Here's the second half. Any comments, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
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 names 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, at best, 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 got around to doing so a year or two later, she looked at his work, felt 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 like chaw 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, whose goal seemed to be to raise 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 (Lewis’s ‘bent nails’) strong-arm death-culture tactics.
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 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 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 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 (written much later)—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, Linda and my poetic mother, 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.
’84-’86 & ‘96
The folks in Bowling Green’s program turned out to be more down home than they had been at Colorado State, more quietly Christian when they were so; maybe because the place had no reason to pose--at least geographically. The area was flat, had been a bog. But that situation worked out better for me, maybe because I was an older student and the folks I would hang out with where older too. There was my mentor, Howard McCord—an ex-Catholic Worker guy, a 50s something student named Carl Thayler, a substitute prof and Catholic, Bob Lietz, and a poet husband of a women who taught Finance: the (since) reputable Bob Cooperman. The two students who meant the most to me there were Mo Kilwein (since even more reputable—he added Geuvara) and Alan Johnson, though Vanessa Furse (Jackson—now in the lights as well) was friendly, has been since. Everybody was fun, at least at acceptable turns.
Howard McCord has turned out to be a valued mentor and friend. Rumor had it that he’d been with the CIA in Burma in the early 60s, and the place and time were listed in his bio. Who knew? Like Carl, he was delightfully intransigent: a gun-toting libertarian; he once told me a story of how he had to pull an eight inch knife out of his sock to protect his wife and friends at a biker bar—though Harley guys seem to really like him.
He’s an Objectivist, after Enslin, Dorn, Zukovsky, Oppen, Rakosi, Neidecker, Davenport, Kelley, Shapiro, Williams, Spicer, W. S. Graham, those kind o’ guys, though it took me awhile to find that out. I think one of the real great things about Howard is that he has always been quiet enough to really listen, absorb.
He’s walked Iceland, Mexico, his west Texas, has quietly stood on ground no one else in the programs I’ve been privy to seemed to: his own. I’ve always called him Rabbi—mostly because in one photo he looks like a cross between Jeb Stuart and a Hassid.
His mind is almost military in its precision, but there’s a grace to him as well.
Dead Carl is gone, wasn’t always. (I just saw MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND again.) Carl was a genuine piece of work, a unique and valued friend. We disliked each other intensely when we first met as we both struggled with arrogance, neither successfully.
We’d both come to be validated, after all, not to learn--like the occasional present-day student—though he certainly had more claim to position than I did.
An Objectivist himself, he was a good poet, had lived an amazing life. He’d actually played Robert Ford in the Robert Wagner movie about Jesse James. He’d had fights on set with Barbara Stanwyck—I don’t remember the project; he’d actually gone out with Loretta Young for awhile.
I was in love with her when I was a kid.
She was lovely Catholic, had her own show, around the time of QUEEN FOR A DAY and THE MILLIONAIRE, when tv was . . . what?
Carl also grew up next to Carlos Casteneda in California, knew James Dean in NYC! (How cool was that!) And he wasn’t making any of this up. In fact a recently graduated women actually put together a Carl Thayler film festival over her house out in the bluegrass country.
Carl was fun. He loathed feminists--and so they kept him from a part-time teaching post after he’d graduated. He later got into trouble in Madison over his attitudes and was made to do some actual PC jail rehabilitation time. (How long before the rest of us get lassoed into that pen?) Or they’d tried to get him to do that. I don’t remember the whole story, though that was where he died, still maligning poets like Sharon Olds.
It was typical Carl in some way. I mean what libertarian conservative gun-toting poet would choose to live in Madison, Wisconsin? Maybe Mass. was full up. Perhaps the location allowed him proximity to his daughter; again, the details are fuzzy. At any rate we took some great walks around the campus, him stopping to pop his glycerin tablets as he’d just had a quadruple bypass.
He seemed to like some of my work at least, so we were good.
The woman who’d put on the Thayler film festival was interesting in her way too; went on to teach at Findlay. She told me just after I’d arrived that she had to meet me because my GRE analogy scores were off the charts. (I had prayed, asked Jesus to bless the results.) She was disappointed finally, as many are. But though I can’t blame her, I’m always amazed at how others see me. I suppose we all are. Just this last semester I had one student inform me that TITUS ANDRONICUS was a play by Shakespeare; another was kind enough to gloss “flotsam” in a paper.
My “Drugs are for sick people” Jewish Iowa Writer’s Workshop friend back at Cleveland State once told me that people never thought I was as smart as I am because I don’t take pains to sound that way.
This subject keeps coming up is because it has always seemed to me that much of my own denomination’s constrictively hyper-conservative world has somehow, in the words of Robert Frost, tried to disallow me. I should not have been born. They like their poets to be old money, Europe. Great books. I run into that a lot.
The bunker mentality prevails among so many Catholics. You can see it in what passes for their journals, and they need their poetry to be the same. But he who is free is free indeed.
How can any joyful Christian be afraid of literature?
But so many of them seem to be, and that’s why they lavish such inordinate praise on the wrong people (for the wrong things). Take Chesterton--please. Kidding! He’s great at what he does well: a Catholic Lewis, an apologist, he’s a pretty good fiction writer, too, at least by all accounts. But neither he nor Lewis (who mostly serves as satirist) is much of a poet.
