Saturday, November 18, 2017

November 18: National Prayer Week, Modern Authors, Radical

These fictitious people in the zoo had a big board supposedly showing stock market quotations and commodity prices along one wall of their habitat, and a news ticker, and a telephone that was supposedly connected to a brokerage on Earth.  The creatures on Zircon-212 told their captives that they had invested a million dollars for them back on Earth, and that it was up to the captives to manage it so that they would be fabulously wealthy when they were returned to Earth.

The telephone and the big board and the ticker were all fakes, of course.  They were simply stimulants to make the Earthlings perform vividly for the crowds at the zoo--to make them jump up and down and cheer, or gloat, or sulk, or tear their hair, to be scared shitless or to feel as contented as babies in their mothers' arms.   

The Earthlings did very well on paper.  That was part of the rigging, of course.  And religion got mixed up in it, too.  The news ticker reminded them that the President of the United States had declared National Prayer Week, and that everybody should pray.  The Earthlings had had a bad week on the market before that.  They had lost a small fortune in olive oil futures.  So they gave praying a whirl.

It worked.  Olive oil went up.

Religion is an experiment in this passage.  The aliens on Zircon-212 are seeing how humans respond to one of the most basic human stimuli--materialism.  The humans believe they are fabulously wealthy, and they jump up and down and cheer.  They think that they have lost all of their money, and they turn to God and prayer.

It's a fairly cynical view of the human condition, but Vonnegut was a survivor of the Dresden bombing.  He probably suffered from post traumatic stress disorder for most of his life.  That certainly would explain Billy Pilgrim's time traveling episodes in Slaughterhouse.  I guess what I'm trying to say is that Vonnegut saw the very worst of humanity in his life, and that translates into his views of human motivation and love and spirituality.  Slaughterhouse can be described as a lot of things, but I don't think that I would ever call it a hopeful book.

Of course, I have a very different attitude toward spirituality than Vonnegut's.  I prefer hope over cynicism, as my one Constant Reader knows.  Sure, I can lapse into periods of darkness, even despair.  But, on the whole, I prefer light and joy.

That makes me a little different from a lot of poets and writers.  There is a tendency among modern authors to eschew possibility in favor of impossibility.  A brand of Vonnegut cynicism runs through much contemporary literature.  Now, I'm not saying that's a bad thing.  Great writing is great writing, no matter what.  Most times, however, I choose to embrace what's good in humankind, and that includes the Christian ethic of helping the poor, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked.

I don't think that's an old-fashioned way of viewing the world.  In fact, I think it's pretty radical, flying in the face of capitalism and materialism.  Joseph McCarthy would have probably had me imprisoned as a communist during the 1950s.  J. Edgar Hoover would probably have had a case file on me.  But I think McCarthy would also have thought Jesus Christ was a communist.

So, Saint Marty is a radical for love.  That's not a bad thing to be.

November 18: Fallow of Winter, Judith Minty, 27 from "Fall"

You know, with everything going wrong with my father, I've been thinking a lot about aging and declining.

There's a pine tree in my backyard.  It was uprooted and blown over by a windstorm this past May.  Its roots have become branches, and its branches have become roots.  It was certainly past its prime.  I haven't had the tree removed because I can't afford it.  However, I've become fond of its horizontal existence.

Saint Marty is ready for the fallow of winter.

27 of "Fall" from Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

These trees are past their prime.
Over sixty feet tall, lower branches
stripped of needles, roots
heaved up, bent like arthritic hands.

I fill the front of my shirt
with pine cones.  Later, when I rocK
on the porch, nodding my head,
I will smell the floor of the woods.

Friday, November 17, 2017

November 17: Veterans' Hospital, My Father, Diminished Capacity

A sign in there said that adults only were allowed in the back.  There were peep shows in the back that showed movies of young women and men with no clothes on.  It cost a quarter to look into a machine for one minute.  There were still photographs of naked young people for sale back there, too.  You could take those home.  The stills were a lot more Tralfamadorian than the movies, since you could look at them whenever you wanted to, and they wouldn't change.  Twenty years in the future, those girls would still be young, would still be smiling or smoldering or simply looking stupid, with their legs wide open.  Some of them were eating lollipops or bananas.  They would still be eating those.  And the peckers of the young men would still be semierect, and their muscles would be bulging like cannonballs.

But Billy Pilgrim wasn't beguiled by the back of the store.  He was thrilled by the Kilgore Trout novels in the front.  The titles were all new to him, or he thought they were.  Now he opened one.  It seemed all right for him to do that.  Everybody else in the store was pawing things.  The name of the book was The Big Board.  He got a few paragraphs into it, and then he realized that he had read it before--years ago, in the veterans' hospital.  It was about an Earthling man and woman who were kidnapped by extra-terrestrials.  They were put on display in a zoo on a planet called Zircon-212.

Well, I could talk about all of the sexual abuse charges being leveled at politicians and movie stars right now.  This little passage from Slaughterhouse really touches upon the objectification of women and men in pornography.  However, there are two words that really leapt out at me as I transcribed those two paragraphs--"veterans' hospital."

