Counting my blessings

My great and beautiful friend, the much-lamented Robert Lax, wrote this in the prologue to his masterwork “Circus of the Sun:”

And in the beginning was love. Love made a sphere:
all things grew within it; the sphere then encompassed
beginnings and endings, beginning and end. Love
had a compass whose whirling dance traced out a
sphere of love in the void: in the center thereof
rose a fountain.

Bob, in his life and in his words, strove to lead a simple life of love and devotion and peace. I’m thinking of this today, two days before Christmas, because I’m very aware this year of the simple joys and gifts I possess and will celebrate during this Yuletide.

I think that one reason I’m so grateful this year is that it feels to me like the whole goddamned world is falling apart, disintegrating, like we’re barreling toward oblivion at warp speed and pieces are blowing away as if our heat shield has failed.

But the other day I sat in a church – not a typical place for me to be — and watched and listened as a choir sang traditional Christmas carols. My eyes filled up with tears. Part of it was feeling connected to a nice group of people who are very human in both their frailty and their collective strength, and very welcoming to a relative stranger. Part of it was just feeling the simple power of the hope that still resides in Christmas. And part of it was that I couldn’t take my eyes off one of the altos, who sang with such heartfelt joy that it made me love her even more.

Mostly, though, it has to do with this, which my friend Bob knew and which he taught me: Love is the beginning and the end. It’s as simple as all that.

So I count my blessings…

I’m alive, and in pretty good health. I’ve got three great children, each of them remarkable in their own way. I have caring, devoted, supportive friends. My mother’s going on 81 years old and still shovels snow from her sidewalk and plants a garden every year and still calls me “Nicky.” I’ve got an absolutely beautiful 15-month-old granddaughter who can’t stop smiling and waves to me when we Skype and blows kisses to me over the phone when she can’t see me but can hear my voice. And, no, I don’t have enough money, and, no, the publishing world has not yet recognized my genius, but someday I will, and someday they will, and more important anyway than fame or fortune is the gift of being in love with an incredibly beautiful and gentle woman who loves me in return, and that we’ll be together for Christmas this year.

So, Merry Christmas! I hope you’ll find time to count your blessings, too. Here’s Diana Krall to put you in the mood:

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“Love’s Compass” — Life takes a new direction

Yes, I’ve got a personal interest. But I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t really believe it:
The just-published novella “Love’s Compass” by Mary McAvoy is a book you should buy and read.

Mary’s got a knack for story-telling, and her well-crafted novella offers deceptively simple but intriguing themes and elegantly-wrought motifs to explore and enjoy, and the book’s also an engaging, thoughtful and provocative look at our society’s social mores and changing views of love and marriage.

Added bonus: The book title derives from the great poem “The Circus of the Sun” by my friend Robert Lax, the great mystic poet. “Circus” begins with this phrase: “Love had a compass…”

Here’s a synopsis of the plot of “Love’s Compass”:

As her young adult children depart from the nest, Liv finds that her husband is drifting away, too. What is pulling him from her at a time when they should be enjoying their lives together? Feeling abandoned and alone, Liv meets and falls in love with another man. “Love’s Compass” tells the story of love discovered at a time when new love is not often experienced. It explores a husband’s quiet exit from a marriage. It examines a woman’s thoughts and feelings as she tries to find her footing in a place that she never expected to be at this point in her life. Love’s Compass is the story of love lost and love found.

Mary has built a web site about “Love’s Compass.” It includes an author biography, links for purchasing the book online via Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and other features. The Amazon site also includes the “Look Inside” feature with actual sample pages of the book.Book-signings will be scheduled in Boston and in the suburbs north and west of Boston (the book is set in Boston’s colorful, artsy and slightly funky South End) – as well as one being planned in Highland Park, N.J.

In the mean time…you know I wouldn’t steer you wrong or point you in the wrong direction. “Love’s Compass” is well worth reading …I hope you’ll order a copy — and then, if you like it, tell your friends (or maybe even order them their own personal copy). And while you’re waiting for your  copy of “Love’s Compass” to arrive in the mail, visit Mary’s new blog site and also check out Mary’s elegant and lovely nature essays and photos.

