Sunday, January 30, 2005

POEM: If When I Die

If when I die, this is all there is to life,
Know that you gave me faith to remember
That this world is both June and December;
Proffering beauty in a time of strife.

If when I die, this is all there is to life,
Accept the warmth found in friendship's glory;
This dream which sounds like a child's story
Becomes song and rhythm of my delight.

If when I die, this is all there is to life
Believe that I would choose this way again:
For life’s flavor is sweeter with a friend,
And love cuts away the self, like a knife.

When speech fails, heart will always make it known,
When I touch others, through you, love is sown.

POEM: Journey

Now I descend a ruined plank
From vessels of a gusty youth
Onto a shore of aging truth
I greet my very breath with thanks.

Dinner, not well digested,
Knotted legs like heroic pine,
Dreams fermented like ancient wine,
My Lungs and thinking congested,

I wake and dress myself with time
Which has loosened hair, mind and teeth,
Transgressions' ghosts yield relief,
And make the present wholly mine.

I find me where I ought to be,
Heart full of blood red tomorrow,
Forgetful of last night’s sorrow;
In exchange of youth I am free.

M C Biegner

Terminal Velocity

Winsome Plunkett loved math. He always had. It was why he taught it. It lacked ambiguity. Winsome Plunkett hated ambiguity.

For thirty years he taught the Alva T. Stamford High School youth the delicacy of mathematics. During this time, Winsome stood awash in the ambiguity of adolescence; it denigrated his holy mathematics; it derided the constancy of math as a way of life.

Thirty years of the practical chaos of teaching high school gained him no insight at all on chaos theory. No insight at all. The light in his brain just grew dimmer.

It made him open his window. It made him pray once more to mathematics. It was boyish mental gymnastics at best but it would do.

From ten stories in his apartment, he estimated height. One hundred feet. He hated estimating. Hated it. Winsome Plunkett was not solving quadratic equations to be sure. He was after terminal velocity: the minimum speed with which a human must fall to ensure death. He had read once that this was 40 miles per hour.

He knew that velocity was equal to the square root of two times the constant of gravity times the height. He knew this better than his own birthday. He knew that objects fell at an ever hastening constant rate of thirty-two feet per second per second.

He crawled out onto the fire escape. The formula flashed in his head: V = SQRT(2 * 32’) * 100’ or about 55 miles per hour.

That would do.

He placed a wallet on the ledge. It wouldn’t affect his calculations. Galileo proved this. The wallet contained these items:

- One faded black and white photo of an old woman, replete with folds and creases.
- One library card set to expire in 2007
- One Band-aid
- One expired coupon for microwavable hot pockets
- One unopened condom
- One folded sheet of notebook paper with loopy and delicate handwriting, folded into perfect quarters.
- One student ID from the local state college.

Winsome dangled one foot – the right one – off the ledge. It shook with tremors of fear and joy. Gravity tugged at it.

He considered time.

Time was the square root of two times the height divided by the gravitational constant. He paused. He breathed deeply. He let space below win. At one hundred feet as he fell, he performed the last formula in his head. T = SQRT(2 * 100’)/32’.

The sudden contact caused the membranes of nearly every cell of his brain to burst: so much for delineation. The statistical certainty of death now held the door open for the ambiguity of his sudden disappearance.

All the formulas he relied on for so long were nucleic soup in his head.

It took 2.5 seconds – just as he figured it would. And this pleased him.

M C Biegner Jan 29 2005

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


In December of 2004, Judge Juan Guzman nudged the collective Chilean conscience a step closer to what some might see as closure, but what I interpret as the nature of justice.
With the statement: “Pinochet has been declared mentally fit to undergo criminal investigation” it seems that karma is as slow as New York traffic during the holidays, has finally started to come around on that wheel.

It was thirty-one years ago, September 11th , when the democratically elected government of Salvadore Allende was overthrown by forces led by General Augusto Pinochet with CIA backing.

Chileans have long memories and the clock is running out for a nation seeking justice against the man who has come to represent the suffering and horror of that time. They are hoping to catch him on tax evasion, the same crime they locked up Al Capone on.

Still, the country’s leaders exercise due process, not like in 1973 when it was believed the Chilean judiciary was complicit in illegal detentions, torture and disappearances.