My father, who is a veteran, is not doing well.  He is 90-years-old, and, over the last month or so, it has become abundantly clear to my sisters and myself that he simply can't live at home anymore.  He keeps falling, has wrenched his knee and cracked three or four ribs.  On top of that, his memory is failing, and he can't control his bowels.

I don't say these things to be mean or insensitive to his struggles.  He's always been a very proud man, and I know that his diminished capacity is very frustrating to him.  He wants to remain independent, but he can't.  Tonight, I spoke to my sister about nursing home placement.  Since he is a veteran, we are hoping that we might be able to find a room for him at our local veterans' hospital.

However, I know how my father will react to this possibility.  He's made it abundantly clear that he doesn't want to be anywhere but home.  My grandmother, my dad's mother, died at the veterans' hospital, and my father has felt guilty for over twenty years about placing her in that facility.  Basically, he associates that place with dying.  The equation in his mind goes something like this:

Veterans' Hospital = Death

I understand my father's fears.  However, living in his home is simply not safe for him anymore.  He's bruised from head-to-foot because of his falls.  He can't clean himself, and he can't go to the bathroom by himself.  He needs 24-hour care before he seriously injures himself.

If it sounds like I'm trying to convince myself of this fact, I am.  Seeing my father seriously diminished is not easy, but admitting that he can't and won't ever get better is tough.  When he goes into the veterans' hospital, he will not be coming out alive.

Tonight, Saint Marty is thankful for the care the nurse provided for his father this evening.

November 17: For My Father, Judith Minty, 3 from "Fall"

Saint Marty has a poem tonight for his father . . .

3 of "Fall" from Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

My father's slippers, found
in a trunk, now mine to wear.
Too large, creases in the leather
barely touch the flesh.
I slide my toes to the end, along the old ridges.

His feet clump over linoleum floor,
table to dishpan, woodbox to stove.
Only the scrap of rug by the door
muffles his presence.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

November 16: Soot and Fly Shit, Friend, Breast Cancer

Billy left his room, went down the slow elevator, walked over to Times Square, looked into the window of a tawdry bookstore.  In the window were hundreds of books about fucking and buggery and murder, and a street guide to New York City, and a model of the Statue of Liberty with a thermometer on it.  Also in the window, speckled with soot and fly shit, were four paperback novels by Billy's friend, Kilgore Trout.

The news of the day, meanwhile, was being written in a ribbon of lights on a building to Billy's back.  The window reflected the news.  It was about power and sports and anger and death.  So it goes.

Billy went into the bookstore.

Things really don't change all that much.  I have been to Times Square.  I've looked into the window of a tawdry bookstore there, probably saw the same stuff that Billy Pilgrim saw, minus the four Kilgore Trout paperbacks.  And I've seen the news in lights, and that news was all about power and sports and anger and death.  So it goes.

I'd like to believe that the world has somehow changed since Vonnegut envisioned Billy Pilgrim in Times Square back in the 1960s.  Unfortunately, things haven't gotten better.  They may have shooed away the hookers and forced the adult bookstores to close, but Times Square is pretty much the same.  So is the world.

Today, I saw a close friend that I haven't seen in a couple years.  She looked happy, healthy.  Unfortunately, my friend just learned that she has breast cancer.  In the next couple weeks, she's going to be getting bilateral mastectomies and reconstructive surgery.  Then she starts rounds of chemo.

I hugged my friend this afternoon.  Hard.  Asked her if there was anything I could do, even though I knew there wasn't.  She is a fighter and has been her whole life.  I know that she's going to beat this disease.  The thing she seemed most upset about was the fact that she had to postpone starting her college nursing program.

In a world that Kurt Vonnegut sees speckled with soot and fly shit, there are stories of hope and survival.  Yes, the world is still full of power and sports and anger and death, but my friend reminded me today that I don't have to give in to all that.  I can choose light instead of darkness.

So, this afternoon, Saint Marty is thankful for his friend, who is a sun in a world filled with shadows.

November 16: A Friend, Judith Minty, 21 of "Fall"

I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.  She is preparing for surgery and chemo.  I don't think she sees herself as brave or strong, but she is.  When I spoke with her this afternoon, she talked about breast cancer as simply a bump in the road on her journey to becoming a registered nurse. 

She isn't alone.  She is surrounded by love, and she knows this.

Saint Marty has a poem for his friend this evening . . .

21 of "Fall" from Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

When the sun falls,
oaks pull in their branches
and shadows
creep closer to the cabin.
I am never alone in these woods.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

November 15: Tralfamadorian Concept, Mobius Strip, Hope

Billy Pilgrim checked into the Royalton Hotel on Forty-fourth Street in New York.  He by chance was given a room which had once been the home of George Jean Nathan, the critic and editor.  Nathan, according to the Earthling concept of time, had died back in  1958.  According to the Tralfamadorian concept, of course, Nathan was still alive somewhere and always would be.

