Here's the first half of a memoir I've been working on, not too long. Please get back with me. Tell me what you think!
Weirton, WV 26062
Confessions of a Beat(ific) Catholic
For Jack Kerouac, for Linda, David, Jude, and Bridget; also Fr. Robert Pelton and the Servant of God, Catherine Doherty. And finally to John Alvin Soat and Angela O’Donnell, both of whom suggested I write this on the same day.
Jesus as Father
Mercy comes early.
Baseball was my father’s heaven-dream, and so for many years mine. And since that grand old idyll has long been valued for its metaphorical potential, it’s an ideal place to start. Of course the same is also true for the rest of our lives as well—Puritans and Catholics have always known as much. Everything we do, everything we go through tells us something about who God is, what He wants from us. So it’s really just a matter of learning to read the Braille—or the third base coach.
I started out as a small boy.
When I was eight: tiny, big-headed, and skinny enough to worry people, I remember standing out in our front lawn for pictures in my Geiger’s Mens’ and Boys’ Shop polyester shirt, the numbers sticking to my bare skin. Was this THE answer I was looking at, feeling ready to take on the world, my authentic Vic Power first baseman’s glove nearly as big as I was?
So much of my life suggested otherwise. Distant parents, a bitter loneliness.
But maybe! Who knew? My dad seemed to think so.
In those days they were forced to let every squirt bat, but if you looked really pathetic, you had to wait. So finally, I got my turn—though I was late for the game too as I remember, my incredibly deep jean pockets stuffed with peanuts, collected from some throw-down-the-goods-and-let-the-kids-scramble-to accumulate-wealth-and-their-place-in-the-Ferengi-Alliance deal.
(Had I been in California, I might suspect Reagan.)
Anyway, everyone in the field sees this midget stroll up to the plate, dragging his war club behind him—most of us were Indian fans. They yawn, move closer. As it happened, though, things worked out, or seemed to. I pop one over everybody’s head, eventually jubilantly wend my way to a distant second base. (I was small, don’t forget, and the Frodo journey far.) But the real pay-off comes next. The following batter walks, and because I don’t know the rules, I got tagged out as I begin to advance my way to third base.
This was not heaven.
Emily Dickinson once said, “We all have the skill of life”—a pre-1862 breakdown comment no doubt. But in my case it has never been so. I’ve never had a clue, though, surprisingly, that fact has served me pretty well: even when I didn’t know Jesus or when I denied Him; on some level, as it turned out, I still had to rely on Him for everything that mattered. Baptism, Confirmation, and Catholic grade school run deep. Ask James Joyce—or Kerouac.
The second experience was stranger, but pure trope as well.
I get put in right field because I am a midget. And of course, what should happen but a guy hits this fly just over my head. I back peddle, or what passed for that, trying to track the sucker. As it turns out, a piece of wood, sticking up out of the dirt for some before-you-were-born-I-knit-you-in-your-mother’s-womb cosmic reason, and catches my heel as I trip, fall flat backwards.
By the weirdest coincidence, the ball lands right in my mitt.
The next game I’m playing center field!
Jesus is like that too: things have a way of working out.
Life can be confetti in Christ, yes, but it’s also a disappointment, a veil of tears; things seldom come out right, at least by our lights. No place is home, neither with our families or at work. Only in the duty of the moment, in God’s will or the wait for that.
Right after college, by some strange wrinkling in the fabric of God, after I’d published a few books, you think I’d turn up aces, at least for awhile. But that didn’t happen: in the blink of an eye I went from being an under-achiever to being an over-achiever. But the weird part about it was that I was never informed. I missed the transition. At one point I (truly) was a lazy lout, and then at the next, I was (truly enough again) a blue-collar upstart—an unworthy Keats, without the talent.
Oh the harshness of life!
I was never given the privilege of basking in the rightness of that fleeting moment--that page, that sentence, that servile comma. I never got a chance to experience that moment where what I did and what I was sang with the great DA of T. S. Eliot’s FOUR QUARTETS universe.
That can’t be right.
No life matters inordinately, of course, but all of them do count.
My template was my dad, a WW II vet, a blue-collar factory kind of guy--with definite edges—one who, like so many of those GIs, was jig-happy just to get a shot at an actual life after the war.
He wanted a big family, and got one, in spades.
There were eight of us, all a year or so apart. I was number six. Joy found its way into our home, as it does in most, but great sorrow did too, as through the years my father slowly began to become unglued. My emotionally distant mother did what she could to keep herself and family together, but without a foundation neither could build a house.
Still, we did get much good from both of them!
From my father: an Irish lilt, a joy in living, a contrariness too. Once as a union rep for General Motors he advised the non-union shop in southern Ohio to stay that way. They had it good.
His superiors were not pleased.
From my mother, we got the skirted, artistic spin of a gypsy. Hungarian dance, a dose of prim German will.
It was difficult for them, holding up against madnesses that were both personal and national: the post-war American we-won materialism. Robert Lowell was not far off when he said that everyone had “two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,/and is a ‘young Republican.’” (So when I hear conservative Catholics berate the 60s, I like to remind them of what gave rise to that difficult and scarlet decade: the Eisenhower “military-industrial complex” 50s.)
I honor my parents. They did the best they could. I’m grateful for the suffering and loneliness that came out of their union too. Jesus made the Craigs a wonder. All that pain has, through Christ, taught our family a deep empathy.
By the time I was eight, Mass, however, a Christian perspective had become background music in our home, what we should be doing. (The rosary, along with copying pages out of the encyclopedia had become a punishment.) So we boys ended up cutting church to pitch pennies and learn how to smoke--Salems in my case.
But that whole horrible 50s world of my childhood was bent enough to sink anyone. Brimming with thousands of great Protestants, the country hadn’t stayed in that camp. It had somehow (perhaps inevitably) watered the gospel down, become a vestige, a superficial image of its former self, had become a world based on obsessing over behavior and disembodied intellect (a world, to be honest, that Catholic England had given rise to—see THE CANTERBURY TALES).
And though I couldn’t have articulated as much back then, I sure the heck could feel the strangeness in the air. It was an inhumane environment: the MICKEY MOUSE CLUB in macrocosm, a farcical lie, obvious to anyone who paid attention. I mean, who were those kids, and who talked like that—so why did they? What did they want from the rest of us umbilical-ed to the tv? (They were the brain police for children. Where was the pay-off, anyway: maybe you got to walk around like that, become a Mason. You could grow up and join the chamber of commerce.)
After fourth grade we moved to Kent, OH and then, the next year, back to Cleveland. Money was always an issue, so I ended up doing time--three years in the crew cut public school system. We had prayer in the schools back them, but it had value only as symbol. Besides the Our Father had a different ending, confirmed my alien status. By junior high, I was a solid C student—and sinking. I just couldn’t stomach the local dog and pony show with its idiotic notions of progress, its center-less gloss, what I later came to see as its slippery slope.
Even then I knew I needed something more.
I needed the sound of beads as I walked in single file.
I needed nuns.
My brothers thought I was completely whacked when I bolted back to Catholic school at the first opportunity—eighth grade. But I did so mostly because I missed what the sisters had, whatever the attendant weirdness. I loved the fact that they were motivated by something deeper, that they cared, that their world cohered.
I could feel that.
And though some of their methods may have been a little draconian—what could one expect as they had to try and make up for all the damage Dr. Spock and post-war America had done to our parents: a testimony to the imbecility of higher education.
During that last year as a committed Catholic, I was blessed to be one of Sister Mary Allen’s charges. She was a six-foot tall storm trooper: I really liked her because she was willing to talk unblinkingly about real moral issues. MAD MAGAZINE, she’d decided after inspection, was a near occasion of sin. We should avoid it. (My peers scoffed after class; but having initiated the topic, I knew better. She was right on the money. All those buxom women in fetching cartoon clothing and us in the mid-60s. . . . I had deliberately backed her into the corner of that discussion, knew that she’d pay in the eyes of the students if she went against the world to that degree. But she had the guts to do so. I was impressed—she was a kind of spiritual John Wayne!)
Old-school in every way that mattered, she once made the students face front as she threw some short kid around in the lockers behind us. He had dyed his hair. I loved it. The kid was a secularized, self-glamorizing fool.
2 for 2!
One of the major problems growing up is that nobody else was doing that. And of course, it would only get worse.
I finally chose the world because I had never tried it. It seemed bigger, and Catholicism back then seemed all mortification, a votive darkness, filled with whispered prayers, whiskered old women.
Nobody seemed to relay any real daylight, joy. That came later! (Decades down the road, JP II would write, asking that priests live out the joy of their vocations. And so many have!)
There was an extended moment back then when I thought of taking the collar after my pro baseball career—not such a happy metaphor considering what would happen to my batting skills! In any case, I certainly could’ve avoided a lot of trouble had I chosen to remain faithful. My whole generation might have, in fact, had we someone to help us through sex, someone to articulate that larger Christian vision, someone to show us how it all worked together, how the holy mystery of life became like Mozart’s music if properly understood.
As I say, I still believed on some level even after I left the faith. But on the surface, I’d checked out by the time I turned fourteen, just before entering a Jesuit high school.
Dear Father Wysocki had told me in the Confessional that I should see breasts as bumps.
It took me ten years to get back what I lost that day.
In his own way my dad taught me to value truth and to know that there is always a cost when one does. I lived on Puritas Avenue during sixth and seventh grade. It was a main road. Since we were a large secular Catholic family, we lived in the old farmhouse, while the secular Protestant neighborhood behind us lived in newer, smaller post-WWII Cape Cod two kids per homes on the perpendicular W. 191st side street.
My brothers and sisters say I was protected from so much of the madness of those days: thrown babies, late night drunkenness, but I never felt so. Little kids miss nothing, and so my childhood was horrible for the most part. I felt altogether alone--with too few resources: no sense of why I was alive, really, no sense of direction, a kind of me against the world. And it was unremitting. Mom and dad were far away, as were my brothers and sisters, each on his or her own island. It didn’t seem fair, either when I was small with just the sound of wind, or later. I was put back a half year because I was so quiet, remember once when we lived on the projects on Rocky River Drive: I was late for school. And because I couldn’t bear the thought of walking into the room late, I hid behind a bush for eight hours until the kids walked back.
Crazy. As you might imagine, it was hard physically to do that for a third grader. But we all survived, as do most, and I managed to find my awkward niche growing up. My parents divorced when I was in eighth grade, and though I threw my arm out trying to pick someone off first base, I still played baseball and prospered. It was a fictional place to escape to, like literature I suppose still is to some extent, a place to find some fun.