One would think there would consensus about this man in Chile. One would think the issue of national psychic healing would be a monolithic fait accompli, but this is not the case. When I was there visiting in 1986, I started an argument, trying to evade some very difficult political questions some locals were asking me. It was in a social setting, and I was visiting the poblacion (barrio) of La Victoria.

One thing I will say is that even among the poorest of the poor in Chile, everyone seems to have an interest and a knack for global international politics. No discussions were off base. I found the Chilean people more knowledgeable about U.S. foreign policy than most Americans.

I derailed the discussion by asking one of my guests what he thought of the Pinochet government, still in direct power at that time, before the plebescite in 1989 that ostensibly removed him from power. That started vigorous discussion among my guests. My point being, that even here, in La Victoria, a plot of land that was originally created by what the locals called a “toma!” - a land take by the poor of government property - there was no consensus. Why should there be now?

To its credit, the current military has acknowledged its part in the suffering. An average compensation of $190 per victim claim is the suggested financial remuneration.
Yes, it’s laughable by U.S. standards, but that is not the point. “Justice is the principal method of reparation,” Pedro Matta, a survivor of the Villa Grimaldi torture camp insists. But how justice? When justice?

Commander in Chief Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre has taken the difficult and almost unheard of task of forging through the guilt and complicity of his military during this dark period of Chilean history.

When I was there, I went by the National Stadium. I was driven by friends, speeding through the streets of Santiago in an open-air jeep, probably in the same the same manner that many of the victims who were taken by the police; in the dark of night, the frenetic speed and blackness ahead, I saw it all lit up. The light cast ominous shadows and its history made it seem sinister, even some 15 years after the events. After the detention and torture of 5,000 men; after the madness that turned this place from a sporting area, to some collective neurons of pain for a whole nation, this place seemed nightmarish dressed in its shadowy face.

Folk singer Victor Jara was one of the 5,000 brought here, tortured and then executed. My brother who lived in Santiago for years, later bought me a “genuine Chilean guitar” and the chords and lyrics and a tape so I could listen to his songs and learn them.

“Plegaria a Un Labrador” – was the only song I attempted. Levantate, y mira la Montana – Rise up, and look at the mountain! and then finally he sings: Levantate, y mirate las manos – rise and look at your hands.

The first supplication asks us to look at the power of the mountains, the land, nature as a force and then he asks us as workers to look at our hands which unlock the power of objects around us, of the land and ultimately of our own destiny.

The first line was as far as I got.

Somehow, I didn’t feel worthy of singing these songs, or playing this guitar, or even sharing in any way in the misery or hope of these people. It was sort of like white guys singing the blues, or rap. I didn’t seem to have the “props” to pull off such humanity.

There is still denial by some segments of Chilean society. Even among those like Cheyre who want to make some sort of accounting and begin the healing process, no one is talking about accountability. Everyone involved is waiting for that other shoe to drop, and the thoughts of human rights trials, years after the events has everyone nervous. But can there be justice if some of those who committed these abuses are still in office?

Pinochet is 89 and is approaching the end of his life. They say for the last few years he has been a pariah within his own country and even abroad. Still, that is hardly consolation for the suffering this man – and others – has caused. Not that I would like to see anyone executed, but it seems to me, if you are a nation of laws, and if a law has been broken, there should be some consequence beyond the civil restitution of a few pesos in some poor victim’s pocket.

If Pinochet only spends one day in jail, and then dies, it will have sent a message to tyrants everywhere (are you listening George W.?) that no matter how much time passes, there is no statute of limitations for human rights.

But the accountability issue – who will be punished after all these years – is likely to stir up some debate. As much as I want accountability, what is the likelihood that the evidence to ensure fair trials is preserved and can be unbiased after all this time? Can witness’s testimony be trusted after all this time? How do we keep this from becoming a witch hunt and does this, in the final analysis, create healing?

Still, these goons perpetrated enough of the abuses on such a wide cross section of the population surely some of the testimony can be corroborated. And here’s the thing: if justice implies necessary accountability, are the victims of this regime comfortable knowing that some will never be held accountable? If they can imprison a percentage of those responsible, using due process and rules of evidence that are tried and true in democracies everywhere, will that be enough?

Ironically, we share September 11th with Chile as a date of infamy. This was the same date it seems that democracy here was pitched over the side for the security of a Patriot Act in this country. And also ironically this country, has been engaging in all sorts of revisionist thinking, (think, “we never lost Vietnam, we were just never really in it all the way and oh by the way, here is Iraq, which we will do right”). There are some here who are reconsidering the CIA’s role in the September 11th overthrow of Chile’s democratically elected president.

