning to have her properly trained later.

Am I mad?  Yes.  The owner of the other dog was irresponsible, to say the least.  Another of my wife's coworkers told my wife that someone is blaming my wife for what happened, that my wife "shouldn't have opened the door."  That makes me even angrier.  Juno was under control, leashed, and simply greeting my wife with kisses and butt wags.  However, we live in a society that loves to blame victims for things that happen to them.  Women who dress provocatively are "asking for it."  And, I guess, dogs that are happy to see their family members deserve to be almost eviscerated by uncontrolled emotional support animals.

These last days, I've had a hard time sleeping.  More than once, I've woken up with the sound of Juno's cries in my head.  I've had dreams of that dog attacking Juno and me.  I'm tired and sore.

What does all this have to do with the Mary Oliver poem for today?  That poem reinforces a lesson I've learned over the last five or so days.  All the things that clutter our days--houses, cars, jobs, lost keys, diets, bad drivers, bad grades, whatever--are pretty insignificant.  In the midst of that dog attack, as I was fighting to get Juno free and safe, all that went through my mind was this:  "Please, don't let her die.  Please, don't let her die.  Please don't let her die."  

"Things" aren't important.  

For Saint Marty, tonight, what is important is this little dog, lying on her pillow on the floor, staring up at him with eyes full or trust and love.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

March 11: "I Worried," Constant Companion, Tunnel Vision

Mary Oliver lists some of her worries . . .

I Worried

by:  Mary Oliver

I worried a lot.  Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not, how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up.  And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

I can relate to this poem in so many ways.  Worry has been a constant companion my whole life.  I'm serious.  When I was a young kid, I had a cyst removed from my neck, which led to me worrying about childhood cancer.  When I was a teenager, I ended up in ICU in a diabetic coma.  Since that time, I've had a lifelong fear of going to sleep, having a low blood sugar in the middle of the night, and never waking up.  My adult fears are multitude, from COVID to flat tires to unemployment to bankruptcy and everything in between.  If there was an Oscar for Best Worrier in a Leading Role, I would be the frontrunner.

This penchant for worry leads to a lot troubles, not the least of which is sadness and depression, which I've been seriously struggling with for about eight or nine months now.  The way I usually combat worry and depression is by keeping busy.  I put my head down and immerse myself in work all day until I'm too tired to think about anything but sleep.  I don't give myself time to feel anxious or sad.  

For the most part, this tactic works,  I am able to keep my head above water instead of drowning in a sea of indecision and confusion.  However, it also gives me tunnel vision.  I achieve my goals, but sometimes at a great cost to my mental and physical health, as well as my relationships with family and friends.  I was reminded of this fact very recently.

The opposite of faith isn't doubt, as most people think.  No, the opposite of faith is worry.  As a lifelong Christian, I've been told again and again to trust in God.  God will take care of me, especially in times of great distress.  That's easier said than done, especially when you're at the bottom of a deep hole.  I KNOW God is with me, watching over me, holding me up.  That doesn't make my shitty days any less shittier.

Now, I put up a good front.  If you see me out in public, I will be smiling, joking, interacting with the energy of Martha Stewart at a dinner party.  My jobs require this of me, and I pride myself at being good at what I do.  But the worry and sadness are still there, whispering in my ear, eating lunch with me, causing me to pause for several seconds before I dive into another task.  I've learned to live with them, push them aside, muscle forward.

(SIDE NOTE:  I do see a therapist for regular appointments.  I am depressed, not in denial.)

If you're a worrier, you're not alone.  If you struggle with depression, you're not alone.  You're human in a broken world.

And now Saint Marty will publish this post and start worrying about playing church services tomorrow morning.

Friday, March 10, 2023

March 10: "The Poet Compares Human Nature to the Ocean From Which We Came," Control Issues, Egotism

Mary Oliver reflects on human beings . . . 

The Poet Compares Human Nature to the Ocean From Which We Came

by:  Mary Oliver

The sea can do craziness, it can do smooth,
it can lie down like silk breathing
or toss havoc shoreward; it can give

gifts or withhold; it can rise, ebb, froth
like an incoming frenzy of fountains, or it can
sweet-talk entirely.  As I can too,

and so, no doubt, can you, and you.

Human beings sometimes flummox me.  In my various jobs--programming director for a library, college English professor, church organist, poetry workshop leader--I encounter all kinds of people.  And I'm part of two large, extended families, as well.  So, you can say that I get what Mary Oliver is saying here.  I've seen quite a bit in my life, from craziness to sweet-talk.

Yet, some aspects of human nature that I just don't get, no matter how many times I encounter them.  For instance, I don't understand individuals with control issues.  A person who literally has to control every aspect of every part of their lives (and everyone else's lives) is doomed to a life of unhappiness.  Because life and people are unpredictable.  So, either you can either enjoy life in all of its chaos, and love people in all their failings, or you can be absolutely miserable.  I prefer enjoyment and love over unhappiness and misery.

Another aspect of human nature that is beyond my comprehension:  egotism.  If someone has to provide a complete CV of accomplishments within the first five minutes of interacting with me, I will be quickly looking for the bar or hors d'oeuvres table.  I don't care if you received a $100,000 grant from the NEA, unless you're paying for dinner.  Don't regale me with tales of how you got drunk with Truman Capote at Studio 54.  I'll probably counter with how I met Alec Baldwin at the Met one day.  Humility is more interesting and attractive to me.  If you have to toot your own horn, please do so in another room (preferably in another house in another town).

If I sound slightly misanthropic, it's because I am.  At least tonight.  I've had a week where I've dealt with several difficult people, including today.  My response is always the same.  I patiently try to point out, in a gentle and kind way, the absurdity of overwrought emotional reactions to certain situations.  I try to pierce balloons of self-importance without causing another Hindenburg.  Sometimes, I'm successful.  Most of the time, however, I fail, because people don't like to be wrong (another aspect of human nature I loath).

