Category Archives: Hope and love

Why I sometimes loved to teach

I taught English Comp for a couple of years at a community college in New Jersey. Right, I was an Adjunct. Mostly it was drudgery done in the name of not enough money.

But every so often a miracle occurred. Something marvelous happened.

I don’t recall why I did this, but I know I wanted to see how the students handled poetic form. I handed out two poems, two sonnets, and asked the kids to respond to one of them in one page of their own devising. Sometimes I got what I call the Duh Response. Sometimes I got one sentence (grading those was too easy). And then I might be amazed. These kids figured there had to be a right answer, but there really wasn’t…except honest reactions, even if they were confused. This was one of the poems, by Ted Berrigan:

PEARL HARBOR DAY (Ted Berrigan, 1934-1983)

Seurat and Juan Gris combine this season
to outline Central Park in geometric
trillion pointed bright red-brown and green-gold
blocks of blooming winter. Trees stand stark-
naked guarding bridal paths like Bowery
Santa Clauses keeping Christmas-safe each city block.
Thus I, red-faced and romping in the wind
Whirl through mad Manhattan dressed in books
looking for today with tail-pin. I
never place it right, never win. It
doesn’t matter, though. The cooling wind keeps blow-
ing and my poems are coming.
Except at night. Then
I walk out in the bleak village and look for you.

I didn’t expect explication. I don’t even know what the poem “means,” word by word, image by image. I wanted honest reaction. Juan Gris? Georges Seurat? Pourquoi?

One of the kids, a girl in her late teens or early twenties, wrote feverishly. When I read it over…let’s say I’m sorry I had to hand it back to her. It was glorious. She wrote (I paraphrase): “I was confused by it. But I got to the last lines where he says he went out looking for a woman. I could see him. And I felt like he was looking for me.”

I was as close to tears as I’ve ever been in a classroom. She didn’t understand the poem but she got it at a visceral level, probably the level Ted Berrigan, that sacred madman, was at when he wrote it. I wrote down her grade and a comment: “He went out looking for you, and it was you who he found. And most of all, you found him.” She’d written the most beautiful and heart-perfect response I could imagine. Or could not imagine.

We put so much stock in parsing lines. We rarely weigh feeling and reader response. Response has been my obsession for years. I responded to need by learning to write poetry. And I sensed a need in this young lady, a need Berrigan met. And a need in him that she could satisfy.

That’s why I had moments when teaching was an almost physical act, a form of lovemaking. Damn, but I could love it!

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,700 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Not bad, considering I paid scant attention to this blog over the year coming to an end. Let’s say (for now) that I had a really difficult time this year; that I spread the cheer (ahem) around; and that things are looking up at long last.

Right now I’m watching an NBC retrospective on the tragedy of Jonestown, Guyana. Nothing can be worse than that.

More will follow as we get to New Years Eve.

Click here to see the complete report.

The faith journey into Hell

I grew up with Fear as my God, found the Judaism of my birth in the late 1970s, and lost it again in the 1990s. For years I tried to practice my birth faith. Then, in 1997, it rejected me. I separated from my wife the weekend before Pesach and was living alone in an apartment in northern New Jersey. After years of willful exile, I needed to reconnect. I put out a desperate cry for help via email, the phone, and a mailing list because I needed to reunite with my spiritual center: or so I thought.

“Establishment” Judaism had no place for me at any table in New York or New Jersey. “Do not turn your back on the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” How easily we forget!

I got one reply, from a rabbi (now deceased) in Pikesville, MD, who left a prepaid Metroliner ticket for me at Penn Station, along with an invitation to his home for the first Seder. “No Jew,” said Rabbi Mark Loeb to me, “should be alone on the first night of Pesach.” I went to what amounted to a glorious mustering-out party. When I returned to Jersey, “The long loneliness” described by the Servant of God Dorothy Day engulfed me again, worse than before. I began to get a sense that I was being drawn back to the attraction of The Cross, the same way it drew me in the 1970s. I did not want it. Separated or not, I had two children I had tried to raise as Jews. How could I do this? Better, how could I NOT? I could stay and shut up, become the same misery-ridden Jew as I was miserable husband. But that would not work either.

On a hot Sunday afternoon, June 15, 1997, I found myself praying aloud to Jesus with the promptings of a website called “Leaflets of Faith” (http://www.catholicmissionleaflets.org/). I was terrified and exhilarated at the same time. I began attending daily Masses in Manhattan, refusing to approach the railing for Communion even though nobody would know: God would and I would. I entered the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) program at a local parish near my house.

People tried to talk me out of it. Someone I loved. Even a Franciscan priest who said the best man he ever met was his lapsed-Baptist father (yet he was now the Guardian of a vitally important Catholic parish in midtown Manhattan!). I persevered and was received into the Roman Catholic Church on April 11, 1998, at the Easter Vigil.

