Tuesday, September 30, 2014

September Beats: Frank O’Hara

Perhaps the best introduction to the poetry of Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) is what he himself had to say. In “Personism: A Manifesto,” O’Hara wrote, “I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.’”
That could easily be an O’Hara poem.

O’Hara was one of the lights of what was called the New York School, a group of writers, artists and musicians that included John Ashberry and often Allen Ginsberg. Several of them knew each other from college (like O’Hara and Ashberry). O’Hara crossed all three of the cultural groups represented – he was a poet, he had originally studied music, and was worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A Rebuke to the Culture

Thirty years ago, we still had blue laws (Sunday closing laws) in Missouri. Just about everytjing except for convenience stories, drugstores, and sports/entertainment events were surrounded by empty parking lots on Sunday.

The blue laws disappeared in a statewide vote, driven largely by a combination of powerful commercial interests and individuals hungry to find extra time to do grocery shopping, clothes shopping, and other activities that strained two-income families.

We’ve already lost Thanksgiving and I suspect Christmas is not far beyond. Thanks to the reach of electronic communications technology, vacation time, and even weekends, should be called “work release” time rather than days off.

The idea of Sabbath – a day of the week devoted to worship and rest is already coming to be something quaint from another era.

It shouldn’t be. We probably need it more than ever. Even people who don’t believe in God need a day of rest.

A Sabbath, say Christopher Smith, John Pattison and Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove in Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, is “an obvious rebuke to the culture—and even a church culture!—that prides itself on its busyness, scorns leisure as laziness and boasts that we’ll sleep when we’re dead.”

That sounds like modern American work life to me.

I knew a CEO who once claimed he could run a $16 billion corporation with five MBAs. When he was asked what would happen when they dropped dead, he replied, “Find five more.”

The Slow Church authors point to Exodus 16 as the first mention of Sabbath in the Bible, although you can find the first reference to a day of rest in the first chapter of Genesis.

Even God rested.

The Exodus reference contains three lessons, they point out. The Israelites are wandering around the desert, grumbling over not having enough to eat, complaining about starving to death. God gives them manna six days a week, with a double portion on the sixth day because God said the seventh day was a day of rest, and holy to him.

They Israelites learn the lesson of enough, the lesson of redistribution, and the lesson of Sabbath faith and discipline.

That’s an arresting idea – the Sabbath takes faith and it takes discipline.

No wonder we voted it out of existence in Missouri.

For the past several Mondays, I’ve been posting a discussion of Slow Church. Today’s post is on the chapter entitled “Sabbath.” It’s worth the price of the whole book. Next week, the discussion will be on “Abundance.”

Photograph by Lynn Greyling via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Peter and Barnabas

Even the lions faltered
even the lions failed
even the lions had
   their moments
   best forgotten
   especially by
when the sun darkened
when the voices rose
when the desire
for  acceptance
chained and bound
the lions
I find this encouraging,

Photograph by Lydia Woomer via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Sacrament of Pain

In August of 2013, I found myself spending a weekend with my mother in a retirement home, and all I can think about is poetry.

My mother had fallen and broken her hip. She had surgery; the surgery was successful. I had spent a long weekend with her when she was recovering in a nursing home (described in my post yesterday). She had eventually returned home.

She was required to use a walker. She hated it. It was awkward maneuvering around the house, she said, although her house, the house I grew up in, was not cluttered. She convinced herself she didn’t need it to walk from her bedroom to the kitchen. One afternoon, leaving the walker in her bedroom, she fell in the kitchen. Fortunately, she had no broken bones. Unfortunately, she couldn’t pull herself up.

The neighbor who checked on her twice a day had gone out of town. The backup neighbor wasn’t due to check on her until the next morning. My mother couldn’t pull herself to reach the telephone.

She spent the night on the floor.

She spent as total of 18 hours on the floor.

She’d hear the phone ring, but couldn’t answer it.

My sister-in-law called, a daily ritual. No answer. She called the neighbor. No answer but she left a message. Same thing with the backup neighbor. My sister-in-law got in the car and started the 90-minutes journey to my mother’s house. Halfway across the Lake Pontchartrain causeway bridge, she connected with the backup neighbor, who had been out grocery shopping. She said she’d check immediately. She did, and found my mother asleep on the floor.

We knew we had to do something. My mother was almost 90; she could no longer live alone. The cost of hiring a full-time caregiver would be horrendous. All of us, including my mother, knew what this meant: a retirement home,

She had lived in the house for 57 years.