The sad thing about people with these kinds of character traits is that they don't even realize how embarrassing their behaviors are.  Or they don't care, which is even worse.  I am so self-aware that it can be paralyzing at times.  But I prefer to go through life sensitive to the feelings of others rather than blindly oblivious.  Give me a healthy dose of compassion over a heaping helping of misplaced indignation or pride.

Saint Marty may have already used up all his people skills at the start of this weekend.

Monday, March 6, 2023

March 6: "Varanasi," Mystery and the Unknown, Uncertainty

Mary Oliver learns something about holiness at the Ganges . . . 


by:  Mary Oliver

Early in the morning we crossed the ghat,
where fires were still smoldering,
and gazed, with our Western minds, into the Ganges.
A woman was standing in the river up to her waist;
she was lifting handfuls of water and spilling it
over her body, slowly and many times,
as if until there came some moment
of inner satisfaction between her own life and the river's.
Then she dipped a vessel she had brought with her
and carried it filled with water back across the ghat,
no doubt to refresh some shrine near where she lives,
for this is the holy city of Shiva, maker
of the the world, and this is his river.
I can't say much more, except that it all happened
in silence and peaceful simplicity, and something that felt
like the bliss of a certainty and a life lived
in accordance with that certainty.
I must remember this, I thought, as we fly back
to America.
Pray God I remember this.

The phrase that sticks with me in this poem is "the bliss of a certainty and a life lived / in accordance with that certainty."  

I wish I had that kind of certainty in life.  I just returned from Midwest Weirdfest today; I was surrounded all weekend by people who spend a lot of their time focused on the uncertainties of the world.  The paranormal.  Aliens and cryptids, pyramids and numerology.  Art.  These individuals embrace mystery and the unknown.

As a poet, I pretty much do the same thing.  Human experience is not something about which you can ever be certain, in my opinion.  I put my faith in language as a way to grapple with the complexities of the reality, from faith in God to belief in Bigfoot.  Certainty is rarely a factor in this struggle.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  life without mystery would be pretty damn boring.  Certainty isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

In my experience, people who live in a "bliss of certainty" are pretty overbearing.  I have been on this planet for over five decades now, and I can say, with absolute certainty, that I am not certain about anything, from spirituality to the best kind of Oreo.  I know people who are very sure of themselves, with confidence oozing from the pores like pheromones.  "Look at me," those pheromones proclaim, "and know my greatness."

Now, a certain level of self-worth is good.  People shouldn't go through life thinking they don't deserve happiness and joy.  That their lives are lessons in abject failure.  However, in my experience, absolute certainty about the superiority of anything--especially when it comes to talent, holiness, race, physical appearance, or children--only leads to trouble.  (Think Nazi Germany, institutional racism, Republicans, and Donald Trump.)

Nothing is certain, whether we're talking about bliss or faith or Bigfoot.  The universe is too vast and unknowable.  Sort of like the mind of God.  It's better to embrace the bliss of uncertainty, because that leaves room for the miraculous.

And Saint Marty is a big fan of miracles.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

March 5: "Tides," Light-Footed and Casual, "The Bigfoot Trap"

Mary Oliver on her morning walk . . .


by:  Mary Oliver

Every day the sea
     blue gray green lavender
pulls away leaving the harbor's
dark-cobbled undercoat

slick and rutted and worm-riddled, the gulls
walk there among old whalebones, the white
     spines of fish blink from the strandy stew
as the hours tick over; and then

far out the faint, sheer
     line turns, rustling over the slack,
the outer bars, over the green-furred flats, over
the clam beds, slipper logs,

barnacle-studded stones, dragging
the shining sheets forward, deepening,
     pushing, wreathing together
wave and seaweed, their piled curvatures

spilling over themselves, lapping
     blue gray green lavender, never
resting, not ever but fashioning shore,
continent, everything.

And here you may find me
on almost any morning
walking along the shore so
     light-footed so casual.

I wish that my mornings could always  start like this--a walk along a beach, watching the blue gray green lavender sea.  The life that I've created for myself doesn't usually allow me anything so leisurely.  When the alarm goes off in the morning, I hit the ground running, my brain already listing and organizing and prioritizing all the tasks of the day.  Nothing light-footed or casual for me.

That's why I've really enjoyed this weekend.  No jobs to worry about.  No church services to play pipe organ for.  No lesson plans or grading.  Pretty much all I've had to do is get up, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and plan what movies to watch at Midwest Weirdfest.  Yes, the majority of these past three days have revolved around quirky, artsy, experimental films about UFOs, diabetics, demons, beaver armies, and Bigfoot.  For a person who spent a good portion of his childhood reading Stephen King novels and issues of Starlog and Fangoria and The Weekly Weird News--and watching movies like The Legend of Boggy Creek and miniseries like Salem's Lot--it was a perfect getaway.  (The fact that I was involved with one of the movies premiering at the festival was just a bonus.)

Of course, I head back to my "normal" life tomorrow, with all of its stresses and obligations.  I'm not complaining, mind you.  For the most part, I love what I do.  However, there is something to be said for a day where your biggest worry is making it to a screening of a movie titled The Bigfoot Trap (one of my favorites of the weekend, by the way).

Tonight, however, I played board games with my family and friends when we got back to the hotel.  We talked about our favorite movies of the weekend and ate Oreos.  It was a great way to end this cinematic adventure.

If Saint Marty were Mary Oliver, he would write a poem about Bigfoot walking along a beach by a lavender sea, gobbling hundreds of beavers. 

March 4: "An Old Story," Sue, Bigfoot and Poetry

Mary Oliver tells . . . 

An Old Story

by:  Mary Oliver

Sleep comes its little while.  Then I wake
in the valley of midnight or three a.m.
to the first fragrances of spring

which is coming, all by itself, no matter what.
My heart says, what you thought you have you do not have.
My body says, will this pounding ever stop?

