MIDNIGHT, MID-APRIL, AND A “MOMENT” AT THE LAST MILE

I said I was going to post something about “pain.” It was not going to be especially “painful” though perhaps a little provocative. I was hoping so, anyway. Why bother write about anything so serious as pain if you don’t intend to “provoke” a few deep thoughts on the subject — which can be painful.

But THIS — is getting painful: talking about something I don’t intend to talk about right now. In addition to which, It’s quitting time for anything on the painful side of time, meaning it’s getting near midnight. I had a painful day in my life, one in a series. I’m talking about emotions, the psyche, my soul….

I need to feel no pain.

Therefore, I’m going to head to that space deep in this blog from which I’ve been too long absent, but only briefly, for it is, as I said, quitting time, meaning Last Call –at The Last Mile, that dive deep in my imagination. For the purposes of this rumination, I shall imagine that, in defiance of the whole world’s draconian pandemic restrictions, The Last Mile (named thus by its former federal inmate absentee owner) has managed to stay open. (I wonder if said owner has dusted off somebody in high places?) In the past, I’ve introduced you to two of the “regulars” — Sticky Sammartino, offspring of a survivor of the infamous 1919 Boston molasses explosion) and Jackie the Crow Kantner (I’ve never before revealed his last name.)

The Last Mile, a place where a name change has been contemplated for a half century, is in a jumble of dense old woodframe houses in neighborhoods just a matter of yards –or, actually, mere feet –off Rte 1A in Revere, Massachusetts; just a billow of thick exhaust from the old hard scrabble city of Lynn. And as I enter the Mile tonight, past a dark window in which the neon signage is fluttering nervously (the “o” in Rolling Rock is blinking like an eye freshly doused with bleach), I see in the darkness near the end of the bar the woman named Athena Leroy. (Sticky and the Crow are not present, as it happens. Thursday is their book club night at their rooming house a few blocks away . I’ve been meaning to make it to that weekly event, if for no other reason than to see what books appeal to the residents of the Seaside Arms. I do have an invitation. The club night would be over by now, of course, and all its attendees retired to their various rooms in the Arms.

But I’m glad to see Athena.

“Thena,” I call out by way of greeting, glancing simultaneously a quick nod of greeting to Deano the bartender who normally wouldn’t be happy to see a newly arriving customer this late but generally doesn’t mind if it’s me. The Mile ( yes, that’s what we call it) never closes before 1 .a.m.. There are still three guys at one back table, a guy I recognize at Ben (an Haitian-American city public works maintenance man) sitting in his uniform at a table near the doorway to the boy’s and girl’s rest rooms. He’s on his cell phone (probably, if history is any guide, talking to his brother in Haiti.)

It is a moderate, mid-April night outside. (It’s tax day, though the pandemic has jumbled deadlines, even that one. The clock with Budweiser Clydesdales is showing dead midnight, both hands aligned under the horse’s hooves. The flat screen Sanyo is on but silent over the bar — some talking head is on the screen. (Deano usually only puts the sound up for sports, especially the Bruins). Athena (“Thena’ as you note I call her) has her long slender legs crossed and pointing my way. She has a red blazer on with the company logo over the breast pocket. She sells real estate in the daylight.

“Thena,” I say again, sitting down on the stool next to her. She has been nursing a Manhattan. “How’s business?”

I know the answer to that question. It’s a seller’s market. Business is great, from Revere to Wellesley.

Athena’s surname “Leroy” is, by the way, from two husbands ago. She’s Greek, from Lowell, and, to save my life, I couldn’t tell you her “maiden” name now. (Sorry for that sexist, almost antediluvian, thoroughly unacceptable moniker, if by chance you’re one of the legion of folks who take blanket offense at everything. So few people read this blog — I’m up to two now — I can’t afford to offend anyone.) Athena is the best looking sexagenarian I know, especially now that she’s let her hair go silver. She really ought not to be hanging around a bar this late, being only a moderate and strictly social drinker with a reputation to protect. It’s a mystery why she comes here, which could be said of many patrons, including me. She stops in to see Deano from time to time, having sold his sister a house in Swampscott. Deano’s always good company and Athena is, from time to time, a bit lonely. She’ll probably marry again soon, ending the current plague of solitude.

I can usually count on a few laughs with Thena. But tonight, she surprises me. She’s gloomy and silent. Maybe it’s the Manhattan speaking, and maybe she spent too much time lately around Husband Number Three before discharging him. He was Irish, dreary and fatalistic, lacking the consolation of all his lost faith, first in God, then in Buddha. She looks gloomy alright. The real estate market is through the roof! How can she be gloomy? (One answer, of course, would be that we aren’t our jobs.)