We never move beyond family baggage, no matter how much inner healing we experience, and that is God’s way. If we didn’t have to carry that, ourselves: the product of so much of those years, we would never learn to love. And if that means occasional depressions, well, what can we do but help to push the larger wagon? Our way-back family comes home because we help—like Adam. There’s really no sense in complaining. Heaven comes slowly, but it does come.
(The good part is that, even if you’re just sitting, you’re helping.)
I still saw my father occasionally. Once in high school at a neighborhood drugstore I met him, and he asked me if I was still a virgin. I bristled, wanted to know if the church was for that now—since he’d ostensibly raised us at Catholic. He hemmed, hawed, had no adequate answer.
But I did like him, a quarrelsome union man when he worked. At this point he was on disability. That last time I talked to my father was when I was 21; he was in a minimum security mental ward of a VA hospital ward, I sitting on rolled wall padding. His conversation was paranoid as he moved from Nixon to the CIA to a tryout he had with the St. Louis Browns, any point in between. But even there good revealed itself.
He needed justice.
He died a few nights later, having stolen a car and run into the back of a gasoline truck on the interstate. Maybe be wanted a grand exit, I don’t know. But I do remember his second wife carrying on at the funeral: “Where’d he get the car? Where did he get that car?”
I had to finally tell her that he was dead, had been our father.
She quieted--if only for awhile.
But family runs deep. It’s crucial to who we are; it’s the baggage we bear, usually not too well. (If twenty plus years of teaching creative writing and literature to good Christian students at Franciscan has taught me anything, it’s that!) But Christ is risen here too—my father and then some. As I say, we all get a chance to break the generational circles of bad habit, sin, to complete what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ Jesus. To love.
Besides, how can we ever give back the good we’ve gotten from them, from our siblings, parents?
Dad, I bless and thank you. You too mom.
My spiritual director once told me that my real problem was with my mom, not with my dad. I was angry at him, but I felt nothing toward her. And in truth she’d always seemed so far away, the price she had to pay to survive probably.
She was good, in a white American kind of way. I say that because while living in Kent I spent a lot of time with a black family—the mom there even offered to take me into her family at one time. (I didn’t do it because it would’ve hurt my mom’s feelings.) But there was something special about that woman’s love, a black mother’s love. It enveloped. It was warm, a womb place for a child to grow, to gather his strength. Maybe it was different because her body was part of her love. It was sensual, but not sexual. Her love was all of her in some way. She held you, supported you, in a way that my mom could never do.
Was that due to the anti-sacramental WASP world white people had made and inhabited.
Maybe. I wonder how Chaucer’s mom was?
But I must say that my wife Linda’s love for the children does contain that sacramental depth, whatever her flaws; and they are blessed because of it.
I’m not sure when childhood ends. For many American men it doesn’t seem to. They can look twelve at fifty (see Bob Costas); much different that the youths of the forties you can find in the St. Peters Steubenville basement. In those sport team pictures from the 40’s, those basketball and football players look forty at twelve! Maybe they weren’t so protected back then, or maybe they were that way because food and survival were not guaranteed.
So maybe it’s when we really experience death. For myself, I never really got childhood in the same way that I never have really gotten the adult thing. I was always just this person in here: two eyes behind the bars, me shaking them, making my monkey noises. But King David on his deathbed told Solomon to play the man. One learns what is required, and he does that. For me, that would be a long way in the future. But however manhood officially begins, it in some way started for me with my father’s death.
My siblings have had their own crosses, of course—bigger ones in most cases. My younger brother Larry a year or two later had to deal with the grisly murder of his girlfriend. His has always been a violent world in some way, as he chose, not reclusive literature, father-pleasing sports as I did, but the other side of life in our neighborhood: its rowdy camaraderie, borderline criminality.
She was young, Linda, his girlfriend, twenty or so.
Maybe that murder ended his childhood. I don’t know. But more craziness, deaths were certainly forthcoming--though Jesus would be there, too, even before I knew it, working not only outside of time but in it as well.
He calls us out, culls us through family, first and last, always.
The Bourbon at the Bottom
It didn’t take long for my fourteen year old choice to usher in its wormwood and gall. High school is tough for everyone, even the faithful. I’ve always believed that those years are a success if you don’t jump off a bridge. And if you add the fact I was ADHD before it had a name, massively depressed, a-jump in my Jesuit High
School suit, you start to get the picture. I couldn’t study to save my life, got suspended every year, averaging 32 demerits per. Me and Mr. Grdina, our Assistant Principal, almost got to be pals. My sole aim, in fact, during the last two hive-infested years was simply NOT to get thrown out. No small task since I had to keep busy--with anything except studying: I started the institution’s first food fight, played sports, faked seizures in algebra class, and tried to dress like Little Richard (when I could get away with it).
On the home front, if possible, things were (necessarily) just as bad. My parents had gotten a divorce and girls presented a huge obstacle. They were a bane in a way, a measure of just how far I hadn’t come. Many found me cute, but that only underscored how geeked up I was. I mean, why try with some of them, the neuroses would have to come out, wouldn’t they? I hated who I was—but there was no way out of my skin.
I was strung up so tight that one night I almost pushed mom out of a room. We were talking in our small little living room on Denison Ave. and 94th. She mentioned, as a way to build me up, how handsome I was. The girls must swarm.
Although I was sixteen or seventeen, I wept.
She didn’t know quite what to do, how to handle the situation, and so eventually she just had to leave. And then, days later, or around that time anyway, a girl I didn’t know—with a slightly shady neighborhood reputation--actually began beating on my front window as I sat on the couch, watching tv. “He’s so beautiful,” she said repeatedly, banging on the glass.
Finally, I had to leave the room.
I suppose it’s genetic: the leaving, I mean. I certainly would master the move in the future.
In any case, when I turned eighteen I took to beer (and its happy after-effects).
Faith was alive underneath in some way, though, because I signed my high school yearbook picture: “Don’t keep the faith, spread it.” Where the heck did that come from? I don’t know. I found a way to miss every retreat in high school. One of my teachers, I forget whom, told me as my graduation neared that I was the kind of kid the Jebbies didn’t want to take on in the future.
Reminds me of my sixth grade teacher who sat me next to my best friend because he had character and I didn’t. Some of it might rub off.
Forget the part about her being right.
How do any of us survive school—how will my kids?
My baseball dream—to God’s glory--certainly didn’t. In college it crumbled along with the integrity of my personality. Without a foundation, what could endure? Those years were not pretty. While on the university baseball team, in fact, my psychological uptightness reached epic proportions, became so pronounced that I soon even couldn’t play catch with Gary Pillar, a teammate from Benedictine. Ever the trend-setter, I’d developed the Steve Sax disease before he gave it its name! I simply could no longer freely direct the ball to the other person. I became agoraphobic, and within a year or two, it had literally become a torture for me to walk through a large student lounge. I would go to the bathroom after the first half of the trek to gather myself in the stall, to work my breath for the return.
And then drugs climbed into an empty seat in my ‘57 Chevy of the spirit.
(The top did not come down.)
But all that was to the good in a way, too. Descents are the only route for many of us, because misery always offers a choice: is it going to be this way forever, does it have to be so, or do I need to find another?
I took to doing acid, Window Pane mostly, some mushrooms, started paying attention in lit classes. I got interested in song writers: Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Don Maclean, Pete Sinfield during his King Krimson days and after; I read Ginsberg’s VERBATIM--a large paranoid social ramble, ON THE ROAD, tried DIET FOR A SMALL PLANET: the sprout kingdom, poured over the Gita, depth psychology, Gestalt, Transactional Analysis, BE HERE NOW, participated in Group therapy, learned c, g, and d on the guitar, how to play kitchen pots, fake the harmonica.
Springsteen hit, Tom Waits. Songwriters have always been a great comfort for me--back then because I was moving toward poetry. And since I’d come from a blue collar home, one with no cultural bent--outside of my father’s one recording of Caruso, his love for Mahalia Jackson, it was nice to get access to something from Mr. Rogers’s kindred Beat neighborhood.
College had been no great help at first because I had no way into the prevailing learned room. The echoes of once-Protestant discourse, the professors’ and poets’ sensibilities were circuses worth watching, sure, but it was like the whole thing went down in a foreign language.
The Beats were earthy, regular, not academics, and I was happy for that.
But I knew, too, that this new angle wasn’t enough to get me through John Lennon’s night. I still couldn’t relate to people, at least very well—though beer helped. So I stepped on my life as I lived it, spat on it in a thousand ways.
(I couldn’t scrape it off of Mick Jagger’s shoes.)
Like Berryman’s Henry, I had no inner resources, not enough strength. So that was always a worry. Would I make it . . . and to what?
The future grinned—should I sleep with my trousers rolled? (Prufrock hounded me, because like a lot of young people back then—and now no doubt, I was paranoid him.)
God, however, has his ways.
Jesus freaks (and Krishnas) were really big back then, in airports, at colleges, downtown. And that was where I first met the former: around Cleveland State, walking to and from the Terminal Tower. Here were people who claimed to have answers to the questions that mattered. I needed to know if there was anything to what they claimed: anything.
Later Buddhist literary types would say that acid was an avatar, a way for God to enter.
Maybe in some way they were right.
In any case, I would argue with Jesus people for hours at the University. Sometimes we drew crowds.
I’d also met a few more orthodox young Catholic women at CSU: Terry Krowka, Barb Reiner, Joy Allie, and they intrigued me. They seemed to believe and to have a comfort level with a wacky world—without denying its absurdity. (Of course the fact that they were attractive didn’t hurt either.) So I took to spending time at the Newman Center. And it was during one of these visits that I got up the nerve to ask a priest where I could find a nice Christian farm community.
Actually, I was looking for a nice cultic place like the Moses David folks might provide--where I could slow down, get laid basically. But to my infinite good fortune, the hippified priest told me about Madonna House in Ontario.
My options were waning rapidly, so it wasn’t long until I felt like I had no choice. I uprooted, went there, stayed for two months. The place just blew me away. I saw people living authentically hidden Christian lives! And that began to change me--though as everyone knows, it is and isn’t that simple: getting out of the muck, on track. The baggage I’d been carrying, family habits, personal sin, I still carry—if in lighter (and, regrettably, often more stylish) luggage.
But maybe it just feels like that because I don’t carry it alone.
In either case, Jesus does not relieve us of it.
Madonna House was a grace. It offered Christ, who saved my life. But I really hadn’t known what to expect going in. (Fr.) Lee had been happy to help, but when he did, after all, he did offer a caveat: it was kind of conservative.