My heart says:  there, there, be a good student.
My body says:  let me up and out, I want to fondle
those soft white flowers, open in the night.

It is that time of year when winter and spring keep trading places.  One day, 50 degrees.  The next, five degrees and winter storm warnings.  I haven't experienced the first fragrances of spring yet, and those soft white flowers are still buried by snow.

I went for a short walk with my family and friends before the Midwest Weirdfest started this afternoon.  The air was crisp, and people were fishing on the Eau Claire River.  Getting away from home for a few days feels good, even if I'm not lounging on a beach in the Bahamas.

Big and Marty premiered this afternoon at the festival.  There was a good-sized audience, and an old friend, Sue, who lives about 15 minutes away from Eau Claire. showed up.  I haven't seen her in over two years, and we had a reunion in the theatre lobby.  It involved long hugs and some tears.  Then we started ribbing each other and exchanging barbs, as if no time had passed.

After the screening and Q & A (during which Sue asked me a question even though I forbade her from doing so before the movie started), we snapped a picture.  I'm looking at it right now as I type these words.  

Sue has been one of my best friends for over 30 years, through some of the happiest and most difficult times of my life.  I think she would say the same about me.  We understand each other.  We both had siblings with Down syndrome.  She grew up in the late 1960s/early 1970s.  I grew up in the 1980s.  We like the same movies and books, and we both share the same political beliefs.  Spiritually, we adhere to the rule of disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.

So, it was amazing to have her sitting next to me while Bigfoot and Marty premiered on the big screen.  (I will admit that seeing my head as big as King Kong's was a little disconcerting.)  She laughed, shook her head, laughed some more, and paid close attention, as if she was watching Citizen Kane with Bigfoot and poetry.

So, tonight, Saint Marty is telling an old story--friends reunited after a long separation, sitting in a dark theatre, behaving like middle schoolers on a fieldtrip.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

March 3: "Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness," Midwest Weirdfest, Celebration

Mary Oliver reflects on the need for darkness . . .

Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness

by:  Mary Oliver

Every year we have been
witness to it:  how the
world descends

into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don't say
it's easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?

So let us go on, cheerfully enough,
this and every crisping day,

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

Mary Oliver embraces darkness in this poem. because she knows that darkness is necessary if the world is to have light.  Every good poet I know walks that line between darkness and light, what was and what will be.  Every breath we take brings us closer to our last breath.  Every minute of autumn closer to the first minute of winter.  Every second of night closer to dawn.

I am writing this post in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  I've traveled here with my family and close friends to attend the Midwest Weirdfest, an annual festival of dark, strange, paranormal, experimental, and, well, weird films.  I'm here because a documentary in which I'm featured, Bigfoot and Marty, is in competition.  It was made by one of my best friends.

I'm also here because I like weird.  Ya know, I'm a poet.

Tonight, we watched Hundreds of Beavers.  It was a film set in the 19th century about a drunken applejack salesman who takes on an army of supernatural beavers in order to win the hand of the woman he loves.  There was no dialogue and lots of Looney Tunes type physical comedy.  Imagine a live-action Roadrunner cartoon.  It was gloriously strange.

The theatre was practically SRO, packed with fellow aficionados of the dark and bizarre.  Audience members cheered.  Laughed.  Not just polite chuckles.  Big, true belly laughs.  I was surrounded by people who appreciate this doomed life, as Oliver describes it.

Though the world be rich mash, the ponds cold and black, I know that it's just a prelude, interlude, and postlude to another season of sweetness.  Darkness is necessary.

And Saint Marty embraces it.

Monday, February 6, 2023

February 6: "Life Story," Nature Versus Nurture, Lydia

Mary Oliver gives us her . . .

Life Story

by:  Mary Oliver

When I lived under the black oaks
I felt I was made of leaves.
When I lived by Little Sister Pond,
I dreamed I was the feather of the blue heron
left on the shore;
I was the pond lily, my root delicate as an artery,
my face like a star,
my happiness brimming.
Later I was the footsteps that follow the sea.
I knew the tides, I knew the ingredients of the wrack.
I knew the cider, the red-throated loon
with his uplifted beak and his smart eye.
I felt I was the tip of the wave,
the pearl of water on the eider's glossy back.
No, there's no escaping, nor would I want to escape
this outgo, this foot loosening, this solution
to gravity and a single shape.
Now I am here, later I will be there.
I will be that small cloud, staring down at the water,
the one that stalls, that lifts its white legs, that
     looks like a lamb.

I think we are all products of the places where we live or have lived, just like Oliver.  A person who grows up in a small town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is very different from a person who grows up in Orlando, Florida.  This is the crux of the Nature versus Nurture debate.  Are we products of how, where, and who we grow up with; or are our personalities simply implanted on our genetic makeup?  

I know that who I am has been greatly influenced by my upbringing in the Upper Peninsula.  While I love visiting more urban settings and experiencing their explosions of busy energies, I am a small-town boy at heart.  Given the choice between a crowded dance party throbbing with alcohol and a quiet walk in the woods on an autumn evening, I will always choose the nature hike.

And I have also been influenced by the people in life, as well.  My parents and siblings, friends and coworkers.  I have been very lucky.  In all of my years, I've had an abundant supply of love and support from close family and friends.  These individuals have taught me a lot about myself and the world.

This evening, one of my closest friends of over 30 years, Lydia, led an origami workshop at the library where I work.  She taught us to make paper cranes.  Now, I have always been craft-challenged.  I can't knit or crochet.  I don't make birdhouses or paint oil landscapes.  I'm a decent sketcher, and, of course, I can write.  However, folding pieces of paper into animals is not in my wheelhouse.