On the road

The soundtrack wasn’t the late-night bop sounds of Symphony Sid and I wasn’t driving with one hand while my other hand typed my spontaneous beatific scroll. I was listening to Bob Dylan’s newest album on my stereo and I had one hand on the wheel and my Mapquest directions in the other — but I was indeed on the road, first stop Lowell, Mass., hometown of Jack Kerouac and my destination for a meeting with the folks who have organized that town’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival, which was held last October for the very first time and is already an impressive event.

Allen Ginsberg's famous photo of young Jack Kerouac
Allen Ginsberg's famous photo of young Jack Kerouac

I arrived early, and so had a chance to explore downtown Lowell, which reminded me very much of my own old home town of Yonkers, N.Y., where even now I can walk around those familiar streets and conjure up visions of the city’s once-bustling business district in the old carpet mill buildings and the old sugar refinery and even the old Herald Statesman newspaper office now converted into a library branch because the newspaper was homogenized and sanitized and standardized and blended until it disappeared. Lowell  felt like that, right down to the impressive old Lowell Sun newspaper office, with its big rooftop signs — two of them — spelling out the name of the paper, S-U-N.

Here's a view of downtown Lowell, including the Lowell Sun building
Here's a view of downtown Lowell, including the Lowell Sun building

I then met with the poetry festival organizers, with whom I’d been put in touch by Robert Pinsky, the former U.S. poet laureate who teaches in the graduate program at Boston University and was the featured poet at the inaugural festival held last October in Lowell.

Robert Pinsky
Robert Pinsky

(Pinsky was the featured poet at the first annual Delaware Valley Poetry Festival in 1998 — which I founded and still run in conjunction with River Union Stage of Frenchtown, N.J. — and was good enough to come back to read again in 2007 for the 10th anniversary of our readings in New Jersey, which have also featured such literary lights as Louise Gluck, Pulitzer Prize winner and another former U.S. poet laureate; Pulitzer winner Paul Muldoon; National Book Award winner Gerald Stern; and other great poets includling Thomas Lux, Diane Wakoski, Maria Mazzioti Gillan, Joe Weil, BJ Ward, Charles H. Johnson, Stephen Dobyns and many others. The 2009 Delaware Valley Poetry Festival, scheduled for October, will feature yet another great poet — Rita Dove.)

So I met with the Lowell event’s organizers: Michael Ansara, who arranged the lunch, joined by LZ Dunn, who works for the city of Lowell as well as its cultural agency, and Paul Marion of UMass/Lowell.  We had a great exchange of ideas and thoughts on ways the Lowell event might be turned into an even greater event than it already is, including the idea of finding ways to connection with the thriving poetry scene in another old industrial city with deep literary roots — Paterson, N.J., associated with a couple of pretty good poets named William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg.

I also had a fascinating but all-too-brief talk with Paul Marion, who it turns out has been the mover and shaker behind many of the efforts to properly honor Kerouac in his home town — and was involved in the cataloguing of Kerouac’s correspondence — including letters Kerouac exchanged with the late, great poet Robert Lax, who was my friend and mentor. I knew about Lax’s friendship with Kerouac, who was fascinated by his Zen/Christian minimalist approach to life and art; in fact, I know that Lax was reading some of Kerouac’s novels in the months just before he died; but I was startled to learn during the conversation that Marion was familiar with Robert Lax and was excited to meet someone — me — who had known Lax.

Here’s a photo taken of Lax by Paul Spaeth, curator of the Thomas Merton/Robert Lax Archives at St. Bonaventure University, when Lax visited the school in 1990 during a brief sojourn back to the U.S. from his home on the island of Patmos, Greece:

Robert Lax
Robert Lax

The one downside to the meeting in Lowell: Turns out the 2009 event in Lowell will be held on the same weekend as Rita Dove’s scheduled appearance Oct. 17 at the Delaware Valley Poetry Festival in New Jersey, so I won’t be able to make it back up to Lowell for this year’s event — here’s hoping I can make it in 2010.