“Some grief, some misery is the portion of us all, “says Thena, philosophically, by way of “hello.” This is a cocktail of ancient Greek wisdom — and dark Celtic glumness. The sort of things Manhattans were made to sooth, I suppose.

Deano comes over to us. He knows I don’t imbibe and sets me up with my usual: bitters and soda. Seems ole’ Athena’s been mentally downing bitters.

“Winter’s over, I know,”she says. And I know it’s mild and lovely out, really… But, Greggie honey, I’m feeling cold and dark and dreary. I can’t figure it.”

Ah! The little black dog of depression. Considering possible sources, I recall that Athena had recently lost a pedigree toy poodle to old age, along with Husband Number Three (whose loss, unlike the dog’s, was her choice.)

“Well,” I say, drawing on my fragile memory of quotes from “The Waste Land”, April is the cruelest month, according to the poet.”

Quoting “The Waste Land?” In the Last Mile? How pretentious, and, offered as a cure for depression, how stupid!

“Breeding lilac out of the dead earth,” she says.

I’m shocked. I’m pretty sure she hasn’t gotten that quote right, but who knew my old friend Athena was ever anywhere near a book of poetry, the typical poem of which did not begin, “roses are red, violets are blue….” (I’m such a snob!)

“The vine still clings to the moldering wall at my place,” she says. “Every gust rattles my window pane.”

Wow! These are originals — spontaneous poetic products of the deepest gloom. Oh, my God! think I. Oh! This IS painful. And me having to hear it drinking only bitters!

“Life can be cold, and dark and dreary, honey,” she says. And, hearing this, I’m thinking her face, beneath a layer of make-up, confirms it

I sip my bitters. I notice Deano has made his usual “last call” pot of coffee.

“You need a nip of Deano’s brew,” I say finally, and, the muse suddenly lights gently on my shoulder, allowing me to transform that observation into a rhyme…

“And it will warm you through and through.”

Athena smiles then. If you must know, I think the sudden metamorphosis is of either metabolic or divine origin. Athena doesn’t even much like coffee. It’s as if she is emerging from hypnosis. The lights have gone on, suddenly. The elevator of her spirit has suddenly un-jammed near her pelvis and is rising rapidly to the top floor of her brain, loaded with bright thoughts. She re-crosses her wonderful legs like a seductress — like Eutychia, Greek Goddess of Happiness, sprinkling a powdery potion in the space between us where Athena can breath it into her very soul. It consists of all of what joy still manages to mitigate the evil and gloom beyond the walls of every long, dark gin mill such as The Mile — places otherwise redolent of only beer, disinfectant, boredom and exhaustion. I’m happy to say that it seems my words are the accidental and mysterious source of this sudden joy. Don’t ask me why. Does it have something to do with the soaking, boiling, fermenting nature of the steaming vision we might have at any moment of the invisible essence of happiness itself — percolating up from the depths of our own personal Inferno?

“Yes,” says Athena Leroy, gently, affirmatively, still smiling.

“I was talking about maybe a cup of coffee,” I say innocently.

“No, no, no,” says Athena. “I don’t need anything else to drink. Not coffee, not — anything. I’m — I don’t know — I’m not thirsty, not tired, not angry, not sad anymore.”

Well, I’ll be damned! This is when a soul says to itself, I’ll have what she’s having. And for a second, I confess, I feared Athena wanted — ME. But I shouldn’t flatter myself. I live in the swamps safely outside any portion of Athena’s romantic/carnal universe. And to tell you the truth, from her aspect, I was imagining she might now be a happy Ophilia, done with her Hamlet, ready to give up every real estate lead, every commission and blissfully head off to a holy cloister for the balance of her earthly life. Just speculation on my part.

But it was a different kind of moment for me. Just when I thought I might have some company, ole Athena takes her small purse off the bar, pulls out a twenty, lays it on the scarred old oak bar top for Deano (no doubt it includes her usual sizeable tip) and pulls a florid Covid mask out of the bag, a reminder of one of the factors , i.e., the pandemic, that is stealing humanity’s joy. (My mask is in the car and, as is his habit, Deano is letting me and every guy in the joint ignore this regulation, hoping not to get raided for his largesse by the Covid Blue Sockings.)

Athena slings the purse over her right shoulder, slides off the bar stool, pushes back her silver hair and loops her mask over both ears. Still smiling, she leans toward me, surprises me with a kiss on my forehead.

“You saved the moment,” she says. “I can go on now.”