Good poetry always offers something new; it asks questions, doesn’t just provide answers. (I’m going to try and get that passed out nationally during Confirmations.)
New forms will always happen, and that’s a good, as is the fact that those will never replace the old—at least what’s lasting. As Tolkein says through Gandolf: “The old that is strong does not wither, /Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
Let Jesus’s name be lifted up, as faithfully as Crashaw managed to do it. (I don’t know if he’s in Eliot’s room, but I do think that his “Hymn to the Venerable St. Theresa” is the best mystical poem in our language.)
Do contemporary Catholic poets do the same? Many of them seem so tepid in their faith. Is
that because they need to keep in touch with the truly transitory: the literary world as it currently offers expression--and publication?
Fr. Flanagan (SOLT) says always assume the best: even if you have to swallow your tongue to do so.
Let us pause for a moment of auu-ggg-uug.
At any rate, I had a great time drinking imported beers, eating pizza, and playing basketball at BGSU with our one-year replacement for Michael Mott (who’d written a bio. of Merton), Bob Lietz. Bob Cooperman was a big b-ball fan and player, too (plus he was actually shorter than I), as was Alan Johnson, a taller young student from North Carolina.
Alan’s big goal was to dress up like a big time rassler—and he was big—to stand up on his desk and teach his Freshman Comp students, all in a southern fundamentalist preacherly voice.
He once relayed this story about his grandma. She’d never quite gotten the hang of seeing so many black people on tv. Her attendant complaint was that though she’d started off calling those neighbors “colored people,” she always had to be changing. Next it was “Afro-American,” then “Black,” and then “People of Color.”
Heck, she said, that was what she started with!
Lietz is still a big Syracuse bb (do-wap) guy; he writes like Stevens, beautifully, though it’s sometimes hard to latch on to. We’ve had our ups and downs—usually my fault—but I still count him as friend.
But, alas, there were no Christian dames with which to have commerce. (One mustn’t end with a preposition. As Churchill said: “That is a proposition up with which I shall not put.”) Newman Centers were notoriously PC everywhere, still are as far as I can tell.
The odd thing about non-religious folks, like Cooperman and McCord, Mo, is that I’ve found they can often make better companions than conservative Catholics. You can loosen up, have a real beer with them because they’re not busy protecting some narrow turf or trying to project a “saved/respectable” demeanor, even if they don’t buy the first part (or the first round).
First time through, I couldn’t get a TA at BG either, and so I had to find other work. The strange thing about that was, I had to leave after one semester because of money problems. And so when I’d straightened that out and came back a year later, they offered me a more prestigious teaching fellowship--TF.
After all, I already had an MA!
(“Go on, take the money and run.”)
The first time around, though, as I say I had to find work: did so watching old folks, third shift. The weird thing about the experience is, again, the humiliating hassles at work. In this town I would be counted a Catholic thief—an old Christian woman found out my “Whore of Babylon” faith and so constructed some kind of likely scenario.
I’m no paragon of virtue, but did we really have to go there?
Guess I can never run for President.
I wrote a poem about the experience, eventually coming to an ending which expressed a new observation. If you read a lot of first person postmodern poetry what you inevitably find is that the speaker is subtly recommending him or herself: “I really a pretty nice guy.” So I’ve tried very hard to move away from that.
In Catholic poetry I call it the “tie it up with a Catholic ribbon” happy ending. Robert Cording’s AGAINST CONSOLATION helped there. Catherine Sasanov’s work even more so. She kind of reminds me of O’Connor because she never lets her personae off the hook. The difference is that Catherine’s personae are her.
I left one semester in, as I mentioned, after a sad workshop experience with Mott, who was a stiffly British liberal to my mind (and one who seemed to think he was a very important poet—perhaps he was in his circle). On the other hand, he could be quite kind and would have the whole workshop over his house. Now that I think of it, I think he knew where I came down on the hum-a-sexual “question.” We had a gay (or “sorrowing”) man named Ken in the program--though I got along just fine with him. Critically, Ken was the most acute guy in the class, at least if you cut him off after a few minutes. If you didn’t he’d soon begin to equivocate--until you were left with very little!
My only difficulty with Ken, in fact, was that he seemed to feel so guilty over being alive: AIDS was big, always fatal then. On some level he wanted to catch it. I’m not sure, but I think I heard later that he did contract and die of the disease. It’s seemed a waste, inverted heroism to chase it down like that.
God rest his soul.
Anyway, I’d only had money enough for one credit hour of Mott’s workshop—nice enough of him to let me in. But he wouldn’t let me talk much as I had only paid a third! It was like I had to time myself or something.
Anyway, my orthodox Christianity, I think, seemed to put him off--kind of weird for a guy who’d just done a Merton bio. (Though come to think of it, most literary people don’t really seem to get Tommy. Fr. Louis loved and worshipped the Eucharist: our Lord and absolute God; he understood that sin was more than crossing a PC line in the sand.)
I didn’t leave much behind.
I hitched back to Ft. Collins late in the fall, arrived there after a time in Denver with two bucks in my pocket. As always, it was just me and Jesus. So I told Him it looked like either I’d get a third shift cab job and a place to flop on the Ft. Collins Yellow Cab office couch—showers at the community center in the mornings, or I’d have to hitch on up into the mountains, get to whatever He had waiting for me next.
