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. 

Friday, January 27, 2023

January 27: "Benjamin, Who Came from Who Knows Where," Scar of Orange, Sunrise

Mary Oliver on the haunted life . . . 

Benjamin, Who Came from Who Knows Where

by:  Mary Oliver

What shall I do?
When I pick up the broom
     he leaves the room.
When I fuss with kindling he
     runs for the yard.
Then he's back, and we
     hug for a long time.
In his low-to-the-ground chest
     I can hear his heart slowing down.
Then I rub his shoulders and
     kiss his feet
and fondle his long hound ears.
     Benny, I say,
don't worry.  I also know the way
     the old life haunts the new.

I find this poem incredibly moving.  It's not just Oliver's love poem to an old and loyal hound.  It's a meditation on what it means to grow old.  How we all are haunted by the ghosts of who we used to be in our younger days.

This morning, as I was driving to my office at the library, I saw a scar of orange light on the horizon.  I knew immediately that the sunrise was going to be spectacular, so I texted one of my best poet friends.  "Hey!  Are you close by?"  (Poet friends are about the only people I know who will always get excited about things like sunrises.)

Pretty soon, we were standing on the roof of the library, watching the heavens transform into something that belongs in a poem.  This friend and I have been through quite a lot together in the last year, including the death of the third of our poet trio.  Every time we find ourselves together, it's as if the ghost of our missing friend is always with us.  Especially when we are doing crazy things like standing on the roof of a library building in sub-zero wind chills in order to experience an arctic dawn.

It truly was a moment when the old life haunts the new.  Even though neither of us mentioned our missing companion as we stood calf-deep in snow, bathed in morning light, I know we were both thinking the same thing:  our friend Helen would have loved this.  She would have probably been leaping around that roof like a deer.

That's what happens when you get older.  Mortality is no longer just reserved for grandmothers and grandfathers.  It's something more present--a constant reminder of how precious each and every shared moment of friendship and beauty is.  

We are haunted by the lives we used to live.  Ghosts surround us all day long.  They remind us to stop for moments of daily wonder.

Saint Marty gives thanks for his poet friend tonight, because she knows the old life and the new.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

January 26: "Percy (Nine)," Examined Life, Overdid It

Mary Oliver laments the examined life . . .

Percy (Nine)

by: Mary Oliver

Your friend is coming I say
to Percy, and name a name

and he runs to the door, his
wide mouth in its laugh-shape,

and waves, since he has one, his tail.
Emerson, I am trying to live,

as you said we must, the examined life.
But there are days I wish

there was less in my head to examine,
not to speak of the busy heart.  How

would it be to be Percy, I wonder, not
thinking, not weighing anything, just running forward.

I have spent a LOT of time this past week examining my life.  There hasn't been much else to do besides that and binging movies.  I couldn't read because of headaches.  Couldn't go for walks because the cold air made me cough so hard I felt like Mimi at the end of La boheme.  Couldn't sleep at night, and had no energy during the day.

So, I spent a lot of time just . . . thinking.

I finally tested negative this morning. Then I tested again, just to make sure.  Negative again.  So I worked at the library today.  Taught in-person at the university.  Tried to get caught up on the work I'd missed.  In short, I overdid it.  Now, I'm paying the price.  I'm pretty exhausted.

I'm happy to be rejoining the world, just running forward, as Oliver says at the end of today's poem.  Don't misunderstand me, though.  There's nothing wrong with reflection and self-examination.  If a person doesn't reflect on and examine life every once in a while, he or she runs the risk of turning into a self-absorbed narcissist who becomes President of the United States and encourages insurrection.  (Wow.  Did I just go there?  It must be COVID brain.)

However, there are times when it's alright just to charge ahead.  To indulge without guilt.  To be so full of excitement that the examined life is left like a dirty pair of underwear on the bathroom floor.  Everyone deserves that kind of no-strings-attached happiness every once in a while.

This afternoon, when I got home, there was my dog, lying on her back on the couch, belly exposed, looking up at me expectantly.  It was as if she had been waiting all day for the moment of my return.  I was Santa Claus delivering presents.  The Easter Bunny handing out chocolate.  The Second Coming of Jesus.  

And I reached down and blessed her with the miracle of a scratch behind her ears and rub of her belly.  And it was good.

That is Saint Marty's examined life tonight.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

January 25: "Little Dog's Rhapsody in the Night (Percy Three)," COVID Quarantine, Sweet Arrangement

Mary Oliver on puppy love . . . 

Little Dog's Rhapsody in the Night
(Percy Three)

by;  Mary Oliver

He puts his cheek against mine
and makes small, expressive sounds. 
And when I'm awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws
     in the air
and his eyes dark and fervent.

Tell me you love me, he says.

Tell me again.

Could there be a sweeter arrangement?  Over and over
he gets to ask it.
I get to tell.

This post is going to be a simple one  to write.  Oliver's poem is all about love.  Over and over, her dog asks for love, and, over and over, Oliver provides it.  Because there can never be too much love in the world.

Day six of COVID quarantine for me.  Tested positive again this morning.  So, I taught my class via Zoom today, and I worked for the library online.  Picked up my son from school.  Had leftovers from China King for dinner.  Watched a livestreamed concert from the library.  (I scheduled the band and was supposed to be there to do the introduction.  That didn't happen.)  And, finally, planned for my day tomorrow, which is complicated since I have to prepare for two possibilities:  first, that I test COVID-positive tomorrow morning, and second, that I test COVID-negative tomorrow morning.