Before the workshop, Lydia and I sat in my office and visited.  We don't see each other as much as we used to.  I worked side-by-side with Lydia at an outpatient surgery center for 20-plus years.  On a daily basis, we shared our struggles and joys, celebrations and lamentations together.  Lydia was one of my sister Sally's best friends, as well.  Sally trusted Lydia, and, when Sally got really sick, Lydia helped my family arrange her end-of-life care, to make sure that my sister died with dignity, surrounded by people who loved her.  Lydia was present when Sally took her last breath.  So, when I say that Lydia and I are close friends, that barely scratches the surface of what our friendship is.

My personality was shaped by the time I worked at that surgery center, and by my relationship with Lydia.  Therefore, when Lydia told me I was going to learn how to fold paper cranes, I went along for the ride.  Because I trust her.

I mangled more sheets of paper than I transformed.  Yet, at the end of about an hour-and-a-half of folding and swearing, I was on my way to making a small flock of colorful cranes.

In today's poem, Oliver says she is leaves from black oaks.  A blue heron feather.  A pond lily and footsteps on a beach.  The tip of waves.

Tonight, Saint Marty was a piece of paper, folded into something beautiful by his friend, Lydia.

February 5: "The Instant," Poetry Workshop, Eating a Brownie

Mary Oliver and the serpent . . . 

The Instant

by:  Mary Oliver

one small snake lay, looped and
in the high grass, it

swirled to look, didn't
like what it saw
and was gone
in two pulses

forward and with no sound at all, only 
two taps, in disarray, from
that other shy one,
my heart.

I led another poetry workshop tonight. It was part two of the workshop I lead on the first Thursday and Sunday of every month.  The theme this time was "love," for obvious reasons, considering the upcoming holiday.  But I didn't focus on just romantic love, but love in all its forms.  Love of a child.  Love of a particular place.  Love of animals (like Oliver's love for that snake in today's poem).  Love of nature.  Love of Bigfoot.  (Okay, that one was just me.)  It was a literal love fest.

 Of course, love is a complicated thing.  Always is.  It is true that we hurt the people (and things) we love the most, and vice versa.  There are some people I love who have caused me great pain in the past.  My wife and I are going on 30 years of marriage, and those three decades have not always been easy.  Our Love Boat has almost turned into The Poseidon Adventure a few times.  Yet, through forgiveness and a LOT of hard work, we are still together.

I come from a large family.  I had three brothers and five sisters.  Three of my siblings have died.  I love(d) all of my siblings.  However, I don't get along with all of them.  In fact, I hardly speak to a couple of them for reasons I won't talk about here.  I still pray for those siblings.  Wish them happiness and joy.  However, I just can't share the same oxygen with them.  And I have learned to accept that.

I'm not sharing any earth-shattering wisdom here.  Love is complicated.  Period.  That's why it's one of the great themes in literature, movies, music, and art.  Think about it.  Romeo and Juliet love each other, and we all know how that turns out for them.  Jack ends up at the bottom of the Atlantic while Rose bobs along on a piece of Titanic flotsam until she's rescued.  The couple in Grant Wood's American Gothic look like they haven't had sex in years, and there was always something strange between Greg and Marcia Brady.  Don't even get me started on all the shit have to go through Jack and Ennis on that mountain.

Love (in all its forms) is the element that binds us all together.  Without love, bad things happen:  wars, genocides, institutional racism, the election of Republicans.  Sometimes, love is hard.  Sometimes, it's as easy as eating a brownie.  

Here's a little thing Saint Marty wrote about love in workshop tonight . . . 

Jigsaw Puzzle

by:  Martin Achatz

My dad was a puzzle to me,
a Charles Foster Kane whose Rosebud
I never found.  A life-long Republican,
whose favorite president was JFK.
Member of he John Birch Society
who loved Lucille Ball even after
Winchell declared her a card-carrying
commie.  Hard-drinker, he sat
in his chair, sipped Seven and Sevens
all night until he couldn't remember
the basement from the bathroom 
door, plunged down basement stairs
into a metal support beam.  The next
morning, his face swelled to the size
of a Thanksgiving turkey, stitches
knitting his forehead back together.
But here is the thing I remember most
about my dad--him in his hospital 
bed, breathing his last breaths, 
and my mom beside him, holding
his hand, rubbing it with her thumbs, saying
over and over to him, "You were
a good husband, yes, you were,"
as he squeezed his eyes shut and tears
rolled down his face, as if the world
had become too painful to look at any more.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

February 4: "Three Things to Remember," Rules, Singing and Dancing

Mary Oliver on rules . . . 

Three Things to Remember

by:  Mary Oliver

As long as you're dancing, you can
          break the rules.
Sometimes breaking the rules is just
          extending the rules.

Sometimes there are no rules.

Mary's being playful here.  She's also being deadly serious.

In day-to-day life, everyone obeys rules.  If you're a young kid, it's rules that parents hand down:  "No, you can't have cupcakes for breakfast."  Ditto if you're a teenager:  "No, you can't have you're boyfriend sleep over."  And, when you reach adulthood, those rules simply proliferate like horny rabbits:  "Don't be late for work . . . Don't forget to pay the water bill . . . Don't drink caffeine after 5 p.m. unless you want to be awake all night . . . Don't vote for would-be dictators with orange faces . . . "  I could go on, but you understand.  

Rules are the things that allow society to function.  I appreciate rules.

However, some rules are made and enforced for no apparent good reason.  For example, who decided that paczkis should only be made and consumed on Fat Tuesday?  Perhaps, if paczkis were made all year long, they would lose their luster, but I doubt it.  Then there's the whole thing of expiration dates on eggs.  My wife is a firm believer in throwing out all food products once they pass their expiration dates.  Me?  I think those dates are mere suggestions.  Expired milk, for example, is not necessarily sour.  The sniff test is a much better indicator of whether any food product is fit for consumption.