John, the owner, liked me as a driver, so mercifully I got the flop.
There’s work to be done for all of us—mostly on us.
All in all, much of my time in BG was fun, but dark: lonely too. I lived in a kind of spiritual night, with just my sinful soul for fruitful company; no place to go except to Jesus, the Eucharist, to St. Aloysius parish for Mass and Confession.
I lived in a one room place, the smallest room in a big old house. A nice local MFA woman, Susan Saywer, once told me that the place had long been known as a “get your shit together house.” Nice to know I was keeping up the tradition! But the smallness, the darkness served me well. It’s who we are, a metaphor for our skin, with all the attendant temptations.
My situation, as I say, was complicated by a gorgeous slattern who lived across the hall.
I never partook.
Wish I could say chastity was my guide back then, but I felt mostly frustrated in my half-home condition.
God is patient.
My best friend at BG, student-wise, was Mo Kilwein, a guy who later added Guevara to Hispanize his name, turned from fiction to poetry, and went on to become the President of the Association of Writing Programs. He was from Pittsburgh, me Cleveland, so a friendship was inevitable. Like most writers he was well into his own direction, great to drink beer with. He liked to talk Kafka, listen for accents behind us while we ate at diner booths--which didn’t say much for the elan vital of my conversation.
I remember when he got married the first time; his wife left the ceremony in a different car. I saw him waiting, forlornly for a ride in a Pittsburgh-area parking lot. Not a happy symbol.
His next wedding went much better, was a new age-y kind of thing in a park in Milwaukee. But Janet, his second wife, was certainly worth the wait. The value of revision! He got it right--even though she gave him the questionable title for one of his (successful) books of poetry: POEMS OF THE RIVER SPIRIT.
I was riding with the two of them in the back of their van, asked him about it, the title from hell.
Janet said: “Hey, I came up with that!”
Some quick verbal tap dancing helped me to dodge the fatal bullet, but I think the good will that still remains between our families is mostly due to her generosity.
Mo was fun to carouse with at BG. He was no longer Catholic—though his mom loved St. Francis. A solid friend, still is, despite that awfully convenient “success” thing.
The Catholic Capitol
I’ve tried mightily to get out of Steubenville, often, tried to get back up to Linda’s and my home place: Cleveland. (The need to leave has been so intense in fact that once we even tried for a job up near Fargo.) Universities, junior colleges, a high school, all in Cleveland. No soap. I actually contemplated driving taxi again, just so I could smell the lake, talk Tribe with old bar buds, play bb ball with grade school, college friends. But Jesus wants me here, and it has been a singular grace, a blessing which has made me grow--quite against my will--in a hundred ways. If I get to heaven, and I have every hope that I eventually will, it’ll largely be due to both the students and my gracious Christian colleagues at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. (My wife, of course, is doing the yeo-woman’s work there.) Elsewhere, I surely would’ve reverted to cafeteria religion, excess drink, to some form of “creative” self-destruction.
I caught my initial glimpse of Steubenville while up at Madonna House during my first stay there, late ’75, early ’76. We saw an old 8 mm job on the Charismatic conferences. I was moved, and having just been baptized in the Holy Spirit myself and gotten the go-ahead from my spiritual director, I decided to go there and complete my education. (Ha!)
So after what would be the first of my biannual two month stays in Canada, I went back to Cleveland, found a job, saved what money I could. Then it was the old duffle-bag-off-a-Greyhound routine, but this time I knocked blind on rectory doors, looking for some Jesus-inspired hospitality.
A nice priest pointed me to a Studite monastery, where the monks took me in--having confused me with some guy who was supposed to be coming, and who never did!
And so there I was, ready to lay in until the spring semester when I’d re-start college. The monks were great, and I almost joined several times. As Merton points out, monks and poets are both marginal men; so I certainly qualified there.
The monastery itself was on North Street, nuns a street over. Fr. George, Brothers Philaret and Andreas. As I say, I got on okay. They could be acerbic, but were generous, interested and interesting.
I would be Didacus were I to take that step.
But I didn’t like all the praying to be honest. It went on for hours. I’ve always been ADHD—like my dear and slightly maniacal daughter!
A Jesuit scholastic in high school asked me once, “You can’t sit still, can you?”
I liked the college initially, needed just 30 hours to graduate. So things looked good. I drove taxi to make ends meet. More crazy and fun folk.
I soon met Susan (late 70s), who regularly got locutions. A really pretty woman, she walked into the monastery printing shop wearing a mink coat. (A weird aside: once I was working on photography/printing there—this was long ago—and got called away. Now I knew I’d printed the first few letters of my name, but when I got back and checked the thing, my whole first name was printed, the last three letters increasingly more faint. I’m sure I hadn’t done the whole thing. So what does that mean?)
Anyway, she was five years slightly older—something that bothered me; we met and were soon spending too much time alone. She had two young girls, so I got my first go at proxy-parenting. Like me she was trying in her way to be faithful, but we weren’t succeeding. And because of that fact, in one of her praying sessions she got an image of God throwing a net over me, leading me away.
Was it legit, this perhaps self-serving prayer?