And with that, she went on alright– walks in that statuesque Greek manner of hers (so incongruous in a Revere dive) out the front door. She always manages to park her Lexus close by, so I assume she is safe. Any potential mugger or, God forbid, rapist, would be scared off by that new aura, I believe. There are angels around her now., guiding her to her rest. (I think she lives somewhere in Beverly. She has a bit of a ride ahead of her. But she’ll plainly make the ride in peace, and, I’m guessing, wonderful silence in the smooth luxury of that conveyance.

“Did she drink much?” I ask Deano.

“That was it,” Deano says, picking up and indicating her empty glass with the cherry sunk in a thin residue of ice. “She’ll be fine.”

I sipped my bitters.”Deano, that was strange,”I say after a moment’s contemplation.” What do you make of it?”

Deano just shrugs and walks off. That table of straggler-bar flies is still by the back wall. I don’t look that way, but hear them now as they laugh uproariously at something.

There were scenes of rioting up on the TV screen. Athena Leroy was on her way home in our chaotic world, her midnight moment saved. (What are any of us doing out this late?) I’m glad the Holy Spirit or something allowed me to “save the moment” however unawares.

“This fragment I’ll shore against my ruin,” I think to myself.

“Strange lady,” I say to Deano as he comes over, as he always does, to grace me with some last-call bartender chatter, a special bonus The Last Mile affords sober people — and people, like me, Deano hasn’t seen in a while.

Dolce far neinte,” he says, reminding me that he is Italian. “Happy doing nothing, my uncle Geno always said. I don’t want to contradict Deano and tell him I think what’s up with Athena runs deeper than that. Something, not nothing, was going on there.

But I humor him. Deano, so capable of plumbing the depths of human motivation, didn’t seem to be in the mood for it tonight.

“You said it,” I say, laugh and polish off my bitters.

It’s time to go. I know I can’t get for myself whatever I or the Holy Spirit or the angels gave Athena. In some moment of grace, it may come my way.

And, pain? I’m happy to put that off — for another time.

OF BRIEF ENCOUNTERS…

I told you about the Prince and our brief encounter (which I will continue, perhaps tendentiously, to refer to the Charles’s only on-the-record “interview”) during a brief state visit to Boston.

A disgraced prince of the entertainment kingdom came within earshot of me once as well. I speak of Bill Cosby, comedian, actor, author — now serving prison time for aggravated indecent assault. He seemed — and still seems — a tragically unlikely person to have so deliberately committed the outrages of which he was convicted. But the evidence, being the testimony of several women, seemed irrefutable and damnable, not to mention shocking and disappointing.

But, during a very different period in his formerly brilliant show business career, he paid a visit to Boston — specifically East Boston — on a good will mission the nature or purpose of which I frankly don’t recall at the moment. But I do know I was assigned to cover the appearance. I’d estimate it was around 1997. I believe I was freelancing for WBZ-TV at the time.

It was another rainy day. Dignitaries including the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who in some fashion was also involved in the event and cause being advanced, were on hand to greet Cosby and share the stage with him. It all had something to do with the promotion of education, because the venue was a school. Cosby was known to support numerous philanthropic and educational causes, among them Keep a Child Alive, Jumpstart, Boys&Girls Clubs of American,etc.

And so, there I was with other reporters waiting in the rather dark hallway of an East Boston public school as Cosby, surrounded by his hosts, came toward us. I said, once he was in earshot, “Mr. Cosby, what are you doing in here today?”

“It’s raining,” he said, and kept walking amid great laughter. That was all he’d have to say to reporters that day, if memory serves me.

No serious criminal charges had been lodged against him at that point — for drugging and assaulting a number of women over a number of years. But there had been a woman somewhere in the country, not long before this event, who had publicly accused him of fathering her child. A legal battle had ensued.

That was the context for a lighthearted moment during the formal program in the school’s auditorium ( for presentation of a check or award or something). A woman in about the second rose to compliment Cosby for his work and also, for some reason ( I forget what reason) called attention to the fact that she had her small child with her that day. Cosby rose from his seat, walked to the edge of the stage, peered out at the child, barely visible above the tops of the seats, and quipped, “nope, not mine.”

Laughter rang out again, Ted Kennedy’s among the loudest.

It is so sad, thinking of that moment, that so funny and once so beloved and charitable a figure — a man who, for over a generation, shed so much light in the world — should have turned out to have such a dark side.

But, along with Prince Charles, I once occupied his consciousness for a fragment of a second. I pray for his victims, and for his soul.

And I’ll always remember the famous stand-up routine of a very young, new-to-the-scene Bill Cosby in which he pretends to be Noah in his arc during The Flood, cooped up with all those animals, bitterly complaining to God, “have you seen the bottom of that arc? Who’s going to clean up that mess?”

