BEGIN AGAIN

As spring arrives and my life enters a new phase, I have been thinking about a wordplay poem I wrote a few years ago in one of Jacinta White’s workshops.

Begin Again

“Make a new plan, Stan.”
Refocus, reflect, re-imagine, redefine priorities,
View with unclouded eyes, hear with unclogged ears.
Establish a new routine.
Restart the engine. Reboot.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a right spirit within me.”

The time has come to adapt,
To renovate, revamp, remodel,
Rehab, redevelop, restore,
To decide what to keep and what to throw away,
To be transformed.
“And behold! All things are made new.”

Or to step out, shed restrictions,
Escape the bonds, break free,
Pull up stakes, reverse course,
Re-orient, re-route,
Find a new direction, take another path.
“And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Broken apart and reconstructed,
May we find new life—-healed, reborn,
Resuscitated, regenerated, revitalized,
As the darkest days have passed
And our hemisphere tilts toward the light,
Remembering that “all shall be well,
And all manner of things shall be well.”

Quotations from Paul Simon, Psalm 51: 10, 2 Corinthians 5: 17, Matthew 4: 20-22, Julian of Norwich

Mary Oliver’s Lexicon

Mary Oliver paints her masterpieces
with words carefully chosen
from the abundant palette of language.

The black snake “halts his long ladder of muscle”
until he “pours himself swift and heavy
into the ground.”

She has described, not approximately
but precisely, a phenomenon I have witnessed
but never could have captured in a net of words.

Mary Oliver’s lexicon is not erudite or esoteric.
Instead, with her laser-like focus she selects—
from the muddle of ordinary vocabulary—
uniquely appropriate words
and creates from them odd combinations
that are simply and marvelously right.

AN ENGLISH MAJOR DECIPHERS MEDICAL JARGON

DOCTOR: Well, we have some test results now. We’re still waiting on more information from Texas, where they are analyzing the contents of the nodule we removed from your lungs.

ENGLISH MAJOR: But we know it’s not tuberculosis, right?

DOCTOR: Right. And not a fungus. Not histoplasmosis.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Oh. So. It’s not contagious, is it? I won’t infect my family and friends by breathing on them, or by coughing?

DOCTOR: That would be highly unlikely.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Unlikely isn’t quite the same thing as impossible, but I suppose. . .

DOCTOR: The infection in your lungs does appear to be one of the rapid growing bacteria.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Rapid growing? That doesn’t sound good.

DOCTOR: Well, although that is the scientific term for this type of bacterium, in your case, the infection is indolent.

ENGLISH MAJOR: (laughing) Indolent!?

DOCTOR: You think that’s funny?

ENGLISH MAJOR: No. No. It’s just that, when you encounter that word in literature. . . or. . . whatever, anyhow, it means lazy, just lying around and not doing anything.

DOCTOR: Oh. Well, I suppose you could say that this bacterium is lazy. It does not, in fact, spread rapidly, in spite of its name.

ENGLISH MAJOR: So. An oxymoron.

DOCTOR: What? I know you’re not calling me a moron.

ENGLISH MAJOR: No. No. That’s a term for two words used together that contradict each other. You know, like “open secret” or “friendly fire,” or “an absolute maybe.”

DOCTOR: Or an indolent rapid grower. I get it.

ENGLISH MAJOR: You know, I’ve been rather indolent myself. Over the past few weeks since the surgery. Not much get-up-and-go. Weaning myself off the meds.

DOCTOR: Any problems with that?

ENGLISH MAJOR: Not really. I’ve just been in kind of a “wait and see” mode, you know. Wondering what happens next.

DOCTOR: With your treatment?

ENGLISH MAJOR: Yes. And with my life. My priorities. How I need to be making
plans. . .

DOCTOR: Well, as far as this condition is concerned, you still have plenty of years ahead of you. This is not going to be a fatal disease.

ENGLISH MAJOR: You’re sure.

DOCTOR: Highly unlikely.

ENGLISH MAJOR. As good an answer as I’ll get, I suppose. So we’ll begin treatment now, right?

DOCTOR: Not quite yet. We know in general what kind of infection it is. But there are three different strains. And we need to find the best antibiotic to fight it. That can be tricky. It’s why we need to speciate it.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Oh. Let me guess. To find out exactly what species it is, right? What kind of rapid growing bacterium that’s not growing rapidly.

DOCTOR: Um. exactly. . . I can tell you that most likely it is a form of something called “mycobacterium avium.”

ENGLISH MAJOR: “Avium?” something to do with birds?

DOCTOR: Birds? No. . . As I was saying. . .

ENGLISH MAJOR: Sorry.

DOCTOR: As I was saying, sometimes they used to call this category of bacteria Mac.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Wait. I’m googling it.

DOCTOR: Don’t—

ENGLISH MAJOR: Oh. My. God. This does not look good. It says here that during the AIDS crisis, early days, people who were HIV positive would come down with Mac, and it invaded their bodies and did all kinds of damage and—

DOCTOR: Shh. Shh. Yes. This infection is dangerous for people with compromised immune systems.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Compromised. Like the immune system is untrustworthy because it has made some kind of dirty deal with. . . what?