Here is what I have learned (re-learned?) over this past week of quarantine and sickness--I have a lot of people in my life who love me a great deal.  That doesn't come as a surprise.  However, in my normal day-to-day existence, I don't really focus very much on all the love in my life.  Instead, I focus on the meeting I have in the morning, report I have to submit by 11 a.m., class I need to teach, son I have to pick up from school at 2:30 p.m., and . . . You get the idea.  The details of my hectic schedule sort of overwhelm all that love I receive on a daily basis.

And that is what Oliver is getting at with this poem.  The sweet arrangement of love--both receiving and giving.  There's nothing better than getting an unexpected expression of love, whatever form it takes.  A text message.  Email.  Phone call.  For Oliver's dog, it's a scratch behind the ears or a belly rub.  During this last week, so many of my friends and family members have reached out to check on me.  Some offered to get groceries.  Last night, a good friend offered to drop off a fifth of gin.  Other people just wanted me to know that they were thinking of me, sending me healing thoughts and prayers.

At the library where I work, everyone has stepped up to help me out.  Hosting programs.  Taking messages.  Putting out all the small fires that erupt during the course of my workdays.  I have coworkers who truly care about me and would do anything to help me out.  That is love, as well.

Me?  I can't do much right now.  I'm sort of like Percy in Oliver's poem, turning upside down, paws in the air, accepting all the kindness and love the universe is throwing my way.  There really is no way to repay all the kindnesses or say "thank you" enough.  

Of course, that's not really the point of love, though.  Love isn't about balance--making sure the scales are even.  Love is unbalanced, even a little feral.  I picture love like a garden that you plant but just can't control.  The carrots and zinnias and cucumbers and watermelon and sunflowers all crowding each other in chimerical chaos.  Unchecked and untamed.  No scorecard needed.

Saint Marty gives thanks tonight for the wild, organic love in his life this week.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

January 24: "Percy (One)," Simple Things, Still Positive

Mary Oliver's new dog . . . 

Percy (One)

by:  Mary Oliver

Our new dog, named for the beloved poet,
ate a book which unfortunately we had
     left unguarded.
Fortunately it was the Bhagavad Gita,
of which many copies are available.
Every day now, as Percy grows
into the beauty of his life, we touch
his wild, curly head and say,

"Oh, wisest of little dogs."

It's good to trust in the wisdom of simple things like a hardboiled egg or glass of cold water or spring robin or puppy joy.  These kinds of things bring us pleasure.  Fill our stomachs.  Quench our dry tongues.  Remind us that winter is over.

Of course, we don't live in a world that values simplicity very much.  That's because most of our modern challenges are multi-faceted.  Take climate change, for instance.  The human race is destroying the planet.  Polar ice caps are melting.  Extinction occurs daily.  Air becomes unbreathable.  Water, undrinkable.

Now, each person can do simple things to combat climate change.  It's a matter of changing our habits.  We could drive less.  Recycle.  Eliminate fossil fuels.  Focus on renewable energy.  That's just the tip of the iceberg, which itself is disappearing at an alarming rate.  Our ability to embrace these changes depends on what we value:  Clean air or an SUV?  Clean water or an oil pipeline?  Miles of forest or miles of highways?  Take your pick.

Percy gets it.  The beauty of his life is all about living in the moment, focusing on simple pleasures.  Barking at the squirrel in the tree, car driving down the street, snow falling from the sky.  Chewing up that book lying open on the couch.  That's Percy's wisdom.

And that is drastically different from what usually resides in my head most days.  I thought I was going back to work tomorrow after five days of quarantine.  Sure, I still have a cough, but I always get a persistent cough this time of year.  It usually lasts until spring.  After I dropped my son off at school and wife at work this morning, I drove home and decided to take another COVID test, just to prove that I was better.

The first positive COVID test I took last Friday showed just a very, very faint second line.  If I hadn't looked closely, I would have missed it.  Today, there was no mistaking the second purple line.  I am still positive.  Which means, unless I test negative tomorrow morning, I'm probably going to be teaching online and working from home for the rest of the week.

I am not happy at the moment.  This weekend, I'm supposed to play for three church services and host a meeting of my book club on Sunday night.

As I sit on the couch typing this post, my dog is sleeping next to me.  She is fully stretched out, her legs twitching in some kind of dog dream, probably about chasing a rabbit or waves on a beach.  She's not stressed about work or dinner or school.  When she's hungry, she will eat.  When she's tired, she will sleep.  When she's bored, she will nose my hand with her snout until I reach over and rub her ears.

That's her contentment and wisdom.  The beauty of her life.  The future doesn't really exist for her.  She's just concerned about those tempting pages in the Bhagavad Gita--the ones she can put in her mouth and chew right now.  After that, who cares?

Maybe I need to take more naps.  Chase more squirrels.  Jump in more snowdrifts.  Maybe I need to stop thinking about tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  It didn't help MacBeth or his wife.  

Instead, at least for the rest of the day, Saint Marty is going to think about now, and now, and now so that tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow will be much brighter.

Monday, January 23, 2023

January 23: "The Storm," Snow Puppy, Everything Wondrous

Mary Oliver's dog enjoys a romp in the snow . . . 

The Storm

by:  Mary Oliver

Now through the white orchard my little dog
     romps, breaking the new snow
     with wild feet.
Running here running there, excited,
     hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins
until the white snow is written upon
     in large, exuberant letters,
a long sentence, expressing
     the pleasures of the body in this world.