The room was small and simple, except that it was on the top floor, and had French doors which opened onto a terrace as large as the room.  And beyond the parapet of the terrace was the air space over Forty-fourth Street.  Billy now leaned over that parapet, looked down at all the people moving hither and yon.  They were jerky little scissors.  The were a lot of fun.

It was a chilly night, and Billy came indoors after a while, closed the French doors.  Closing those doors reminded him of his honeymoon.  There had been French doors on the Cape Ann love nest of his honeymoon, still were, always would be.

Billy turned on his television set, clicking its channel selector around and around.  He was looking for programs on which he might be allowed to appear.  But it was too early in the evening for programs that allowed people with peculiar opinions to speak out.  It was only a little after eight o'clock, so all the shows were about silliness or murder.  So it goes.

The Tralfamdorian concept of time, as I've written before, is not linear.  It's more like a Mobius strip, something continuous and looped so that it's possible to go back to the beginning by going to the end and vice versa.  In fact, I would say that time doesn't really exist for Tralfamdorians.  Time is a human concept.

Of course, the passage of time is how we understand the universe.  Things come into being, live for a little while, and then wink out of existence, never to be seen or heard again.  It's not very comforting, I know.  Yet, humans have come to terms with this temporality.  We've learned that letting go is a part of breathing and living and loving.  Change is a constant.

If you've read this post thus far, you're probably expecting me to say something slightly profound about eternity, maybe rage against the dying of the light, per Dylan Thomas.  Being a Christian, I don't think of death as anything final.  It's a step, like passing from one room to another, hopefully better, room.

That image of passage, however beautiful, doesn't comfort me much at the moment.  Unlike Billy, I have not been privy to glimpses of the future or past.  I don't know what going to happen to me in the next hour or day or week or year.  Billy has seen his future--including his own death--so he's not afraid of anything like bombs falling from the sky or planes crashing into mountains.

The best I can do this afternoon is give thanks for the breaths I'm taking right now, for the words that my fingers are tapping out of the keyboard.  I'm thankful for my class this evening.  For the students who show up to accept whatever knowledge I impart.  And I'm thankful for my car that will carry me home after I'm done teaching.

Of course, none of those things I just listed are guarantees.  They're merely hopes until they happen.  Human beings live on hope.  Hope for breath and food and sex and love.  We hope for all these things, each and every day.

Saint Marty is kind of addicted to hope.

November 15: Creatures of Fear, Dose of Faith, Cheesecake

Aren't we all creatures of fear?  I know that I am. 

I fear all kinds of things, ever day.  Right now, I'm afraid that somebody is going to eat the piece of cheesecake I put in the refrigerator down the hall from my university office.  Later on, I'll be afraid that my students will hate me when I had back their graded papers.  I'll go to bed tonight afraid that I'm going to have to drive through a snowstorm tomorrow morning. 

Fear following fear following fear. 

A pastor friend once told me that the opposite of faith isn't doubt.  It's fear.  I'm not sure what that says about me and my litany of fears. 

Saint Marty just needs a little dose of faith to make it through the rest of the day.  Either that or a gin and tonic.

22 from "Fall" of Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

All day.  Now night
and the sky still clear.  I can see
parts of a constellation.  Perhaps
it is Orion raising his sword
as leaves open tiny doorways for me.

If I were not so afraid
in the dark, tonight
I would walk to the beaver pond.
Never looking over my shoulder, just poking
down the trail, blind woman
with her stick in a world without shadows.
I would come to it on this night.

And the stars.  The stars
would gleam first above me,
then reflect in the still water.
I would look down at the bear
and the dog star in Canis
and see that the pond runs deep
as the night sky.  And know this.
Tonight.  If I had no fear of it.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

November 14: Inner Hermit, Judith Minty, 6 from "Fall"

I spend most of my days talking with people.  That's my job.  I register patients for surgery, answer phones, meet with students, teach classes.  My days are all about words.

In a single 24-hour period, I may have sixty or so minutes where I'm allowed to withdraw and not think about the rest of the world, if I'm lucky.  Usually, I spend a portion of that time writing these blog posts.  So, in a way, I'm still talking.  I just get to choose what I want to say more freely, without fear of alienating anyone. 

Sometimes, I dream of being Thoreau, living in the woods with my notebook and pen.  Or Judith Minty, retreating to her father's cabin on the Yellow Dog River.  The thought of that kind of isolation appeals to me at the moment.

Saint Marty is getting in touch with his inner hermit.

6 from "Fall" of Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

All day, I stay close to the cabin.
My ax rings the morning.  And half the afternoon
I gather kindling, spread the sticks
to dry.  I am menstruating and have heard
that bear are attracted to women when they bleed.

I haven't spoken in three days, have seen nothing
bigger than chipmunks and squirrels
at the woodpile.  It is only beyond the perimeter
that black shapes hide, breath steaming,
low growls circling their throats.
When the branch falls, I swirl to the sound, ax raised.

November 14: Had to be Done, Newborn Adolf Hitler, Shitty Decisions

"It had to be done," Rumfoord told Billy, speaking of the destruction of Dresden.

"I know," said Billy.