Rules are helpful when they insure safety and peace.  (If, during the height of the pandemic, you were an anti-masker/anti-vaxxer, you may want to stop reading this post now.)  A couple years ago, in defiance of state and federal guidelines, many people ignored rules regarding public health, gathering in large public spaces without masks, spreading a deadly virus.  (Again, if you don't believe there was a pandemic and that thousands of people died as a result of that pandemic, please stop reading this post.  There are no vaccines for ignorance or stupidity.)  Some rules are simply necessary, to keep people safe and happy and healthy.  These kinds of rules are based on things like common sense, science, love, and/or compassion.

Other rules seem arbitrary, unnecessary, and/or flagrantly unkind and dangerous.  I once tried to purchase a pint of schnapps on Christmas morning and was told that it was illegal to sell liquor in the state of Michigan on Christmas.  If there is any time of the rolling year when access to alcohol shouldn't be restricted, it's Christmas day when you gather with family and dig up all the skeletons buried at the back of the closet.  Alcohol shouldn't be restricted, it should be a requirement.  Then there's the whole gun problem in the United States.  Since the start of 2023, there have been 67 mass shootings in this country.  The land of the free.  Home of the brave.  So, people are free to own all the guns they want, and children and young adults have to be brave to step into a classroom.  When a rule harms someone, it's not a good rule.  Period.  And that rule needs to be changed, ignored, or abolished.

There are no rules for expressing joy.  How do you express true, abiding happiness?  You clap.  Laugh.  Sing.  Dance.  My sister, Rose, loved music.  She wasn't a good singer or dancer, but that didn't matter.  She was always the loudest voice in the choir loft on Sundays.  Always offkey.  She didn't follow the rules when she opened her mouth to make a joyful noise or moved her body to make a joyful show.

But the sounds that came out of my sister at those times probably made the Higher Power happier than Placido Domingo belting out the final note of "Nessun Dorma."  And she probably put King David to shame when she was getting down on the dance floor.  She was song.  She was dance.

I've been playing the pipe organ at my church on weekends for over 30 years.  And Rose was there for most of my tenure as a church musician.  One evening, coming down from choir loft, a parishioner stopped me and said with a pained expression, "You should tell your sister to sing softer."

I looked at the woman and said, "Why don't you come up to the choir loft and tell her yourself?"

The woman looked flummoxed.

I continued:  "It isn't about being perfect.  It's about present."  I started walking away from her and said over my shoulder, "If all you're hearing during Mass is bad singing, maybe you aren't listening right."

Here's a rule Saint Marty believes in:  if you don't have something nice to say, keep your goddamn mouth shut.

February 3: "I Happened to be Standing," Sunflowers, Prayer

Mary Oliver thinks about prayer . . . 

I Happened to be Standing

by:  Mary Oliver

I don't know where prayers go,
     or what they do.
Do cats pray, while they sleep
     half-asleep in the sun?
Does the opossum pray as it
     crosses the street?
The sunflowers?  The old black oak
     growing older every year?
I know I can walk through the world,
     along the shore or under the trees,
with my mind filled with things
     of little importance, in full
self-attendance.  A condition I can't really
     call being alive.
Is a prayer a gift, a petition,
     or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that's their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep.  Maybe not.

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning.
Then a wren in the privet began to sing.

He was positively drenched in enthusiasm.
I don't know why.  And yet, why not.

I wouldn't persuade you from whatever you believe
or whatever you don't.  That's your business.
But I thought, of the wren's singing, what could this be
     if it isn't a prayer?
So I just listened, my pen in the air.

I love the idea that everything and everyone prays--sunflowers and trees and sleeping cats.  Walking along the shores of Lake Superior, the waves slapping against the shore is a prayer.  The ice on my roof, dripping and sliding in the sun, is a prayer.  Me, sitting at a pipe organ and making music, is a prayer, and me with a pen and my journal (like Oliver), is a prayer, too.

People may think it's strange, but I always feel closest to my Higher Power when I'm writing.  Perhaps it's because I find it so easy to let go of all the other distractions in my life when I'm scribbling words on a page.  Of course, I've been writing since I was very young, so it's second nature to me.  I can easily go to a deeper place when I put pen to paper.  Because it's a part of who I am.

Prayer, as Oliver says, can be petition.  It can also be joy and lament.  An expression of gratitude.  Or a recognition of something beautiful.  Or terrible.  Ever since I can remember, I've always wondered what Christ looked like when he prayed.  Did he glow like marble in moonlight?  Or sweat blood?  Maybe he levitated, arms splayed, head thrown back--a dress rehearsal for his crucifixion.  

Or maybe he was like Oliver, listening to a thrush singing in the olive trees every morning.  Because isn't that what prayer really is--an act of paying attention?  Christ was a poet, watching, observing the praying world.  Sometime, the world rejoices.  Other times, it weeps.  Begs and sings psalms.  

Poets embrace mystery without the messy struggle to explain and quantify and dissect.  Sunflowers blaze,  The old black oak gets older.  So does the opossum.  Cats nap in pools of golden sunlight.  And it's all sacred.  Unknowable.  Beautiful.  Prayer.  Poem.

Saint Marty sitting at his laptop, typing this blog post--even that is prayer.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

February 2: "I Go Down to the Shore," Poetry Workshop, Happiness

Mary Oliver has a conversation with the sea . . . 

I Go Down to the Shore

by:  Mary Oliver

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall--
what should I do?  And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I led my normal monthly poetry workshop tonight.  Since it's February, the theme was "love."  Not very imaginative, I know.  However, I didn't focus on just romantic love.  My prompts touched on all forms of love--love of nature, God, family, animals, pets, weather, clouds, and self.

As I said in yesterday's post, writing anything has been a struggle for me recently.  I might go down to the shore with Mary Oliver, but ain't gonna be new poems comin' out of that trip.