As it turned out, I’d have to say yes, because too soon the college experience had begun to go south. The profs loved me coming in, but the more papers I wrote, the less they seemed to approve. I think they eventually got on to the fact that while I could initially dazzle linguistically, I was so new to the trade that I didn’t exactly have access to the scholarly theological deposit.
It’s always something.
So soon enough, I was off to Northern California to abbey-sit in Redwood Valley.
It took me forever to get this sex thing right—when I do. (“No,” was the word I was looking for.)
Finally, I would come back here to teach: an answer to a prayer really. While on campus that first time I told Jesus: “If I ever teach, this would be a great place!” (He listens! Or as my wife says, “He’s always interrupting you with the answer.”)
I came back once or twice, and we were always on or off. Finally Susan married some guy ten years younger.
As I began to teach, part time in the late 80s, I found there was always something crazy going on in those days, students on one jag or another. And in a smaller way, it’s still like that, of course. Students get onto some clearer vision, and then we’re all dead.
Sister Helen, who had actually been part of that earlier monastery for a time, had eventually split with them and later began a firehouse back-to-the-land-community-of-one initiative.
During that time I lived behind her in an old abandoned shoe shop, the firehouse art center across the street in front of her. She loved art and prayer, was a dear, though stability was hard for her too. (When I was back at the Studite place on North Street, she used to get me up at 6 to do yoga with her.)
As far as Susan went, she was part of that Sr. Helen thing too for awhile (before the firehouse?), and I guess for a time I kind a loved her—though that’s only a piece to the matrimonial puzzle as anyone over 16 should know!
She did have a deep desert ascetic spirituality. Alien for me, immense.
I was just a frog on a pad in some ways.
There were others as well, later. One woman, a hippy kind of gal, brilliant, eventually married a guy 15 years younger; another, very young, an attractive mall shopper kind of gal went to Ca. where she’s doing the single mother thing.
It’s always been one form of madness or another.
My advice to those considering that leap: always make sure you see the worst of the person. Then, if you can and are willing to sacramentally handle that, say yes, God will work that to move you toward holiness.
The other Steubenville joyful disaster during the early years was Lita, a ex-lesbian woman I actually proposed to—three times. (She accepted each time.) After I’d come back from northern California—or sometime soon after, the Susan thing went into the tank. But God is good, and this other wonderful person showed up, just in time for me to add a little range to the abstract expressionistic mess that was my life.
I had nothing to give really, except a ton of self-hatred; and she had her own problems. “Every woman adores a fascist.” She in some way wanted me to put her rudely in her place. Too weird for me.
But she was smart, too; I mean, she knew I could not lead.
She is a lovely woman, with Caribbean rhythms, steel drums in her soul. She had and has a great heart. I still hear from her now and again—as she moves toward sainthood.
She and her husband’s only child, a son, died in his bedroom during a home visit. He was only 21.
Who on earth could bear that?
When I got hired as a part-time creative writing teacher at FUS, I was delighted, had hoped to find community, something that would keep me on track. But I never could. The Charismatic community back then (in ’88) were all nice folks. But I could never belong. They were all so normal—with a vengeance--and both they and I were keenly aware that I was not; nor did I want to be, especially if that involved a check-list country club respectability.
But I’ve never gotten on with groups: secular order Franciscans, Carmelites.
SOLT I liked—I went to give a reading at their college in south Texas and would’ve joined in a heartbeat. (They reminded me of Madonna House.) They liked me, too, but had no money to offer. I’d actually met their founder, Fr. Flanagan, some years before while hitching through the heartlands. Guys from the community picked me up in KC and took me to their home: they were helping Viet Namese refugees get settled.
That meeting was an answer to a prayer. I’d met Catherine de Hueck Doherty, knew about Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa; but where were the men? I asked God as much. And soon enough I met Fr. F; he like Catherine, could read souls--specifically.
Lots of holy people can do it generally. Your sins are no secret to the attentive. But Catherine and Fr. Flanagan made certain gestures which let me know that not only could they see the general sin, but that they could see even closer than that: the particular angle or emphasis of my inane proclivities.
Crazy, but good.
The Charismatic community back then invited those of us who were interested to a class where we had to hear what they were, get scoped in the process. There was an excessive rightness to them by my lights. (Later they ran afoul of the Bishop.) But even had they been spot on, I probably would’ve only seen that as proof that they certainly didn’t need me!
So it was just me and Jesus again.
My first house this time around was downtown on third, across from the library. (Like the abuse/thievery episodes, here’s something I could never quite understand: three out of the first four places I lived at here in Steubenville burned down almost immediately after I’d moved out!)
That first summer was a very tough one. The temperature seemed to hover around ninety most of the time. I didn’t know anyone—my second story back porch had long ago rotted off. And there was absolutely nothing to do. I mean how much can you pray on a hot afternoon.
Third Street was live. The projects were just a block over, and one weekend when I went to visit Mo in Pittsburgh, the guy next door got into a tussle with my landlord, broke his arm.
Eventually I settled into my job of, now, 23 years. My students and the administration have been long-suffering, though I know too that I am a gifted reader of literature and can love as well as most people.