And I promptly ran into myself, a collection of disconnected synapses, neuroses, bipolar symptoms, and alcoholic behaviors. I was being torn apart by the same guilt that had driven me out of Judaism. Disloyal husband, indifferent father, out of control. Womanizer in the making and on the make. Short-cutting employee with a volatile temper. I made myself spiritually if not physically sick. I had a confessor who insisted I was violating God’s plan for me. But how could I know that? How could HE know that? A Jesuit I knew as a spiritual director tried to talk me off the ledge but he could not. I was bound on self-destruction with my soul if not via a weapon.

When I began to heal my alcoholism and manic-depression in late 1999 and early 2000, the guilt began to fade. So I changed denominations. Makes sense, right? You’re getting better so you allow yourself to relapse. Makes perfect sense. Yet…I was warmly received and warmly loved. I did not have to fight anymore.

And yet this was not about ME. Maybe there really was a plan and I was playing games around is margins by ignoring God’s requirements for me. Poverty (involuntary), chastity (not by choice, either), obedience–but to whom? Another Jesuit I met with several times suggested I was not supposed to get an easy ride into and through Faith, that it was supposed to be difficult. Well, it has been.

Every day since 1998 has been relentless pain. Oh, not because I abandoned Judaism–when I tried to go back in 2004 via the repentance of the mikveh, it did not take and I felt even worse than before. I have lived in lonely communion ever since. I fear I have sawed off the limb behind me and only now realize I have hit the ground head-first.

I present no definitive solutions for me or for anyone else. I know only that my defections and “flip-flops” made me more miserable than I ever imagined. My only hope is that there IS some hope.

I date my true fall into fear, into adherence to the Gospel of Wealth, and my subsequent fall into abject poverty, from that moment. Defiance? Recompense? Payback, I’ve heard, is Hell; and I’ve been in it now for years. I wonder daily why God has preserved my life, why he has allowed me sobriety regardless of this almost daily temptation to drink, why one day I am almost certain to relapse into the death of the spirit that I fear as much as I crave it as the end to this misery. The end to the fear of fear. The end of psychiatric hospitalization. The end of old age. The end of imprisonment.

I lost home, found home, abandoned home. Where am I now?

The Bottom, at last softly reached

Well, what does that mean?

A couple of months ago, the State of New Jersey halved my Unemployment compensation on the way to phasing it out entirely. The old fart with bad legs is supposed to go out and get a factory job or something like that. The amount I no longer get may not sound like a lot to many people, but to me it’s the line thin line between being able to eat and pay bills compared to what I’m facing now: food pantries. My checking account’s seriously overdrawn because I have “overdraft protection,” so the landlord cashed the rent check that was okay until I had to pay for other stuff–and yes, I do keep track, but all the bookkeeping on earth can’t help you conserve what isn’t there.

So yes, there’s still a meal left in the house for tonight. But tomorrow I’m going to have to go to a food pantry around the corner in Long Branch, one in fact where I used to go to church, to get food. I don’t even know how the system works. But I guess I’m going to find out.

The weird part is how I feel. I don’t feel mortified, embarrassed, or even particularly upset. I have no choice but to accept what’s become of my sub-poverty-line existence. I’ve long since run the gauntlet of shame, and that for things I actually did instead of for the termites that live in my head. Oh, I’d so love to go out and order a steak dinner tonight, but who’s kidding whom?–I didn’t budget steak even when I had the money.

So what I feel can best be expressed as a giant shrug.

There’s a wonderful Old English poem called “Deor” in which the speaker presumably has fallen from high social position to abject ruin recounts the other fallen figures who had shit dumped on them like they were characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The last section is where the speaker, a former “scop” or court poet, gets personal about his own plight:

As for this singer, I will tell you
I once was the scop of Hoedeninga,
beloved of my Lord.  My name was Deor.
I spent many winters, gem of his retinue.
He valued my service, but now—Heorrenda—
master of poemcraft is gifted with landgift
my Lord and fair protector once gave to me.
That changed, this may too.

þæs ofereode,         þisses swa mæg!

Basically it means “That passed away so will this.”

There’s no self-pity in Deor and, I hope, none in me either.

This will pass away and the next thing will come up. And it too will pass.

Two matters: one sad, the other angry but hopeful

The first was unexpected, and I learned of it only a little while ago.

1. Jim Marshall, the greatest rock ‘n’ roll photographer of our generation, died earlier today at age 74. We had a brief but memorable personal connection. I saw a profile about him in the now defunct magazine American Photographer back in the spring of 1987. He hit me as being an authentic crazy mofo, but with an eye anyone with a camera would kill to have. He was a giant.