I refer you to the Kenneth Maxwell affair. Maxwell is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin Studies. His now well documented dispute with the editors of a December issue of Foreign Affairs, who says that his claims about Kissinger’s role in the overthrow inflamed some statesman close Kissinger. The editors of course deny this. Kissinger, true to form, says nothing.

Here are the links for specifics.

Clearly, the intellectual ground is fertile enough in this country now to start planting those seeds, what with terrorism and Iraq occupying the greater portion of most people’s frontal lobes.

But while we in this country struggle with moral amnesia and a case of seeing a naked emperor who we swear wears the most expensive Armani hand tailored suits, those in Chile hold on to memories of loved ones. Photographs and the hope of justice, however the people of Chile come up with a definition of this term, are all that sustain them. That, and that if Pinochet dies before he can be imprisoned, declared guilty before the world, we can only hope there will some sort of cosmic justice for him.

Sometimes that’s all we have to go on.

M C Biegner
Jan 2005

Monday, January 24, 2005

POEM: Hiding

Mine is the drifting kind of
Heart waste, a frozen kind -
Wind blown sadness
Burrowed deep in
An unforgiving and
Type of gray;
Stolen completely by ice -

Friday, January 21, 2005

Being Mary

Being Mary

There are details in the Gospels upon which I love to ruminate. Among my favorite is the story of Martha and Mary. The story goes like this: Jesus came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what He said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.

She came to Him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"

"Martha, Martha," The Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42)

This story is only found in the Gospel of St. Luke.

Luke was a doctor, and a Greek. His book was more extensive than the others, and it is believed that he had a hand in the writings of some of St. Paul’s epistles. He was often referred to as the “most dear physician” by St. Paul (Col., iv, 14). Much Catholic scholarship puts Luke in pretty tight with St. Paul.

Of all the gospels, Luke seems the most endowed with parables and stories that teach lessons. This story is one of those stories that seldom gets much “air play”, but I think it teaches us something about living the spiritual life.

It is important to note that this Martha in the story is a sister to the famous Lazarus, whom Jesus loved so well, that he brought back from the dead. He must have really loved Lazarus – and Martha as well.

But this story of Martha and Mary is a view of domestic strife. Mary is Martha’s sister and while we don’t have a clue as to whether she is older or younger, we seem to believe she is younger. Why is that? Is that because we tend to think of older siblings as more “responsible” as Martha was, working around the house to get dinner ready, while the good-for-nothing Mary, slacker that she was (the young are always slackers, aren’t they?) sat adoringly at Jesus’ feet?

Face it, Martha was pissed. And she had a right to be didn’t she? Here she is busting her chops to make a nice dinner for Jesus and Mary was foolishly just listening to Jesus. How was dinner going to get on the table? When were they going to eat? Can you almost hear Martha seething? Perhaps she said things under her breath to the servants, “That girl has the sense Yahweh gave to a chair!”

What’s really great is how Jesus sees this and calls her on it, gently, but he does.

His use of “Martha, Martha” implies how gentle his rebuke was. I mean he loved Martha and presumably Mary, because Lazarus was his friend. (Remember how he cried when he’d heard about his death? HE cried. Mon Dieu, if the Son of God is crying over death, and He is “in the inner circle” on this kind of stuff, what chance do we have? But I digress. That is another story.)

Jesus sees how much Martha is caught up in specious things, things that seem important, things that are “future-oriented”. Her anger at Mary is really anger at herself for not allowing herself the opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet and hear the Word of God as Mary has done. This is such a modern phenomenon that it makes me wonder if Luke had been transported back in time from today. Martha puts duty before spiritual growth. That’s the message here.

Luke, in his parable-like manner, puts two extremes side by side so we can line up and figure out where we stand. Most of us probably really understand Martha’s anger. Most of us are slaves to duty, especially here in this country, where an early to bed and early to rise sort of philosophy drives us by the minute. Time is money, and things have to get done.

The truth is, things always have to get done, don’t they? No matter what time management course you have just come from, or how new and fancy your Blackberry is, as you knock off the items from your to-do list of your life, one by one, the things on the list never disappear.