And, because even Kerouac’s “On the Road” scroll manuscript had a begininng and had to finally end, so too this post must end. What better way than with a sampling from Jack Kerouac’s Belief and Technique for Modern Prose. He listed thirty “essentials.” Here are my favorites:
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
20. Believe in the holy contour of life

“I was no more than a boy…”

I think I remember that…Everyone was wearing those then…

That comment about what everyone was wearing then, including me, referred to a photo in which I was wearing an ugly green parka, probably purchased at a cheap department store. It had a quilted orange-colored inside lining and a hood edged with obviously fake raccoon fur.

A few hours later I heard this song as I was driving in my car:
When I left my home and family
I was no more than a boy…

It all came back. It’s a few years after that photo was taken. I’m in my early 20s. I have absolutely no money and can’t find a job. I’m writing poetry. I’m sharing an apartment in Chelsea with two friends. I am so broke that when I get a one-day job as an office clerk through a temp agency, and have to head uptown to pick up the paycheck, I walk the 50 blocks each way because I couldn’t afford the subway fare.

And so the memory of that ugly green parka and hearing “The Boxer” somehow set me to thinking about William Packard.

When I moved to New York City, my friend Robert Lax — the great, saintly poet — told me to look up Packard. Lax wrote to Packard and asked him to be on the lookout for me. Packard — founding editor of the fine literary magazine New York Quarterly, a professor at NYU, a playwright and a poet — was a great bear of a man, capable of writing and speaking boisterous words but just as able to write gentler words expressing fear and doubt and love and regret and hope.

William Packard
William Packard

He was a good man. He and I had some engaging and provocative talks about writing and reading and living in some late-night chats at his apartment on 14th Street. And he helped me, just as Bob Lax had asked. Packard helped me get my poems published. He helped me get invited to read some of my poems at venues in Manhattan where I had no right — at least based on my abilities and credentials — to be reading. And one day there was an act of kindness I will never forget. I met up with him at some diner on University Place. He ordered a tuna sandwich. I ordered only coffee. I was so hungry I can’t even describe it — but I could barely afford the coffee. Bill Packard’s sandwich came — and he took half of it, put it on a napkin, and pushed it across the table to me. And never said a word about it.

Packard took photos of writers he met for the first time — writers, as he explained it to me, who might someday be noteworthy. The photos were generally slightly blurry, slight fish-eyed, slightly off-center and tilted. And he took a photo of me — I know he gave me a copy of it, but I don’t know whatever became of it. I’m sitting on a park bench in Washington Square. It’s snowing lightly – flurries — and the flakes can be seen in the picture. I look very cold and very thoughtful — and very hungry and very much at loose ends. And I’m wearing that ugly green parka that everyone wore back then, and the hood’s pulled up tight around my head, and as I peer out at the camera, my face is framed by obviously fake raccoon fur.

William Packard, in his later years, suffered a stroke. I hadn’t seen him or talked to him for a while, but at Bob Lax’s urging I called Packard about 10 years ago. It was a sad, strange conversation — but I did get a chance to remind him of the kindness he had shown me and to thank him for it. He didn’t know if he had a copy of the photo and he’d forgotten all about the sandwich. These things, I was startled to realize, were minor episodes in Packard’s rich and busy life — they were small things to him, I said over the telephone, but they meant everything to me.

Everyman

I applied for a writing residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — applications, writing sample, artistic statement, three recommendations — and waited for Oct. 1, 2008, when letters of acceptance or rejection were scheduled to be mailed. And wouldn’t you know it? The freaking letter arrived right on Oct. 1 — in a thin envelope, so I knew, just like when guys like me dare to apply to Princeton, that my residency application had found a new home in Yaddo’s dumpster.