But there were other happy factors, too, in my heading north, factors I didn’t know about then. When I was a child, for example, I once asked my other New Philly grandmother (the other one) to pray to the lady in the large holy picture by her door for me. It was obvious even then—I must’ve been 6 or so-- that I was in real trouble and would need help.
She said she would.
The picture was of St. Therese, the Little Flower, who has been my “little mother” for many years now. She’s been behind so much: I reconnected with the friend who would be my wife on Oct. 1—sixteen years down that later road! That was the day I got Linda’s letter, the one where she told me she’d become a Catholic. Therese would come to her in dreams before we married, tell her that I was ok. Also, Oct. 1st is my spiritual director’s birthday.
Are there any accidents, coincidences for the believer? I don’t think so—though of course there are always limits to what we see.
My birthday is Dec. 10th, and so I have no problem milking that cow either. It’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday—a fact I hold dear. It’s also the day Thomas Merton both entered and left the monastery. It’s also the day the Franciscan University of Steubenville opened its doors. And it’s the day JP II said his first mass, and finally, it’s also the feast of Our Lady of Loretto (Mary’s house), at least on some years—another name perhaps for Madonna House: Nazareth.
I would trace out that extraordinary community farm experience, but in fact I’ve already done so. (See THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE: chapter 2.)
I would certainly recommend the place to anyone. I made a ton of friends, all of whom I’ve lost touch with. Lovely folks, though, each with something to give, to help you through your life. Jim Guinan, a staff worker saved my life with his “It’s a great life, Dave, if you just keep plugging and doing the best you can.” Tom Egan, a guy named Jim, another staff worker, who wanted so badly to become a priest; and then when he did, he crashed in some way. I never got all the details.
Not to mention the monster herself, Catherine Doherty. A crusty old saint who irritated everyone because she didn’t care about anything by God’s will. I remember her sitting next to Elsie Luke one time (a woman who would later be my chair at FUS). “What are you doing here,” she asked her. “You should be in the Yukon.”
Maybe I heard the tale, but it was pure Catherine. She was cool.
All these years later, though I’ve lost track of all those guest friends, Fr. David May and Fr. Robert Pelton are still very dear to me. Fr. Bob is my spiritual director, and though I never see him much anymore, we are bound. When last I did get a chance to visit, about six years ago with my family, I felt like St. John when we talked, my head on his spiritual chest. At that time he told me about his family problems, which was a huge gift—because I had been feeling hemmed in by PR Catholicism: the “I’m good—cruise.” Complete nonsense, but necessary I suppose (or seemingly so) when Catholics are trying to sell their colleges or tv networks.
I opened my mouth when he spoke; that helped me to take it all in.
Fr. David, who we’d published in our chapbook series, came up to FUS to read a few years ago, and he was a major blessing. He wept some at BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEEE, a movie we showed him. I real heart for the poor. And when we walked around our neighborhood, he was so attentive to the wildlife. We heard a bird, whistle. He said: “A robin. . . Now listen, another will follow.” And it did. His poetry is the best I’d heard of the new Christian stuff because it was so clear in the listening that his life was “a living sacrifice of praise” in some way--in a way that no other poet’s I’ve read seems to be.
I bless the place, could have stayed now that I’d been baptized in the Spirit, but I was finally too restless for that life. Besides, we all choose the hardest routes, and I’d never been a success in the world.
I had Jesus, yes, but I still had to find out how to get on in the world. And though I suppose most of us never do completely, still God does move us along, is gracious enough to allow us eventually to see the value of humility. It is sanity. Things are just that simple. You get your little place, praise God, and you do your little work. And if you don’t make too much useless noise in the process, there’s a good chance you just might make it out of here alive.
I struggled mightily when I got back, though, and indeed kept coming back to Cleveland, between flights to Steubenville, points west, NYC, Puerto Rico, Ontario, Texas. For me, the two central questions I’ve always had to deal with, before and after my conversion, have been what work will I do and will I have the perseverance to do it? Jesus was there, yes, is here.
But as I say, unfortunately, so am I.
I loved Cleveland, still do: something about poets and their home places. And it has been one of the real crosses in my life that I’ve not been able to go back, to walk across the Cuyahoga River. I’d like to rub elbows with those loons again, touch base, play basketball with childhood friends, have a beer with the Madden’s Irish Village crowd.
I played softball with the latter group for about eight years. They were a crazed group of men and women, alive, most having been lit majors at CSU and subsequently mailmen. So wit was a valued commodity.
When somebody would hit a pop fly during a game and call, “I’ve got it,” at least one person from the bench would offer clarification: “We’ll see.”
Our manager’s recurring bit of batterly advice--“Hit like an adult.”
Great guys to drink beers with, though few of them were Christians in any discernible way—including me, too often. But they had not been deadened by convention, either, and none of them wanted IBM. The glue was literature, books really. CSU, after all, had a great English Dept back then.: mostly Ivy league profs—though two of the worst were from Harvard. Two of the most impressive scholars I ran into were Glending Olson and Barton Friedman. Barty was from Wisconsin, Glending, the University of Mars. (I kid--Otis Sistrunk.) Actually both were great teachers, as were so many others: Alberta Turner, John Gerlach, Earl Anderson, Donald Miller.
CSU was also the place where I met my wife, Linda. We worked on the lit magazine together, sixteen years before we tied the umbilicals.
The faculty was wonderful, alive to students, eccentricities. And there were plenty of those. Another thing I liked about the place was that nobody was driving daddy’s car; just lots of smart blue-collar kids, just enough wackiness in the air, left over from the 60’s to make it all worth the time.
I once made the mistake of taking a Milton class Saturday morning. The first day I showed up: a ghost, had to excuse myself several times to hug the institutional bowl. Not surprisingly, I was not a sterling student during my undergrad years. Leonard Trawick would later call my tracks “spotty” in a letter of recommendation. But I tried not to let my failures get in the way of the literary experience. My favorite I-don’t –know-this-answer answer came in an 18th century test when I was asked to identify the author of a quote, Addison or Steele, somebody like that.
“A drunk in the territorial prison.”
I had to drop the class. (Out, out, brief spot!)
Most everyone on the team loved Joyce, Yeats, anything Irish, but especially the newer burn-outs, anything Bukowski-like: Donlevy, Brautigan. There’d be late nights, Irish blues on the banjo—that particular “musician” later boating down the Amazon; runs after Chinese food; yelling my way down the dark streets, tipsy, climbing the nearest barbed-wire fence or generally chasing women. Several of the guys founded a stand-up comedy group named “Spud and Tatters”; then their were burlesque bars and egg salad; lasses, beer, pot, acid, and softball.
I remember one guy slept on a slanted bed--the short Amazonian fellow. The first time I every saw him: Mike, and Joe: the guy who would “manage” our softball team--also the star of potato comedy, they were boxing each other in CSU’s geodesic dome. Marquis of Queensbury, gloves and all. These two short little guys, wacking away.
In one of my own rentals, on E. 27th, the burlap on the inner walls actually waved in the winter wind. It all added up to an early kind of Tom Waits existence. It would have been perfect had I found some solid (and fun) Catholics, but so often that seems to be an oxymoron. Liberalism had already nestled its heart-thorn just about everywhere in the churches I knew. So squishy city Catholics paled graphically when compared to these guys and gals. But on the other hand, parish liturgy committees everywhere probably blossomed.
Who could stomach that?
I lived in all kind of places. Perhaps the weirdest was during my employment at the Boy’s Club on Pershing Ave. I shared a house with the manager, and during the blizzard-y year of ’77 (or was in ’79?), we both survived in an unheated house. I’ve never been able to fix anything, and I think he thought I was kidding—or else he was trying to goad me into learning how to light the furnace pilot light or something—but I never did figure out what I had to do. So I slept on the third floor, in my shoes, watching my breath as I moved toward golden slumbers (with icicles).
I showered at CSU.
But where would I be able to find an orthodox community anyway? Certainly nowhere around any college. (And one stays so busy, being addictive.)
Virtue was always the fuzzy goal, but how was I going to be able to swing that? I couldn’t walk down the street and rub my stomach at the same time.
But Jesus is merciful, and I would need that. It has taken me many years to begin to settle in.
Of course, life wasn’t always hi-jinx, Junie and beer. (Too bad in a way.) There was also the matter of rent, foodstuffs, finding direction—or a sniff of same, enough to calm the beast. I still had to find a job I didn’t like, suck it up for the pellet. And then I had to show up until the next goal became clear—all the while trying to learn courtesy of a sort: since other people were part of this Christian business.
But self-absorption is a big fat ape who sits in the middle of your living room collecting navel lint, at least when he’s not rattling through the refrigerator, helping himself to your Hamm’s.
My problem was that I had always hoped that I could find a good monk-like job, so I could write: roofing, Braille and Talking Books at the library, the Boy’s Club, consumer research, assisting a tailor, dock work at the steel mill, working with developmentally or socially-challenged populations, secretarial, clerking, spray painting mining equipment, various mindless grey factory jobs, warehouse and department store and gas station and junkyard work; not to mention selling guns and cameras and housewares, driving cab. What reason was there for my hope? It amazes me, now that I look back.
But there’s a natural hope here as well, something given me by my parents. Whatever the difficulties, Mr. and Mrs. Craig have given me some sense of worth. So I kept at my life back then, hoping that some new vista might reveal itself, that I could settle down into a physical “yes”!
But that never happened, couldn’t because I was not settled in myself.
What did happen was the wage rut. I didn’t like any of it, though the people I met always offered some consolation, if I knew their names or not.
Times were light, times were dark. We get it all, don’t we? But it’s the joy, He who is joy who makes it all cohere. Poetry alone can’t do that. Nor can we. And what’s surprising is that He’s always sneaking out in one way or another around the edges, always revealing Himself no matter the weather. There a comic cast to so much of what I do, have done. My laughter has become richer, had to, because Christian humor is always about Him in some way, isn’t it? It’s testimony.
Working with the developmentally-challenged seemed like a good way to go for awhile; I could serve, work as I wrote. It seemed like a good chance to grow in something that at least resembled virtue, and I did enjoy it, for a time—always for a time. With those kinds of jobs there’s always the burn-out factor, unless you are St. Anthony of the Desert. (Maybe if I hadn’t accepted the checks!) And that was true of everyone who worked at those places, everyone who was not in administration.
(Insert your own quip here.)