Mary knew this. Young people always do. It irritates us no end, but they know this. The magic is in the present. Eventually, the young lose that sense of the immediate as they are dragged into the world of worries and duty – as Martha probably was. I suspect she was really angry because she knew deep in her heart, that perhaps ten years earlier it would have been she at the feet of Jesus, instead of just Mary. I think maybe Jesus knew this too, which is why he was so gentle with her.

Jesus’ response is chilling: “Only one thing is needed”. What does he mean by this? We need to have the bread baked, and the table set. Martha’s head is going one hundred and fifty miles per hour. Who is going to do this if not her?

Jesus’ cryptic answer to Martha invites us all to consider what we value as “needed” in our lives. He is not suggesting food never be prepared, the house never be cleaned, the goats never be tended. He does not want you to skip re-wallpapering the baby’s room, or cleaning the bathrooms, or those Saturday’s you need to catch up on work at the office, or going in early to make sure things run right. It’s all important stuff.

But it’s all stuff that has a time to be important. Jesus suggests that spiritual growth is all that is really needed, not for the running of the house or the business but for you; for Mary, and yes, even for Martha as well!

So I start to see Martha and Mary as sides of my personality. There are those times when I am compulsive to get things done that pertain to the world outside of my spirit. These are important things; they are things left to me, and things for which others depend upon me.
But how much of Mary do I let myself be? How much of my spirit do I enrich daily to let my soul grow?

I like to use the analogy of flying in an airplane, how they always instruct you, in the event of sudden cabin decompression, to place the oxygen mask over yourself first, so you are then better able to help any one else with whom you are traveling. Mary represents that oxygen mask you place over your own face first.

I don’t know if Jesus would have chastised Mary if she had done nothing but sit around the house, listening to her I-Pod downloads of Jesus’ teachings. We’d like to think he might have gently rebuked her as well: “Mary, Mary, it’s good that these things nourish you, but girl, get a grip! You have to get a life! Go out and spread what you know.” But that is not what this story, today, right here in Luke, is about. It’s about the dichotomy of self versus duty and the balance that is required. Duty almost always wins out. Luke suggests through this parable, that maybe we just give a little thought – just a little - to our souls.

For spiritual liveliness is not an end for it’s own sake, is it? We don’t hope to be perfect so that we achieve some sort of cosmic prize, do we? Spirituality must be for the benefit of all of us in the long run – in this world and any others that may follow. It is one spirit after all, how can it not be?

So in those moments when you are visualizing your own crucifixion and the throngs who will erect shrines in your honor for being so selfless, and such a slave to duty, and crossing the t’s and dotting the I’s, consider when it was last that you sat at Jesus’ feet and listened. Regardless of your faith: whether its mediation, or watching a sunrise, or listening to poetry or music. When was the last time you fed your spirit and at the expense of the laundry or the ironing?

Be Martha for sure. But remember that Mary is in you too. You have to feed her as well.

M C Biegner
Jan 2005

Monday, January 17, 2005

Why I Miss George

I finally watched the Concert for George on DVD last night, having received it for Christmas and it jogged my memory that he died on November 29th. My wife reminded me that Carey Grant also died on that date. She also reminded me this was her mother’s birthday.

I wondered if there are there zodiac signs for the deceased? I mean we attribute personality characteristics to the living predicated on what month they are born. Are there characteristics of the dead, predicated on what month they died? Do the dead exchange clichéd lines at post mortem bars, “Hey, what’s your after life sign?” And what of those who are one sign during life, but a contradictory sign after life? What if you are an Aries or Leo in life (fire signs) but say a Cancer or Scorpio in death (clearly, water signs). Do we need to make any adjustments to such a change?

After watching the DVD I am awash in a grave sense of loss, years after the event. His music reminds me of what we have lost. I miss George Harrison. Terribly. And the funny thing is, I am not entirely certain that I can put into words why.

As I listened to his music and watched these people who clearly loved him singing his words I was comforted. Certainly, seeing his son Dhani onstage looking like his very clone was both comforting and spooky at the same time. You could still see the grief in the back of Eric Clapton’s eyes – even on the DVD. He was the musical coordinator of this concert, and as he wrote in the liner notes for the DVD, this was something he needed to do to facilitate the grieving process. Clapton knows grief.

George as the “quiet” Beatle, was anything but, it turns out. He had a lot to say, and by God, much of it had depth, girth and weight. Where John Lennon spent years running away from the pressures of being a Beatle, George embraced a view of the world that at once removed him from these pressures and also engaged him in the world. Where McCartney ran to wealth and a comfortable country family life (himself, struggling with the loss of his wife Linda to cancer), George made music extolling the spiritual life.

