Monday, March 19, 2018

March 19: Divine Equality, Cost of Grace, Goodness

With memories like these in him, and, moreover, given to a certain superstitiousness, as has been said; the courage of this Starbuck, which could, nevertheless, still flourish, must indeed have been extreme. But it was not in reasonable nature that a man so organized, and with such terrible experiences and remembrances as he had; it was not in nature that these things should fail in latently engendering an element in him, which, under suitable circumstances, would break out from its confinement, and burn all his courage up. And brave as he might be, it was that sort of bravery chiefly, visible in some intrepid men, which, while generally abiding firm in the conflict with seas, or winds, or whales, or any of the ordinary irrational horrors of the world, yet cannot withstand those more terrific, because more spiritual terrors, which sometimes menace you from the concentrating brow of an enraged and mighty man.

But were the coming narrative to reveal in any instance, the complete abasement of poor Starbuck's fortitude, scarce might I have the heart to write it; but it is a thing most sorrowful, nay shocking, to expose the fall of valor in the soul. Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but, man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave around them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman's arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes; Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commoners; bear me out in it, O God!

Melville here is elevating Starbuck, but not to the point of ignoring his faults.  Rather, Melville seems to be saying that, despite any defects in character, any acts that may call into question Starbuck's nobler qualities, all of those failings pale in comparison to the chief mate's admirable character traits, including bravery in the face of great peril at sea.  Starbuck remains a good person.

I have been struggling today with impatience, bordering on irritation.  It has to do with thoughts about grace.  In my experience, I have not met many people who do things simply out of the goodness of their hearts.  Bosses give you days off when you request them, but, when you come back, you work doubly hard to get caught up.  Students ask for extensions on assignments and excused absences for family problems, but they grant you none of that leniency as a teacher.  You help family members through personal difficulties, and you sometimes don't receive the same kind of love.

I'm not saying that I should expect anything in return for the small acts of grace that I try to perform in my life.  That's not what grace is about.  Grace is an unexpected kindness that's given with no expectation of return.  I try to send it out into the universe, hoping it makes a difference somehow, somewhere, some time.

However, I'm weary today because grace in my life seems in short supply.  When I think that I've received a kindness, I find myself feeling as though I must justify why I deserve it.  And that fills me with a mixture of emotions--anger and guilt, mostly.  It also lowers my self esteem quite a bit.  I know that I shouldn't allow myself to feel like this, but, today, I can't help it. 

Despite my failings as a human being, I think that I'm a good person, like Starbuck.  If I'm asked for help, I usually do what I can.  I'm not wealthy.  Never have been.  I work three jobs, two during the week and one on the weekend.  I am trying to provide a good home for my kids, where they feel safe and comfortable.  When my siblings face difficulties, I will be there for them, no matter what time of day or night. 

Grace shouldn't come with conditions.  I firmly believe that.  God doesn't say, "Sure, I'll give you a clean bill of health, but I expect you to pay me back."  That's not grace.  That's Don Corleone granting you a favor at his daughter's wedding. 

So, forgive me if I sound a little downhearted today.  I'm grateful for all the blessings of my life.  Really, I am.

Saint Marty simply wishes those blessings came like a rainbow in the heavens.  A show without an admission price.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

