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.