I worked at two retarded places in the Cleveland area: The Green Road Developmental Center and at a similar place on Euclid Ave. in East Cleveland: Parents Association for Retarded Children and Adults, for about nine months each time. I always got strong evaluations, especially so when it came to intervention. This skill proved crucial as many of the residents had serious psychological problems as well as developmental ones. Occasionally they would go off, but that was only part of the problem. There was also the heightening tension that lead up to the explosion, a slope of increasingly unruly behavior. And then when the challenged resident hit the fan, one had to find a way to sit on him gently—to find a physical strategy that came down to that.
The guys were fun for the most part, but the behaviors ended up being pretty cyclic. You might feel like you’ve been doing some good until you got into a PIP meeting. Then the shrink population would straighten you out! That could get anyone into a funk: how much am I doing here? Do I matter?
(The question is answered just before you ask.)
But no matter how dark the general funk, no matter how solitary the walk, humor was always there.
It’s what people often don’t get about Flannery O’Connor: the salvific humor.
It’s always the people who make things worthwhile. And it was so in those places. Glenn, a black teenager for example, was fierce, but jovial too. He liked to laugh. Such combinations could make the work difficult, demanded a delicacy as one had to calibrate the responses, work toward some cast of normalcy. I remember one guy, Leon, a diagnosed schizophrenic who used to tell me upon occasion, “I’m going to carve your guts out with a spoon.”
No hard feelings, though, he said that to everybody.
He just wanted to be left alone, so he could grind his teeth in peace.
He was not one of my guys, though, and there were times when he’d calm off to the side, smoke his cigarettes—until he caught your glance. Then he’d turn away, start mumbling. (I suppose I do the same often enough in my own way.) There were other live wires, too: big Marie, who would clump into the cottage after work, draining her cigarette, keen on verbally assessing and commenting on who had romantically quit whom.
Roger and Emil, two of my guys, were big, absolutely hated to take showers; but they did love Wendy’s. So of course we linked those things. “To tell you the truth, Dave,” Roger used to growl, huge flakes of dried forehead skin wafting in the air conditioning breeze. “I just don’t worry about it.”
Martha was this wonderful pie-eyed, tall woman, quick with an embarrassed laugh, disfigured hands covering her face. She was a joy. The story was that when she was younger, kids would see her in a third story attic window on their way to school. She’d be smiling, waving!
She needed to be rescued.
Many of the stories were sad. There was one guy from another cottage who used to walk up the driveway every night at about 4:30, wait for twenty minutes or so, then walk back. As I later found out, his parents had told him years before that they’d be back to pick him up! And a little, chubby woman, Joanie, with thinning hair who used to stutter: word was she’d been found in a room with a hanged parent.
Who could invent this stuff?
I once had some good fun with Emil (of Emil and Roger), playfully trying to see if he knew that those little men in the tv weren’t really that small. He enjoyed the humor: the fact that I really knew that he knew, and he playfully got all that, at least for while.
Finally I had to massage his shoulders, tell him how good a guy he was. (And he was.) They were all likeable, really, the ones who let you close. But things could be crazy too. Emil was big compared to most of the residents and could be a bully—once or twice I really did have to sit on him!
A week after I left for Colorado, in fact, one resident in a different college stabbed another to death.
(One always wonders: did I have anything to do with that—seeds sown, that kind of thing.)
Glenn was, as I say, a delight, usually only potentially dangerous. But one did have to pay attention. How tough it must’ve been for him, for all of them! It struck me one time while at work that they are there for us, for our growth. How else would we learn to love?
I have a Downs’ son now, Jude, and he really wrestles with all those things: how to deal with the public, his school peers, how to be “big.” When he was just a toddler, I used to hold him over my shoulder at Mass. Sometimes when I’d pull him back, look at his face, I could see that he was catching every look from the people behind. Nothing was lost on him. That grieves.
The good part was that it was the only life he knew, so though people put him off, he wasn’t aware of other possibilities.
The problem now is that he gets the possibilities thing. His brother and sister get to do things he doesn’t. Plus some of his relatives are less likely to want to spend time with him than they are with the other two. This is where it gets tough. I just keep reminding him how valued he is here, how blessed we are to have him in our presence—plus I buy him sodas, take him on dad and son outings.
Still, his life has always been hard.
(I remember when the two of us went to Garabandal and Lourdes on pilgrimage—someone had paid our way. A priest who had a brother with Down’s was slightly offended. “That’s not a sickness.” And while I’m sure he loved his brother, apparently he was not paying close attention to the grief engendered in the lad. Jerk.)
Probably because of Jude’s vulnerability, I found (not) early (enough) that spanking just didn’t do the trick. He would just go off, get uncontrollable, cry like a little baby—never a problem with the other children.
So now it’s all bartering. “If you want to go to the library on Saturday, you must do this chore now.” “If you don’t do this you can’t go to Adoration with me on Friday morning.” Adam Smith would’ve been proud: pure self-interest—though Jude is the most naturally charitable member in our family. When he smiles completely, as he did this morning, I am bothered a little by the fact that I can’t do anything with that beauty but soil it.
So I tell myself to accept that gift, move on, just be me for him. That will have to do.
Those kind of jobs could be high tension; though any of them can be if you have the gift! So, like most males in North America, I need to get away, occasionally feed my tendency to lose myself--to a bunch of human growth hormones in a local color scheme. In Cleveland, during the fall (of our demise), that would still be the Browns, or something like them. Like all the other teams in Cleveland, they have stunk since Adam’s bite in the rotten apple—which, incidentally, happened on Dec. 29th, 1957.
Detroit is an evil place. (Pittsburgh too, of course.)
It’s how God deals with us, the city: compare Cleveland to Pittsburgh since 1971! They get the resurrection, we get the crucifixion. “Thank You, Jesus,” says the local spiritual marine sports fan, taking the flagellant: “May I have another!” Occasionally, shiny Manny Ramirez (LeBron/LeQuit) moments have come—sporadic illusory epiphanies; but like all things transitory, gratefully they subside, and we are left with just ourselves again, in the only game that counts.
Without viable community, I can still find ways to even turn that mostly harmless past time (if you don’t count the attendant testosterone fan thuggery) into an exercise in bad judgment.
Depression is not all sparkle and glee you know.
Perhaps the fact that I have been something of a victim will help me after death—St. Perry Mason--but probably not, at least to any significant extent. And that will be as it should. So that might be me next to you, brother, shoveling afterlife coal into the furnaces of my becoming, trying to free up the rusted hinges of my heart so I can get all the way home.
(I once asked my spiritual director: do Protestants have to go to Purgatory since they don’t believe in it?)
Mortification is a great way out of that selfishness—but that hurts!
The next thing you know it will be all pain, and I’ll be like Mother Theresa, blinking into years of darkness.
I’m going to have to live a very long life.
Sometimes I think self-hatred will be the last sin to die—though I know St. Francis de Sales says it’s pride: fifteen minutes after we do. But perhaps they’re not so different. Self-hatred comes out of childhood shame, and vanity follows like a puppy: a kind of lower case version of Milton’s sin and death, one birthing the other, though in my instance the offspring comes with a whimper, no food.
At any rate, here’s to penance: the Browns!
Christ is always there, of course, in some way: in the banter, the divine comedy, in the gift. (I’d like to say that accounts for Dante’s peaceful death mask, but he looks like he had some bad beans just before he got the bill.)
Jesus is in us all, creatively. He’s inventive, too, finds all kinds of ways to make his points, to teach us how to love. He actually found a way to publicly embarrass (and humble) St. Therese, the Little Flower, even though she was living behind cloistered walls. Somehow a scam artist had gotten hold of her picture, used it to help him take people to the cleaners. She found out about it.
And that creative impulse finds all sorts of ways to reveal itself. Later, at Colorado State, I would study surrealism: a nice “gift of tongues” way to praise God using language itself.
The comic, joyful dance has been with me since my baptism in the Holy Spirit at Madonna House. So after I first got back to Cleveland, I spent those early years writing dithyrambs to try and give Him the glory. I wanted to express the joy I could find nowhere in contemporary verse—or before for that matter. It seemed like something I could do: joy in the lived moment. Hopkins and Crashaw do some of that, but it’s usually abstracted from the minute particulars of their lived lives, from the guy in his size 11s, chewing on a stalk of Welsh or Italian grass.
I don’t think we ever know freedom until we know the Gift. And once that gift opens us, anything is possible; connections reveal themselves. We get a sense of how God works all things to the good. Nothing else comes close to that delight, though even after becoming a Christian, I have chased enough imitations to get my own wing in the stupidity ward.
The real beauty of the Holy Spirit is that He reveals Himself anywhere, while we’re doing anything. Pitching hay or respectable woo.
He is heaven, so His felt presence is always a call to dance.
Eventually, I allowed the more distant critical meditative faculty to control the poems. I turned to sonnets and confessional poems, moved in a more discursive direction. But it wasn’t time for that yet—if we can believe God orders all things; and why wouldn’t I?
I enrolled in the Ph.d. school at Case Western: still with too many women on the brain! It was a typically weird time: me alone in a third floor Stillman St. walk-up, trying to be a faithful Catholic. I liked the name of the street: a gift, a reminder. A huge church, St. Ann’s, perched on Coventry Rd., not a hundred yards away.
There were never lines for Confession.
So you can imagine the gripping sermons!
(I think of Fr. Mitch Pacwa, of EWTN, who pointed out that liberal religious types do not reproduce. Why would they bother?)
Anyway, while there I got a letter from Mensa asking me to join. (I have no idea what that was about! On some days I couldn’t even count to 200—unless we were doing beers on the wall.) But Jesus is always affirming me in one way or another.
It was a great place to walk, what with the nice old homes. I’ve always liked to walk, maybe because it allows you time to both think and exercise, gives anti-social/poetic types a sense of connectedness. It’s nice to stretch it out in any case. Besides, it is an Olympic sport--as legitimate as our favorite purported Nazi sympathizer Avery Brundage doing ribboned gymnastics.
(The Olympics can have that feel, can’t they? Superior human beings. . . . thank God for the “surf’s up” X-games infusion.)
You can really grind when you walk, so maybe it’s a philosopher’s version of sport. In any case I especially love doing so in the winter, that most contemplative, most poetic of seasons. There are so few distractions.
Unfettered, you can enjoy God’s presence.
I was writing dithyrambs in ’77 or so, in winter while serving as an associate editor of THE DARK TOWER at CSU (with my eventual wife) when we got a letter from Kenneth Rexroth. He was put off by the fact that we’d only taken two of the oriental poems he’d sent, but he had to grudgingly admit that they were the best of the lot. . . .and I had chosen them.