Life is like that.  All you can do is listen to the wind and waves and crickets sometimes, and practice happiness.  Chase it.  Humans tend to do a lot of hand-wringing and woe-is-me-ing.  Once you get into that particular state of mind, it can be difficult escaping it.

Don't misunderstand me.  I know that it's not just a matter of pulling yourself up and dusting yourself off sometimes.  Depression is a real, physiological thing that can't be fixed with a pat on the back and a piece of chocolate.  (A lot of things can be helped/cured with chocolate, but not mental illness.)  I'm not trying to trivialize that struggle in any way, and I don't think Oliver is, either.

Happiness is hard work.  It doesn't descend on you from above or materialize like a genii from a bottle.  Happiness from a bottle generally leads to addiction and even more misery.  No, happiness requires mindfulness and attention.  In the middle of a hurricane, it's tough to find blue sky, even though it's always up there.

I think that's what Oliver is getting at in today's poem.  I may be wallowing in grief over the anniversary of my sister's death, but the sea is still there, with its songs and prisms and caresses.  It keeps doing it's watery work of being beautiful, satisfying the planet's thirsty needs.

Happiness and beauty are always there, waiting.  We just have to take off our shoes and wade in.

I'm ready to get my feet wet.

Something Saint Marty wrote about love of self (keep your minds out of the gutter, people) in tonight's workshop:


-- proper noun --

1.  A man who had a dream, marched for that dream, went to jail for that dream, died for that dream.

2.  Another man who nailed a piece of paper to the door of a church to remind everyone that God doesn't take bribes.

3.  An obscure President of the United States who nobody remembers.

4.  A beautiful bird of the swallow family that is not actually the color of Lent.

5.  A soldier who gave his cloak to a freezing beggar and became a saint.

6.  The alcoholic friend of my dad who used to sit in deer camp and drink Wild Turkey all day long.

7.  A poet, father, teacher.  A person who roots through kitchen cupboards a 2 a.m., looking for those damned double-stuffed Oreos that his son already ate.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

February 1: "The First Time Percy Came Back," One Year Since, My Sister

Mary Oliver has a vision . . .

The First Time Percy Came Back

by Mary Oliver

The first time Percy came back
he was not sailing on a cloud.
He was loping along the sand as though
he had come a great way.
"Percy," I cried out, and reached to him--
     those white curls--
but he was unreachable.  As music
is present yet you can't touch it.
"Yes, it's all different," he said.
"You're going to be very surprised."
But I wasn't thinking of that.  I only 
wanted to hold him.  "Listen," he said,
"I miss that too.
And now you'll be telling stories
     of my coming back
and they won't be false, and they won't be true,
but they'll be real."
And then, as he used to, he said, "Let's go!"
And we walked down the beach together.

I have been struggling these last days.  Distracted.  Sad.  Too exhausted every night to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.  That's why I've been doing these catchup blog posts well past the dates they should have been written and shared.

Just a few days ago, I realized that it has been one year since my sister, Rose, died.  Somehow, my body and brain knew it, I think, without it being consciously at the forefront of my thoughts.  That is why I've been having such a hard time stringing together words into sentences these last ten or so days.

So, I'm going to tell you a story.

A long time ago (okay, about a year ago), in a galaxy far, far away (okay, it was actually at my house) . . .

My sister, Rose, had died a few days before.  I was in the hospital room when she breathed her last breaths.  Without question, I knew that she was gone.

I am a person who frequently suffers from insomnia.  When I should be in bed, I am usually awake--writing poetry or blog posts, binging The X-Files, or searching my shelves for a specific volume that I absolutely need to have immediately.  You get the idea.

On this particular night, I was lying on the couch, watching something on TV.  Probably a movie that I'd seen many, many times before.  I may have dozed off.  I'm not sure.  The next thing I know, my sister, Rose, was standing by my Christmas tree.  (Yes, I leave my Christmas tree up a long time.  If you have a problem with that, please submit a written complaint in triplicate to the Department of Eat My Ass.)

There Rose was, but not the way she was at the end of her life.  In the last few years before she died, Rose had lost a lot of things--her memory, speech, ability to walk by herself.  It's a well-worn metaphor, but it's an apt one here:  Rose was a shell of her former self.

The Rose that was standing in my living room that night was young and strong.  My sister was always tiny, less than five feet.  Yet, she could arm wrestle with the best in her prime.  Kids who teased her in school or on the playground for being a "retard" often found themselves flat on their backs, gasping for air.  That was the Rose I saw that night.  The Rose who could take care of herself.

As I said a couple paragraphs ago, I may have fallen asleep, but Rose was like the music Oliver describes in the poem--present, and yet I couldn't touch her.  I waited to see if she was going to say anything.  She didn't.  What I got instead was a steady gaze and a smile, as if she had shone up to tell me a joke or ask me for a Diet Coke (her favorite).

It lasted only a few seconds.  Or a lifetime.  I closed my eyes and shook my head.  When I opened my eyes again, she was gone.

Again, I'm not sure if I was awake or asleep.  I know that I'd been working on the poem I was going to read for Rose's funeral right before this happened.  For those of my disciples who don't believe in angels or ghosts or an afterlife, chalk Rose's appearance up to an exhausted, grief-stricken brother's mind.  And for those of my disciples who are open to mystery without the need for explanation, chalk it up to my sister's loving spirit that wanted me to know that she was alright.  Happy.  Whole.

Is this a false story?  Is it true?  Yes and yes, I suppose, depending on your belief system.  Is it real?

As sure as Saint Marty loves tapioca pudding.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

January 31: "The Poetry Teacher," Wisdom from My Dog, Nap

Mary Oliver's dog teaches her students about happiness . . .

The Poetry Teacher

by:  Mary Oliver

The university gave me a new, elegant
classroom to teach in.  Only one thing, 
they said.  You can't bring your dog.
It's in my contract, I said.  (I had
made sure of that.)