Oh, I could not have said it better

There's not much to add to the word picture that Mary Oliver paints here.  Her dog simply triggered with the joy of new snowfall.  Writing a poem with her body.  

I live with a snow puppy myself.  She loves romping through deep drifts.  Rooting with her snout for hidden treasures.  Seeing a blank sheet of cold white and writing herself all over it.  If only we could all indulge in the pleasures of the natural world with that much abandon and ecstasy.  

I remember as a child how much I loved snowstorms.  First, there was the anticipation of an unexpected day off from school.  Then there was the pleasure of snow people and snow forts and snowball fights.  Sledding and tobogganing.  Thawing out with hot chocolate.  Yes, this description is all very Norman Rockwell-esque, I know.  But that's the way it truly was when I was a kid.

Nowadays, I don't experience the same kind of puppy joy when snow starts falling.  Instead, winter weather forecasts bring me anxiety and exhaustion.  Snow means shoveling and driving through whiteouts to get to work.  A months-long battle with city plows and snow removal.  Adulthood simply robs winter of everything wondrous.

Yet, there is my puppy to remind me of bygone winter days.  For those few minutes when I take her outside after new snow has fallen, I feel that old excitement.  As she disappears into fresh powder, I recall seeing that first snow come tumbling out of the heavens every October or early November when I was in middle and high school.  How it filled with me with a kind of hope.  The world was shifting.  Changing.  The colors of autumn erased in a few flurry-ous minutes.  It really was like watching a painting being painted or a poem being poemed.  

I'm sitting on the couch right now, where I've been since COVID came to visit me again.  For the first time in a long while, I'm feeling almost human (minus the hacking cough that just won't subside).  There's snow falling outside my living room window, and it's beautiful.  My puppy is stretched out on the floor after a few minutes of running here running there in the backyard.

That's Saint Marty's poem tonight, written exuberant letters of snow and fur and hope.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

January 22: "What Gorgeous Thing," Couch Day, Grace

Mary Oliver appreciates something gorgeous . . . 

What Gorgeous Thing

by:  Mary Oliver

I do not know what gorgeous thing
the bluebird keeps saying,
his voice easing out of his throat,
beak, body into the pink air
of the early morning.  I like it
whatever it is.  Sometimes
it seems the only thing in the world
that is without dark thoughts.
Sometimes it seems the only thing
in the world that is without
questions that can't and probably
never will be answered, the
only thing that is entirely content
with the pink, then clear white
morning and, gratefully, says so.

Mary Oliver doesn't need to understand beauty.  Instead, she's simply content to experience it without floundering around for explanation or comprehension.  There's no need to know what Impressionism is to appreciate van Gogh's Starry Night.  And you don't have to play piano to be moved by Chopin or Debussy.  Beautiful things exist, and, as long as you have ears and eyes and nose and tongue, you can appreciate them without a critical filter.

It's been another couch day of coughing and nose-blowing and headaching.  I watched Steven Spielberg's new film The Fabelmans, which was fantastic.  This evening, I led a poetry workshop that lasted a couple hours.  Now, I'm pretty exhausted.

What has gotten me through this weekend are moments of grace.  Melting icicles.  Books of poetry.  Movies.  Messages from friends and family.  All these things I received without earning them.  They just happened.  Frozen water.  Beautiful words from beautiful writers.  Images that move.  Kindnesses from people who care about me.  

That's the way grace works.  You don't work for it or buy it.  Grace is just something that enters your life and makes it better.  Like the words of the bluebird in Oliver's poem.  Oliver has no idea what they mean, and she doesn't need to.  She just listens to them.  Gratefully.

I've been graced these last few days as I've struggled with my health.  Gorgeous grace amid all the snot and aches and barks.  It doesn't take much to turn a rotten day into a not-so-rotten day.  As Oliver points out, it can be as simple as birdsong in the pink and white light of morning.  Or a draft of a new poem scribbled in my notebook.  Or watching a good movie with my partner in life.

In all of this, Saint Marty's job has been simple:  accept it and be grateful.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

January 21: "The Vulture's Wings," Day Two, Icicles

Mary Oliver contemplates death and sunlight . . . 

The Vulture's Wings

by:  Mary Oliver

The vulture's
wings are
black death
color but
the underwings
as sunlight
flushes into
the feathers
are bright
are swamped
with light.
Just something
explainable by
the sun's
angle yet
I keep
looking I
keep wondering
standing so
far below
these high
floating birds
could this
as most
things do
be offering
something for
us to 
think about

Something about being sick--it gives you a lot of time to think seriously about subjects that generally don't take up a lot of your headspace when you are well.

I read Mary Oliver's poem for today early this morning because I was up a good portion of the night, gliding in between the black death and sunlight of the vulture's wings.  Contemplating how every experience is a mixture of struggle and blessing.

Day two of round two of COVID passed slowly with me riding riding the couch in the living room, alternating between napping, watching episodes of Holiday Baking Championship on Hulu, coughing my lungs up, and reading Call Me Athena by Colby Cedar Smith.  I did go for a walk with my wife this evening.  A little over 20 minutes that left me exhausted.

Usually, my Saturdays are fairly hectic as I move between churches, rehearsing music and laying out my weekend plans.  Most of the time, I don't get a chance to sit down until about 5 p.m., after I'm done playing the pipe organ for the 4 p.m. Mass at my home parish.