"That's war."

"I know.  I'm not complaining."

"It must have been hell on the ground."

"It was," said Billy Pilgrim.

"Pity the men who had to do it."

"I do."

"You must have had mixed feelings, there on the ground."

"It was all right," said Billy.  "Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.  I learned that on Tralfamdore."  

Rumfoord is attempting to justify the bombing of Dresden to Billy, not quite apologizing but acknowledging Billy's experience of the event with some degree of compassion.  Billy harbors no anger or ill feelings toward any person involved in the bombings, in the air or on the ground.  He knows that the Dresden bombing happened, is happening, will happen, no matter what he says or does or how he feels.

It's a pretty good attitude to cultivate, if you can do it, this Tralfamadorian point of view.  It's all about total acceptance, good or bad, of whatever happens in life.  If more people were like Billy, there might be a lot more peace in the world.  On the other hand, total acceptance also allows a lot of terrible stuff to happen, as well.

For example, if I could somehow travel back in time to April 20, 1889, Braunau am Inn, Austria, I would probably take the newborn Adolf Hitler and throw him off the nearest cliff.  Now, whether that would make a difference or not, I'm not so sure.  Perhaps another Hitler would emerge to fill the void.  Perhaps the Holocaust would still occur.  But at least I could say that I did something to try and prevent the death of millions of people.

I'm not sure that Tralfmadorian  acceptance is the healthiest approach to the world.  It sort of smacks of Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the death of Jesus Christ--I'm not guilty because I just stood back and watched it happen.  That would sort of be like me seeing a woman being raped on a street corner and simply ignoring the situation, going to Starbucks and buying a pumpkin spice latte.  I would still be guilty of allowing a terrible act of violence to occur, and I would probably get arrested.

So, Billy Pilgrim does nothing to try to change the course of history, even though he knows the past, present, and future.  I'm sitting here, at the end of 2017, almost a full year after the 2016 U. S. Presidential election.  Last week, I walked into the voting booth again and cast my ballot, hoping that it would make some difference, somehow.

That is the great experiment that is the United States of American.  Making shitty decisions as a nation and then trying to correct those shitty decisions. 

Saint Marty is thankful this afternoon for the possibility of changing the future.

Monday, November 13, 2017

November 13: Black-and-White Sadness, Judith Minty, 7 from "Fall"

For some reason, I am drawn to older poetry collections this month, books that I have read and reread many times.  This week, it's Judith Minty's Yellow Dog Journal, which still ranks in the top five of my all-time favorites. 

I am melancholy today.  Perhaps it's the coming of winter.  The gray and slush and cold.  The darkening of the sky at five o'clock in the afternoon.  I found myself at home alone this afternoon, after a doctor's appointment, lying on my bed with the lights out.  The silence, which I usually welcome, was oppressive.  My mind wandered back and forth over my life--births and deaths, successes and failures. 

By the time I climbed out of bed, I was steeped in black-and-white sadness.  Haven't been able to shake it off yet.  I'm sitting in my office at the university, a stack of papers in front of me, filled with a kind of dread that has nothing to do with grading.

My life seems to be sliding by way too fast.  I'm feeling a little out of control, and, when I'm like this, I want to hibernate.  Shut myself away from the world and just read and read, write and write.  That's all.

Or maybe Saint Marty just needs some spiked eggnog. 

7 from "Fall" of Yellow Dog Journal

by:  Judith Minty

Sitting on the porch.
Can't tell if I was dozing or reading,
the eye had wandered from words,
turned inward,
so that I only saw it
after the chipmunk's scream.

The hawk spread its wings,
so close I might have touched his feathers,
and lifted the chipmunk up
out of the clearing
and made no sound.

November 13: Reluctantly Becoming Interested, To Be Heard, Great Gift

Later on, as a middle-aged optometrist, he would weep quietly and privately sometimes, but never make loud boohooing noises.

Which is why the epigraph of this book is the quatrain from the famous Christmas carol.  Billy cried very little, though he often saw things worth crying about, and in that respect, at least, he resembled the Christ of the carol:

          The cattle are lowing,
          The Baby awakes.
          But the little Lord Jesus
          No crying he makes...

Billy traveled in time back to the hospital in Vermont.  Breakfast had been eaten and cleared away, and Professor Rumfoord was reluctantly becoming interested in Billy as a human being.  Rumfoord questioned Billy gruffly, satisfied himself that Billy really had been in Dresden.  He asked Billy what it had been like, and Billy told him about the horses and the couple picnicking on the moon.

The story ended this way:  Billy and the doctors unharnessed the horses, but the horses wouldn't go anywhere.  Their feet hurt too much.  And then Russians came on motorcycles, and they arrested everybody but the horses.

Two days after that, Billy was turned over to the Americans, who shipped him home on a very slow freighter called the Lucretia A. Mott.  Lucretia A. Mott was a famous American suffragette.  She was dead.  So it goes.

Billy finally gets to tell his Dresden story to Rumfoord, who listens reluctantly because Billy's truth doesn't gibe with his truth.  Yet, Rumfoord allows Billy to talk about the bleeding horses on the surface of the moon.  He listens to Billy Pilgrim.