So for a day in that office I was a small room hero.
These things come for all of us, I’m sure: moments of affirmative grace. There were others: one time while at CSU, listening to the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz read in a 250 seat auditorium, The Spirit of God came upon me so surprisingly, so powerfully and for such a length of time that people around me actually began to recoil.
I actually felt embarrassed by it.
What does one do with that?
I don’t know what any of that means—I still haven’t heard from Sweden--outside of the fact that Jesus is with us, loves us, and has a place for all of us, both in this world and in the next.
And the women!
Chastity had occasionally checked in, always for too short of a time--though a friend of mine at Colorado State once pointed out that it always became a good goal, odd coincidence, when one wasn’t keeping specific company. (I’ll assume, though, that grace was at work here--too!) It was tough, in any case, trying to be faithful.
“Ain’t nobody like to be alone.”
I would’ve done better had I committed myself to an actual prayer life, acquired some virtue. “No” is an acquired habit, just like anything else. Had I grown more, humility might’ve actually expressed itself in obedience.
But hey, I’m not dead yet!
Someone on the net once reviewed my poems on the net, said that she loved the epiphany one night, but found themselves completely perplexed the following morning. What did the poem mean? That’s the danger with short poems, short joyful/surreal ones especially. They require so much to align.
Those early poems were mountain toppers. They give you the joy on the summit, but because you don’t often get the rest of the mountain, they can be tough slopes on which to stand. That’s what led me to write more confessional poems: to deliver the C. K. Williams’ “rest of the story.”
I took to his poetry for that reason and for another. The man dealt in juxtaposing situations as much as in setting off imagery. Williams wrote long lines—pushing them hard toward prose, using happenstance the way Dylan Thomas used surreal detail: that is, he would rub one occurrence against its another, creating a third—an epiphany. As a Christian poet, I like the way that process reveals how Jesus acts in this world.
But as often as I found good moments in Cleveland, they were never enough. A young man needs a career, a mate. The problem with the first is that you need to be trained, and that is tough to do if there’s no other reason to stay in one place. The other reason would be a woman, but what potential nest maker is going to hang for too long with a guy who can’t hold a job.
Jesus had his work to do!
On the (Catholic) Road
I was forever taking to the hills, too little gold in my pocket, looking for some work that could last, for a Leprechaun’s life in Christ. Hitching mostly. But I wasn’t settled in myself, so how could I ever stop and stay anywhere—or know the thing when I found it. I should’ve gone into advertising! Jesus was certainly there, and over there too, of course, through both the real nights and the false dawns. (Once 60 extra bucks miraculously appeared in my middle drawer to help me on my hitching way.)
I don’t think I served Him so well, probably badly, as ever. But most times I kind of liked sitting on the side of the road, just me and Him, my duffle—if it didn’t go on too long. I liked meeting the drivers, getting their stories. And I liked being in new places, trying something new—since the old, whatever that was, clearly was not working.
We all want heaven, and until we’re at the place of fitting service, we go hard after it. And as I look back from the now, from that place, I see the only thing that has finally taken me to fixed serving place has been Divine intransigence. He knew what He wanted when I started teaching at FUS, and my take or happy feet have been of little consequence since then.
I’ve never liked living in this depressed Ohio Valley to be honest. All it has is high school football and its memories—and the Stillers—though surely any place would have not done just as well! (I would’ve found something amiss in Cleveland before too long. I had every other time.)
During the 60s black flakes of pollution used to descend with the snow around here. But the students at the university, my colleagues, the intense Christian atmosphere at Franciscan: they all are marvelous, as the local Ohio Valley neighbors have been--John Phillips, Jack Swaim and Bill down the street with his two Ph.D. daughters.
Jack is my WV neighbor. When I first moved here from across the river, I had to dug up the slag, put in a back yard: dirt and turf; and he couldn’t do enough, offered his truck, found me the soil: “The keys are always in it.”
My wife marvels, too, says there is a different angel in West Virginia. Hospitality seems more central to them than it is to Ohioans. Maybe that’s because they see themselves as part of the south. I don’t know
Still, it’s never been home.
Part of me has always needed Cleveland like a fix. (What is more powerful than the fictional
home we almost remember?)
Jesus, though, Lord, simply has never wanted to hear that. (Won’t now.) He just kept (keeps) saying no. “Stay. . . . The Cross. . . . Roll over. . . .The Cross. . . . Play dead.”
My roaming started early: in ’72, even before I became a Christian. I left Cleveland State initially because the baseball dream was hacking up fur balls, and I needed to find as Paul Brown called it, my real work. At first I thought about psychology—helping others; but that plan dissolved when I discovered I had every malady covered in my Abnormal Psych textbook.
I’d never been to California, anywhere really. So I bought myself a plane ticket, went out to visit an old high school wrestling buddy. Once on board I put the earphones on upside down, the cord hanging down from above my head. . . . What?!
(A most excellent metaphor.)
I roamed because I was lost; that’s what people do, even when they are at “home.” And the Lord allowed it to continue even through grad school, fifteen off-and-on years later.
That first trip, shuffling down through Southern California without direction or sense of who I was, thoroughly exposed me, which was good. Without Jesus, no people skills, I had squat. The weight of the emptiness just flattened me.
(Just before deciding to head down to LA, in fact, I seriously considered committing myself.)
“It never rains in California. But girl, don’t they warn you . . . ”
It’s a sad state of affairs when your life becomes a bad pop song.
As I ran out of money, though, I ran out of illusions, many of them anyway. And that’s always a good. (I also became so thin, 135 lbs., vital, that I felt as if I could leap buildings.)
I found work in a furniture store, dusting mostly, lived in a cheap hotel. I think the owner felt sorry for me.
Which is more than I could say about the Scientologists.
They wanted me to join, give them my last 45 bucks to do so. (I would be completely renewed, so all money in the world would be mine.) I actually considered doing as much until I noticed one of the pictures on their wall: L. Ron Hubbard playing two pianos at once. At first I thought that was nice, until it struck me: how well could the guy play one? I didn’t remember his name being discussed in my jazz class. No one I knew had ever said, “Hey, forget Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson. Check out the L. train.”
Things got a little tight.
On one of my trips to McDonald’s I began to envy the pigeons some guy was feeding fries to.
It was time to get back, milk my family until I could get back on my feet.
During one trip in the late 70s, I hitched all the way back from a monastery in Redwood Valley, California to Steubenville—thanks in large part to a Mormon guy who drove me 200 miles out of the way through the Rockies, let me sleep in his car. (All I had on was a jacket in April.) Of course the putz was trying to convert me in the process: “You’re from the tribe of Joseph. I can just tell.”
“Thank you”--I guess.
A nice fellow, all in all.
Back in Steubenville, I eventually managed to come up with a fiancée--talk about an optimist--both of us. During another later trek I hitched out to Kansas—cherche-ing a different femme. Neither paid off, at least in any expected way. But I was still taking air, so that was good.
Plus I got to sleep under bridges once I got past St. Louis on that first trip: fun, at any time of year. You wake up, feel like the tin man--cold, jammed joints needing oil.
By the late 70s I still had no degree, nor my foot in any career-door. I think during the Kansas trip I went out hoping to find work as a farm laborer or as a school bus driver. I hoped to find what I was looking for in a woman I’d met at Madonna House.
When I hitched, I got rides from all sorts. Once I had the misfortune of being picked up by a resident doctor from NYC. He called the emergency room wounded there LLPSs: “low life pieces of shit.” Charming. That discussion went more in the direction of Woody Allen as I remember: how only New Yorkers could really get him. Another time while hitching up to the UP in Michigan, I got picked up by a Detroit plain-clothes cop. He told me about some black gangs in Destroy who demanded initiates kill a white person. Needless to say, I took a wider loop on the way back.
On one ride to Colorado, I had to take turns with the driver, holding his troublesome three-speed floor shifter in place for alternating 50 mile turns. He took me from to Toledo to Denver, so I was happy to do so. And I got to meet his two aunts along the way as well. One was old school Baptist: “Lord ain’t going to ‘low much more of this!” She’d rock on her front porch rocker, castigating tv preachers, the government. The two of us drank beer on the tongue and grooves, nodded as she spoke. Her husband was fun, though. Later that night he tried to convince me a cow could jump a six foot fence. (I’d seen agitated cows up in Combermere: surprisingly agile, powerful creatures.)
When talking about a farmer down the road, he told: “That guy couldn’t raise an umbrella.”
The guy’s other aunt was a White Sox fan: A Gov. Lamb kind of gal, all with a smile and hale how you go. The old should just die, get the heck out of the way. Abortion was good, freed women up. She was in furniture sales, expansive, friendly; cooked us steaks as we watched a coifed-haired Tony LaRussa try to manage the game. She actually offered me employment--if Denver didn’t work out: gave me her sprinkle-edged card.
The disturbing thing was that I actually kind of liked her. (Would I have played mumbly-peg with Goebbels I wondered, back-slapped and had a beer with Chairman Mao?)
Over those years, I took a pack of very slow Greyhounds. Always deeply unpleasant: they stopped at every breath of a town. I remember once outside of Sacramento, some guy with big feet, over the chair in front of him. Created quite a stir. (On that trip I’d said the Jesus Prayer for three days straight! Water off a duck’s back—or so it seemed to me.)
On another trip I almost fell into adultery between garages during a lay-over somewhere in Wisconsin.
That was all that fire needed, another rotten log.
Hitching to Kansas, I actually managed not to sleep with the woman in question. So sometimes I actually did do the right thing! It’s funny, I always expected to find something around the next bend. Why? What road, berm could possibly be different there?
But maybe it was the expecting that mattered.
Wasn’t that one of Descartes arguments for God?
(I actually thought of two or three of his four proofs during the semester right before I took that philosophy course. Maybe I missed my calling—I should have been a mathematician.)
I liked the people I met in Kansas, at least to the extent that I could meaningfully meet or interact with anyone. And that was always a problem. So much of me was under (rightful) suspicion. I was Groucho, not wanting to belong to any club that would have me for a member.
Plus, there was simply no physical place for me, nowhere that felt like one. Even after becoming a Christian. But Jesus did offer hope—else I would’ve stopped seeking. That makes me think of Michael Mott’s biography of Merton. (I’d meet him later at BGSU.) I don’t know if he was aware of what he’d done in the writing, but there is a beautiful and generous arc to Br. Louis’s life, including the sin. God gave him everything he needed to work out all of his natural and good impulses. Who Merton was found complete expression in the path God had allowed him to take.
I’d be willing to bet that the same is true for all of us.