Today, however, I was blessed with time.  Long stretches in which minutes felt like hours.  It's only when l'm forced by illness or circumstance to slow down or stop that I truly recognize the chaos that defines my day-to-day life.  Very little of my time is ever "free."  Instead, I shuttle between places and obligations, even on weekends.

Mind you, I'm not complaining.  I like feeling useful.  Yet, that usefulness comes at a price.  It takes a lot of time away from my family and writing and wellbeing.  I will go for weeks and weeks on four or five hours of sleep a night, only shutting my eyes when they simply won't stay open any longer.  And then my body will shut down, and I have no choice but to hibernate for a day or so.  Sleep until my batteries are recharged.

My sister, Sally, was very much like this, as well.  She worked.  All the time.  She loved her job as a surgical nurse.  It was all she ever wanted to do, from the time she was a little girl.  Yet, I think this drive is what eventually killed her.  Near the end of her life, she was working incredibly long hours for a healthcare system that simply didn't value its employees.  Near the end of her career, she was terrified of being demoted or fired.  Eventually she was fired, through a registered letter that was delivered to her hospital room while she was dying of lymphoma of the brain.

That is the reality of a world that values money over humanity.  My sister was replaced, and the healthcare system sent a nice arrangement of flowers to her funeral.  

If my sister were alive today, she would have been 63 years old.  And I know she wouldn't tell me that she wishes she had worked more in her life.  Instead, she would say that she should have spent more time camping and going to Walt Disney World.  Spoiling her nieces and nephews.  Watching reruns of the original Star Trek series.  Reading.  

I don't think I have ever put these thoughts about my sister into words before.  However, as I sit propped up on my couch tonight, coughing, wheezing, blowing my nose, and trying to stay hydrated, I can't help but look at my life and world a little differently.  Like Mary Oliver gazing up at the black death of that vulture's wings and seeing the underwings swamped with light.

I actually stood at my kitchen sink for several minutes this afternoon, staring at fangs of icicles cleaving the view of the outside world from the window.  How the afternoon light flashed in the frozen water, and the snow and trees seemed trapped in their spears.  And I wondered if my sister ever took the time to admire icicles.

Saint Marty gives thanks for his blessings of this day of sickness.

Friday, January 20, 2023

January 20: "Blueberries," Nostalgia, COVID-Positive

Mary Oliver picks blueberries . . . 


by:  Mary Oliver

I'm living in a warm place now, where
you can purchase fresh blueberries all
year long.  Labor free.  From various
countries in South America.  They're
as sweet as any, and compared with the
berries I used to pick in the fields
outside of Provincetown, they're
enormous.  But berries are berries.  They
don't speak any language I can't
understand.  Neither do I find ticks or
small spiders crawling among them.  So,
generally speaking, I'm very satisfied.

There are limits, however.  What they
don't have is the field.  The field they
belonged to and through the years I
began to feel I belonged to.  Well,
there's life and then there's later.
Maybe it's myself that I miss.  The
field, and the sparrow singing at the 
edge of the woods.  And the doe that one
morning came upon me unaware, all
tense and gorgeous.  She stamped her hoof
as you would to any intruder:  Then gave
me a long look, as if to say, Okay, you
stay in your patch, I'll stay in mine.
Which is what we did.  Try packing that
up, South America.

Mary Oliver is dealing with nostalgia here.  The blueberries she buys remind her of the blueberries she used to pick in a field near her home in Provincetown.  But Oliver doesn't stop there.  Because the poem isn't really just about blueberries.  It's about the whole blueberry-picking experience:  the sun on her back, the sparrow in a nearby woods, and a beautifully skittish, diffident doe.  Mary Oliver can't buy any of that at the market where she's shopping.

Nostalgia is a strange thing.  (I know I've written about this subject before, but humor me.)  Nostalgia is the human mind's way of taking any experience and whitewashing away all of the pain and grief and annoyances, leaving only a sepia-tinged daguerreotype of what actually happened.  That's how we can page through our old high school yearbooks and get all moony over pictures of ourselves in calculus class or with the cross country team.  Because our minds have erased all of the struggles--the late night study sessions and bruised bones, heartbreaking crushes and bullies.  Nostalgia is the reason women have more than one baby, because who in their right would reenlist for the pain of childbirth again?  They do it because they remember the first time the held their newborns instead of the effort of pushing a watermelon out of their bodies.

This morning, I tested positive for COVID.  My faithful disciples may remember that, at the beginning of January 2022, I got COVID.  What I recall of that time now is being at home and just watching movie after movie.  Going on walks with my wife, who was also COVID-positive.  And ordering pizza.  In short, I remember it as a pretty good winter vacation.

Of course, what I don't recall clearly from my first bout of COVID is what I'm experiencing right now--headache, runny nose, incessant cough, fever, nausea, and exhaustion.  Real exhaustion.  After I'm done typing this blog post, I'm going to take another nap.  That will be the fourth one today, I believe.  I'm sure I had all those symptoms last time, but it's just a blank wall in my mind.  

So, I'm like Mary Oliver right now, eating blueberries and not remembering the ticks and spiders of the field.