I think that's what every human being really wants in life:  to be heard.  There's nothing more frustrating than to voice some story and have nobody listen.  I write these blog posts, send them out into the ether of the Internet, and hope that they find some willing listener.  I don't care if the listener agrees with what I'm saying.  Don't care if the listener voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.  Don't care about the listener's skin color or sexual orientation or religious affiliation. What I care about--I want someone to listen, acknowledge, understand.

That's why I write.  That's why any writer writes, I think.  I'm trying to make people understand who I am, why I am.  In fifty years, when I'm worm food, I want my kids and grandkids to be able to read these words and really know me as a person.  They might not like everything they find out, but, in the long run, they will hopefully appreciate my hopes and dreams and struggles.

So, to all the Rumfoords listening to me right now, I want to say thanks.  I'm not the most interesting person in the world.  Not the most talented writer or poet.  My life usually verges on boring.  Yet, you're taking time out of your day to read these words, hear my voice.  That is a great gift.

Saint Marty is full of gratitude on this gray, cold evening.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

November 12: Light and Hope, Classic Saint Marty, "White Noise"

A lot of ink and air has been spilled this week over the fact that it is the one year anniversary of the election of the 45th President of the United States.  It hardly seems possible that it has already been 365 days since my country went off its rocker.

I know that I sometimes climb on soapboxes when I broach this topic.  Not doing that tonight.  I'm too tired, and, as I approach the Christmas season, I would like to embrace light and hope instead of darkness and hatred, because I still believe that light and hope will win.  I have to.

So, my Christmas decorations are up.  Tonight, I may watch A Charlie Brown Christmas with my son, to get in the mood.  There are still people out there--a lot of them--who welcome the poor and homeless, who don't care what color your skin is or who you love, who embrace peace and love.

I believe this with all my heart.

A year ago, it was a little harder . . .

November 12, 2016:  A Tailless Sparrow, Nicks and Bumps, Healing

Nature seems to catch you by the tail.  I think of all the butterflies I have seen whose torn hind wings bore the jagged marks of birds' bills.  There were four or five tiger swallowtails missing one of their tails, and a fritillary missing two thirds of a hind wing.  The birds, too, who make up the bulk of my list, always seem to have been snatched at from behind, except for the killdeer I saw just yesterday, who was missing all of its toes; its slender shank ended in a smooth, gray knob.  Once I saw a swallowtailed sparrow, who on second look proved to be a sparrow from whose tail the central wedge of feathers had been torn.  I've seen a completely tailless sparrow, a tailless robin, and a tailless grackle.  Then my private list ends with one bob-tailed and one tailless squirrel, and a muskrat kit whose tail bore a sizeable nick near the spine.

Dillard spends a whole chapter of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek discussing this aspect of Nature.  Chomped and be chomped.  Eat and be eaten.  That's the way things work.  Even human beings are not immune to this design.  Dillard lists all kinds of creatures that snack on people, from insects to worms.  It's not a pretty picture.

Me?  I have a few nicks and bumps.  You don't get to be my age without such souvenirs.  On either side of my right knee, I have two caterpillar-shaped scars.  When I was a kid, I had an operation on my leg because my right leg is longer than my left.  On the back of my neck, I have a dent from where a cyst was removed a few years ago.  I am the proud owner of an appendix scar as well. 

All of these things are my trophies of living on this planet as long as I have.  I have been chomped, cut, bit, and stomped.  As a parent, I've been peed and pooped on.  My son has been throwing up all morning long.  Sometimes he hits the bucket.  Sometimes he doesn't.  He has not hit me.  Yet. 

We all have to take our personal and collective hits.  All experience heartbreaks and joys.  Disappointments and triumphs.  This week, some people in the United States have been incredibly jubilant.  Other people have been angry and depressed.  There will be healing, eventually.  But there's going to be a whole lot of tailless robins and sparrows in the streets of America after things calm down.

I am trying to move on.  Regain some perspective.  I cannot share in the beliefs that shaped the outcome of last Tuesday night.  They don't represent who I am.  I can't embrace a movement that is founded on bigotry and hatred.  I believe in love and charity and acceptance.  That's what being a Christian is all about.

Saint Marty gives thanks for the scars on his leg and neck.  His nicks and bumps.  They are reminders that healing happens.  Slowly. 

And a poem for this evening about seeing truth in the storm . . .

White Noise

by:  Martin Achatz

It’s always in my ears
            Thrush and blue jay in the forest
Fills the air
            Indistinct as grains of sand
The way winter afternoon fills
            Radio.  Handel?  Zeppelin?  Kanye?
In the palm of a storm
            Horn and siren, freight truck
With fat, silencing flakes
            Voice, sharp as January

I absent it, let it quilt my day
            Shit man, shit call me
Until all I hear through its
            Phone, insistent as labor pains
Silence is what I choose
            News of Libya and Iraq and Pakistan
To hear.  White
            A new planet, expanding.  White
Bread baking in my oven
            Fist of hurricane tearing up the Milky Way

Saturday, November 11, 2017

November 11: Burst into Tears, Linus, Sign of Humanness

These two horse pitiers moved back along the wagon to where they could gaze in patronizing reproach at Billy--at Billy Pilgrim, who was so long and weak, so ridiculous in his azure toga and silver shoes.  They weren't afraid of him.  They weren't afraid of anything.  They were doctors, both obstetricians.  They had been delivering babies until the hospitals were all burned down.  Now they were picnicking near where their apartment used to be.