March 17: Starbuck, American Arpartheid, Youth

The chief mate of the Pequod was Starbuck, a native of Nantucket, and a Quaker by descent. He was a long, earnest man, and though born on an icy coast, seemed well adapted to endure hot latitudes, his flesh being hard as twice-baked biscuit. Transported to the Indies, his live blood would not spoil like bottled ale. He must have been born in some time of general drought and famine, or upon one of those fast days for which his state is famous. Only some thirty and summers had he seen; those summers had dried up all his physical superfluousness. But this, his thinness, so to speak, seemed no more the token of wasting anxieties and cares, than it seemed the indication of any bodily blight. It was merely the condensation of the man. He was by no means ill-looking; quite the contrary. His pure tight skin was an excellent fit; and closely wrapped up in it, and embalmed with inner health and strength, like a revivified Egyptian, this Starbuck seemed prepared to endure for long ages to come, and to endure always, as now; for be it Polar snow or torrid sun, like a patent chronometer, his interior vitality was warranted to do well in all climates. Looking into his eyes, you seemed to see there the yet lingering images of those thousand-fold perils he had calmly confronted through life. A staid, steadfast man, whose life for the most part was a telling pantomime of action, and not a tame chapter of sounds. Yet, for all his hardy sobriety and fortitude, there were certain qualities in him which at times affected, and in some cases seemed well nigh to overbalance all the rest. Uncommonly conscientious for a seaman, and endued with a deep natural reverence, the wild watery loneliness of his life did therefore strongly incline him to superstition; but to that sort of superstition, which in some organization seems rather to spring, somehow, from intelligence than from ignorance. Outward portents and inward presentiments were his. And if at times these things bent the welded iron of his soul, much more did his far-away domestic memories of his young Cape wife and child, tend to bend him still more from the original ruggedness of his nature, and open him still further to those latent influences which, in some honest-hearted men, restrain the gush of dare-devil daring, so often evinced by others in the more perilous vicissitudes of the fishery. "I will have no man in my boat," said Starbuck, "who is not afraid of a whale." By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.
"Aye, aye," said Stubb, the second mate, "Starbuck, there, is as careful a man as you'll find anywhere in this fishery." But we shall ere long see what that word "careful" precisely means when used by a man like Stubb, or almost any other whale hunter.
Starbuck was no crusader after perils; in him courage was not a sentiment; but a thing simply useful to him, and always at hand upon all mortally practical occasions. Besides, he thought, perhaps, that in this business of whaling, courage was one of the great staple outfits of the ship, like her beef and her bread, and not to be foolishly wasted. Wherefore he had no fancy for lowering for whales after sun-down; nor for persisting in fighting a fish that too much persisted in fighting him. For, thought Starbuck, I am here in this critical ocean to kill whales for my living, and not to be killed by them for theirs; and that hundreds of men had been so killed Starbuck well knew. What doom was his own father's? Where, in the bottomless deeps, could he find the torn limbs of his brother?

This passage is the first substantial one that Melville offers about the Pequod's chief mate, Starbuck.  By this description, I think Starbuck and I would get along pretty well.  Not the whole leathery skin, survivor-of-a-famine/drought thing.  It's the cautious bravery, not taking stupid chances thing that I appreciate about his character.  Starbuck's not a coward.  He's smart, and he prefers to surround himself with careful, smart people.

I'm not a coward, either.  I teach college composition.  If I were a coward, I'd have been eaten alive years ago.  I'm also not a fool.  Don't believe in putting myself in dangerous situations for the thrill of adventure.  You won't find me skydiving on my 70th birthday.  I have no compulsion to cram myself into a submarine to see the wreckage of the Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic.  And I certainly won't be buying tickets for a rocket ride into orbit around the planet.  Nope.

There are things I do that I think require some courage.  Getting up in front of a classroom.  Writing a blog about some of the intimate details of my life.  Being a poet.  Being the father of a teenage girl.  Playing the pipe organ for church services.  Performing in live radio shows.  All of these things take intestinal fortitude.  They're not easy.

I'm making these comments because I think some people might look at my life as kind of mundane.  Unlike most men who grew up in the Upper Peninsula, I don't like fishing or hunting.  I own a Subaru, not a four-wheel-drive pickup.  My idea of a good night is reading a fine book or working on a new poem.  I'm by no means conservative in my attitudes.  Haven't ever voted for a Republican presidential candidate.  Think that certain guns should be outlawed.

That's who I am.  And I'm trying to raise compassionate, non-judgmental kids who accept people for who they are.  When I see someone outside of Walmart, begging for money or food, I will buy them a burger, French fries, and a pop.  I want my children to care about the world.  Want them to know there's more to life than having the coolest phone or nicest house.  I will count myself a successful father if my daughter and son grow up to be loving, caring citizens of this planet.

I was speaking to a friend of mine the other night.  He said something that mightily affected me.  He said that the Donald Trump presidency and Congress is the last gasp of American apartheid.  After this current mess, our kids are going to take over.  I really believe that.  This week, I think we saw the start of this change.  Young kids standing up for what they believe in, despite all of the loudmouths of my generation telling them to sit down and be quiet.

I am a Starbuck trying to raise Starbucks.  Smart, brave, compassionate children who will grow into smart, brave, compassionate adults.  As Bob Dylan sang, "The times, they are a-changin'."

Saint Marty is thankful for the youth of the United States.