MAN IN THE DOORWAY

I’m remembering a poem I wrote in college, in which I reflected on a photograph by a fellow student and aspiring photographer. It appeared in the first issue of the literary magazine I founded and edited at Suffolk University; a magazine that survives to this day. Its subject is a man, seemingly an old man — though probably younger than I am now — standing in the sallow overhead illumination of the marquee above the doorway of the pensioner’s hotel called The Beacon Chambers at the heart of Beacon Hill in Boston. (The brick building on Myrtle Street that was The Chambers is still there — but probably a boutique hotel now, or expensive condominiums. Ghosts, old-man ghosts, must flock all around it. )

Time of the poem: It is the mid-to-late 60s. The man is glancing sullenly toward the camera, aware he is being photographed, though I’m certain the photographer, a fellow named Phil Bailey, hoped he was a good distance off in the shadows near the corner of Joy Street.

And I wrote of this man: Wind made him from careless ashes/ Leaning him where history wriggles vermin-like behind the honored stones/ And evening laughter, falling out of orange windows/ Blows along the bending streets/ And brushes, dead, against his feet.

Kind of a leaden echo where one hopes for a silver or golden echo in the words of a poem.

Is it any good? Not really. My favorite English professor didn’t think so, either. But — 50 years later, how about a little analysis of what was swarming about in 21-year-old Greg Wayland’s “poetic” brain.

The man, probably smoking though you do not see a cigarette, looked like a column of ashes to me; careless because I imagined all the burned-out ashes of every gutter in the city swept up into this burned-out human form. After all, we’ve just marked Ash Wednesday when we hear the words, “dust (or ashes) thou art and to dust thou shalt return…” T.S. Eliot’s iconic poem “Ash Wednesday” ultimately lets a sea of burned and blackened images collapse upon the prayerful, liturgical appeal, “And let my cry come unto Thee.” I now much prefer this recourse to the divine to the sentimental nihilism of my 21-year-old self.

As for “where history wriggles vermin-like…” Just a surly undergraduate’s pseudo-cynicism, his aspiration being to denigrate Boston’s and Beacon Hill’s much ballyhooed urban corpus, it’s “honored stones,” where, in fact, as every college renter might have attested in those days of the 1960s, cockroaches abounded. So history is just so many bugs infesting very old, possibly “historic” buildings. So I chose to see it, through a glass darkly, at that moment.

“….evening laughter, falling out of orange windows…” As I walked up, down and across Beacon Hill during those young, sometimes overly-idle years, I would hear voices, laughter coming out of lighted (“orange”) windows — or did I? Did I just imagine such voices, such laughter? Surely, there were people within those buildings; surely from time to time, I was among them, visiting here or there. Doesn’t every old city of the world have these old, crowded brick or brownstone sectors and can’t you hear the voices, the laughter? So that image, that imagining, went into my little “poem.” And the laughter could have “drifted” out, but I, clumsily, imagined it a physical thing “falling” out of those windows like strands of ribbon, and landing on Beacon Hill’s narrow “bending” streets; being blown thereafter along those streets by the same imagined gusts that blew the ashes into the form of a man in the Beacon Chambers doorway; a man whom I, sadly, deprived of his humanity by imagining him merely a pillar of ashes.

And I imagined these strands of laughter, after traveling like blown debris across Beacon Hill, ending up “brushing, dead, against his (the man in the doorway’s) feet.”

So there you have it. And, because I do not have the poem before me, I cannot show you how I broke up the brief stanzas, some of the words floating out there –“blown” out there — by themselves. The poem, by the way, had no title. It ran alongside the grainy picture of the man.

I feel some resentment now for that English professor, a favorite as noted, who should have given me a little encouragement. Writers, especially young writers, need praise, or, at least, encouragement. Surely this effort was not entirely without merit. He might have told me — he did not — exactly what was “wrong” with hit, or how I might have “improved” it, or told me how it did or did not compare with poems that had earned the name of poems. I, these years later, see the awkwardness, the (again) clumsy, leaden use of words. And a poem is all about the words. But the images — might this have been akin to the Imagists? Where might I have learned what little there might have been of merit in this poem? Whom was I imitating?

In truth, I do not always entirely understand poetry, especially modern, less accessible poetry. But I know I love it nonetheless, and that this means of talking, soul to soul rather than just ear to ear or eye to eye, is worth my time, like music that does not always reward my first listening. All the more reason to read it, listen to it, divine what, as one poet said of another poet’s poems, “how this contraption works.” Like paintings, abstract or representational, we, the viewer must make up our minds about the worth of the art object.