No section on my expressive, expansive path--“floundering”--would be accurate without including Combermere. But it would take more than the human eye to make sense of it. As Catherine was fond of saying: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
I went up there five or six times, usually for about two months each time. And even though I was never stable enough to stay and try to make a vocation or to know where to go, still I did meet many, many extraordinary people. Early on, I tried to keep up with them, some already mentioned: Daoud from Lebanon, Miles from Vermont, Mike and Steve from western Canada, Tom from Cleveland, Jean-Michel from Quebec, but as the trips mounted, that became less of an issue. I met so few of them later.
I found the place other; it brought me a joy that has stayed with me. All from people living the gospel without show or gain. They loved. A dear staffer, now gone, Tom Egan once told me: “There’s no glamour in the gospel.”
There were irritants as well of course. Some of the women held a kind of feminism dear, maybe because their founder was a woman. “Paint like a woman,” one once told me. Wouldn’t have helped. Besides, I was lazy.
But beyond that I was not one, so why should I?
Catherine Doherty, along with Fr. Flanagan, founder of SOLT (Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity), were the only canonizable saints I’ve ever met. Both were pure instruments. Their wills were not their own--entirely. (I met him once while hitching through Kansas City.)
How could I tell the will thing?
Well, what can I say? I just could tell. Having a very good intuition has its advantages.
I got a few poems while abbey-sitting for monks in Redwood Valley, but the odd part about that was when some years ago, after I’d volunteered to do a witness for The Steubenville Christian Businessmen’s Association, as I labored with the memories, some arresting stuff came flooding back.
I was 26 when I took that first right at Santa Rosa, staying for three or so weeks. The monks, who knew I was a monastic lean, had asked me to come--since were going on pilgrimage to Europe and Israel and needed someone to watch the joint.
So when the time neared for them to return, I was faced with a decision. Would I join? Sure, I had learned to do a lot of fun and useful things in their absence: how to lead sheep back to their pens in the evening using Twinkies as bait; how to slop hogs; how to negotiate revivals on an Indian reservation with an older woman, Rose; but those things did not constitute vocation.
Rose was an Indian princess (daughter of a chief) who had been a heroin addict, a prostitute, a Hell’s Angel.
She had a big scar across one of her biceps. When I asked she told me the story: she’d been arguing with a biker from another gang. The guy told her that her heart was hard. “That’s right,” she said. “It’s a diamond. Ain’t never been chipped!”
So the fine fellow pulls a knife and tries to cut it out, slicing her arm in the process.
Her boyfriend, the leader of the Angels around there, however, saved the day—sort of. He shot the guy in the back, killed him on the spot. That same beau later got busted when the cops dug up graves on his land farther north in California. (Usually she said they’d dump people in the Bay. The water was so cold they never came up. . . . )
Once she told me they ran a Highway patrol car, the officer was hassling them, off a cliff.
But the most useful thing I learned there was how to say the office—as I’d promised to do in their absence.
I had to really think about what I was going to do next.
The second thing I thought about was baseball, the miracle it would take to make that happen. As things stood, I was now one year too old for pitching—at least according to the Pirate scout who’d given me a lift back to downtown Cleveland a year before. (I’d been having one last go at it.) Now that would be something to shout from the rooftops: God making what was not possible happen. But while doing some (sorry) sprints, it hit me. No, no. Give it up. I had neither the will nor the stamina to make that happen. It was time to move on.
Ok, but then where could I go? I had no degree, no prospects.
I’d never been able to hold a job for more than nine months in my life. (I’m a teacher now. So God had obviously configured the stars to work that out!) At the time, however, I had to admit to myself that because I could not hold a job, I certainly could never expect to marry, have any kind of life.
Fr. Bonifacio, when he came back, though, helped clarify things. He suggested I become a monk, since it was pretty clear I could never make it in the world.
What could I do? Knuckle under, make a career of whimpering? ( . . . Wait!?)
Anyway, I felt like I had to dive back in.
So I turned, again, toward the impossible: me making it in the world--just as I had at Madonna House years before when Fr. Wild suggested to me that all pilgrims take the hardest way. . . . He was thinking priesthood. But without the tools or training, with the nothing provided, the hardest road for me has always been the widest—the world.
So I prayed: “Take my life, Lord. It’s beyond me. Make a place where there is none.”
I hadn’t remembered that prayer until I had to prepare for that luncheon. And in the years that have followed, He slowly, surely, has given me one. He has worked in time, provided me with a final job--in good humor because, as I say, the teaching year is nine months long, plus there are breaks in and between semesters!
It’s still a struggle, of course, because I am not a very stable person.
But even while I don’t provide natural PR fodder for the University, I have been here for 23 years, have had hundreds of good students; and I also have a great wife and three delightful correctives: children.
Jesus made it all happen, manipulating the world He owns. I certainly could never have done any of that on my own.
I roamed in every direction, but never too far. I was too neurotic for that. I could never, for example, do Brazil or Istanbul, though I thought about working steamers. In an easterly direction, I got as far as New York. For three or so years, I would get off at the Port Authority, visit my good ex-high school friend Jack and his wife Marian near Colombia. She worked as an emergency nurse; he was an MFA student, then a writer. (Their kids are now adults!) I always loved the place, NY, the energy, and Jack has always been great company. He’s an odd and welcome mixture of sincerity and hipness. I mean, how often do you see those things together?
He’s still a great friend.
We’d go to the Angler Bar, seats Kerouac and Burroughs and Ginsberg had warmed for us, or watch great films--they don’t show movies in NY. There was jazz in the parks, Dave Van Ronk at the Village, the museum of art—they had a painting of William Blake’s, or was it a painted engraving?
A wonderful place, filled like everywhere with the Spirit of the One who holds it all together.
After I’d finally managed to get my 10-year b.a. degree—tectonic fault lines fused, the Indians finished in the first division--I found work with my brother-in-law in Denver, construction. Goon work mostly, but it was nice and physical: moving holes, jack-hammering basements, talking Jimmy Morrison and the doors of perception with my acid cousin who was also on the crew.
It was all John Denver’s fault. Great high country--he was right: blue, dry, Kerouac’s west. And the people were fun.
I was the only real Christian on the crew, or nearly so, since two of the guys (cousin included) were born of college Jesuits: Regis University. But as ever I had no way to meet orthodox women.
There were no convents to hang outside of—to wait for faithful women to get the boot.
I’ve always regretted that fact that Madonna House does not have a Third Order! The larger church was so new age-y back then in the early 80s. That was before EWTN made itself felt. And while I’ll freely admit the Beat part of me can get put off from their old Europe shtick, I’m happy too that they have had a great and lasting effect on Catholicism in this country! Before they hit their stride, it was hard to get to a good Mass in a big city without hearing something offensive.
Since then, it’s been easier, more common to get a faithful priest.
That is not a coincidence.
But even when the mass was badly celebrated—and it wasn’t always--Mass was Mass and fed me in front of those mountains. And in between beers and learning how to drink Scotch with my cousin—one of the Regis guys—I had the good fortune of meeting a nice slightly older woman, living something of the life out there: white water rafting, flea markets, bad jazz, The Grateful Dead, “Amie, what you gonna do . . .,” film societies, Leadville bars, beer, backyard/poolside construction barbeques, cool and dry mountain summer nights.
Life, when it wasn’t too hard, was good.
I tried to make a life for myself, but I had my baggage to carry. All the answers my family hadn’t provided, the jag in my step. And there were new stickers on the suitcases by now as well. I’d spent several intervals in Steubenville, and so that place followed me thence, in the specter of my ex-fiancée who’d fled the University for Puerto Rico. (She would later join the army.)
I still felt like I loved her, but it was clear too that neither one of us were stable enough to make anything work. We’d kept meeting on our way to Mass at the University. It was almost as if God had brought us together--repeatedly. All I had to give her, though, in the end was nothing; and she, an ex-lesbian, didn’t have much more at her disposal.
I tried to coax her out west, where the work was demanding, the rewards maybe good. We could start a real life together, or so my line of thinking went. My brother-in-law had made overtures: I could take more of a leadership role in his company.
It wouldn’t have worked, though, as I certainly would’ve waned in the business world. So maybe she was a smart woman to go the road she went.
Given my present life, I’d say so. But it certainly didn’t feel like a good thing then.
Eventually, as I worked through what felt like the shards of a life, I met the slightly older woman mentioned above. She lived right next to my cousin’s and my apartment building on 25th off Federal. She was a liberal, with a good and sensitive squishy liberal heart, could empathize with God, and that (plus her look) made her very likeable. We had a lot of good times together. But in the end I wasn’t ready to settle for less than everything. I had way too much jump in my legs—couldn’t stay until I met a Catholic woman gifted enough to block the sun, until God put up a wall, would make me stay rooted, serve.
Personally I was still treading water, badly, even as a believer. It was clear to me that I could not live like a monk without a monastery I didn’t want—and I was not made to be a blue-collar laborer. Christ was (and is, of course) risen, offered His presence, but I needed more: a physical life. I needed the intellectual energy of other people.
I had no choice but to go back to school. There were graduate writing schools everywhere. Maybe I could get famous in one of them, teach if I had to. (There were plenty of faithful Christians, after all, and not many poets to answer that need.)
As I looked around back then, Boulder seemed a bit much: terminally hip in some way. I would
have to try the Fort, got pre-emptive, applied and went up to meet a few of the profs. Pompous in the extreme, I told the fiction teacher, Wayne Coyote, that since I’d published my first book with Cleveland State several years before, what I really needed next was directions to Norton.
He was offended by me. (Go figure.)
But the other guy I met proved more kindred: Loy Banks. He was not a full-time contributing member of the program, but liked to write, edited a little magazine. And he was a Christian, a gentle and encouraging Protestant. I wish I had kept up with him, but for some reason I didn’t. (I hope that lapse had nothing to do with my new-found status as a writing program student.)
We should all spend our lives on our faces--before our coffins, begging for humility.
Where the Mountains Made Us
Colorado State turned out to be fun, but trying, like everything I suppose. Miriam Bluebird, one of my teachers, earned grant money, publication by translating South and Central American women’s poetry. I enjoyed her classroom dips into Surrealism, starting with the French: Lautreamont, Jarry, Breton, moving through Vallejo, Neruda, Mistral, Paz, Parra, Asturias, others.
(I’ve met Christian academics who dismiss Neruda—I think because he was a pink-o. But I’ve never met a poet who didn’t like him.)