We bargained and I moved to an old
classroom in an old building.  Propped
the door open.  Kept a bowl of water
in the room.  I could hear Ben among
other voices barking, howling in the
distance.  Then they would all arrive--
Ben, his pals, maybe an unknown dog
or two, all of them thirsty and happy.
They drank, they flung themselves down
among the students.  The students loved
it.  They all wrote thirsty, happy poems.

Like Mary Oliver, I've learned a lot of things from my dog.

First, always greet people you love as if you haven't seen them for 20 years, even if they're just coming back from peeing in the bathroom

Second, bark, jump, shout, leap when you encounter something that excites you--a poem, a Christmas tree, a squirrel.

Third, when you're tired, nap.

Fourth, eat every meal like it's your last--wolfing, making so much noise that you drown out the TV, traffic, negative thoughts.

Fifth, always share your pizza crusts and Ritz crackers.

Sixth, love unconditionally, trust unconditionally, and kill any and all rodents unconditionally.

Seventh, go for walks any time you get the chance, but do NOT pee on everything you see.

Eighth, scratch where it itches, even in mixed company.

Ninth, everything smells as good as Thanksgiving turkey and pancakes.

Tenth, if you bark loud and long enough, people may think you're a little crazy.  Or rabid.

Eleventh, it's not considered polite to sniff people's crotches.

Twelfth, sometimes just sitting by someone you love makes the world a better place.

That's just a few life lessons from Saint Marty's puppy.

Monday, January 30, 2023

January 30: "Her Grave," Eulogize and Memorialize, Helen Pentecost

Mary Oliver finds love and life in grief . . . 

Her Grave

by:  Mary Oliver

She would come back, dripping thick water, from the green bog.
She would fall at my feet, she would draw the black skin
from her gums, in a hideous and wonderful smile--
and I would rub my hands over her pricked ears and her
     cunning elbows,
and I would hug the barrel of her body, amazed at the unassuming
     perfect arch of her neck.


It took four of us to carry her into the woods.
We did not think of music,
but, anyway, it began to rain


Her wolfish, invitational, half-pounce.

Her great and lordly satisfaction at having chased something.

My great and lordly satisfaction at her splash

of happiness as she charged

through the pitch pines swiping my face with her 

wild, slightly mossy tongue.

Does the hummingbird think he himself invented his crimson throat?

He is wiser than that, I think.

A dog lives fifteen years, if you're lucky.

Do the cranes crying out in the high clouds

think it is all their own music?

A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you

do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the

trees, or the laws which pertain to them.

Does the bear wandering in the autumn up the side of the hill

think all by herself she has imagined the refuge and the refreshment

of her long slumber?

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the

smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know

almost nothing.

Does the water snake with his backbone of diamonds think

the black tunnel on the bank of the pond is a palace

of his making?


She roved ahead of me through the fields, yet would come back, or

wait for me, or be somewhere.

Now she is buried under the pines.

Nor will I argue it, or pray for anything but modesty, and

not to be angry.

Through the trees there is the sound of the wind, palavering.

The smell of the pine needles, what is it but a taste

of the infallible energies?

How strong was her dark body!

How apt is her grave place.

How beautiful is her unshakeable sleep.



the slick mountains of love break

over us.

This is how anyone recovers from loss.  Slowly.  Second by second.  Hour by hour.  Day by day.  

I always find funerals strange affairs.  For a little while, everyone gathers to pray and eulogize and memorialize.  Then everybody goes to another place (usually) to eat and visit and laugh.  I find that transition from sorrow to fellowship jarring.  But perhaps that's the way it should be.  Like a drink of ice cold water after being in the desert for a week or so.  It's a turning back to life.

So many times, living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the change from winter to spring is very sudden.  Not a slow melting over days or weeks.  It can happen overnight.  I've gone to bed, layered under quilts and blankets, and woken up into a morning where the sun is shining and birds are singing in the pines.  It's a beautiful shock to the system.

Tonight, I hosted a book launch event at the library where I work.  The book was a manuscript written by my friend, Helen.  A collection of poems she'd been working on for over a year, right up until the last weeks of her life last August.  After she died, I worked with another poet friend to usher those 39 poems into book form.

The event tonight was packed with Helen's friends and admirers.  People who've been missing her terribly these past six months.  There were tears shed.  Lots of hugs exchanged.  But the overall emotion I felt in the room was joy.  It was a celebration, and, with each poem that was read and story shared, Helen was there with us.  Her breath, captured on the page, blew around us like some kind of Helen Pentecost, anointing each person, blessing us all.

I had expected to feel Helen's absence a lot tonight.  Instead, I felt her presence, pushing us, willing us to embrace the wonder that is this world.  That's what Helen did each and every day she lived.

Saint Marty is wonder-filled tonight.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

January 29: "Bazougey," Joy, Forever Gifts

Mary Oliver writes about the deepest sting . . . 


by:  Mary Oliver

Where goes he now, that dark little dog
     who used to come down the road barking and shining?
He's gone now, from the world of particulars,
     the singular, the visible.

So, that deepest sting:  sorrow.  Still,
     is he gone from us entirely, or is he
a part of that other world, everywhere?

Come with me into the woods where spring is
     advancing, as it does, no matter what,
not being singular or particular, but one
     of the forever gifts, and certainly visible.

See how the violets are opening, and the leaves
      unfolding, the streams gleaming and the birds
     singing.  What does it make you think of?
His shining curls, his honest eyes, his
     beautiful barking.

Sorrow is a part of life.  That's what Oliver is getting at.  If you have happiness, you will eventually have sorrow.  Now, you can go around, trying to avoid sorrow.  Stay home.  Don't take any chances.  Of course, that means that you may never experience true joy.  Never find true happiness.

I know I've said all this in previous posts.  Joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin, like light and dark, fear and courage, Donald Trump and sanity.  You can't have one without the other.  They sort of define each other.  (Okay, I think we could have all done without Donald Trump, but you get the idea.)