Whole epics from ancient times are often viewed through their literature, including, perhaps especially, their poems. One thinks of that ever-so-brief and yet so passionate and anonymous poem that has survived from the obscure Middle Ages, being, apparently, the longing of some lonely traveler or warrior — Western wind when wilt thou blow/ The small rain down can rain/ Christ that my love were in my arms/ And I in my bed again.

It is a prayer, really. With weather.

But that lonely poem of mine is– to date, the only one I’ve written: I just might, someday revise it, as a more supportive professor might have encouraged me to do. Its subject can now become a source of abstract poetic speculation — about his humanity and his ultimate fate. His certain, long-ago death. Who stayed at the Beacon Chambers but lonely, nearly impoverished, often alcohol, even sick or dying men? It seemed to be a place only for men — and such men as this.

And what shall I call this poem?

I suppose it should be called, “Man in the Doorway.”

ON SERIOUS EARTH

What do the times seem to require? A resort to permanent, essential things and a retreat from dirty, miserable politics. This would be an important heart and soul realignment at a time when politics has become a religion for so many people. Why else would the world of politics have become so desperate, especially on the left. On the right, where the most traditionally religious peoples in America tend to gather for mutual support, they are seeing their most cherish, deeply traditional religious and spiritual principles threatened — along with their religious practices and observances as legitimate pandemic-related health concerns get catapulted into extreme quasi-religious concerns and church-going and religion are viewed as less essential than commerce, entertainment and supermarket-going. Body vs. soul. Body wins in an increasingly, radically secular culture. A post-Christian culture, we were calling it — well before the pandemic. Religion is no longer viewed as something that keeps body and soul together.

This has led me to a decidedly secular, even probably atheistic or, at best, agnostic late British poet of some renown named Philip Larkin (1922-1985), an Oxford-educated librarian and scribe regarded to be among the spokesmen for the “angry young men” of Britain’s post-WWII generation. He wrote, among many other things, a poem called, “Church Going.”

From the beginning, as you read, you know church is not a natural place for Larkin to find himself. It was 1955. He was 33. England was still reeling economically and socially in the aftermath of war’s bombardment, privations and civilization-rattling concussions. There was the usual fevered political activity in the public square.

Larkin writes of being in church…

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on

I step inside, letting the door thud shut.

Another church: matting, seats, and stone,

And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut

For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff

Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;

A tense, musty, unignorable silence,

Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off

My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.

And so it goes on, for eight stanzas, as the poet explores this church. But I have to wonder what brought this “angry young man” into this particular space in the first place. I must read the poem again — and again — for a sense of that. It is an ruminative and enjoyable poem. It is far better sometimes to read what the non-religious, world-weary, agitated-in-mind and the cynical have to say about a church than what the pious and religiously convicted might spew. You can discern where the non-religious are hiding those natural spiritual impulses.

And Larkin asks,

I wonder who

Will be the last, the very last, to seek

This place for what it was…

Some ruin-bibber*, randy for antique,

Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff

Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?

*bibber in this context means addictand Larkin does make “antique” singular.

This might be called, far from a profession of faith, a cold profession of anti-faith. Larkin also asks, “for whom was built this special shell?” And though he wonders what it all might be worth in dollars ( or pounds), he adds, “it pleases me to stand in silence here…” in “a serious house on serious earth.”

We are standing, pre-and-soon-to-be-post-inauguration, mid-turmoil “on serious earth” in America. I, for one, plan to stop into a church, though feeling more like Philip Larkin than any regular church-goer (which I am). I’ll be in a place, as Larkin choruses,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognized, and robed as destinies.

ETERNITY’S CHILD

So we advance slowly and, to me, sadly and reluctantly out of the Christmas season. I dislike January for the letdown that always feels cold and bare, even in warm, florid Florida ( I apologize if it’s your birth month, because only a backward-looking nostalgic fool like me resists the biting cold reality of time marching on.)

I should paste the image of the magazine cover here, but I’ve reminded people on Facebook that in January, 1967, I — and everyone in the United States under the age of 25 — was TIME Magazine “Man of the Year.” (This was before the early wave of PC ruled the noun “man” exclusive and sexist.) We, the under 25 baby-boomer generation were, at that tender moment in American history, the majority of the country, hence worthy of note for our potential to change the world. We didn’t. Not really. And time and war quickly began depleting our ranks.