Our other teacher was Bull Ranchero, a larger than life character who’d studied at U. Mass. He loved Bly, deep image stuff, Basho, good 80s poets: Levine, Rich, Hugo, Williams, Dubie. At the time, in fact, all those poets seemed extraordinary, most of them anyway. The funny thing is, though, all that changed for me twenty some years later when I went back to some of those same poets for a class I was teaching. The second time around so much of their poetry just seemed dated.
It was like reading Longfellow or any of his three-named buddies around the Fireside. A kind of good old boy (and girl) club—with pretty much that same sensibility, or one those DWMs would easily recognize: secularized white-bread. And while I guess I had always known this to be so as far as vision went, what really amazed me was that is was also very true on a technical level.
I made the discovery while foraging around for a Poetic Forms text. I settled on Dacey’s STRONG MEASURES. A nice book, but the poetry inside was just, as my students might say, so 80s!
I was taken aback; I mean who ever heard of such a thing. What makes great poetry great, after all, is that it does not become dated.
But there it was.
What’s here today will more than likely be nowhere tomorrow. And while I guess we all knew and know that, still, to see it up close can be really freeing, especially if Harold Bloom hasn’t discovered you yet. It’s like Mary Karr’s said about the 50s cheese, Robert Lowell--who reads him today?
Anyway, that’s made me rethink writing programs, see them more than ever as merely starting points.
One of the good students poets whom I met when I was at Colorado State, James Falcon, told me a story which nicely illustrates the problem. He got to know a woman poet who was teaching at Iowa, let’s call her Sandra, and she encouraged him to apply. But when he did a year or two later, she looked at his work, profoundly disappointed: “Oh, we’re not doing that anymore.”
Who the heck was/is “we”? (E. Boland’s “company of poets?”)
So even though I went through two programs (one twice), I just don’t recommend them strongly to anyone anymore, unless the student insists, has the wherewithal and ability to separate the wheat from the suffocating deluge of PC content chaff.
Ranchero was a good guy, if a little heavy on solipsism. He could look at you like God: with lots of love and acceptance, though I was not a favorite, maybe because we got off on the wrong foot. I did my first paper excoriating Charles Olson for his blowfish ego.
Turns out teacher had studied with him. (It’s why I talk the way I do, foot in mouth.)
Probably the three best student poets during my time there were, along with Falcon--a deep-image guy who said he had to separate himself from “clock-time” to write; George the Greek, a hale fellow who went for a kind of deep-image Buddhist poetry; Bill Rhine, who raised being a smart ass into art--surprise, he was my favorite; and lastly Bam Bradley, who has since been drawn to the Church. All still are nice poets, and good folks, too, but the place itself, like so much on the front range suffered from terminal hipness.
The place seemed too aware of its mountainous surroundings. One of the women in the program, for example, was in Ripley’s BELIEVE IT OR NOT for having caught the largest swordfish on record. She became a type for the new woman; another, a really bad writer, lets call her Babs, managed to get tons of state grant money just because she was a militant lesbian. “Take back the night” was her spiel. She used to say that women should never allow themselves to be alone with men on elevators--even if they had to walk up 80 flights. In one of her plays, she actually had a scene where a woman in a car at a railroad crossing is surrounded by sixteen men who are trying to break into her vehicle, rape her. The driver finally has no choice but to ram into the passing train.
The staging would have been interesting.
But what really got me was the fact that it was all men’s violent fault—whatever was at issue. She was for pure segregation.
Then one day, she showed up at workshop with a black eye.
Turned out her lesbian lover had punched her.
No one else thought it was funny. They were all pretty squishy, though, no doubt had a heart for her pain. (That violence had probably initially come from men anyway.)
There’s a great quote of St. Therese’s: “Never allow your kindness descend into weakness.” Though we love lesbians (never feigning to be one), gay people (though given the media’s refusal to call us “pro-life,” I sometimes think we should call them “sorrowing people”: thou attesteth too much), and abortionists (and all loving and folksy Radcliff-type banjo-playing social engineers: the soft tyrants), we can’t compromise when it comes to the Truth.
JP II once said that the end of secular humanism is totalitarianism.
We would become like them if we were to capitulate: RAINBOW FISH, swimming among the shoals of relativism! If you’ve ever read that kid’s book, it really sums up the hard left. The gifted fish denies his talents because he doesn’t want anyone else to feel bad. That’s what the Marxist feminists in politics are up to, I think. They want America to neurotically deny, abase itself. Then she won’t abuse anyone ever again! We will be as poor as everyone.
But America is a gift to the world, as much as the runners from Kenya or the pot heads from Colombia.
And while I have to doubt that Jesus wants the Bush rich to share much more generously than they have up to this point--something more than a trickle--that must come out of grateful hearts, not out of big-brother strong-arm death-culture tactics: Lewis’ “bent nails”-men with all the right ideas!
I was, no surprise, way out of step with the comp powers that still are--there--and so I had no hope of securing a TA. (Or maybe they were perspicacious enough tell that I wasn’t ready, or both.) In either of those three cases, I had to find work, which included driving taxi, working 3rd shift at a developmental-challenged facility, and reading literary works into a tape recorder for a blind Saudi English literature student. (I was amazed, driving cab, at how often new Mid-Eastern Moslem students immediately wanted to stop at the porno shop--though I had and have my own sins, many no doubt greater than theirs.) The last job was pretty weird. Imagine trying to read Beckett’s WATT into a tape recorder. Would anyone know or care where I stopped?
So I did.
Cab driving was nicely fluid. You never knew what the day would bring. It was a natural in many ways. I could be alone but outside, could kick back in the fine Colorado weather and meet all kinds of new people in the process, serve. Many of the rides were keepies. The “pickle man” was this short likeable little Mexican guy who’d worked in a pickle factory for forty years. He couldn’t speak a word of English, lived in a run down shack on the north side of town. We couldn’t understand each other’s language--but smiles while I helped him carry in groceries went a long way! Another regular was Lillian, who used to ask for me. She was an older women who liked to go to bars, talk with everyone. Like most elderly folks, she didn’t tip much.
I did meet one guy once who said he’d come into Remington money. He offered to buy me a car on the spot. To this day I don’t know why said no.
I must confess I had one terrible and spiritually troubling experience at the Developmental Center where, for some reason that only God knows, I fell victim to abuse. The people all seemed nice enough, and so I had no way to see the thing coming.
One night I’d come in for my third shift to a half-staffed environment. Two women and 32 residents. The women were toast. And in one of the rooms, an old lady, who had a reputation for self-abuse, was in the process of yelling, beating herself up with her fists, nobody doing anything. As I said, the women were completely spent, so I couldn’t really blame them.
Since I was fresher, I went into the room, and sure enough, the old woman was hitting herself in the face, yelling, carrying on. I had to try and calm her, stop her; so I gently grabbed her wrists as I spoke, trying to shift her attention from herself. It didn’t really work. She started snapping at my hands; so the next thing I had to do was, as calmly as I could manage, roll her jaw to the side with my the bottom of my forearm, apply some pressure to her cheek, still trying to talk her down.
That worked for a bit, but she started up again before I left the room. As a result I had to try again, clasped her wrists a second time, kept talking. She pulled her hands close to her throat. I thought she might try to bite me again, but she didn’t. Still, he was so caught up in her own psycho-drama that I had to distract her. In an attempt to do so, I applied a little, quick pressure high on her chest, still holding her hands. (Something like a shock might do, but not too hard.)
That quick pressure made her grunt a little. It worked! She calmed, and I got on with my third shift business.
It probably sounded like I’d hit her, which I did not do. There was no distance between my hand and her chest. In any case I thought that was the end of it, but when I got to work the next day, a sorrowing woman superior—a nice lady—asked me to follow her out the front door where we sat on the stone steps. I was shocked by the accusation and complained vigorously to the owner who wanted to speak to me over the phone.
He finally settled things by telling me they’d have to let me go for not having washed the wheel
chairs at night---I was probably busy reading literary texts into a tape recorder!
Either that or watching Jimmy Swaggert.
I was a little lazy.
What really got me, though, were the two second shift women workers. One was an Protestant evangelical I’d spent some unsuccessful time trysting after (I wasn’t sunny enough—granted) and the other, who ran the shift, was a secular woman who was frankly put off that I hadn’t made a pass at her. (I’d run into that before from female superiors--as many men do.)
Why had God allowed this, I wondered?
I felt shamed, abused.
He has control over everything, doesn’t He? So what was up?
I have no idea.
Colorado State, being a front range-y place, was in the large, as I say, a habitat for habitual hipness: giant Andy Warhol-signed Tomato Soup Cans graced the lawn by the art building, my roomie played keyboards to Falcon’s poetry in performance, Ranchero did an elaborate reading at the town arts center which included a giant slide show of his trip to NYC behind him as he did Tai Chi and read poems.
But as I say there were keepies there too: Rita, a lovely Quaker woman who died in her second year, away in Africa on a humanitarian trip: motorcycle. And there was Kim, the painter. I really messed that “relationship” up—big time. But there was another profound disappointment as well.
In that second instance, I was sitting in my basement apartment bedroom on Overland Trail, my housemate in the next room. And as I was reading or writing, I don’t remember which, for no apparent reason, the Holy Spirit simply just overpowered me—like He had at the Milosz reading. For some reason, it became absolutely clear to me that Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg were driving up on 25 from Boulder, Naropa probably, to see me. (I’d long been a fan of the former and had some respect for the latter for the good he’d done the language in HOWL.)
The Spirit was powerful, and I had no doubts at all about it.
They were coming.
At first I prayed for humility. I mean these guys were largely responsible for my being where I was. I’d been a big Dylan fan for about fifteen years, though I admit that some of his lyrics can be self-serving. But I was and am okay with that; everyone is flawed.
However, as the time grew closer and closer, the certainty of the whole thing strongly upon me, I finally decided that I just would not be able to handle the visit. (I might come apart—acid flashback nerves.) So I earnestly begged God to send them away.
He finally did, and—drat—there went my opportunity to meet them!
So Bob, if you’re out there and are ever in the neighborhood, come on over. We can have a beer, talk it over. The Ginsberg side of it will have to wait a little longer: he’s moved on!
Things like this happen every once in awhile to every Christian, I’d bet on it. Though for me, as I’ve gotten older, revelations usually happen now in dream form—though that’s always been a rich subconscious field: Merton came to me twice, once in answer to the how-to-be-a-man question—that was at the Studite monastery where I first stayed back in Steubenville.
He just looked at me, his expression bringing one of his quips to mind. Be yourself, after all, “you have very little chance in being anyone else.” I saw Catherine Doherty, my spiritual director, a few others; so at one point I was feeling pretty cocky.