The woman was softly beautiful, translucent from having eaten potatoes for so long.  The man wore a business suit, necktie and all.  Potatoes had made him gaunt.  He was as tall as Billy, wore steel-rimmed trifocals.  This couple, so involved with babies, had never reproduced themselves, though they could have.  This was an interesting comment on the whole idea of reproduction.

 They had nine languages between them.  They tried Polish on Billy Pilgrim first, since he was dressed so clownishly, since the wretched Poles were the involuntary clowns of the Second World War.

Billy asked them in English what it was they wanted, and they at once scolded him in English for the condition of the horses.  They made Billy get out of the wagon and come look at the horses.  When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears.  He hadn't cried about anything else in the war.  

Unlike Billy Pilgrim, I cry a lot.  I cry over poems and novels.  I cry at movies and Christmas specials.  Sometimes, given the right mood and the correct amount of alcohol, I will cry when Linus tells Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Just this week, I read a short story by Alice Munro and ended up a blubbering mess.

I have always had this penchant for crying.  I think it aids me in my writing.  I am able to tap the kind of deep emotional well that poetry requires more easily than most people.  Of course, I've been teased a lot for this quality.  My wife frequently tells me that I'm a teenage girl when I read a birthday card and get choked up.  I can't help it.

Of course, at times, I'm able to control myself.  On the day my sister died, I had a few moments of complete grief, but I needed to be a little stronger since the rest of my family was a complete train wreck.  I went to the funeral home and helped finalize the plans that morning.  I planned the funeral service with our pastor, picked out the music.  The week before, I'd located the cemetery and helped order the cremation stone.  I think that I finally let loose at about 9 p.m. that evening, when I got home and one of my best friends from downstate Michigan called me.  I completely lost it.

I don't think this is necessarily a weakness on my part.  My emotional makeup allows me to be much more empathetic than most people.  That's a good thing.  It allows me to be kinder with my kids, more loving to my wife.  And, when things go terribly wrong, it allows me to be stronger, to think more clearly.

Crying isn't a sign of weakness.  Crying is a sign of humanness.  

So, Saint Marty is thankful that he's a teenage girl inside. 

November 11: Veterans Day Sacrifices, Mary Oliver, "Gethsemane"

I will never know the feeling of being in a strange place, defending freedom, keeping peace.  It takes special, brave people.

However, I know that my right to write, express myself, criticize, worship, praise is not protected by the people sitting in Washington, D. C.  That work is done by people in uniform.

Saint Marty give thanks this Veterans Day for sacrifices.


by:  Mary Oliver

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.

Jesus said, wait with me.  But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me.  And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn't move,
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
     blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

Friday, November 10, 2017

November 10: Down from His Cross, Parent/Teacher Conferences, Excellence in Part-Time Faculty Teaching Award

Now his snoozing became shallower as he heard a man and a woman speaking German in pitying tones.  The speakers were commiserating with somebody lyrically.  Before Billy opened his eyes, it seemed to him that the tones might have been those used by the friends of Jesus when they took His ruined body down from His cross.  So it goes.

Billy opened his eyes.  A middle-aged man and wife were crooning to the horses.  They were noticing what the Americans had not noticed--that the horses' mouths were bleeding, gashed by the bits, that the horses' hooves were broken, so that every step meant agony, that the horses were insane with thirst.  The Americans had treated their form of transportation as though it were no more sensitive than a six-cylinder Chevrolet.

I am sorry that I didn't post last night.  Like Billy at the end of the war, I found myself in bed, snoozing, at around nine o'clock last night.  I didn't really wake up until my alarm clock went off at six this morning.  I didn't hear crooning Germans or horses in pain while I slept.  No Jesus-down-from-His-cross sounds.  I was dead to the world for a good nine hours.

The last couple weeks have been incredibly busy and incredibly exhausting, from the week before Halloween until now.  Yesterday evening, I went to parent/teacher conferences with my wife.  It was really gratifying to hear so many people tell us how polite and smart our kids are.  And then, after that, we went out to dinner to celebrate a little.

I found out yesterday afternoon that I have been given the inaugural Excellence in Part-Time Faculty Teaching Award from the university where I teach.  I knew that I had been nominated, but I really didn't think that I stood a chance.  There are a lot of excellent contingent professors at the university.  Since it's the first time that the award is being given, I thought it would probably go to some contingent in the sciences.  Instead, it went to me.  A poet and writing teacher.

So, I had a few drinks last night because of that news.  It's going to be a very good Christmas because of the money that accompanies the award.