The magazine cover image shows a young, handsome white male — sort of an imagined composite of EVERYBOY — with a similarly generic girl (young woman), African-American male and Asian male arrayed sort of like a deck of cards. But the white guy is out front. This time period — 1966 into 1967 — would be the last time a white Caucasian male would be seen as representative of all of American youth .No white male is entirely representative of anything in America now — and that is as it should be. We aren’t that representative, and our generational and wholesale numbers are shrinking. (Put gray on all four of those TIME Magazine heads now.)

Too bad that , at this point in time, “identity politics” has commenced to divide that multi-cultural TIME image with every American of every race who came after 1967, being turned against one another.

But back to my main subject here — the passage of time.

(I’m reminded of a fellow television reporter who, in doing a story down here about homeless guys congregated with their beer coolers under a Tampa Bay bridge, offered the memorable — or slightly memorable — line, “they’re just passing their time, until their time passes.”

The other memorable thing about that story was the voice and image of a homeless guy lifting the lid of a cooler and proclaiming, “you just reach in and get ya a nice cold beer.”

I confess, at that moment, that guy’s life — a this was fleeting thought on my part, and a shameful one at that — didn’t seem like a bad way to pass the time or pass a whole life — as long as the supply of cold beer held out.

That was about 38 years ago. I’ll bet the beer’s gone. And I’ll bet that guy’s time passed.

Anyway, here we go again — into January, named somewhere back there for Janus, the Roman god of doorways, beginnings, the rising and the setting of the sun. We are going through that door again. Beginning a new year — still stalked by a pandemic, as by the grim reaper.

“The things of time are toys,” wrote Rev. M. Raymond, O.C.S.O. , which, in French, stands for Cistersien de la Stricte Observance. The English translation is easy — Cistercians of the Strict Observance. It refers to a cloistered order of Catholic monks known as the Trappists, named after La Trappe Abbey, one of their ancient spiritual redoubts.

Fr. Raymond goes on, “You are eternity’s child and your eternity has already begun! There is a compelling urgency to every day and every hour of the day. In it we are to witness to the truth — that God greeted and gifted us at Christmas.”

I tend to forget that.

This year, I pray I remember. And that my time goes on — and on….into a Baby Boomer’s bright morning. I’m not ready for sunset, much less the night.

And hold the beer.

SLOW COUNT

Somewhere in The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton writes: “He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.”

The year 2020, which is creeping to a close, contained very few adorable trivialities and one grand and damnable calamity — the pandemic — which opened like a sinkhole beneath us.

I must, as we slide down toward the socially distanced ceremonial finale in Time Square, get hold of Chesterton’s The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, which, I’m told, contains this prophetic line: “Politicians do not understand much, but they understand politics. I mean they understand the immediate effect of mobs and movements.”

We’ve had mobs in 2020 and, for movements, the disingenuous rabble organized under the ameliorative and deceptive title, Black Lives Matter. Of course they matter! So does the nuclear family which BLM has targeted for disruption. You have to read down pretty far in the group’s manifesto before getting to the alleged reason for its founding, i.e. police violence against blacks. (As for the nuclear family, political commentator David Brooks wrote a protracted argument in favor of re-imagining the nuclear family in Harper’s. I read it. I was not convinced. Far from it.

Which reminds me of another Chestertonian bon mot someone turned up for me in G.K.’s collected essays: “Politicians will not make a land fit for heroes to live in. It is heroes who make a land fit for all the other poor people to live in; even such poor little people as the politicians.”

Touche’

Now, let’s imagine a socially distant mob in Time Square doing a very, very slow countdown….10…..9……8…..7…

Backwards! That was 2020 alright. And it looked so good, so promising last year — so balanced and symmetrical up there in lights and in the headlines. Not long after the lights faded, the ink dried on those headlines (on what few broadsheets remain on what newsstands remain) and the page refreshed on our laptops and iPads, 2020 turned into annus horribilis. We’re still dealing with the hangover.

But our hopes are young, even if we aren’t, in a decade that’s still young.

Happy New Year!

AND SO WE BEAT ON, BOATS AGAINST THE CURRENT….

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and the only light was the shadowy moving glow of a ferry boat across the sound…”

The beginning of the end — of Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator Nick Carroway’s closing meditation on Jay Gastby who’d come a long way to that “blue lawn”of Long Island to pick out “that green light” at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock….”He must have though his dream was so close he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, back there in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic roll on under the night.”

Not every word perfect, all from memory.

It is the day after Christmas. It’s all “falling action” in the story of this fraught year now.