A few days earlier, a guy I know — a cook at the local cafe — had given me a copy of a concert CD –the “Bread and Roses” benefit for prison reform — featuring Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, and a bunch of other folks including Jackson Browne. I left the cafe with my cup of coffee, got in my car, and the CD started playing Jackson Browne’s “For Everyman.”

Seems like I’ve always been looking for some other place/To get it together…

I’m not quite sure why that resonated right at that moment, but I guess I’ve always felt like I’m searching for some other place. I guess my application to Yaddo had something to do with at least one aspect of that quest — finding some sort of refuge, someplace where where my soul might be possessed (even for only a two-week stay!) or my Yaddo room visited by the ghost of one of the great writers who found inspiration at Yaddo: Langston Hughes, Robert Lowell, James Baldwin, Henry Roth, Philip Roth — even Mario Puzo, for God’s sake!

I’m going to reapply to Yaddo. I’m going to apply to the McDowell colony, too. And I’m going to keep applying for fellowships, keep writing on this Web site, keep working on a new novel, keep writing my essays on mortality — and keep wondering why I also find myself thinking about an encounter I had, about a year or two after I graduated from college, somewhere along the New York State Thruway, not all that far from Yaddo.

I think it was around Batavia, N.Y. I’d hitchhiked to Buffalo to see a friend, and now was hitchhiking back to Yonkers — had to get back to work — when I encountered a beautiful, friendly young woman. We stuck our thumbs out together and quickly got an eastbound ride. Something clicked between us, and clicked quickly. I don’t even remember her name, but I do remember that I was enthralled — and oh-so-tempted when she asked if I wanted to go with her to the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts, where she lived on some sort of commune. I thought and debated and wavered — she was very beautiful — and had to make up my mind by the time we reached the point where I would either continue heading south on the Thruway toward New York City or head east to the Massachusetts Turnpike and life amongst the hippies with this beautiful hippie girl.

Why don’t I remember her name? Why didn’t I ask her the name of the commune and where it was located? I mean, I could have visited her, right? Why did I choose obligation and responsibility over a life of karmic sex, psychedelic mushrooms and organic vegetables?

I think it was because I realized there was middle course, smack in the middle of deliberation and impulse, between fantasy and reality, between life on a commune with a beautiful blond hippie and the mundane life they used to call the rat race. My friend the saintly poet Bob Lax once told me “Things happen the way they’re supposed to happen. It’s as simple as that.”

What Lax told me is easy to say but more difficult to accept. Stuff happens to make your feel like you just can’t keep going along that yin-yang Zen path of serenity. Your agent hasn’t managed to sell one of your novels. You get rejected by Yaddo. You feel like Everyman…

Here’s an old etching. And here’s a multiple-choice question. This drawing depicts 1) Jackson Browne performing his song “For Everyman”; 2) Nicholas DiGiovanni getting his application rejected by the director of Yaddo or 3) Death summoning Everyman for his encounter with God.

https://i1.wp.com/homepage.mac.com/mseffie/assignments/everyman/holdod16.jpg

I don’t know if Jackson Browne was familiar with the Everyman morality plays of the Middle Ages. I think he probably meant to use the word in the sense of “common man.” The original Everyman story basically went like this:

God’s complaining that the humans He created are way too caught up in material things and don’t appreciate the real gift He’s given them. So God sends Death to bring Everyman to Heaven to explain himself to God. Everyman tries to bribe Death to give him more time to get his story together. Death refuses this request but tells Everyman he can bring someone with him on his journey to meet his Maker. So Everyman asks Fellowship (meant to represent a person’s friends), Kindred and Cousin (representing family), and Goods (material possessions), but they all fail him or fall short of what he needs. Everyman then approaches Good Deeds and her sister Knowledge, and they go with him to visit Confession. Everyman repents his sins, and Confession presents him with a jewel called Penance and absolves him of his sins. Knowledge gives Everyman a garment called Contrition and Good Deeds rounds up Beauty, Strength, Discretion and the Wits to accompany them to the appointment with God. But when Everyman tells them the details of this impending reckoning with the Creator, everyone bails out except for Good Deeds. Beauty and Strength, for instance, can’t be counted on because they leave as people get older. Knowledge can’t come because Knowledge dies once we’re in our graves. All that survives when a person dies is his or her Good Deeds — that’s where the play ends, with a narrator explaining that Good Deeds are all that matter in the end.