Before benefit concerts were chic, does anyone recall that George raised money for those struggling in Bangladesh as they were dealing with the worst imaginable drought? But this was not out of a sense of “responding from privilege” as we get from many rock stars today. George did this, I surmise, because it rose from his sense of the spiritual.

I listen to Ringo sing “Photograph” – a song he co-wrote with George – and am frozen by the eerie prophetic lyrics.

Ev'ry time i see your face
It reminds me of the places we used to go.
But all i got is a photograph
And i realise you're not coming back anymore.
I can't get used to living here,
While my heart is broke, my tears i cried for you.
I want you here to have and hold,
As the years go by and we grow old and grey.
Now you're expecting me to live without you,
But that's not something that i'm looking forward to.
I can't get used to living here,
While my heart is broke, my tears i cried for you.
I want you here to have and hold,
As the years go by and we grow old and grey.
Ev'ry time i see your face,
It reminds me of the places we used to go.
But all i got is a photograph
And i realise you're not coming back anymore.

Sad and creepy.

I was impressed when Ringo announced to the crowd, "I loved George and George loved me." It was that type of bold imperative statement that seems unshakeable. It doesn't equivocate. It was the statement a brother and only a brother could make. That sort of certainty put me at ease.

Remember when George went off to study with the Maharishi, how we’d all thought he’d flipped? And that was in the sixties when things like this were normally considered cool. Seems he was right all along, doesn’t it? Seek spiritual growth, and the rest will follow I guess.

I remember watching a Beatle tribute not too long ago on TV and Paul made the comment about all of their songs in some way being about love. How much did George’s world view about love influence Paul and John to write about this subject? How much of George’s peaceful and spiritual demeanor was the oil that lubricated the friction between John and Paul during those tumultuous years? It’s speculative at best. But it is conceivable that in his “quiet” way, in his humble way, he brought the kind of energy the “Beatles” as a group needed to write such life affirming songs. You won’t see his name on the songs but I believe his influence was there anyway, in typical George style, underplayed, undervalued, and unseen.

I suppose it is somewhat telling that his favorite chords on the guitar, and ones he loved to use most in his music, were diminished chords. George’s sense of the diminished self, of seeking truth over ego permeated the man wherever he went, and you can see that in the friends that showed up at this concert. You could even feel that in the audience, yes, even through the DVD.

Yet George wrote lyrics like:

“Beware of sadness, it can hit you, it can hurt you,
Make you sore and what is more,
That is not what you are here for.”

These lines illustrate that he knew what it was to be in the world but he puts it into context: you are meant for greater things. It’s this sense of the transcendent in the guise of this seemingly diminished soul that I think resonates with me, and perhaps, this is why I miss him and his music so much. We need this today, more than ever.

In an industry that exalts the self, and wealth, and faux artistry, this man joined art and spirit with the gentle passion of his own spirituality. He didn’t force anyone to listen; he didn’t push his ideas down. They bubbled up from his integration of spirit with body, in humility. This intensity may not have translated into many top 10 songs during his solo career (though he did have quite a few) and many in my time felt his “Indian” slant to music was hard to listen to, he did what all the greats do and he ran to himself.

He honored his own vision of his art, and people saw this and flocked to his message. Thank God, is all I can say!

They felt his gentleness. They felt his commitment to peace. Like me, years after his death listening to his music, these feelings reverberate in all of us, affirming what it is we all really want. George embodied this in his living and in his art. This is what makes him genuine.

Maybe this is why I feel like I am missing a friend for in a real sense, though we have never met, I am. His songs were uplifting in the most subtle sort of way, and that is what friends do for each other.

This is how we take in the most critical information that we assimilate to our very core. This is how we learn to become spiritual.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

POEM: When You Depart From A True Friendship

The tell tale sign of the greatest friendship
Is how it feels when you leave its presence;
Sometimes it has the feel of a trained seal,
Barking for fish at all the right moments,
Vast energy is expended hiding
The creases and lines of hurtful living,
And things that cast unflattering shadows.

It requires such Herculean strength
That even the mourning doves strain to sing.
But when you depart from a true friendship,
There is the embrace of a healing grace
Which caresses us like a lull-a-bye;
You are better able to catch a breeze
And, despite laws of aerodynamics,
Gravity releases you, and you fly.