Then I wrote something complimentary about him in 1995, to another Bay Area photographer with whom I’d gone to college, and next thing I knew, Marshall himself was on my phone at home snarling “I hear you’ve been talking shit about me behind my back. Well, I’m gonna have to give you two of my photographs.” He did: two priceless signed and numbered Janis Joplin images. I felt like Bob Cratchit getting a raise from Ebenezer Scrooge on December 26. We talked about having a drink when he was in New York, but it didn’t happen. His favorite zhluk was Jameson’s. I could have managed that back then.

I’d love to have one of his Leica M4’s but you can’t ask for everything. Besides, he knew how to use them. I got as far as working the rangefinder so the crappy images I produced were at least in focus. Cameras are easy, photography is hard.

2. Now then there is this: the health care bill.

Up front–I consider Barack Obama a megalomaniac on the grand scale of Richard Nixon. He has surrounded himself with a Praetorian Guard made up of a foul-mouthed Chicago sewer rat who acts as his Chief of Staff; a perpetually grinning DeFarge as the House Majority Leader; and a slimy little weasel who I hope will be rejected by the voters of Nevada in November. And let us not forget the latest member of this quartet, the idiot Vice President without functioning brakes who is Obama’s protection against impeachment, an update of Spiro T. Agnew, or a court Fool on the level of Sarah Palin.

——————-

And yet. And yet. The healthcare legislation passed the other day…God knows it needs to be tuned and refined…is the most important piece of Congressional legislation since the 13th Amendment. You know the one: it abolished slavery and involuntary servitude.

[With Medicare] I can afford to be sick. I don’t have to have Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, NJ lie me into admission to the psycho ward…after I told them I had no insurance or money, telling me I would get charity care, and then sock me with a $20,600 bill. Because American medicine as it’s now constituted is technically brilliant and filled with used car salesmen wearing iridescent sharkskin suits.

To repeat: that’s what happened when I was in the hospital. I had no insurance and I had no money. I allowed them to put me away  instead of just going home and into outpatient therapy. And I got a charity care bill for $20,600. Right: a guy with a $7.50 an hour job wrapping deli meat owes a hospital over $20,000 based on false promises. And then the Disability Board denies me because I wasn’t crazy enough for them. The only way I got rid of that particular albatross was some contact I made in the “state-controlled Media” who put my story in plain sight in the Sunday papers. The bill disappeared PDQ. Hospitals hate being embarrassed, and I embarrassed the hell out of Monmouth Medical Center. They lied and now the whole world knew it.

What if I could not work embarrassment to my advantage? What if I hadn’t been desperate and crazy enough? Better, what if I had a conscience? I didn’t. Not when it came to being lied to. Not much of one now, either. I have a remaining $50 bill I owe them from outpatient treatment. I’m mailing it back to them, torn up. I moved out of New Jersey three months ago. Get a small claims shyster in a checkered suit and sue me across state lines. I don’t have a credit record to ruin: that was gone a long time ago.

This is not Christmas day for the indigent. Oh, Rush just loved to play that tape over and over. But it’s the first day of Pesach, or the dawn of the day of freedom. If we turn ourselves into Western European Socialism so much the better for us. It’s about damn time. Yes, the European and Canadian systems have enormous areas of suckism: I even heard so from a Canadian. But so does ours. It saddles people with unbearable debt and it enriches bankruptcy lawyers. It drives people to choose between paying the doctor and losing their homes. It takes advantage of conscience, which really does make cowards of us all. Conscience became a bit expensive a long time ago. Time to protect the people of this country from the rapacity of private enterprise. If Obama has accomplished nothing else, he has made a wonderful step in the right direction. So I’ll cut him a break on his monomania, his terrible judgment, his ignoring the unemployment situation in this reliving of the Okie trek across Route 66 toward the Lotus Land of Kalifornia Killer Kopz.

One problem at a time.

Besides, we’ve given Limbaugh years of material.

Maybe Anne Frank was onto something

I lost my debit card last night. I didn’t realize it until I tried to pay for a meal I’d eaten in a local (to me) restaurant. The other card I carry was unacceptable because the processing system was down.

Thank God I had cash.

I immediately called the bank, killed the card, and requested a replacement. It would take a day or two and cost me money. Plus it would glom up a couple of outstanding business orders.

At 1:30 PM today I had to teach a class. I looked at the window on the door and there was a guy from MIS standing there holding my blue card. I was aghast.

Consideration and honesty always make me feel like that because I have a very low opinion of most human beings. Sad but true. The guy from MIS pointed at the young man who actually retrieved the card. I just shook my head like a bobblehead doll and said “Thank you” over and over.

Treacly, isn’t it?