DOCTOR: I am going to ignore that question. Because in your case, you appear to have a very robust immune system. So—

ENGLISH MAJOR: Robust. I like that. But. Then how did this thing get into my lungs? Since, you said, it’s not contagious. And my immune system is supposedly robust.

DOCTOR: Who knows? These germs are in the air we breathe, the dirt we walk on or handle. This one may have been in your lungs for quite some time. Your body appears to have been fighting it off, sealing it up so that it couldn’t do damage.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Oh. Then. . .

DOCTOR: Let me explain. In terms of what you discovered about HIV. While for people like you, the infection spreads very slowly, for those with compromised immune systems, this bacterium can be very exuberant.

ENGLISH MAJOR: (laughing) Exuberant? Exuberant. Like “energetic,” “celebratory,” “Hooray! Hooray. The receiver just caught the long pass for the touchdown.” Like that?

DOCTOR: “Exuberant” is the medical term for it. But yes, I suppose. . .

ENGLISH MAJOR: Not “aggressive.” Not “invasive.” Exuberant.

DOCTOR: I’m glad to have made you laugh. That doesn’t happen so often with these consultations. So. . . Do you feel less worried now?

ENGLISH MAJOR: Yes. And a bit less indolent. Maybe not quite exuberant. Not yet. But relieved. More optimistic. More ready to get up and get on with it.

DOCTOR: Good. So. Let’s make another appointment in a few weeks. We should have all the results by then. And we can begin treatment.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Fine. And I want to thank you for being so patient with my . . . interpretation of—

DOCTOR: Believe it or not, I am looking forward to working with you. As a patient. . . Get it? This should be an interesting, maybe even an entertaining, venture. For both of us.

ENGLISH MAJOR: Indeed.

IS ALCOHOLISM THE SOLUTION TO THE FORD-KAVANAUGH MYSTERY?

In the recent public hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford seemed totally belivable when she asserted that she was 100% sure that the boy who groped her and covered her mouth when she tried to call out was Brett Kavanaugh. And then Brett Kavanaugh seemed believable when he asserted that the event never happened. Could they both have been telling the truth, according to what they remember?

One solution to this mystery has been suggested by some on the committee. Maybe Dr. Ford “mis-remembered” and her attacker was someone else. After hearing her account, that explanation does not seem plausible to me. Weighing both testimonies, as well as the accusations made in public and online, it seems much more likely that it is Kavanaugh whose memory is inaccurate.

I have come across 6 accounts of Kavanaugh’s patterns of drinking. In every case, he is described as severely impaired by alcohol—stumbling, barely able to walk, slurring his speech, or throwing up. One of these accounts is from Christine Blasey Ford, who said during her testimony that Kavanaugh could not succeed in taking her clothes off, partly because he was “very inebriated.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/national/wp/2018/09/27/kavanaugh-hearing-transcript/?utm_term=.4c4c7b0f2541

Two other accounts are from women who did not testify, and whose stories were not investigated by the FBI. Deborah Ramirez reported that a drunken Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a dorm party. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/senate-democrats-investigate-a-new-allegation-of-sexual-misconduct-from-the-supreme-court-nominee-brett-kavanaughs-college-years-deborah-ramirez

Julie Swetnick reported that Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge used to slip grain alcohol into women’s drinks and shut them in rooms with a line outside of boys waiting to rape them. https://www.yahoo.com/news/brett-kavanaugh-third-accuser-julie-180040160.html

A fourth anonymous accusation from more recently (1998) asserts that a drunken Kavanaugh pushed the woman he was then dating up against the wall of a building “very aggressively and sexually.” https://www.denverpost.com/2018/09/26/colorado-fourth-kavanaugh-accuser/

The fifth account comes from Kavanaugh’s friend Mark Judge (who has asserted that what Ford described is “no situation I ever remember being in”—a slightly different claim from saying that it never happened.) Judge is mentioned as a participant in a number of these accounts, including Ford’s, and seems to have been the ring-leader in these escapades .It is his laughter, along with Kavanaugh’s, that still haunts Christine Blasey Ford. Judge wrote a book celebrating years of drunken misbehavior, Wasted—Tales of a Gen X Drunk, which makes reference to Kavanaugh. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2018/09/27/mark-judges-book-validates-christine-fords-timeline-alleged-kavanaugh-assault/?utm_term=.dce4fa380f14

Perhaps the most damning account is from Kavanaugh himself. In a speech he made in 2014, recalling his years at Yale Law School. Kavanaugh spoke about “organizing 30 classmates in a bus to go to Boston for a Red Sox game and a night of Boston bar-hopping, only for us to return falling out of the bus onto the front steps of Yale Law School at about 4:45 a.m.” He also tells how he and a classmate “were reminiscing and piecing things together the other day. We think we had more than a few beers before the banquet. Might have been at Toads. Not a good idea.” These words suggest that his memory of events that happened while he was drinking is less than perfect. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/09/brett-kavanaugh-gave-a-speech-about-binge-drinking-in-law-school/