Only then can you sing joy’s harmony,
Which inflates tomorrow with tenderness,
And turns the most grounded hearts into sails,
Always knowing what is stacked against you,
We share each other’s song offered up as
The gentle voice of God as spirits joined.

M C Biegner


Monday, January 10, 2005

Prostrate Before the Holy Virgin

“God works in mysterious ways. You think you have a plan, but God has His own plan.”
It was the weekend and time for my theology lesson from my mother, the patron saint of finding something good out of the deepest, darkest pile of shit life has a way of throwing at you. After a million years as her son I was used to it. Still, I could tell something was different in her voice that made her proselytizing different, more urgent than before.

“Want to tell God a good joke?” she said over the phone. “Tell him you have plans.”

“Yeah, ma, yeah.” I was barely listening still there was something in her voice that was different. I could not put my finger on it – it was just a feeling. I was having a hard time of it lately, and she knew it, though I don’t know how she knew it.

“Ma, I really do believe everything works out in the end. I know I need to keep believing, but can’t you let me keep faith in my own way?”

I could hear her deflate over the phone. “He knows what’s best for you,” she said, “even if you don’t. Oh I know you and your brother laugh at me and how you used to laugh whenever your Father and I took you to church.”

This was somewhat true. My mother was a Catholic witch, and we did laugh at her adherence to the rituals, spells, incantations and the patriarchy, but I could not tell her this. “Your Father is turning over in his grave,” she said.

“When did we make fun of you?” I complained. I heard the defensiveness in my own voice going into the handset of the phone.

“Oh you know, laughing at the priests and the people who attended mass, you always laughed at the readings. Then as you got older you brought all that godless literature into the house, Nietzsche and Marx. Would it have killed you to read some Thomas Aquinas? Some St. Augustine? How about some Papal Encyclicals?”

In point of fact, I had read some Aquinas and some Augustine and the all Vatican Council II documents but I was in no mood to argue.

I thought of my Dad.

“Well, I’m sorry, Ma. Kids should never treat their parents that way – especially mothers. You know how you held us together. You know, especially after Dad died.”

“Oh, I know,” she consoled “You were just kids. What did you know?”

But I could still feel the sting in her voice. It never occurred to me until just then how painful parenting could be. I knew it was fraught with perils and dilemmas and all sorts of trade offs, but no one ever talks about the pain of parenting.

“You’ll come back to God, just you wait. You are still young.”

“Yeah, I know, there are no atheists in foxholes and on deathbeds.”

“That’s right, dear, and even if you never go back to Him, I had you baptized you are His whether you like it or not.”

I felt like I was part of a cult; like I was part of some X-files episode where the alien ships would return and claim what was theirs and I would be among them.
I heard the loon clock go off in the background over the phone. I always hated that clock, but my Dad had bought it for my Mom.

“Still got that Loon clock, huh?” I asked her.

“Isn’t it wonderful? You father bought that for me the year before he died.”
I interrupted her.

“Yeah Mom, I know, you’ve told me before.”

“It’s such a sad sound, don’t you think?” she said after a slight pause. “I know how much you boys hated it – still your Father and…”

I stopped her there. I didn’t want her to finish the thought. “I know, Ma, I know.”

“Still”, her voice rebounded as though she had been asleep and was suddenly awakened, “that reminds me – it’s almost time for Mass. Do you want to make an old lady happy and come take me to Mass? There is a Mass over at Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt and Father Donally is saying the Mass. You remember him, don’t you? If we get there early we can get a good seat and be the first to receive communion.”

I stifled a chuckle. She didn’t realize what she had said. “Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt?” I asked.

“No, I meant Peace – what did I say?”

“You said ‘Guilt’ – you said ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt.” I was laughing now and I felt the same way as when my brother and I would make fun of people in Church, and the priests and even the statues. Like the time someone broke off Jesus’ first finger while cleaning the statue. His right hand was held up to his heart with the first two fingers extended, only with the broken pointer finger it looked like Jesus was flipping us the bird. This kept my brother and me laughing for months until they fixed it.

“You know what I meant,” she said, “Don’t be a weisenheimer!”

Weisenheimer? That was something my Dad used to call us. I never understood where he got that expression. My Dad was a strict German Lutheran with family from upstate New York. How did words like “weisenhemimer” creep into his vocabulary?