It's time for Saint Marty take a nap.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

January 19: "Drifting," 'Sup?, Holiness

Mary Oliver drifts . . . 


by:  Mary Oliver

I was enjoying everything:  the rain, the path
     wherever it was taking me, the earth roots
     beginning to stir.
I didn't intend to start thinking about God,
     it just happened.
How God. or the gods, are invisible,
     quite understandable.
But holiness is visible, entirely.
It's wonderful to walk along like that,
     thought not the usual intention to reach an answer
     but merely drifting.
Like clouds that only seem weightless
     but of course are not.
Are really important.
I mean, terribly important.
Not decoration by any means.
By next week the violets will be blooming.
Anyway, this was my delicious walk in the rain.
What was it actually about?

Think about what it is that music is trying to say.
It was something like that.

I have said this before in a blog post:  life would be so much easier if God wasn't invisible.  You could get up in the morning, take out your iPhone, and send God a message:  "'Sup, God?"  And then God would reply, "'Sup, Saint Marty?  Here's what you should do today . . . "  And God would send an itemized list of tasks.  

Of course, it doesn't work like that.  The days of God making personal appearances ended a long time ago.  Instead, you have to watch for holiness, as Oliver says, which is completely visible if you pay attention.  Today, I saw holiness in a text exchange with a friend who is facing some serious health struggles.  Yet, this person maintains a servant's heart, full of empathy, concern, common sense, and humor.  I said in my opening paragraph that God doesn't send text messages.  Well, this morning, God did.

That's what holiness is about these days--God appearing in many forms and shapes.  I didn't really think I was going to meditating on God tonight, but I am.  Like Oliver, I drifted.  Oliver compares such drifting to clouds, which seem weightless and without purpose but really aren't.  You may be surprised to know that an average cloud weighs 1.1 million pounds.  Like clouds, drifting thought is often weighty.  Terribly important.

Pretty soon, I will be leading an Open Mic on Zoom.  It's a monthly tradition started by my friend Helen.  Every third Thursday, she would gather with artist and writer friends and spin stories, read poems, share paintings, and sometimes sing songs.  It was a holy moment every time.  Connections were made, and the veil between the daily and the divine vanished.

Saint Marty's job tonight is very simple:  still his heart, step aside, and let something holy happen.  And when it does, it will be as Oliver describes:  like listening to what music is trying to say.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

January 18: "Do Stones Feel?", Sister Starling, Interdependent

Mary Oliver contemplates the world . . . 

Do Stones Feel?

by:  Mary Oliver

Do stones feel?
Do they love their life?
Or does their patience drown out everything else?

When I walk on the beach I gather a few
     white ones, dark ones, the multiple colors.
Don't worry, I say, I'll bring you back and I do.

Is the tree as it rises delighted with its many
each one like a poem?

Are the clouds glad to unburden their bundles of rain?

Most of the world says no, no, it's not possible.

I refuse to think to such a conclusion.
Too terrible it would be, to be wrong.

For Mary Oliver, the world isn't just a random collection of rock and water and vegetation and creatures.  There is a kind of sentience in all things--rocks, water, rain, clouds.  The stones delight in their patient stone life.  The clouds are relieved when they're able to give up their bundles of rain and wind and thunder. Oliver refuses to believe otherwise because to do so would rob the universe of mystery and wonder.  

Think about it.  If Mary Oliver collects a pocketful of stones on a beach, takes them home, believing they now belong to her, and then finds out later that the stones are grieving for the sands and waves and sun, it would be "[t]oo terrible" a thing to endure.  She has caused misery purely for her own facile pleasure.

I have to admit that I don't often think about the feelings of stones or trees or snow.  If I cut some lilacs off the bushes in my backyard, do those bushes weep purple tears?  There's a snowstorm blowing my way this evening.  Do the clouds carrying that snow and wind and ice stumble and groan as they approach me?  And, after they unburden themselves, do they dance?

I think that we would all be a lot more careful in pretty much everything we do if we thought this way.  When he was alive, Saint Francis of Assisi called all the creatures he encountered "brother" and "sister."  A starling wasn't just a bird.  She was Sister Starling.  A wolf was Brother Wolf.  The world Francis lived in was intimate and close, everything and everyone a family member.

I think back to the first days of the pandemic when everything shut down.  Each house became a fallout shelter or bunker, and people feared the very air they were breathing.  Everything seemed alive with the virus, from the mail in our mailboxes to the groceries we brought home from the store.  And we isolated to protect ourselves.  My family lives two blocks away, and I didn't see them in-person for about a year.  It was as if they had moved to Greenland.

Yet, during this time, the planet itself seemed to grow healthier.  Because nobody was driving their cars or flying anywhere, air pollution fell.  And people started appreciating small, simple pleasures like walks in the woods and sunsets that turned the sky vermillion.  Stones sang, and trees danced.  We all realized, for a relatively short period of time, how connected we are to everything around us.

Of course, this shift in behavior and attitude was temporary.  Soon, we returned to our blind, divisive, day-to-day lives.  And climate change continued.  And wars proliferated.  And refugees died.  It was as if we learned nothing from those months when we became acutely aware of the fragility of our existence on this planet.  And how interdependent everything is--from kings and queens and presidents down to the very rocks under our feet.

So, Saint Marty is taking a moment this evening to thank all of his brothers and sisters--the sand and snow and stones and grass and trees and rain and waves and squirrels and deer and fish and whales and clouds and moons and stars.  His whole family, hungry for the possibility of love and joy.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

January 17: "Loneliness," Ugly Duckling, Inner Critic

Mary Oliver knows what it means to be alone . . . 


by:  Mary Oliver

I too have known loneliness.
I too have known what it is to feel
     rejected, and suddenly
not at all beautiful.
Oh, mother earth,
     your comfort is great, your arms never withhold.
It has saved my life to know this.
Your rivers flowing, your roses opening in the morning.
Oh, motions of tenderness!