So, tonight, Saint Marty is thankful for unexpected blessings.

November 10: Great News, Mary Oliver, "The Poet Thinks about the Donkey"

So, I had great news last night about the teaching award from the university.  Unbelievable news.

I sort of feel like the donkey in the poem below.  The donkey wasn't special, didn't know he was going to play such a significant role in the universe.  He was just small, dark, and obedient, moving forward, hoof step by hoof step.

I think the world would be a much better place if there were more donkeys in the world, just doing their jobs, not looking for recognition or glory.

A lot of people think that Saint Marty is a jackass.

The Poet Thinks about the Donkey

by:  Mary Oliver

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
     leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
     clatter away, splashed with sunlight!

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been:  small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

November 8: Perspective, Mary Oliver, "Messenger"

If you haven't noticed, I'm a little neurotic today.  It could be the snowy weather blowing in from Canada.  It could be my class observation this evening.  It could be my exhaustion.  It could be Donald Trump being in China.

Whatever the reason, Saint Marty needs a little Mary Oliver to put his life and stress into perspective.


by:  Mary Oliver

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird--
     equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old?  Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect?  Let me
     keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
     and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
     to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
     that we live forever.

November 8: Wild Dogs, Worrier, Annotated Bibliography

Billy Pilgrim was armed as he snoozed.  It was the first time he had been armed since basic training.  His companions had insisted that he arm himself, since God only knew what sorts of killers might be in burrows on the face of the moon--wild dogs, packs of rats fattened on corpses, escaped maniacs and murderers, soldiers who would never quit killing until they themselves were killed.

Billy had a tremendous cavalry pistol in his belt.  It was a relic of World War One.  It had a ring in its butt.  It was loaded with bullets the size of robins' eggs.  Billy had found it in the bedside table in a house.  That was one of the things about the end of the war.  Absolutely anybody who wanted a weapon could have one.  They were lying all around.  Billy had a saber, too.  it was a Luftwaffe ceremonial saber.  Its hilt was stamped with a screaming eagle.  The eagle was carrying a swastika and looking down.  Billy found it stuck into a telephone pole.  He had pulled it out of the pole as the wagon went by.

Billy is not a good soldier.  He doesn't care whether he's carrying a weapon or not.  Billy was the assistant to a Army chaplain, if my memory is correct.  Going to the battle front was not on his bucket list.  By this time in Slaughterhouse, Billy knows how is life is going to turn out, from the day he's born to the day he dies.  There are no surprises in his life. 

I sort of envy Billy.  I, myself, am not a big fan of surprises.  I'm a planner.  For example, this evening, a colleague of mine is observing my teaching.  This colleague is an incredibly kind and relaxed individual.  He told me on Monday, "I don't want to make this into something that causes you stress."  Like I said, he's a nice guy.

However, I am a worrier.  I like my life to be full of nothing that even smacks of spontaneity in situations like this.  Usually, when I know that I'm being observed, I fall back on a tried and true lesson plan, one that has proved successful on more than one occasion.  The last few years, I have chosen my It's a Wonderful Life lesson from my Intro to Film classes.  It always works.

I am not teaching Intro to Film this semester.  In fact, I'm only teaching one face-to-face class--first year composition.  My other class is an online mythology course.  So, first year comp it is.  And the topic on the syllabus for tonight is . . . annotated bibliography.  Terrible.

My goal for tonight, then, is to teach an interesting lesson on citing and evaluating sources for a research paper.  I have a PowerPoint.  I have four pages of notes.  And I have a lot of anxiety.  I'm not sure my plan is going to work.  I've never done it before.  I'm hoping my students will jump in and participate.  If they don't, I'm sunk.

That's why I want to be Billy Pilgrim this evening.  At least for a little while.  I simply want to know how this evening ends, whether I make an idiot of myself in front of my colleague.

Instead, Saint Marty will hole up in his office, chewing his nails, viewing and reviewing his lesson plan until he's ready to throw up.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

November 7: Completely Frivolous, Mary Oliver, "Mozart, for Example"

It has been one of those days where it feels like I haven't stopped since I woke up at 4:45 this morning.  I worked my eight hours at the medical office.  I graded an entire stack of papers.  I drove home and voted.  I brought my daughter to her dance lesson.  Now, I'm back home, trying to come up with a lesson plan about annotated bibliography.

I know, I know.  Exciting, right?

I simply want to sit back and do something completely frivolous.  Strip naked and do a couple laps around my house.  (Too cold for that, and I might get arrested.)  Watch the movie Elf like Rocky Horror, talking back to the screen and throwing toilet paper or candy corn.  (Don't want to deal with the clean up.)  Take a Xanax and a nap.  (Don't have any Xanax, and I don't have time for a nap.)

Saint Marty is going to have to settle for a poem that makes him smile.