“Did Dad really believe in all this, Ma? I mean the religion and all,” I asked her out of the blue. It caught her square and unready and she flailed for a response.

“Oh, why, I suppose – you know he converted to Catholicism, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I knew that,” I responded. This always made me think of my Father in a different way – sort of a romantic way – a man willing to forgo his own Lutheran faith for the love of a woman. Still, this was not a great leap of faith, was it? I mean he converted from being a Lutheran to becoming a Catholic. It was not quite like him needing to get circumcised or anything.

I had to change the subject. All this talk about “Our Lady of whatever” made me think of our trip down to Santiago de Chile, years ago, when I took my mother to visit my brother. My brother had been living in one of the worst barrios in Santiago with Maryknoll Missioners and I went with her to visit him.

“Remember the time we were in Santiago, and we went to visit the Lady of Santiago?”
The Lady of Santiago was this huge statue in the center of Santiago that tourists flocked to from all over. It was not quite as large as the famous statue of Jesus that overlooked Rio de Janerio, but it was still pretty big and just as imposing.

“You know, if you ask Mary to bring things to Jesus she will. She will intercede for you.” My mother was still teaching.

“Yes, Ma, I know that. Do you remember when we went there and you were so busy looking up at the statue, you fell over in a small ditch?”

She started to laugh and it made me feel it was okay to start laughing as well.

“Yes, yes, I was laid prostrate before the Holy Virgin,” she tried to get out between huffs of laughter. That is what we told people. We were made prostrate before the Holy Virgin. It was our own personal, private miracle though it was less of a miracle and more of just an act of clumsiness. Still we thought it was pretty funny.

I thought of how she raised eight children, and supported five of them alone without her husband after my Dad died with no income. I thought of those Christmas evenings, the house decorated as best as she could, and how we never went without during that whole time growing up. I remember those times when she sat there with the lights out in the dark, crying and me, playing Christmas carols on my guitar as a teenager, incapable of even reckoning such grief and loneliness let alone being able to do anything about it.

It was at this moment that my faith crystallized. I don’t know if Mary was a Virgin or if God was one person in three. I don’t know if I believed in a first coming or a second coming. But I did believe in the strength of the woman on the other end of this line. I did believe in that sort of resiliency and bounce to life’s misery. I did believe that this is the power that moves the world, no matter what the cynics say and if this is faith, then yes, I believe. And it didn’t matter how I expressed it, but, as in my Mother’s case, it mattered that I lived it.

We talked some more about that trip to Santiago, and I glanced up at the clock.

“Ma, let me hang,” I said. “Let me come over and pick you up and we can go to Mass together.”

I heard an audible gasp on the other end of the phone, then silence. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect she was crying.

“God does work in mysterious ways,” she said.

“Just think of it as just another soul made prostrate before the Holy Virgin.” I said to her.

I heard her giggle, and for the very first time that I can ever recall, she sounded like a little girl.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

The Wager

There were once three men who often sat around a table at a fancy restaurant. These men smoked cigars and, as men do from time to time, discussed things of great importance. These three men ranged in ages: one was very young; the second was middle aged and the third was an old, old man. Each man was a various stages in his careers and so was established socially and financially commensurate with his age.

One day, the subject of romance came up at the table. The youngest man, filled with the directness and stubbornness of youth, said that he believed that romance faded with age. He so loved his young wife, and he often fretted over the possibility of this happening to him. The other two men kindly but firmly rebuked him, each man professing great love for his own spouse.

Then the old man had the idea of issuing a challenge that would show who was the most romantic man among them. The challenge would be in a form of a wager. “Let’s see who is the most romantic among us,” he said, “and we will see if romance has faded in our marriages! We shall meet one month from today, here at this very table with our wives. We shall have diner and present each of our wives with one gift. We will determine who is the winner based on the reaction of each woman.”

The youngest man protested first: “This is a splendid idea!,” he said, “but since you are the oldest and the most established and, well, to be blunt, the wealthiest, it stands to reason that you will be able to afford the most expensive gift. My wife and I are just starting out in life and I do not have the kind of money you have. I am afraid we would be at a disadvantage.”

The old man listened, his large overgrown gray mustache pointing downward almost in a frown, then agreed with the youngest man. “Very well, then,” he said finally, “Let’s limit the gift to $25 – that should level the playing field. Do we all agree then? We meet back here in one month. Be sure to wear tuxedoes for this is a wager for romance after all.”