Plus Jesus is the center of my life--though too often, not directly in the center. I was still not ready for family initially. My depressions were too intense, my obedience too sporadic. I prayed, went to Mass, played basketball with the old guys. And I improved as a teacher I think, though Elsie Luke, a good and holy woman, my first chair, prodded by the Dean no doubt, asked me to get my Ph. D. some time down the road.
Soon she retired, though, and I probably could’ve gotten off with not doing it since I did have a terminal degree. But I had promised. And so (weary of just teaching) I eventually went back, trying Kent State, driving down sometimes with a great colleague, the now-Dr. Sunyoger, before settling back into BGSU and a sabbatical to complete the job.
I had to finish up BG across the state while Linda was pregnant with our third. And that entailed at 4 ½ hour trip one way and sleeping on a good Christian family, the Plummer’s, couch for two days a week. God was generous though. I got to listen to tapes, prep for my comps as I drove back and forth across Ohio.
At one point during the Kent go, I had to hitch up to get my softball glove and plates off my abandoned car. It was a Vega; my mechanic telling me--too late: “You know this was the worst car ever made.”
There was a rightness to that.
The loneliness during the first four or so years here drove me to tour the area’s back county roads. Some of the stagnant pools, dead trees might’ve supplied Al Nobel Gore with early ammunition. (What has happened to that prize anyway? Maybe they’re still trying to make up for Kipling and “the white man’s burden,” or for giving one to Golding and not Greene.)
In any case the mall got old very quickly. I mean, I didn’t know anyone that well. I had next to no money and just needed something to keep me busy. Perhaps I could have made some extra dough on the side, but I couldn’t do much besides grade, teach, run a cash register.
One of my favorite quotes from Flannery O’Connor is from one of her characters: “I have noticed that the more learned a person becomes, the less he can actually do.”
But that first fall came, and many after it. I’ve improved as a teacher and am always on some publisher’s trail. Friends and women came and went, but the mad buzz in my brain remained. (I was not a happy guy, really, good with myself until I got married.)
And it wasn’t long before my thirties followed my twenties down the stairs and out the noisy door. Death comes up and hits you with a two by four when you turn 40. At that point, as they say, you know that it is really going to happen--and to you. Your name is in the shuffling hat, if you like the attendant music or not. It’s good to think about it. So Jesuitical. We will be going elsewhere, and we haven’t done all that well here.
God is great, Mercy itself.
And that’s a good thing. We need Him more than water.
So with His help (and the help of a lot of confessors), I’ve persevered.
Anyone who loves the orthodox Catholic Church in America knows about Steubenville. And that is an amazing thing. Fr. Scanlon built it up in the Spirit of God, and Fr. Terry has kept it going. Fr. Mike, I know, got a few complaints early on regarding my teaching approaches, proclivities. I once used the F word in a story. (The character was a truck driver, what could I do?) Little did I know that one of my students was the daughter of a Board member.
But Fr. Mike never said anything to me, either that time or later.
When I first started teaching at FUS in ’88, and when I first was a student here in @ ‘78, the blessing and the problems with the place both had to do with the Charismatic renewal. At its worst, it involved hyper-individualized locutions, odd directions, puffery--not to mention the good old gospel of prosperity.
For example, the last time I saw my room mate from Francis hall, the guy had a tank hat on, goggles, said he was just going to hitch south, go where the Lord lead him. (A familiar scenario!) And later when I started teaching, I had one young woman student who wept at the prospect of reading Ginsberg, (“I came here to get away from this stuff”), another, a male, who balked at reading Whitman.
The latter wrote a paper with the word “lust” in it seventeen times, claiming that the poet had designs on his readers. I told him that if someone had a problem with lust, it may not have been Wally. (He agreed that he would talk to his spiritual director about it.)
In the last 7 to 10 years on the other hand, things have swung radically in a more old school direction. Latin Mass is the greater good. Everyone needs to read more Aristotle. That sort of thing.
And in the end I have no complaint with that method of education. Any system will be flawed, and great books, an emphasis on philosophy, are perfectly legitimate ways to proceed. Not the only way to go, but certainly a good one. Problems arise, though, when the siege mentality eclipses and seeks to create a narrower way.
Besides, a fortress (versus a merely conservative) mentality simply cannot produce real art. It is by nature reactionary.
Some of these folks go so far as to insist that Shakespeare should be properly read as a Catholic man producing Catholic plays.
One of the great things about English literature is that we can learn so much from texts which weren’t written by Christians. Who loved the poor more than William Carlos Williams? All the great moderns offered so much. Whitman and Dickinson are great poets, as is Baudelaire, Bradstreet. We’re still waiting for that kind of womanly (or manly for that matter) humility to show itself again in American literature.
“Before the Birth of One of Her Children” is, for me, one of the true classics of American literature.
And even if you do manage to read just Catholic writers, other problems arise. Shusako Endo is a great Christian writer; I like to do DEEP RIVER. But how orthodox is that? Most would probably agree that it edges toward monism. And then there’s J. F. Powers. Great short story writer. But if you try to teach his novel WHEAT THAT SPRINGETH GREEN, you quickly run into problems. Chapter two or three in that book. One of those chapters is blatantly pornographic.