Mozart, for Example

by:  Mary Oliver

All the quick notes
Mozart didn't have time to use
before he entered the cloud-boat

are falling now from the beaks
of the finches
that have gathered from the joyous summer

into the hard winter
and, like Mozart, they speak of nothing
but light and delight,

though it is true, the heavy blades of the world
are still pounding underneath.
And this is what you can do too, maybe,

if you live simply and with a lyrical heart
in the cumbered neighborhoods or even,
as Mozart sometimes managed to, in a palace,

offering tune after tune after tune,
making some hard-hearted prince
prudent and kind, just by being happy.

November 7: Happy Moments, Annual Evaluation, Observation

Billy stayed in the wagon when it reached the slaughterhouse, sunning himself.  The others were looking for souvenirs.  Later on in life, the Tralfamadorians would advise Billy to concentrate on the happy moments of his life, and to ignore the unhappy ones--to stare only at pretty things as eternity failed to go by.  If this sort of selectivity had been possible for Billy, he might have chosen as his happiest moment his sundrenched snooze in the back of the wagon. 

It's a good concept--focusing only on the happy moments of your life.  Nice advice from the Tralfamadorians.  It would help me get through the rest of this week, or at least tomorrow night. 

What is happening tomorrow night, you ask?  Well, it is time for my annual evaluation at the university.  That means a full-time faculty member sits in my classroom, watches the circus I put on for my students, and then leaves with his notes on my abilities (or lack of abilities) to teach.  It's a nerve racking experience, every year.

Now, I have never really received a bad evaluation, and the gentleman who is coming tomorrow night is very friendly and pleasant.  He wants to go out for beers with me to talk about writing Catholic poetry.  That doesn't help me get through the actual Big Brother experience of being observed. 

If you haven't noticed before--if you are new to this blog--I tend to be a little neurotic about things like this.  I will over plan, create a startling lesson this evening, so that I can feel calm and at ease tomorrow night.  I will have PowerPoint, maybe a video.  I might read poetry or stand on my head.  If it were the right kind of class, I would do a pole dance, too.  All for the hour or so of that observation.

And then tomorrow night, I will come home and have a very strong special hot chocolate.

In the mean time, Saint Marty is going to think of the happy moments of his life, as the Tralfamadorians advise.  Pizza.  Thanksgiving turkey.  Filet mignon.  Buttered movie popcorn.  A nap . . .

Monday, November 6, 2017

November 6: Moonlike Ruins, First Baptist Church, Gun Violence

Nothing more was said about Dresden that night, and Billy closed his eyes, traveled in time to a May afternoon, two days after the end of the Second World War in Europe.  Billy and five other American prisoners were riding in a coffin-shaped green wagon, which they had found abandoned, complete with two horses, in a suburb of Dresden.  Now they were being drawn by the clop-clop-clopping horses down narrow lanes which had been cleared through the moonlike ruins.  They were going back to the slaughterhouse for souvenirs of the war.  Billy was reminded of the sounds of milkmen's horses early in the morning in Ilium, when he was a boy.

Billy sat in the back of the jiggling coffin.  His head was tilted back and his nostrils were flaring.  He was happy.  He was warm.  There was food in the wagon, and wine--and a camera, and a stamp collection, and a stuffed owl, and a mantel clock that ran on changes of barometric pressure.  The Americans had gone into empty houses in the suburb where they had been imprisoned, and they had taken these and many other things.

The owners, hearing that the Russians were coming, killing and robbing and raping and burning, had fled.

But the Russians hadn't come yet, even two days after the war.  It was peaceful in the ruins.  Billy saw only one other person on the way to the slaughterhouse.  It was an old man pushing a baby buggy.  In the buggy were pots and cups and an umbrella frame, and other things he had found.

I'm assuming the reason that Billy is happy in this passage is the fact that he is no longer a prisoner, that the war has ended, that he survived the bombing of Dresden, and that, relatively soon, he will be on his way home.  Basically, he is out of danger.  He has survived, despite the odds against him.

I apologize for my absence yesterday.  I have no excuse except the craziness of the last two weeks and the resulting exhaustion at the end of the day.  In fact, I was so busy that, until late last night, I was unaware of the mass shooting at First Baptist Church in Texas.  I found out the details this morning.  Twenty-six people mrudered.  Around twenty more critically wounded.

It's a story that is way too familiar in the United States.  In fact, I can predict what is going to happen in the next few weeks.  There will be lots of stories in the news about the people who were killed.  There will be lots of stories about wounded survivors.  Slowly, detail will surface about the shooter.  His troubled background, history of violence and/or mental illness.  There will be calls for stricter gun legislation.  There will be push-back from gun rights groups like the NRA.

And then, all this fade into the background.  Life will return to normal, whatever normal is.  Until the next mass shooting.

I am tired of this cycle.  Tired of how numb I'm becoming to news like this.  Tired of guns.

Do not leave comments on this post defending the Second Amendment.  Do not get angry at me for saying that we have a gun problem in this country.

Get angry a for a 17-month-old girl who is dead.  For a 77-year-old grandmother who is dead.  For 26 people who were worshiping God yesterday morning who are now dead.  Because of guns.

Saint Marty is not thankful this afternoon.  He's pissed.