I know what you're thinking right now:  "Oh, no, Saint Marty's going to get all maudlin and depressing again about losing his sisters and brother and parents."  Sure, I could go down that road.  That's what you're expecting.

I'm not going to do that.  I'm going to focus on the other side of the coin:  joy.  I've just recovered from COVID.  My children are healthy and happy.  I have a partner I love and who loves me.  My dog is the cutest dog in the world.  I'm working a job I love.  Actually, several jobs that I love.  There's no snowstorm or blizzard on the horizon.  And, tomorrow night, I get to celebrate the life and poetry of one of my best friends.

This evening, my book club was supposed to meet at my house for our monthly dinner and discussion.  Because I have just recovered from COVID, we met via Zoom instead.  One member has described our book club as "the strangest book club in the world."  We have been going strong for close to 20 years.  Members have come.  Members have gone.  My mother was one of the inaugural members.  My sister, Sally, was a member, too.  (She never read the books.  She came to babysit my daughter, and then my son, while the rest of us talked and ate.)

Every time we get together now, I think of the people who aren't there any more.  At the moment, we are a small group.  But we love each other deeply.  We are family,  (Cue the disco music.)  So, tonight was joy.  Sally was there.  My mother was there.  All of our friends who've moved away were there.  Another of the current members once told a friend of hers, "I'm not allowed to leave book club.  Ever."  

Tonight, Saint Marty celebrates the forever gifts of his life--poetry, friends, family, and books that bring that bring us all together.

Saturday, January 28, 2023

January 28: "The Dog Has Run Off Again," Obedience, Shoulds

Mary Oliver tries to tame something wild . . . 

The Dog Has Run Off Again

by:  Mary Oliver

and I should start shouting his name
and clapping my hands,
but it has been raining all night
and the narrow creek has risen
is a tawny turbulence is rushing along
over the mossy stones
is surging forward
with a sweet loopy music
and therefore I don't want to entangle it
with my own voice
calling summoning
my little dog to hurry back
look the sunlight and the shadows are chasing each other
listen how the wind swirls and leaps and dives up and down
who am I to summon his hard and happy body
his four white feet that love to wheel and pedal
through the dark leaves
to come back to walk by my side, obedient.

I'm tired tonight.  Really tired.  Like Mary Oliver's dog, it feels like I've been running for a long time.  In the poem, Oliver isn't frantic in her efforts to find her missing canine companion.  She knows he is doing what he loves to do--chasing sunlight and shadows, pedaling his white paws through piles of dark leaves.  She doesn't want to deprive him of these moments of wild abandon in which he indulges his wolf nature.

In life, I think everyone learns to succumb to obedience.  Listen to parents.  Go to bed on time.  Eat vegetables.  Go to school.  Do what's expected.  Homework.  Tests.  Papers.  Due dates.  Obey teachers' directions.  Follow the rules.  Receive good grades.  Graduate from high school with a bunch of scholarships.  Follow the rules at college, listen to the professors' directions.  Graduate summa cum laude.  Apply for a good job.  Get hired.  Work hard.  Listen to the boss.  Get promoted.  Follow the company's business plan.  Get promoted again.  Work 30 or 40 years.  Retire.  Enjoy the few years remaining, doing whatever the heart desires.  Die.

That's life on a leash.

I'm not saying that this is necessarily the best way to live.  It's certainly the safest way.  The end, however, will always be the same.

I haven't lived an obedient life.  Like Oliver's dog, I've run off toward the rushing, rain-swollen stream.  If I had lived a life on a leash, I would now be working as a computer programmer somewhere, probably making a lot more money than I have ever made in my entire life.  Or I would have a PhD and tenure-track position at a university, making a lot more money than I have ever made in my entire life.  Or I would be running my father's plumbing business, spending my days fixing water heaters and furnaces, unclogging sewers, probably making a lot more money than I have ever made in my entire life.

However, I would be absolutely miserable, despite making a lot more money than I have ever made in my entire life.  (If you can't tell, lack of money has always been a part of my adult life.)

Rules are good.  Rules should be followed, to avoid things like insurrections and deaths during a global pandemic, among other things.  Sometimes, however, people misconstrue rules with shoulds.  As in, I really should make the bed.  Or I really should study something practical in college like computer programming or nursing.  Or I really should balance my checkbook.  (Do people still have checkbooks?)  Or I really should eat salad for dinner tonight.  You get the idea.

I've learned to avoid "should" thinking.  "Should" thinking is all about social expectations.  If everyone in the world stayed under the heavy thumb of "should" thinking, things like art and poetry and music and wonder wouldn't exist.  Think about it.  When was the last time someone told you that you should go out into the woods to see the snow in the branches?  Or you should go down to the beach to watch the sunrise?  Or you should write a poem or listen to a song?  People don't say things like that.

Instead, it's "you should do the dishes" or "you should eat grapefruit for breakfast" or "you should lose some weight."  These are expectations based on what is "normal."

And I'm here to tell you that I'd rather live an abnormal life and be happy than a normal life and be bored or, even worse, miserably lost.  Everyone has to be obedient sometimes.  Follow the rules of decorum and etiquette, at home or school or in the workplace.  However, it's not a bad thing to get a little . . . freaky every once in a while, as long as it does no harm to yourself or anybody else.

Today, I was pretty obedient.  I had a lot to get done, for work and school.  And all of that obedience left me exhausted.  In a little while, I'm going to get a little freaky.  I'm Zooming with a friend to record an episode of my podcast Lit for Christmas.  The format of that podcast can be summed up as follows:  I get drunk (lit), discuss Christmas literature, and write some poetry with my cohost.  

So, if you see me tomorrow, I may look a little rough.  Don't worry about me.

Saint Marty is just recovering from a night of not being on a leash.