March 17: Tony Hoagland, "Cause of Death: Fox News," Political Poetry

Cause of Death:  Fox News

by:  Tony Hoagland

Towards the end he sat on the back porch,
sweeping his binoculars back and forth
over the dry scrub-brush and arroyos,

certain he saw Mexicans
moving through the creosote and sage
while the TV commentators in the living room

turned up loud enough
for a deaf person to hear
kept pouring gasoline on his anxiety and rage.

In the end he preferred to think about illegal aliens,
about welfare moms and health care socialists
than the uncomfortable sensation of the disease

sneaking through his tunnels in the night,
crossing the river between his liver and his spleen.
It was just his typical bad luck

to be born in the historical period
that would eventually be known
as the twilight of the white male dinosaur,

feeling weaker and more swollen every day
with the earth gradually looking more like hell
and a strange smell rising from the kitchen sink.

In the background those big male voices
went on and on, turning the old crank
about hard work and god, waving the flag

and whipping the dread into a froth.
Then one day the old man had finally finished
his surveillance, or it finished him,

and the cable TV guy
showed up at the house apologetically,
to take back the company equipment:

the black, complicated box with the dangling cord
and the gray rectangular remote control,
like a little coffin.


You know, I don't write much political poetry.  It's so easy to lapse into anger and outrage when I think about the governmental landscape of the United States, especially these days.  Yes, in this blog, I sometimes can't help dipping my toe into the cesspool of Washington, D. C.  However, for the most part, I stick away from it.

I couldn't resist this poem, however.  It's so surprising and funny and sad, and it really reflects what's going on right now in the White House, in my opinion.  I think that the political establishment in America is threatened, and so it's hiding behind the great orange Godzilla in the Oval Office, letting him wreck Tokyo.

Don't worry.  I'm not going to start writing Trump haiku.  Won't be composing Paul Ryan rondels or Mike Pence pastorals.  That's not me.

But Saint Marty does appreciate a good poet who can.

Friday, March 16, 2018

March 16: Coronation Stuff, Week of Turmoil, Darkness and Quiet

In behalf of the dignity of whaling, I would fain advance naught but substantiated facts. But after embattling his facts, an advocate who should wholly suppress a not unreasonable surmise, which might tell eloquently upon his cause- such an advocate, would he not be blame-worthy?
It is well known that at the coronation of kings and queens, even modern ones, a certain curious process of seasoning them for their functions is gone through. There is a saltcellar of state, so called, and there may be a castor of state. How they use the salt, precisely- who knows? Certain I am, however, that a king's head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad. Can it be, though, that they anoint it with a view of making its interior run well, as they anoint machinery? Much might be ruminated here, concerning the essential dignity of this regal process, because in common life we esteem but meanly and contemptibly a fellow who anoints his hair, and palpably smells of that anointing. In truth, a mature man who uses hairoil, unless medicinally, that man has probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere. As a general rule, he can't amount to much in his totality.
But the only thing to be considered here is this- what kind of oil is used at coronations? Certainly it cannot be olive oil, nor macassar oil, nor castor oil, nor bear's oil, nor train oil, nor cod-liver oil. What then can it possibly be, but the sperm oil in its unmanufactured, unpolluted state, the sweetest of all oils?
Think of that, ye loyal Britons! we whalemen supply your kings and queens with coronation stuff!

It has been a week of turmoil in my household.  I wish I could be like Ishmael this evening, who doesn't seem to have trouble finding the silver lining in any whale spout and fluke.  Kings and queens, oiled for the throne with the "sweetest of all oils."

I am glad that it is Friday, and I don't have to interact with people that much for the next three days.  I'm not sure I'd be able to maintain any semblance of positivity.  Yesterday, I was absolutely drained by five o'clock.  Hated everything and everyone.

Tonight, I've had a few drinks.  Spent three hours cleaning my house, taking down my Christmas trees.  (That's right.  I said Christmas trees.  Don't judge me.  My home has been under construction for about two full months.  I couldn't put anything away.)  Then I vacuumed and swept and mopped.  Then dinner with my wife and kids, accompanied by some gin and wine.

I'm looking forward to bed this evening,  A long sleep.  I may not be a whaler or a king, but I think that I've earned some rest.

Saint Marty is thankful for darkness and quiet.