Everyone has known loneliness.  That feeling of being abandoned or shunned or misjudged or out-of -place.  Call it ugly duckling syndrome, if you want.  You can't survive middle school without experiencing these emotions.  I grew up in a household with eight siblings and had a large, extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins.  Family reunions of any sort were like The Brady Bunch, The Patridge Family, and The Godfather combined.  Yet, I still remember moments of utter loneliness.

Because loneliness does not really depend upon physical isolation.  I think it's more psychological or spiritual.  I have always been kind of an oddball in my family.  I come from a blue collar background.  My paternal grandfather was a farmer and plumber.  My dad, three brothers, and one sister were/are all licensed master plumbers.  You might say that shit runs through my veins.  When I was in high school, my dad made me go on service calls during summer vacation, and I hated every second of it.  One of the loneliest moments of my life was when my dad registered me as an apprentice plumber.  I felt . . . trapped.  

Of course, I'm not a plumber.  In my case, the ugly duckling grew up to be a poet swan.  But I still sometimes feel, as Oliver says, "not at all beautiful."  I never feel comfortable in my own skin.  I have a relentless inner critic.  I'm too fat.  Too old.  I'm a terrible musician.  My poetry is sentimental or derivative.  I can't teach my way out of a paper bag.  I'm a horrible husband and father and friend.  

Nobody needs to reject me.  I reject myself on a daily basis.

Of course, in my rational mind, I know that this loneliness has no basis in reality.  But loneliness isn't rational.  It's an open wound.  A raw nerve.  It's a high school freshman who would rather be reading Walt Whitman than unclogging a sewer with his dad.  

Today's poem is a reminder that the world is an embracing place.  That there's no such thing as an ugly duckling.  Everything has a place and belongs.  This tenderness, Oliver says, has saved her life.  And it has saved my life, too.  On many a dark night.  

The rivers flow.  Roses open in morning sunlight.  For you.  For Saint Marty.  Because we are beautiful.  Not alone.

Monday, January 16, 2023

January 16: "On Meditating, Sort Of," Failures, Dreams

Mary Oliver meditates on meditation . . . 

On Meditating, Sort Of

by:  Mary Oliver

Meditation, so I've heard, is best accomplished
if you entertain a certain strict posture.
Frankly, I prefer just to lounge under a tree.
So why should I think I could ever be successful?

Some days I fall asleep, or land in that
even better place--half-asleep--where the world,
spring, summer, autumn, winter--
flies through my mind in its
hardy ascent and its uncompromising descent.

So I just lie like that, while distance and time
reveal their true attitudes:  they never
heard of me, and never will, or ever need to.

Of course I wake up finally
thinking, how wonderful to be who I am,
made out of earth and water,
my own thoughts, my own fingerprints--
all that glorious, temporary stuff.

I think that poetry is my meditation.  And maybe writing these blog posts.  Anything that takes me out of myself and my own obsessive mind, for even a little while, is meditation.  Of course, there's always the return to myself, as Oliver says the "earth and water" of who I am.  Yet, it's good to be able to expand a little.  To think of things other than my own insignificant problems and insecurities.

Today, I want to meditate on a person who's been a part of my life for over 30 years.  She's been by my side during some of the most difficult times of my life, and she has been the root of some of the most difficult times of my life, as well.  She knows me better than any other person on this planet.  I think she would say the same about me.

I don't often write about my relationship with this person straightforwardly.  Our life together has been, at times, tumultuous, and the difficulties we've experienced have been incredibly personal and painful.  Yet, through all of it, I've never lost faith in her love for me, and I try to demonstrate on a daily basis my love for her (sometimes no that successfully, I'm afraid).

Believe it or not, living with a poet is not the easiest thing in the world.  I can only speak for myself, of course, but I know that I can be withdrawn, sad, surly, emotional, and a little selfish at times.  I don't think that's unusual for a poet.  To be any kind of artist requires, I think, a certain degree of self-centeredness.

The fact that the person I'm writing about today has stuck with me this long is kind of amazing.  Yet, in the life we have carved out for ourselves, she has faced tremendous struggles, as well, with mental illness, self esteem, sexual addiction, and self harm.  She bears the scars of these struggles.  Literally.  I know that each day she gets out of bed is a victory for her.  Each night she climbs into bed, a battle with herself that she has won.

We take the people closest to us for granted.  Because we trust that, no matter what shit storms we create, those people will always be there to pick up the pieces.  I am guilty of this.  Every day, I commit first degree taking for granted.  It's not something of which I'm proud.  

So, today, I want to pay close attention.  Meditate on this person.  I want her to know that I think she's amazingly brave and beautiful.  That I see her trying to be the best she can be, each and every day.  That's all that anybody can ever do.  

Today is Martin Luther King Day, and I think that Dr. King would agree with me on this point.  We all need to try to be the best versions of ourselves, even if we sometimes fail abysmally.   Because, each time we fail, we're one step closer to our dreams.  We are all wonderfully created--out of earth, water, thoughts, fingerprints, and failures.  All that glorious, temporary stuff.

Saint Marty is proud to have a life partner who, no matter how many times she stumbles, never gives up on her dreams.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

January 15: "Franz Marc's Blue Horses," Helen's Birthday, Piece of God

Mary Oliver and my friend Helen . . . 