I love the short stories of Spark, O’Connor, but you can’t just teach them, and things only get worse with poetry. Mariani is a Christian, but not all his poems are overtly so. Sasanov is very good, and I like her very much as a writer and a person; but I doubt her notion of the church and Franciscan’s would line up perfectly. And what about Tate, Lowell, Wright, Gioia, Levertov, Serpas, Walker, and Karr? To what extent are they Catholic? What does that mean to them?
Now we’ve got fodder for teaching! (It’s always fun to teach Contemporary Christian literature.)
The Catholic Church is always under siege, yes, so I can understand the anxiety. But we shouldn’t give in to fear. He who is free is free indeed. Artists have to go where the spirit leads, and that is most always somewhere new! How did Wordsworth put it: you have to invent the taste by which you will be enjoyed.
On the other hand, some people have tried to put together Christian MFA program out west. The problem there is that they tend to flip Mother Teresa. It now reads: “Success, not faithfulness.”
So where do we go?
For all of us, so much comes back to family. In my case, especially, my father. He was a vet, had contracted polio when we were very small. I remember the newspaper photo: my mom, left with eight kids (all of us in pj’s she had sewn together out of curtains), a different picture in the same paper: my dad, horizontal, one tooth missing, in an iron lung.
I remember wanting to stay with my mom when I was a kid, play in the kitchen, underneath the table; but my dear brother Tim picked up on that, and she couldn’t have a crowd. So it was “Play outside,” something I can never tell my kids! But they were everything, my parents. I needed to please them, even when it became very clear to me--early--that they didn’t know what they were doing in raising us. (They had no center, no faith.)
My sister Mick once told me that my parents simply stopped telling me what to do by the time I was ten. I remember they used to come to me sometimes to solve problems: “Was that women on tv justified in changing key as she sang?”
Like I’d know.
Every squirrel finds a nut though. I did come up with one good one. It had to do with sharing. When it’s a piece of cake and mom has to split it between you and your older brother, the bickering can get intense (especially if you’re in a big family—you’ve come so far already!).
Millimeters become crucial.
So, Solomon, I came up with this: let one guy cut, the other choose. The wisdom amazed us all!
Dad had wanted to be a baseball player, and when it became clear that I had the gift, my mission became clear. Make it, son. Make it. But he was generous, too, when he came to my games later on. He always tried to help me relax.
Two of my brothers followed him into battle. Pat didn’t because he’d joined the Navy. (He ended up at the South Pole.) But my eldest brother, Tom, and the third, Tim, just a year older than me, both signed up for the Army, Nam. (My father had been in both branches.) My infantry brothers eventually became DIs, just like dad. Both made it back--though my stepfather’s son, I would later learn, had not.
Tom had to eventually see a shrink as he had ordered a mortar attack on his own men—not uncommon in jungle warfare. But as the oldest boy, he landed pretty much on his feet, found a way to deal, move on (at least until very recently). Tim, a year older than I, was a very different kettle of fish. Growing up, Tim was as contrary as could be. He’d swear at neighborhood adults from their front sidewalks if he felt they needed an adjustment—usually about some kid, hiding behind his mom’s skirt.
(It was a strange time. I remember this weird lady on Puritas, just up the street: a WW II concentration camp victim; she used to stand on her front stoop and swear at the top of her voice, all in the early morning. Pretty cool for a kid to see that!)
Tim once freaked out my parents by running away. Gone for three days. They panicked, though he was only camping out back in a friend’s backyard tent. My parents were always trying to get me to run away—because it was such a good reality check. The kid has nowhere to go, no food, no prospects. I’d refuse, though, the only one of the boys to do so.
They had to support me until I was eighteen.
Tim, on the other hand, was a real tornado, got the contrariness from dad. But as my wife would later point out, he was a sincere person. He had heart, would become my best man.
But the self-destruct was heavy on him, just like it had been on dad. Tim, like all of us, was a dutiful son in his way. I loved him, still do, but he took no prisoners in his headlong descent to death. I think we each found some facet of dad’s unspoken injunctions to play out, went with the part that moved us. Does everyone I wonder?
It’s Mercy that has taken them.
I praise God for that.
My fourth brother, Larry, was and is the closest to me—a year younger than I. Along with Pix, we were part of “the three little ones,” a less important subset (in our minds) who had to sit at a small folding table during big family doins--though there was great freedom to be had there too. Larry was just beneath me in the pecking order, and in our family that meant pain, administered by the proximate year older sibling.
But we got on well. I don’t think I hit him much. (The back, incidentally, was the best place to deliver kid blows if you’re interested: no marks.)
He’s a funny guy, Larry, played out Harold Bloom’s notion of the literary son having to find his space. But he did so in a decidedly non-literary context. A more social animal than his year older brother (me), he has, along with our older brother Pat, always been a natural Franciscan: loving, humble—if crazed. (He always gets a little protective when I come over his house, around his garage buddies I mean. . . . He’s always hung out with people who would rob him the moment his back was turned.) Anyway, last year, when a roving University book buyer offered me free tickets, we did a Browns game. We got on okay, though I think part of my family thinks I’m gay.
Funny, and though I admit I had flirted with the idea when I was a younger poet—I thought it was a career option, I never engaged.
The last third of the “three little ones” triumvirate was Pix. A Christian herself, she has long been a refuge for me. She was always glad to talk it over, always quick to offer some floor if I needed it. When I first went to Denver, it was her husband I worked for, and even after I came to Steubenville to teach, she would be my first stop when I visited Cleveland.