Moving her was for her own good.

Moving her from her home would also be a sign to all of us that she was dying.
My mother holding Cameron, with my daughter-in-law Stephanie - June 2010

In May of 2013, my younger brother and I flew to New Orleans, charged with a task we weren’t looking forward to: breaking up my mother’s home, with her there to give us guidance on what to keep. For three days, we sorted papers, objects in her curio cabinets, clothes, photographs, some of our own personal things she had held on to, things belonging to our father. Over the years, my mother had been rather ruthless in culling through “stuff” she owned. It made our job easier, but there was still a lot of stuff.

A week or so later, she moved into the retirement home. She actually knew someone who lived there, and she seemed to have made friends rather quickly (she had a “circle” she ate lunch and dinner with regularly).  I spent a weekend with her that August, staying in the home’s guest apartment.

She had fractured her back, lifting the toilet tank cover one night to fix the tank stopper. She thought it was just like home, where the tank cover weighed only a few pounds. This one, specifically designed for retirement homes, weighed over 30 pounds. Her back fractured, and she had been in constant pain for several weeks, helped only by pain medicine. The home had to get someone to administer the pills – my mother would take them as soon as the pain started, and consequently was spending a lot of time sleeping.

I sat with her in her little apartment and with her for meals, and the pain was clearly debilitating. The only thing that seemed to help was me. I had experienced a ruptured disk in 2011. Ongoing pain, strong pain meds, eight months of physical therapy including traction – yes, I knew what my mother was experiencing.

Because of my own experience, my mother felt comfortable talking about the pain she was experiencing. She knew from the expressions on others’ faces that they wouldn’t understand, would get impatient, would believe she was only complaining because she didn’t have anything else to do. She knew that I understood. That kind of pain changes your personality. It narrows your horizons and confines you like a strait jacket.

Yes, I knew what she was going through. And we talked. I know it helped her. It helped me as well.

As I listened to her talk about the pain, and then gradually shift to talking about other things, and her own life stories, I began thinking about poetry, and how her life and her very self were like poems. We both knew that her time was short; she died six months later. But her life, and this time we were spending together, bonded by a common experience in pain, had become something of a poem, likely a poem I will never be able to write but one that wraps itself around my heart and has become part of me.

In Mortal Blessing: A Sacramental Farewell, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell quotes Catholic poet Denise Levertov:  “To write poetry is to labor in the transcendant.”

O’Donnell might call my experience with my mother the sacrament of pain, a sacrament we mutually shared, one that became part of both us.

Our last poem together.

Photograph: March 2013 – my younger brother and I in front of my mother’s house after her memorial service. It's the house we both grew up in.

Friday, September 26, 2014

My Own “Mortal Blessing”

I’ve been reading Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s Mortal Blessing: A Sacramental Farewell, about the death of her mother and what she learned about family, the nature of the sacred, dying, and herself. During the 48 days of her mother’s final decline, small, commonplace things became sacramental.

Like O’Donnell’s mother, my own mother fell and broke her hip. She had surgery to repair, and although she was in her late 80s, the surgery was successful.

As she recuperated and started physical therapy at a nursing home, I flew to New Orleans and spent a long weekend visiting. And we talked, for hours each day. The talking didn’t seem to tire her. I’m not sure what prompted it, but it was important for her to tell me what she did, most of which I had never heard before.

O’Donnell might call this the sacrament of listening.

My mother had been a wartime bride (World War II) and like so many others had gotten divorced. Her first husband had been her childhood sweetheart and joined the army, fighting in Europe. In 1945, she and their not-quite-two-year-old son lived with his family in Gary, Indiana, and then with his sister in Chicago. When the war ended, her husband chose not to return home. He wasn’t ready for the responsibilities of a family. And so they were divorced in 1947. It was important for her to tell me he did pay $42 a month in child support; she repeated it several times.

She was dating my father when her former husband called her one day at work, asking her to reconsider and get remarried. After work that day, she said, she walked slowly to the streetcar stop to ride from downtown New Orleans to where she lived with my grandmother in the Ninth Ward. She stopped at St. Patrick’s Church on Camp Street (not far the present-day D-Day and World War II Museum). She was not Catholic, but she sat in a pew and prayed. And clarity came.

When she got home, she wrote her first husband a letter, telling him it wouldn’t work. As she prayed, she said, she realized she would never be able to trust him.

She married my father in 1950. I was born a year later.