I guess. But I’d say the acquisition of wisdom and knowledge, love of family and friends, and admitting one’s failings are all important. As for Goods and material possessions…no, they’re not important, but it sure is nice to splurge once in a while — I mean, life’s too goddamn short, as Everyman learned the hard way.

As for unpublished novels and rejections by writing programs …I’ll admit they may not be as important a Good Deeds, Knowledge, Fellowship and all the other characters in that medieval morality play, but I also feel obliged to note that the Everyman tale was written about 500 years before God created Yaddo or even the New York Times Book Review.

Priorities and the priory

It’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.

I’m referring to the Weston Priory, a Benedictine monastery in southern Vermont in the vicinity of Manchester, Londonderry, Peru and, obviously, Weston, southeast of Rutland.

Here’s a nice photo of the pond, where I’ve spent some pleasant hours just sort of sitting there, closing my eyes and shifting into relaxation mode, sometimes opening my eyes to admire the surrounding mountains or watch herons land in the pond, sometimes strolling around the grounds and checking out the brothers’ vegetable garden, their small barnyard and even the community burial ground tucked into a hillside near the woods on the opposite side of the pond.

https://i0.wp.com/www.westonpriory.org/images/album/m.jpg

Beautiful place. And because of my friendship with the late poet Robert Lax, I became an admirer of the writings of the most famous monk of 20th century, Thomas Merton. So I’ll find myself sometimes thinking that living at Weston Priory — living a simple life of contemplation in such a beautiful place — wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

But consider the daily schedule at the place:

Morning
4:45: Rising
5:00: Morning Vigil Prayer
5:30- 6:00: Common Sitting Meditation Reflective Reading of Scripture
6:00- 7:30: Personal Prayer, Pick-up Breakfast in Silence
7:30: House Chores
8:00: Personal Study Time
9:00-11:55: Work with Brothers
Afternoon
12:15: Lunch (Main Meal)
1:30: Midday Prayer
1:45- 4:30: Optional Work With Brothers, Personal Time, or Value Discussions
Evening
5:15: Evening Prayer, Eucharist
6:15: Supper (Lighter Meal)
7:00: Recreational Gathering
8:00: Compline (Night Prayer)

Then add in the fact that I happen to like interactions with women and actually married a very beautiful one, who was actually with me when I visited Weston Priory.

Throw in the little problem that I think organized religion, or at least the organizers of it, tap into three basic human failings: Ignorance, fear and arrogance.

Those are all very good reasons why I could never become a monk and live at Weston Priory. But here’s the main reason: When I was there a few weeks ago, I encountered one of the brothers. He was walking toward me, lost in thought, his head bowed in contemplation and prayer. I thought I heard music coming from somewhere in the distance, and I commented: “Do you hear that? Is someone playing music?” And he replied: “That’s Brother ____. He’s sitting in the woods playing his recorder.”

I could probably live the life of a sort-of-a[-hermit like my friend Lax, who lived quietly and simply in a little house on the Greek island of Patmos, spending almost all of his time just writing and thinking and silently reveling in the basic beauty of life.

But I know Bob Lax would have laughed just at the thought of Brother ____ spending his afternoon sitting in the woods playing his recorder, probably sitting by a babbling brook and happy little birds were fluttering around and landing on his shoulders and singing along to the blissful brother’s music.

Nice place to visit and I’m sure I’ll visit again. No way I could live there — I’d get to the point where the goddamn recorder music would finally get to me and I’d end up breaking every single one of St. Benedict’s rules.

.