Franz Marc's Blue Horses

by:  Mary Oliver

I step into the painting of the four blue horses.
I am not even surprised that I can do this.

One of the horses walks toward me.
His blue nose noses me lightly.  I put my arm
over his blue mane, not holding on, just 
He allows me my pleasure.
Franz Marc died a young man, shrapnel in his brain.
I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses
     what war is.
They would either faint in horror, or simply
     find it impossible to believe.
I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc.
Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually.
Maybe the desire to make something beautiful
     is the piece of God that is inside each of us.
Now all four horses have come closer,
     are bending their faces toward me
          as if they have secrets to tell.
I don't expect them to speak, and they don't.
If being so beautiful isn't enough, what
     could they possibly say?

Today is my friend Helen's birthday.  Helen loved Mary Oliver, would hand copy whole poems by Oliver in her journals and the cards she sent to close friends.  I will always associate Helen with the things that fill Oliver's poems--bears and herons and ponds and snow geese and ocean waves and honey.  Oliver embraces the wild world, and so did Helen.

The very first line of today's poem could have been written by Helen.  Helen did things like that all the time--step into paintings, dance on words, fly with starlings, hike 200 miles to the shores of a blue sea.  You think I'm waxing poetic.  I'm not.  Helen was this combination of Mary Poppins, Mary Oliver, Glinda the Good Witch, and Bruce Springsteen groupie, with some Leonard Cohen darkness thrown in for good measure. 

My beautiful friend loved beautiful things--poems and paintings and tapestries and desserts.  I can actually see Helen with Franz Marc's blue horses.  She sizzles with joy as she pets their Cubist necks and tangles her fingers in the waves of their manes.  Helen grew up on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.  She was part saltwater.  Climbing on the back of one of those blue horses is like going home for her.  Together, they gallop and crest and leap in the bright spray of sun and surf. 

That is how I think of Helen on this day of her birth.  She was always filled with the desire to make things beautiful, and she didn't just enjoy beauty.  Helen indulged in it.  Gulped it.  Gorged it.  Mary Oliver is right.  That desire for beauty is the piece of God that is inside all of us.

Saint Marty celebrates his friend Helen tonight.  A piece of God who made this world more beautiful every day of her life.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

January 14: "Stebbin's Gulch," Ordinary Saturday, Beauty

Mary Oliver, beauty, and perfection . . . 

Stebbin's Gulch

by:  Mary Oliver

by the randomness
of the way
the rocks tumbled
ages ago

the water pours 
it pours 
it pours
ever along the slant

of downgrade
dashing its silver thumbs
against the rocks
or pausing to carve

a sudden curled space
where the flashing fish
splash or drowse
while the kingfisher overhead

rattles and stares
and so it continues for miles
this bolt of light,
its only industry

to descend 
and to be beautiful
while it does so,
as for purpose

there is none,
it is simply
one of those gorgeous things
that was made

to do what it does perfectly
and to last,
as almost nothing does,
almost forever.

One thing, among many, that Mary Oliver is good at is recognizing everyday beautiful things.  Like pouring water and silver fish in silver pools and a kingfisher gliding and diving in a blue sky, being as perfect as it can be for as long as it can.

I had a pretty ordinary Saturday.  I practiced music at three churches.  Ran a few errands.  Picked up some prescriptions at the pharmacy.  Read some poetry.  Went to the 4 p.m. Mass and made some noise on the pipe organ.  Then had pizza and a game night with my family.  Like I said, completely ordinary.  Almost perfect.

The sun made an appearance today, and the world sort of turned to water a little.  Icicles dripped and got shorter and flashed with light.  And it was beautiful.  I just stood in my backyard this afternoon, listened to snow melt.  Most people don't realize that melting snow makes noise.  Probably because most people don't or won't take the time to notice.  Snow snaps and sort of sighs when it melts, like it's tired of being so cold all the time and is letting its defenses down.  You know how, when you sit in one place for a long time and finally get up and move, your body cracks and groans?  That's the best way I can describe it.

And that noise was beautiful this afternoon, along with all the tree branches shifting and dropping clumps of white.  There were birds.  I'm not sure what kind of birds they were, but they sat up high in a pine and keened at me with high piccolo notes.  And that was beautiful, too.

As I said, every day is filled with moments like this.  It's just a matter of slowing down long enough to let the world catch up with you.  Of course, as Mary Oliver notes, beauty and perfection can't last forever, not matter how much you want them to.  And there is no purpose in beauty.  It simply is . . . beautiful.  

So, I hold on to this afternoon, with its melting snow and snapping light.  Eating pizza and playing silly games with my family.  And then writing this blog post to try to make it all last forever.

Saint Marty had a beautiful, ordinary, perfect day.

Friday, January 13, 2023

January 13: "I Don't Want to be Demure or Respectable," Jakob Bohme, Shit Matters

Mary Oliver isn't respectable . . . 

I Don't Want to be Demure or Respectable

by:  Mary Oliver

I don't want to be demure or respectable.
I was that way, asleep, for years.
That way, you forget too many important things.
How the little stones, even if you can't hear them,
     are singing.
How the river can't wait to get to the ocean and
     the sky, it's been there before.
What traveling is that!
It is a joy to imagine such distances.
I could skip sleep for the next hundred years.
There is a fire in the lashes of my eyes.
It doesn't matter where I am, it could be a small room.
The glimmer of gold Bohme saw on the kitchen pot
     was missed by everyone else in the house.