What (or who) do I think of but Annelies Marie “Anne” Frank. “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” I wonder if she thought that about the people who held her in terror and captivity in Amsterdam, Westerbork, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen where she died.

Even now, more than sixty years after she died, the words bring tears. Some people act with selflessness and goodness, thereby defeating the oft-held assumption that people tend to be self-interested scum. I have to fight that belief every day.

Today someone taught me that Annelies Frank may have nailed it.

Now my confession: I have never read the book nor seen the movie. I’ve heard the movie is a real dog, but it’s time for me to read what I gather is one of the most profound and forgiving documents in any language.

Later for now.

Goodbye, Cid, February 2000-August 4, 2009

cidrottie

Cid, our dog, died last Tuesday, at approximately 5:45 p.m. in a private family visiting room at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in New Jersey. He died of an increasingly prevalent form of cancer called splenic hemangiosarcoma. Splenic because his spleen ruptured and was pouring blood into his abdomen, which was distended noticeably by the time he died. We were assured he was not in pain, just terribly weak.

Now I’m sitting here wondering how the hell to say anything intelligent about the difference this wonderful dog made in my life. About how funny he could be. About his moments of distress, sympathy, and compassion. About his joie de vivre. And about (again) the lessons he taught me that one day I may actually learn.

I loved him. I didn’t always but I came to. He taught me a lot about love. And at the end I was sobbing while I stroked him, and then after his warrior’s heart and breathing stopped. Wednesday morning and the days since felt like a vast and empty space, some sort of emotional Red Square. I live in a house of both grief and gratitude for the loss of a creature who made me glad I knew him for over nine years.

A few months ago I fell in the house, and landed on my right kneecap. I learned later it was a torn meniscus, and was terribly painful. I screamed, felt I was going to get sick, and then crawled into the bedroom. Cid, who usually withdrew from loud noises, came over to me and licked my face. He didn’t fix my knee but he helped fix my head and my soul.

Why Cid, by the way. My Companion adopted him from the local SPCA and gave him the name of the great Spanish hero. Granted, Cid looked like neither Charlton Heston nor Placido Domingo. He looked like his handsome and extremely mixed lineage, as nearly as we could tell German Shepherd and American Rottweiler plus God knows what else was in the gene pool. While we were waiting for Cid’s inked paw-print after he died, we saw a beautiful American Rottie in the hospital waiting area, and she had Cid’s face. It was uncanny and yet comforting.

I suspect Cid wasn’t that far removed from his wolf ancestry. I missed one display because I slept through it, but there was an afternoon several months ago when I was working in my home office and Cid was napping on the bed. Suddenly I heard these incredible howls that sounded like we had a werewolf in the next room. I ran into the bedroom. “Cid???” He was a bit groggy but awake. He’d been dreaming, and somewhere in his dream he’d gone back into his ancestry and located his “inner wolf.”

After you say “wow,” what’s left?

Just these disconnected thoughts:

I have lost two cats in my life, and both times the deaths were painful experiences. With Cid, I hardly know how to describe the awful feeling of free-fall while wearing lead shoes. Dogs tend to be more emotionally demonstrative than cats. They are not smarter but seem to be more human-readable, i.e., they can read us as well as we can read them. Maybe better.

Cid taught me about life in the moment. No yesterday, no tomorrow, just now. He taught me that there is no reason to carry a grudge. He embodied unconditional love and absolute forgiveness. Human beings should be that lucky.

Dogs know what we try to do for them. Cid awakened last Tuesday morning unable to walk without extreme effort. He had no appetite and was incontinent in the kitchen. He was content to just lay on the bedroom floor. Which is where, early in the afternoon, I said to him what was inside me, feeling that he would understand.

“Cid, we love you. We want you to stay with us. But if it’s time for you to leave, then we will help you to die.” Must I underscore this by saying I was barely able to get out the last words? You may assume it. I suppose it was a form of giving Cid permission to do what his body was asking him to do.

He could not walk well but he managed to walk out of the house and down the steps (with much help), where he helped us get him into the back of my car for the ride to the vet, and then to the animal medical center where he would be evaluated and then released from the ruins of his body.

Did he know what was coming? He looked at my companion Marie, she whom he placed at the top of his “chain of being,” and he licked her face. Was it a way to acknowledge the gift of release, a way to kiss her goodbye, or simply a way to say “I love you”? Or was it all?

So the smoke has cleared a bit. It’s late Saturday night as I write this. Marie brought home Cid’s ashes yesterday in a cherrywood box. We may or may not take him down to the beach after Labor Day, invite some of Cid’s friends–including my older son, who adored him (it was mutual)–and scatter his ashes over the ocean. He ran the beach often, without a leash, and it was then that I believe he felt free.

If we send him into the air over the water, we will free him yet again.

Goodbye, adored friend. I loved you and love you still.