Will this republic be pulled apart as it journeys into a new year and regime change? Can it sustain itself in the face of these atomizing forces? That’s how that keenest of observers, Joan Didion, exploring and writing about the scene in Height Ashbury in 1967 (that putative Summer of Love), diagnosed the entropic forces at work among the baby boomers nesting there – as a process of “atomization.” We are being reduced to our particulate parts as a nation, i.e. ground to fine powder. And it ain’t now, nor was it, really, in ’67, love potion or fairy dust.

I was, in fact, working in the mountains of California as a Department of Interior maintenance man during the summer 0f ’67, at a ranger station and visitor center where the Sequoia seed that could, over centuries, grow up to be the largest living things on earth, i.e., the sequoia redwood, was preserved under a small plexiglass dome that I polished daily. Nature, tall and redolent and mysterious and full of promise, was my companion. I would like to get back out there to my old workplace for nostalgic reasons — see again what I guarded during the Summer of Love as it raged in San Francisco Bay. See that enshrined seed that, under that little dome, won’t grow into anything — just go on, growing our wonder.

So (as Nick ends his bittersweet rumination sitting on that blue lawn looking off into the Sound of night) he declares that “we beat on ( then, in 1925, and now, as we head into this new year), “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. “

And we debark nevertheless, facing forward….tell me the alternative?

HOPES AND FEARS…

It is pre-dawn, the darkness and silence before the dawn of Christmas Eve, 2020. The silent morning before the Silent Night. How silent, ever, is that night, when, year after year, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee….” ?

There will be some unpeaceful musings in what follows, for which I apologize. It is a time, as Christmas dawns, to love, forgive, pray and unite. But I have these fears…

Fears — and who can doubt it, reality being reality — that as we edge ever closer to the end of this year, our pandemic or political woes are certainly following us like a stalking beast and will stay with us across the New Year meridian. For some of us who care about religious freedom and conscience rights, the intense political fears are just beginning, for we shall see inaugurated the putatively “Catholic” rosery bead-rattling Joe Biden, a visibly border-line senescent past-his-prime pol, pretender and (forgive me) well-known blow-hard , along with his running-mate, our future co-leader of the free world, the latter a culture-bound California liberal who can giggle and charm her way through an on-air interview with hip-hop DJs and sing the joys of pot but who apparently regards membership in one of the worlds largest religious charitable organization, the Knights of Columbus, to disqualify one from public service, especially the federal bench. I’d venture to say that while Kamala Harris is very familiar with Snoop Dog,et al., she’d never formerly heard of the Knights until she learned that a judicial candidate from Nebraska, whom she was in the process of grilling, was a member of the Knights and therefore suspected, by virtue of that membership and his Catholicism, to be oppose to a woman’s sacred right to chose to abort her unborn child. She would never believe any judge could separate their personal beliefs from their judicial obligations to follow the law — simply because her idea of a judge, I suspect, is precisely someone who’s liberal political preferences must override any law. (The right to an abortion is, I acknowledge, the law of the land — but so too is a judicial candidate’s right not to be subjected to a religious test when he or she seeks federal employment.)

Future President and Vice-President Biden and Harris plan to pack the court, if at all possible, until it reflects, not the rule of law, but political preference. If the results of two Georgia election run-offs go the Democrat’s way, they will have the power to do that and ever so much more.

But I digress, bitterly and out of the hopeful spirit of the season and this Christmas moment. Sorry. Yesterday, backing out of my driveway, I looked left as I rolled slowly back, unaware that an unknown neighbor in this basically very friendly community was coming — perhaps a little too fast — from the right. He leaned on his horn and yelled something unpleasant. I don’t know what; just know it wasn’t pleasant. That moment, in my mind, dimmed the coming glow of the Christmas lights that had yet to be switched on and illuminate street after street. I wanted to yell at the vanishing fellow motorist, “Merry Christmas!”

I will drive north to Tallahassee, Florida today — about a five hour drive up long, peaceful stretches of U.S. 19. I will spend Christmas Eve in the pleasant company of friends close enough to be, for all intents and purposes, relatives. I will attend Christmas mass somewhere on Christmas Day.

Hope will conquer fear, I pray, for those hours. We must keep praying, all of us, that hope goes on conquering fear, hour by hour for as many hours as their are in a year or a lifetime. And I must open my heart to the hope that those I see as arrayed against me, politically, socially, culturally, religiously — against me and all those who share my hope and my beliefs — will undergo a conversion of heart and, heart joined to heart, truth and love triumph.

Too much to hope for? Christmas is always about hoping beyond the visible horizon. Just ask any child.

Merry Christmas!!

DARK AND EVEN DEEPER….