Maybe the fire in my lashes is a reflection of that.
Why do I have so many thoughts, they are driving me
Why am I always going anywhere, instead of
Listen to me or not, it hardly matters.
I'm not trying to be wise, that would be foolish.
I'm just chattering.

This poem perplexes me a little.  At the end of it, Oliver admits that she's just "chattering."  The ideas and images sort of bang up against each other, line after line.  The river traveling to the ocean, the fire blazing in the eyelashes, and so many thoughts bouncing around in her head/poem, going anywhere instead of somewhere, that it's driving her crazy.

And, of course, there's the reference to Jakob Bohme, a German mystic.  As a child, Bohme had a vision of a mysterious pot of gold.  Later, he came up with a cosmology in which he saw the universe as alchemy, a seething pot that refined all the base metals into gold.  "Chatter" into something holy.

Today is Friday the 13th.  I try not to be a superstitious person, and, yet, I walked through this day lightly, avoiding any possibility of bad luck or misfortune.  I didn't do anything unusual.  Tried to stick to routine tasks and experiences.  I worked at the library.  Screened a documentary about the author James Baldwin.  Updated my syllabi for the start of the semester next week.  Got Taco Bell for dinner.  Took my puppy for a long walk when I got home.  Ate.  Watched some TV.

Like I said, the name of the game today was normal.  Boring, even.  

There are a couple ways of viewing the universe, I suppose.  If the universe is random, ruled by chance and chaos, then there is no such thing luck, good or bad.  Shit just happens.  If it is ruled by intelligent design, then there is also no such things as luck, either.  Because everything that happens has a purpose.  Shit matters.

I am a shit-matters person.  I may not understand why shit matters, but I have faith that it does.  And that God takes all the shit that happens and turns it into gold somehow.  Because, if that isn't true, and everything is just random happenstance, then I might as well become a Republican, tell the next homeless person I see to get a job, and embrace my white male privilege.  That's playing it safe, or, in Oliver's words, being "demure or respectable."

But shit matters.  It does.  Being demure and respectable, I would miss everything that is important in the universe.  Kindness and mercy.  Little stones singing.  Sunrises.  Green comets in the sky.  Forgiveness and compassion.  Long evening shadows.  My son's laugh.  Grief and joy.  Wisdom and foolishness.

That's it.  Saint Marty is done chattering for the night.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

January 12: "After Reading Lucretius, I Go to the Pond," Fortuna, Frog and Heron

Mary Oliver and fortuna . . . 

After Reading Lucretius,
     I Go to the Pond

by:  Mary Oliver

The slippery green frog
that went to his death
in the heron's pink throat
was my small brother,

and the heron
with the white plumes
like a crown on his head
who is washing now his great sword-beak
in the shining pond
is my tall thin brother.

My heart dresses in black
and dances.

So, I suppose to understand this poem, you have to have a small understanding of Lucretius.

Not much is known about Lucretius' life, aside from a letter penned by Cicero.  Lucretius wrote one work--De rerum natura, which is sometimes translated as On the Nature of Things.  Basically, it is, among other things, a poem about physics.  It seems as though Lucretius got himself into a little hot water because he espoused that the universe wasn't ruled and operated by omnipotent deities.  Rather, he thought that nature was a matter of fortuna.  Chance.

And that is what Mary Oliver is wrestling with before she strolls down to the pond--the vicissitudes of the universe.  The slippery, green frog devoured by the white-crowned heron.  Both creatures her brothers doing what is completely natural to them.  The frog is swimming in the mud and clay.  The heron is filling its hungry belly.  

I am a person who always looks for meaning in what goes on around me.  If I were Mary Oliver, I would probably be assigning some sort of deep symbolism to that tiny frog becoming a heron snack.  Perhaps it's about the poor being devoured by the rich and powerful.  Or tiny Ukraine being shredded by Putin's Russian military.  Or a child being bullied on a school playground.

No, no, Mary says.  It's not any of that.  It's just the way of the world.  Survival of the fittest.  The frog is just a frog doing frog things.  The heron is just a heron doing heron things.  That's it.  Life begets death begets life.

I spent some time writing with a poet friend early this morning.  Something we try to do every week, when life allows.  During the course of our writing time, we always talk about the chaotic nature of our lives--old and new challenges, attainable and unattainable dreams.  She is like me in a lot of ways, trying to keep her family functioning, working crazy hours, and, in between all that, cobbling together time to write poetry.  

I'm not going to start comparing my friend and me to the frog and the heron.  I'm just saying that, before we dove into writing about the pond this morning, we spent some time admiring its water and weeds.  And it was grounding.  I was reminded that it's natural to be sad sometimes.  To worry about your kids and friends.  At any one point in our lives, we can be simultaneously overwhelmed and joyful and worried and content.  That is my de rerum natura.  On the nature of things. 

So, if you haven't done it for a while, take a walk down to the pond, whatever the pond is for you.  Your neighborhood.  A trail in the woods.  The playground down the street.  Big Boy or McDonald's.  An honest-to-God pond.  Just be there.  Observe.  Take some time just to recognize that we're all connected.  All brothers and sisters in the pond.  Be happy.  Be sad.  Be happysad.  Be sadhappy.  Be whatever your heart wants you to be.

And now Saint Marty's heart will put on a Bigfoot shirt and dance.  Because that's his nature.