Original child

The great peace activist and contemplative, the late Thomas Merton, wrote a poem about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton

Merton called the poem “Original Child Bomb.” Merton’s college roommate and best friend, the great poet Robert Lax, told me once that he thought “Original Child Bomb” might be Merton’s most powerful work. So here are excerpts from Merton’s poem to mark the 64th anniversary of that terrible day, Aug. 6, 1945, when the world changed forever.

Hiroshima after the bombing
Hiroshima after the bombing

The poem’s subtitle is: Points for meditation to be scratched on the walls of a cave.

In the year 1945 an Original Child was born. The name Original Child was given to it by the Japanese people, who recognized that it was the first of its kind.

The time was coming for the new bomb to be tested, in the New Mexico desert. A name was chosen to designate this secret operation. It was called “Trinity.”

At 5:30 A.M. on July 16th, 1945, a plutonium bomb was successfully exploded in the desert at Almagordo, New Mexico. It was suspended from a hundred foot steel tower which evaporated. There was a fireball a mile wide. The great flash could be seen for a radius of 250 miles. A blind woman miles away said she perceived light. There was a cloud of smoke 40,000 feet high. It was shaped like a toadstool.

Many who saw the experiment expressed their satisfaction in religious terms. A semi-official report even quoted a religious book-The New Testament, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” There was an atmosphere of devotion. It was a great act of faith. They believed the explosion was exceptionally powerful.

On August 1st the bomb was assembled in an airconditioned hut on Tinian. Those who handled the bomb referred to it as “Little Boy.” Their care for the Original Child was devoted and tender.

On August 4th the bombing crew on Tinian watched a movie of “Trinity” (the Almagordo Test). August 5th was a Sunday but there was little time for formal worship. They said a quick prayer that the war might end “very soon.” On that day, Col. Tibbetts, who was in command of the B-29 that was to drop the bomb, felt that his bomber ought to have a name. He baptized it Enola Gay, after his mother in Iowa. Col. Tibbetts was a well balanced man, and not sentimental. He did not have a nervous breakdown after the bombing, like some of the other members of the crew.

On Sunday afternoon “Little Boy” was brought out in procession and devoutly tucked away in the womb of Enola Gay. That evening few were able to sleep. They were as excited as little boys on Christmas Eve.

At 3:09 they reached Hiroshima and started the bomb run. The city was full of sun. The fliers could see the green grass in the gardens. No fighters rose up to meet them. There was no flack. No one in the city bothered to take cover.

The bomb exploded within 100 feet of the aiming point. The fireball was 18,000 feet across. The temperature at the center of the fireball was 100,000,000 degrees. The people who were near the center became nothing. The whole city was blown to bits and the ruins all caught fire instantly everywhere, burning briskly. 70,000 people were killed right away or died within a few hours. Those who did not die at once suffered great pain. Few of them were soldiers.

It took a little while for the rest of Japan to find out what had happened to Hiroshima. Papers were forbidden to publish any news of the new bomb. A four line item said that Hiroshima had been hit by incendiary bombs and added: “It seems that some damage was caused to the city and its vicinity.”

Then the military governor of the Prefecture of Hiroshima issued a proclamation full of martial spirit. To all the people without hands, without feet, with their faces falling off, with their intestines hanging out, with their whole bodies full of radiation, he declared: “We must not rest a single day in our war effort … We must bear in mind that the annihilation of the stubborn enemy is our road to revenge.” He was a professional soldier.

On August 9th another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, though Hiroshima was still burning. On August 11th the Emperor overruled his high command and accepted the peace terms dictated at Potsdam. Yet for three days discussion continued, until on August 14th the surrender was made public and final.

As to the Original Child that was now born, President Truman summed up the philosophy of the situation in a few words. “We found the bomb” he said “and we used it.”

Since that summer many other bombs have been “found.” What is going to happen? At the time of writing, after a season of brisk speculation, men seem to be fatigued by the whole question.

—————————-

A parting thought (from me, not Merton)…This may be the best quote ever about what happened at Hiroshima. It’s by Viktor Frankl, author of the great book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” who had this to say:

 “Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.”