Whom else did I want to see?
Now that would be cool.
So I prayed, asked, and he did come the next night, briefly--but he was p.o.ed. He had better things to do!
Years later, when I was grading freshman papers on Ridge Rd. in Steubenville--it was the weirdest thing--the sprit of Milton just walked into my room; literally walked in. How did I know it was Milton? How did I know he was walking? I have no idea, but I did. Different people perceive differently; something a student said in class to me a few years ago relays that fact. He was a pre-theologate kind of guy, was taking philosophy and creative writing; he claimed that the difference between the two is that the philosopher establishes steps and reasons his way through to come up with answers that the poet just somehow “gets.”
That can make poets and artists seem left-handed. Mystical, and I think it must be so; but I love talking to the philosophers at school (not to be confused with actually taking any of those courses). The ones I know are extraordinary people, and they speak in completely polished paragraphs. I mean who does that? The prose as it comes out is lacquered, a rich mahogany.
Richard Wilbur once said that poets are just people who have a certain anxiety about being verbally adequate to the world. I like that! A good paragraph takes me a long time to get right, or at least good enough.
On Ridge Ave., after Uncle Miltie made his stop I went into the kitchen to tell my wife about it. But what the heck do you do with that? Milton was a great Arian genius, and loved Jesus, but I still don’t know what to make of that: a great Protestant dropping in to say hey--especially since our processes and gifts are so different.
Maybe that’s why.
A purgatorial Yeats once appeared to me in a dream as well. I just saw the top of his head, and it was dark, but I knew it was him. My spiritual director agreed, was fine with me praying for him for two years in daily adoration. And what a poet! He has become the master for me. (Many poets say you need one.) Yeats has a sacramental sense second to none—probably because he was trying to invent Irish culture: a mixture of Protestant good breeding and the fine dark spiritual humus of Catholicism.
The deep Catholic sacramental sense seems alien to America: none of our great poets seem to have it, except maybe late Wallace Stevens, Dickinson, some Frost. Janet McCann once gave me the copy of a letter by the St. Bridget priest who’d baptized Wally, recounting how as he was dying of stomach cancer he finally said, “Well, I guess it’s time to get me into the fold.”
I once did a course on Stevens and Williams, and I found I could actually trace Wally’s movement toward the Church in his poetry--though I wish I had kept a journal.
At any rate, no summer is now complete for me without a nice and casual reading of Yeats.
But other saints have visited too. Of course our Lord Jesus and his mother, St. Therese; and St. Francis once walked into a room while I was praying with Susan and Sr. Helen. But the real surprise recently was St. Anthony, who walked right past me once while I was in prayer recently in adoration.
How did I know it was him? My eyes were closed. Again, no idea. But he had a great evangelical zeal, purity. But the thing that surprised me was that he felt hirsute!
Jesus is so wonderfully wacky sometimes.
Other things have happened, as, again, I’m sure they do to most Christians; though the Church, in her inspired wisdom, often reminds us that the subjective stuff doesn’t matter: dreams or Garabandal.
My dear priest friend, from Madonna House, their Director of Priests, Fr. David May, once said to me that he just didn’t care about any of that stuff because it doesn’t matter. You still have to live today and love.
A great response.
Fr. David, as I said earlier, spent so much time in the woods with St. Francis that he could tell you which sound the robin was making. “Now listen, another call always comes!”
In my poems, flora is either “trees” or “flowers”; I’ve never learned to distinguish, though my love has always been deep. When I was a little boy, my parents were worried for awhile because I talked to trees, in earnest. (I’d hug them, long before that became a political statement. . . . Of course I also once walked into the corner of a garage too.)
But the Dylan thing does bug me upon occasion. That, along with missing the candlelight processional hymns at Lourdes, are among my biggest neurotic mistakes.
The first experience at Colorado State, though, was even more unhappy: my biggest romantic screw-up--with Kim, the painter. She was much younger than I, actually sat on the floor next to me before the first day in our “Surrealism in Art and Literature” class because she’d decided she wanted to meet me. I asked her not to do that, and so she sat in an actual chair; we had some “coffee” later. She was a lovely young Jewish woman from Chicago, and we got on great, became closer than we should have. The good part was that it was great to have someone with that kind of openness, artistic sensibility close by.
But when she had a showing of her work, I said I’d go and didn’t—maybe because of the almost “event” status it took on. But the fact was I both absolutely humiliated her in public and walked on her artistic efforts, my chance to see her soul for no good reason. (We had been something of an item, between departments.)
She ended the us of it, and who could blame her?
But the Lord in His anger went further.
For the remaining time there at CSU and for the whole time at BGSU, I never again managed another relationship. (Though it is an equally amazing fact that I ever managed one before as well.)
Anyway, she was a lovely woman, and I repent for the damage.
There is so much to repent for in life, and later, when I started actually begging for
humility--which I’ve never really gotten, at least to the extent that it provided its first fruits: obedience (St. Benedict))--I was graced with a few dreamland “moments of conscience.” At first I was sickened by what I saw: the layered pustules on my warped soul, no clean breathing space anywhere.
As the hours passed after each of these first episodes, though—there were two--I slowly began to see the dreams for the blessing they were. It’s a GREAT mercy to know who you are, however vile, and so to know your immense need for Jesus.
May I learn humility, true repentance, and obedience, and simplicity, and wisdom, and purity. As I always tell my students: our need for mercy is not small.
There were good times in Ft. Collins, left-handed arm wrestling and folk music at Linden’s. And there was prodigious Ron. A non-program Husker Du bowler and writer, with a gift for mockery, rant—at the program and Marvin Bell mostly. (Something the former, at least, deserved.) The guy was a real Whitmaniac, a worthy Poundian friend to be had in the hoisting: 12 oz. curls. In a past life he had run a mountain newspaper, would later turned to nursing; though he has settled down, now has three kids.
Most female pals, as I say, went the way of all flesh back then, on a bus I’d learned to recognize early in Ft. Collins: the “You swine who would persecute women by owning their uteruses!” cruiser.
Oh hepness, here is thy sting.
It’s always amazed me. I’d be having a light lunch with a nice woman and the conversation would be going well—until it came up: abortion. But our different reactions made so little sense. For me, it was the taking of an innocent life, whatever the knowledge factor on the part of the beleaguered mother. It was a grotesque brutality. But for my short-lived companion—the “sin” had to do with denying someone her “rights.” On any scale, a right-thinking person would agree that the first sin is much greater.
But you would’ve never guessed that by the responses. On more than one occasion, the woman in question just got up and left the table.
Truth does that to people.
My wife Linda came up with a jewel of a response just recently after we’d seen the Obama circus masquerading as a press conference on tv. He said he wanted to compromise or find common ground with pro-lifers on the issue.
“Yeah, we could just reach in and hurt them. Maybe give them a good pinch.”
Great wit—and rage!
Those poor innocent babies--their only sin is that they are alive. We need to make sure that they stay in the discussion. They have no voices yet.
Colorado State was tough in many ways. I was the only Christian in the MA Creative Writing program. One fellow student once actually asked me: “Now let me get this straight. You believe in an anthropomorphic God?”
“Why yes, I do. . . . He had teeth, and armpits, everything” (though I didn’t say the part after the ellipsis).
Feminism, first generation, was still big then, so Jesus as you might imagine, was public enemy number two, just behind God the Father. It all got to be a little too much. As all liberals tend to do, my peers couldn’t help but over-simplify. To them I was Jim or Tammy Bay Fakker, which got to be extremely irritating—tiresome really.
My dissertation—TOWARD A CATHOLIC VISION IN COMTEMPORARY POETRY—takes a close look at how both secular critics and secular poets fall into the Puritan perspective they claim to hate. They’re always dismissing Christianity without understanding it. For them either one is among the damned: religious Puritans, or among the elect: secular Puritans like themselves.
But there is the older orthodox alternative, one which sacramentally embraces the good, disordered world.
It just got to be so old: my peers’ Mickey Mouse categorizations. Finally I suggested that we all go up in the mountains and do some peyote.
They bit. 1984--my last drug trip.
(I add that just in case any future President or VP of Academics reads this. Four years before I got on to FUS . . . if you’re counting.)
Actually, parts of the trip were kind of pleasant because I prayed continuously for all 12 hours, though I certainly would not recommend it to anyone. I still had to come down, and that is always horrible physically. A Jewish buddy of mine years before used to sport a button: “Drugs are for sick people.” Of course I had some fun razzing him about that: self-advertisement.
But I was no stranger to that road either.
Though I’ve done more than my share, I would certainly be mortified were my children to do drugs of any sort. Something has to be very wrong for a person to indulge there—personally or with his world. Things have to be so unbearable that he needs to negate himself or it, to get permanently away.
It is gift, this world: fallen, yes, but good; and we all have work to do.
Most of the program people there were nice, if in an alarmingly liberal kind of way. Big hearts, but not much sense, and no inclination to think anything through, to make life cohere. They just knew what they were against: them Christian fundamentalists—most from the South, and those storied Papists.
My undergrad mentor, now in the beyond, was pretty much the same way.
All the folks in Colorado weren’t like that, of course. I saw that driving cab: I met all kinds of people there. My next door neighbor, second year, was in some ways more typical of the town folk. She was a bit more conservative, open to Jesus, but like so many limping through our culture, she was quite wounded as well.
God, for his own reasons, moved her to turn this way.
The closest I got to teaching at the second CSU was to serve as an intern in Ranchero’s Creative Writing class. Probably profound good sense on the comp dept’s part. So I drove cab, read and wrote. Dylan Thomas would be my major figure.
I once picked up a real-life Mensa guy in my cab. (He was sure to let me know.) A young guy, a computer whiz; very taken with himself—and who wouldn’t be? But as we talked it became apparent that he’d missed all the important questions, so I did him effective service.
That was always the nice thing about driving cab. You could talk about anything because you’d probably never see the person again. But for me, at that time, things were relatively simple, at least as far as poetry went. I was still so happy just to know joy, wanted to express that.
Surrealism, as I mentioned earlier, helped there.
Joy, light, matters so much, though sometimes it can be confused with shallowness in poetry. Bob Lietz, whom I would meet at Bowling Green, claimed as much, finally pointing me in the direction of faithful depth, a more oblique darkness.
So it wasn’t long before I wrote my Therese poems, with an eye on delivering that. (See MARY’S HOUSE.)
But if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s not to apologize—to anyone!
And don’t kiss better-known butt.
And never run with scissors.