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.