Pix is amazing, even though she never seemed so growing up. She was as a youth never interested in making a splash of any sort. (I don’t really remember what her dreams were.) But she seemed to look up to me when we were in high school, maybe because I went to a high end Jesuit school or because her girlfriends thought I was “cude.”
Extreme neuroses can be hard to spot for the worldly.
She has been a great gift to me, and we can often talk faith as she seems to move in and out of my mother’s Assembly of God camp. In fact, too much of my family is fed on cultural nonsense: watered-down Freud, the gospel of prosperity, the glories of everything new and superfluous.
But they are all family, and we have all suffered the same fate in many ways. But differently in others. Pix had to endure the murder of her second son. What could be worse, and one of the most intense memories I have is of her at the funeral. Mick and I and Larry were clumsily trying to talk to her, empathize. But she could not bear to speak, look at anyone.
Finally she just turned to face the corner.
Your family has your heart. They fill us out, don’t they? They are different parts of us, different responses, but part of the cohesive emotional fabric. In one way, they are closer to us that our spouses, being blood. But if we do get to heaven, it’s our spouses who will have done most of the heavy lifting. (And that goes for them too!)
Linda is the Arnold in our family, long-suffering--as I’m something of an emotional eunuch. Plus she’s just naturally more positive than I, mostly because she’s an Unger: a hero. Her dad was a fire chief, her one brother is a lieutenant on that same force (and a former high school tamer of bullies), a nephew does the same elsewhere. They are all drawn to the good, to do whatever that is in any given circumstance. And while that can occasionally cause problems, as a rule they delight in learning, always, always onto the new gadget or perspective. And they have a very large love of humor as well--any kind, of any quality.
Any attempt is laudable!
Our union has been a blessing for both of us. One of the nicest parts of it is that my kids didn’t end up being little me’s—comic Eyores of a sort: simmering, crooning, running around cities or the heartland, ramming their heads into walls.
Everybody saw how well we were matched well before we did (after her conversion), even though we’d been friends for sixteen years. She has a great wit and a decidedly artistic sensibility. (We’re both INFPs: from a test—she had us take!) But she’s much different too: here she sits at our table, every evening, wholly other.
This is life-giving in the extreme.
If not for her I probably would have shrunken into a ball many years ago.
We are both as neurotic as the day is long, and that can create problems, but it is cause for humor too. Does Jesus really know—we ask--what He’s doing, having made us parents?
(We also agree, incidentally, that Alan Schreck, a Theology prof at the U. here, really is the nicest person in the world.)
God has given us good fruit: children—and such children! Linda is the center of our home. Her depth, wit, and artistic spiritual heart really accounts for how much the kids are getting. Schools aren’t of much help there, but we try to live the gospel. And all Christ needs is one person trying.
As for me, I never really got the gospels to the depth I would have liked to until I set out to write a long series of sonnets on Matthew. I was completely blown away, though I’d been a Christian for about 25 years at the point in time. Meditating on small bits, writing and waiting for the Divine to reveal Himself through the words. I had no idea. I was repeatedly knocked off my pins by the incredible Power that chose those words, fashioned them. It’s amazing what God can do with simple terms: Jesus actually builds heaven, its ante-room using words like “water” and “bread” and “wheat.”
Truly, no one has ever spoken like this.
He’s built the scaffold, a portico of heaven using words we all know. I mean how many multisyllabic words are in there? It became clearly evident that heaven is where He is. His is the Word who fashions us.
People who disagree or who dismiss Him merely as a great man have never truly listened, sat with the words awhile.
A few of the University Christian wives really liked the sonnet I did about Linda, so I knew I was on to something. But I don’t want to sound giddy. I wish I were a better husband, parent. I deal with real emotional troughs, and so does my wife. Our only substantial hope, in fact, is that unlike our childhood homes, Jesus the King is spoken in our living room, is prayed there. We go to Eucharist, Confession, try to say the rosary.
Jesus will not let us down--despite the fact that original sin will not be the only unfortunate thing our babes will have gotten from us. They get good habits, too, I know. But those aren’t the bequeathings that bother us.
How will they ever make it through the world?
The good part is that they were made for this time.
As I say, our kids are the good fruit. Something wonderful has been, is happening in our home. Jesus has been happening. If you don’t believe me--look at our flawed and beautiful children.
Despite so much questionable water having gone under my bridge, still going, my need has drawn Him, will continue to do so for as long as I ask. There have been so many great and gone friends, people I’ll probably never see again. There have been so many friendly local Christians too of course.
Every step has made us more human, and all of it leads us home.
As I say, we have three kids—but only because we started late! I apologize. I apologize to the entire Catholic community, from my heart! Linda and I’ve often spoken of how great it would be if we had more. Given how wonderful the three are, why wouldn’t we want more? (We tell them as much.)
David, Jude, and Bridget.
Bridget, our ADHD tornado, certainly has a great heart for all living things, spikes out because she is so tender, hears creation groan. But she is also 14, a very tough age--though she’s always been so: when she was a baby, she both chipped Linda’s front tooth and broke her nose, whipping her head back as her mom held her, facing out. It would be a strong lasso, to tie her in.