Mother, May 2013
At first their marriage was happy, but once he started his own business, she saw very little of him, except late at night and an occasional Sunday. (The same went for me and my older brother; I didn’t really see much of my father until I was in junior high school.)

She said that there would be days when she would sit on our back breezeway and cry for sheer loneliness. She’d see me play in the backyard and knew my older brother was with friends in the neighborhood. No one would see her cry.

“I couldn’t believe how lonely I was,” she said, talking to me while she lay in her nursing home bed.

It was not an easy story to tell or hear. But I listened. And in those few hours my mother became a much more complex person than I had ever realized, with her own joys and sorrows, with her own stories of a life lived.

Sacraments work two ways, as O’Donnell explains in Mortal Blessings. They work for both the giver and the receiver, for the object of the sacrament and the participant.

That weekend in New Orleans, my mother was blessed by the sacrament of listening, and I was blessed by the sacrament of her story.

Tomorrow, I’ll complete this meditation.

Photograph: Interior of St. Patrick’s Church, New Orleans.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Angela Alaimo O’Donnell’s “Mortal Blessings”

The most difficult writing assignment I’ve ever had occurred this year.

At the request of the family, I wrote my mother’s obituary.

I wrote it before she died. I edited the final details after her death.

Angelo Alaimo O’Donnell was asked to do the same for her mother.

In the last 48 days of her mother’s life, O’Donnell and her sisters gathered round their mother, Marion Salvi Alaimo. She had fallen and smashed her hip; whether she could survive the surgery required to repair it was questionable.

The gathering, as O’Donnell describes in Mortal Blessings: A Sacramental Farewell, becomes a kind of sacrament, just one of the many sacraments the family leads, participates in, and becomes part of in their mother’s final days. Sacraments, even those related to the death of an individual, gain their meaning in their communal celebration.

And while sacraments are an intrinsic part in the family’s Catholic faith, O’Donnell comes to understand that sacraments are not confined to officially defined ceremonies of the church. Sacraments can be found among the most commonplace of acts, events, and emotions.
Marion Salvi Alaimo

The sacrament of a haircut and manicure.

The sacraments of the cell phone and the wheelchair.

The sacraments of humor, honor and witness.

The sacraments of speech and memory.

The sacrament of distance.

Angela Alaimo O'Donnell
As a loved one is dying, the simplest of acts become sacraments, not only for the one dying but for the ones participating as well. Sacraments are communal acts, conferring meaning too all involved.

O’Donnell does not tell an idealized story. Dying and death sharpens and unveils, particularly if it occurs over a period of time. No life lived is perfect; O’Donnell doesn’t gloss over her mother’s failings, or her own. Mortal Blessings is not a memoir about her mother; it is a telling of the last days of a life, and what happens, what sacraments happen, when a family is drawn together around a dying person.

The writing of a book like Mortal Blessings is a sacrament, too.

Tomorrow, I’ll have the first of two personal meditations on Mortal Blessings.


Photograph of the Church of the Mount of the Beatitudes by Betty Krausova via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Playing Poker with God

Ever wondered what a poker game with God would be like?

I’m not a poker player. I know the rules, but it’s been decades since I played poker. And I never played poker for money; I’m not widely known for having a poker face.

But I was reading The Cure: What if God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You, by John Lynch, Bruce McNichol and Bill Thrall, and they talk about the idea of playing poker with God.

My first thought was that he would know every card I held.

That’s because I’m looking at the poker game from my perspective.

The authors of Slow Church take another approach.

In effect, you are in a poker game with God. A very different kind of poker game.

“God has shown you all of His cards,” they write, “revealing breathtaking protection. He says, in essence, ‘What if I tell them who they are now? What if I take away any element of fear? What if I tell them I will always love them?’”

The poker game suddenly changes. It isn’t even a game any more.

What if I tell them I will always love them, no matter what they do, or think, or say? That they can’t lose me, even if they try?

Some of the early church believers heard that, and wondered if it meant that the more they sinned, the more God would love them. The Apostle Paul was quick to point out that they were wrong; they were looking at the question from the wrong end – their end.

Instead, what we should do is look at the question at from God’s perspective.

And God’s perspective is total.

A perspective of total love.

A perspective of total knowledge.

A perspective of total judgment.

A perspective of the price for judgment totally paid.

A perspective of total understanding.

He doesn’t play poker with a poker face.

And he knows that, ultimately, neither do we.

He loves us anyway.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Cure. To see more posts on this chapter, “Two Gods,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph by Ariadne ariadnerb via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.