I wrote up the December 21st (Winter Solstice) piece for Facebook and wound up revising it and tightening it a bit — and realized, prodded by some fond FB friends, that I’d neglected to include in my little meditation the amplifying incident on Monday night of the night time conjunction (at least to the human eye) of Saturn and Jupiter. How marvelous! And how sad that I only thought of it near midnight and, sadder still, did not go out to search for it. Many said they could not see it, but some did, even at dusk when it truly appeared how we imagine the Star of Bethlehem to appear. Yes, I never should have left out reference to this starry event.

But here’s how I wrote of the Solstice in Facebook:

I’m one of those blithering fools who waxes all gooey over the solstice – the sun on its northerly or southerly trek. In June it’s that day when daylight lingers on rooftops and lake surfaces, seemingly never to die away. We hope for such a day without end. Today, December 21st, is about darkness, the shortest day of the year. And this, I submit, is another time of hope. Somewhere, sometime, some ardent English teacher might have graced our ears with some saint’s or famous poet’s thoughts on light and darkness, even as we dozed, dreaming of the closing school bell. Perhaps, if we were lucky, it was Robert Frost’s, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I love that poem – a dead poet’s undying meditation set, we are told, on “the darkness evening of the year.” That would be this evening, therefore, if we are going strictly by science. The solstice. Or perhaps it was just the darkest evening in the poet’s troubled soul. We all have those dark nights. The woods, he tells us, are “lovely, dark and deep.” Robert Frost knew about deep darkness. He was, in the words of another of his poems, “acquainted with the night.” That is bad darkness, where dark thoughts and deep, dark memories fester, where dark deeds hide in dark spaces. But this winter darkness watching a neighbor’s woods fill up with snow “between the woods and frozen lake” seems a good darkness, like the darkness before the movie show or the big concert or when we turn the lights out for the singing of Happy Birthday over the cake and candles or the darkness that enhances the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel – or the glow of the Hanukkah candles. The earlier that darkness comes tonight, the sooner we see those multitudes of Christmas lights brightening every country lane and city square. We are a few days from what is, for many of us, a very Big Birthday and the singing of Silent Night, Holy Night. It’s been a rough, noisy, unholy year. Plenty of death, sickness, broken or delayed hopes, dreams and bank accounts – bad darkness. Let’s enjoy, while the solstice lingers, the peaceful darkness of the deep woods, church, synagogue, mosque or home sanctuary. For, the poet had to move on reluctantly from those dark, peaceful woods, as we must ultimately, from that dark, peaceful place within us, realizing, perhaps also very reluctantly, that we have, as the poet reminds us, promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. Yes, miles to go before we sleep….

DARK AND DEEP….

It is the shortest day of the year. Who has not heard, at least once in their lives, Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”…. The poem indicates that this meditative pause happened on “the darkest evening of the year.” That would be this evening.

There will be abundant darkness after early nightfall tonight all over the land. But no snowy evening where I am (in Florida). though here and there some northerners have scattered about their Christmas decorations some artificial snow — an act of nostalgia for something that was not always pleasant or easy to deal with, but which, in the early going, can be one of Christmas’s gentle visual enhancements (“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…”)

Wherever we are, even in the depth of the city, there is some wooded arbor, some darkened space we can pause and stare and meditate after nightfall — some place that is “dark and deep.” It might be a chapel. It might be our own little room.

I’ve written of unpleasant darkness, of light deprivation, of the black seal that covers over acts and places of evil-doing. But the good darkness of the theatre before a satisfying play or the room where we have lit the birthday candles on a cake, of that proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” — that darkness before the dawn, that darkness allows us to enhance and appreciate the light. Perhaps the white — or whiteness — we dream of at Christmas or anytime — is light. We are four days from Christmas, where is manifested, in its dark, deep solemn recesses The Light. The Ultimate Light. And in silence we are able to meditate on it — Silent Night. O Holy Night.

It has been a painful year of fear and pandemic and bitter political divides and destruction, absurdly, carried out in the name of “equality”– a dark year in many ways, waiting and hoping for the light and peace of mind, peace over the land. That pain, that negative darkness cannot be dispelled easily or, perhaps, until the end of time, or the end of our individual lives when, if we have faith and have persevered, we hope, along with St. John Henry Newman, for “a safe lodging and peace at the last…” For, as Newman so beautifully put it, “the night is dark, and we are far from home.”

We have been told there will, someday, be an end of time. But the light — the candle, the flame — that Christmas light in our hearts is called Hope. We work in hope of brighter moments, or changes of heart, including our own and, of course, changes — sometime painful changes — in the conditions of our personal and national lives.

That is the hope that can lighten our heart, God’s own light, as we wait for Christmas, stopping by those woods, so “lovely, dark and deep.”