But first things first: David.
At 18, he is a dear, with some of Asperger’s syndrome. He’s got the mask going, the tremendous focus, the lack of tact, a touch of paranoia even; but he is only very gifted intellectually, has a great heart. The syndrome has caused me some sorrow because what father does not want to know the joys and travails that go on in his son’s life? But because he’s so closed off, it’s tough to get the news.
But no doubt it’s much harder for him. He said recently that it feels like his DNA is broken. He misunderstands directions at university—and it costs him. (His accum. is only 3.72.) Also is afraid of failing with girls, areal problem at any age! But we tell him he’s a gift in so many ways. He’s brilliant, witty, good looking, still with a natural innocence. (The girls will catch on; besides he’s only 18 and already finishing up his sophomore year.)
Everything is so intense of kids, no? They’re in the soup.
We try to make a love they can come home to.
We’ve set David up with Linda’s psychologist, someone he can talk Aspy with.
My grief is in not knowing how I’m failing him. Plus prying is never welcome.
Some years ago, after he’d gotten concussed in his first week of public high school—we decided he would not let himself be bullied, even though he had no self-defense skills and was small, two years young, we had him see a counselor.
After each session, driving home, I’d gently ply him: what had they talked about? I had no idea how deeply sensitive and perceptive he was! Now it’s always a question of how to get back.
Virgin territory there.
(If I had a golden pick.)
I think if I occasionally bring up the “girls” word, we can talk!
Jude, the next in line, is 15. He has Down’s and functions largely as the family’s social director and spiritual lightning rod. The Down’s thing has created some problems: the helpful medical establishment (ugh), good Christian friends who congratulated us on having another after him (very slight ugh).
There’s a good story on how he got his name. He was due on the feast of Simon and Jude, and as I prayed it seemed to me that the Lord wanted the name Jude. But all the Christians we knew or talked to in the vicinity wondered about that. Who names a boy Jude? (Since that time others around here have.)
That made me question my answer, so I went back to the Lord asked Him for some confirmation, some sign that that was the name he wanted. On that very day, Linda had a sonogram and we both discovered that he had Down’s.
Jude is the patron saint of impossible cases. (Father.)
He’s a short, strong guy who took karate until David quit. He never got a kata right, but his instructor, Mr. Rine, helped him up to his blue belt. He was very proud of that. (I still tell me sometimes that he’d wide am Gimli and as tall as St. Francis.)
Just the other day, though, he said he hates having Down’s Syndrome. We were amazed because he’d been in denial for so long. It’s really hard for him, not to be able to driver (though I encouraged him to take the test is he wanted to), not to have real friends (though everyone knows him at school). Still his friends are David’s.
Can he get married? Yes, we say, but he has no girl friends. He wants to die. We need to take him to some dances. Everywhere he looks he sees limitations.
But I tell him the angels will bow when he comes to heaven. (We try to boost him at every opportunity.) He endures physical pain better than any of us, and he’s always gotten the most to bear. When he got chicken pox you couldn’t see any skin.
Three major operations before he was two, including a pulmonary-banding and the creation of a fourth valve. I still usually get up with his Tweety, Bugs, Sylverter, and Taz dolls to tell him (Star Trek) stories most nights where he or his alter ego, Poister Baggins, is the hero. Linda does programs with him, and it always a joy to hear the laughing.
He’s in line for counselling, too.
He needs to be seen as older, grown up; so much depends on that. And since regimen is also very important, he marks out his days. We go to Adoration early Friday mornings, and then there’s the library on Saturdays . . . and what’s for lunch today, tomorrow. As a family we do movie nights, Star Trek get togethers, plus he’s positively in on any activity, is the first one to want to go sled-riding, hiking, or to play basketball.
On a good day I can distract him, still get him to hold my hand as we cross the street. I praise him all the time, like I do the others because they deserve that, are wonderful.
Bridget, our youngest—already so tall at 14! (No fair. It seems like I missed too many of those baby days. I want them back!) She’s a railroad car of sheer destruction, too fast to keep up with, a young woman on the grow: her mother’s daughter. Like her oldest brother, she does not suffer fools gladly, and so she keeps me on my toes.
We love her to death, of course, but she is a wilder seed than her brothers, the source of many late night parentals. “I have no idea. . . . What do you think?” Some summer mornings we’ll hear her scootering over the living room wooden floors. She punches me hard and can swear like a sailor, but she and Linda are very close. Linda will spend hours helping her with everything: homework, piano, chores.
(I once helped David with his math homework. It was the only time he got an f. I still claim it was a language problem. Mathematicians and scientists are appallingly bad with language.)
As Auden once said, “Homework is never finished, it’s just given up on.”
I want to end with the feminine--I’ve been a poet long enough to know the crucial place of intuition, to letting the Spirit lead. The feminine is so important in every man’s life. And that leads me, at end, to my mother--and to my wife. As I mentioned earlier, my mother was largely absent emotionally during those first years. So then this last Friday morning, as I turned toward the Eucharistic starburst monstrance in adoration, this idea came to me:
She held me in an embrace that was not an answer—and she knew that.
That was her burden.
We who have been stamped with love, have been stamped with sorrow. Men find this out through women (priests through Mary), women through men.
Is that is the only real way to God?