Is Kavanaugh still drinking heavily? His anger-tinged response to questions about his drinking would suggest that the answer is yes. “I liked beer. I still like beer” followed by a denial that he had ever blacked out or assaulted anyone while drinking. https://www.nbcnews.com/card/kavanaugh-i-liked-beer-i-still-beer-n914326

Kavanaugh’s demeanor during the hearings has drawn many comments. Sometimes he was visibly very angry, lashing out with wild accusations. Sometimes he was in tears. He was fixated on the cost of these accusations to himself and his family. In many ways, his response resembled a temper tantrum thrown by a toddler or a young adolescent. Those who study patterns of addiction to alcohol or other substances suggest that addicts become emotionally frozen at the age when they first began using. Clearly, Kavanaugh is mentally and logically advanced far beyond the age of 15. But his public testimony suggests that emotionally he is a petulant, entitled young teen who believes that he should be spared the consequences of his actions.

Amanuenses

AMANUENSES

 

Tolstoi’s wife wrote out the whole of War and Peace

in careful longhand—our professor told us—

narration and common speech in Russian,

the dialogue of aristocrats in French.

She performed this feat seven times, he said

as her famous husband obsessively revised the text,

again and again.

 

Blind Milton composed the stanzas of Paradise Lost

in the early morning hours.

Then at dawn, his daughter took dictation,

as depicted in the painting in the New York Public Library.

It was, she said, like milking a cow.

 

Wendell Berry, noble defender of the old agrarian ways,

spurns computers.

And why shouldn’t he?

“My wife,” he tells an interviewer, “types my work

on a Royal standard typewriter, bought in 1956.”

There’s more. “My wife, my critic, my closest reader, my fellow worker,”

he says, has served as his editor

for every poem, every story, every essay, every book.

Her name is not mentioned in the interview

Or in any byline or on any title page.

 

Let us now praise unrecognized women—

Sofia Tolstoi, Mary Milton, and Tanya Berry—

whose hidden roles made possible

the works we treasure.

THE MARTINS HAVE LANDED!

No, not Orson Welles’s aliens from outer space. The large purple swallows that swoop and dive and catch insects to feed nestlings housed in gourds. Those martins.
He has been waiting for them to come—for thirty-seven years. He hung hollowed gourds from tall poles. He constructed his own multi-tiered martin apartment building. He bought plastic gourds and a fancy manufactured martin housing project. Most years, in the spring, he cleaned house, discarding nest remnants from other species of birds that had taken up temporary residence. Occasionally, a few martins would drop by to inspect the property. But none ever moved in. Until this year.
Envy is one of the seven deadly sins. He never envied anyone else’s fancy car, or beach property, or fame and prestige. He did envy others’ martin houses—at Chatauqua, or on Sullivan’s Island, or in a field on a back road a couple of miles away. Why couldn’t a pair or two escape their crowded conditions and migrate over to our yard?
He was like Charlie Brown, hoping to kick that football, believing that –this time at last—Lucy wouldn’t jerk it away.
He knew that there were certain disadvantages to hosting a martin population. A man near Fayetteville, whose martins he envied, explained, “Well, you know, they’ll dookie on you.”
So. We now risk getting shitted on (or is it shat on?) while walking outside. But, on the other hand, martins eat mosquitoes—by the thousands. With all the dripper hoses, rain barrels, bird baths, and saucers under potted plants, mosquitoes breed here to the extent that when I want to get from the back door to the carport nearby, I have to either spray myself with deet, or run full-tilt (always unsuccessfully), to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. What’s a little bird poop compared to that? The martins could alter the whole ecology of our acreage—for the better.
And now we have the pleasure of watching the martins circle and swoop and dive with amazing speed and precision straight to the hole in one of the plastic gourds to deposit a bug before taking off again in constant motion that may seem like ADD but is actually utterly purposeful. It is not the martins’ purpose to inspire wonder or gratitude for the fulfillment of a dream long deferred. Those are merely side effects unwittingly bestowed by the purple martins.

TENDING THE INNER FIRE

Thomas Merton quotes Vincent Van Gogh, who said, “There may be a great fire in our soul, yet no one ever comes to warm himself at it, and the passersby only see a wisp of smoke coming through the chimney. . . Must one tend the inner fire. . . , wait patiently yet with how much impatience for the hour when somebody will come and sit down—maybe to stay?”
Eventually, many strangers were attracted to Van Gogh’s domain, paying outrageous prices for his sunflowers and starry nights. But that was long after his flame had sputtered out.
And I am left to wonder, must one keep that inner fire burning at all costs, resisting anything that might damp it down?
Suppose this is not just a cozy fire to warm and light a room that might shelter a guest. Suppose sometimes it flares up, out of bounds, to destroy that room and everything in it. Suppose inspiration runs rampant—without the focus or patience to bring ideas to fruition. Suppose tempers flare, friendships are sundered, property is destroyed. Suppose the blaze inspires a person to cut off his own ear—or to so enrage a roommate that he cuts off the ear and departs the next day for the South Seas.
Are there times when truly tending the inner fire means overcoming the stubborn will, accepting the terms of one’s human condition, listening to advice, and taking whatever measures are necessary to keep the flame steady—neither a dying ember nor a blazing inferno?