The three men shook hands and agreed then off they went.

One month later, as agreed, the men and their wives reconvened at the restaurant. The men looked all shiny and new in their tuxedoes, and the women simply radiated beauty in their elegant gowns. The dinner passed uneventfully, with each woman enjoying dinner and the fine company. None of the women knew of the wager and all three couples were having a wonderful time.

After dessert the old man pulled out a cigar, and glanced over at the other two men, nodding, indicating that now was the time to see who would win the wager – who was the most romantic man among them.

The youngest man went first. He took a small beautifully wrapped box from his pocket and placed it in front of his wife. She seemed surprised, but equally delighted. As she opened the package, the young man spoke:
“Darling,” he began, “I cannot afford to get you the kinds of things you truly deserve. Since we are newly married, you know what a struggle it is just to get by. I know how much you always wanted a string of peals and if I could I would lasso the full pale moon with a rope, and break it into a million pieces, then string each piece for you to make you the most precious strand.”
The wife opened the box and in it set a single, white, perfect pearl.
“Since I cannot do that, I give you this one pearl, along with this promise: that I shall give you one pearl each year we are married so that when we are old and gray together you will have that string of pearls you always wanted and this strand will represent the length and beauty and perfection of our marriage.”

The wife said nothing but began to cry. Finally she grabbed her husband’s shoulders and kissed him so long and so hard and so deeply that the other two couples at the table grew embarrassed. “Ahem,” the old man cleared his throat. The young man, seeing how he had moved his wife, hugged her, and then glanced over to the middle aged man, indicating that it was his turn next.

The middle aged man pulled a vial of dirt from within his breast pocket and placed it before his wife.

“My reason to be,” he said softly to her, “We were married a scant ten years ago overlooking the vineyards of the Tuscany region of Italy. I remember the day because we danced until the sun set. We danced when there was music and we danced when there was none. I never wanted to stop dancing that day and truth be told, I would be dancing with you now if I could.” He paused, then took a deep breath and presented the vial to his wife. She took it in her hands and examined it.

“I took the liberty of calling the hotel in Italy where we stayed that week when we were married. I asked the man there if he would send me this small vial of dirt from the very spot where we first exchanged vows. Do you remember that gently green grotto covered with grape leaves? Do you remember how cool it was and how perfect?”

The wife did remember and she was about to cry, when the middle aged man produced a card from his other pocket and began to read a poem he had written for his wife just for this occasion:

It is an inky night without Love -
The Dark that hollows me out; planes me thin;
Lowers me sure but exalts you above;
I only know warmth from your salty skin
And Trust which sprouts from your gentle surround;
I am vapor until love’s compass rose
Guides me with Faith through poetry and prose;
That life grows from love, as trees earth in ground.
I am breathless until I breathe your name!
I am blind until I am in your sight;
Shine within thickest woods the Streaming Light –
And burn clear the path of omniscient flame.

Let Love’s whispery gauze cover our wounds,
With a kiss, let’s scorch our selfish ruins.

When he finished, he saw how his wife’s cheeks were wet with tears and the two of them gazed long and hard with love into each other’s eyes until the old man realized it was his turn, and he sprang into action.
The old man, like the other two produced a small gift wrapped box with a bright bow on top.

“Long before you were born,” and he nodded to the youngest man, “and while you were still in diapers,” and he nodded to the middle aged man, “a beautiful young woman walked into a Five and Dime store – a convenience store I guess you would call them today. It was Christmas time and her heart locked onto a small Christmas tree ornament. It was an angel made of the most iridescent blue metal. The angel was stretching upwards placing a star atop some unseen tree. I remember the ornament because of how it reflected the light. I remember this ornament because of how you told me this would be the first ornament you would get to eventually decorate our tree when we were married.”

The old man paused to remove his glasses and clean them with a napkin.

“My soul and very breath,” he started again. “I was too poor that day to buy you that ornament and I suppose over the years, I simply forgot about it. Well, I had to make lots of phone calls since that store has long gone out of business, but I was able to get the exact ornament just as you remember!”

But the old man’s wife looked sad through all of this.

“No,” was all she said.

Her clipped response stopped the old man in his tracks.

“No, dear heart,” the wife said in a flat monotone. “I know you are old and now I am wondering if you are also a bit addled as well. It was not I who wanted that ornament but rather my best friend Lucy Forbes who loved it so.”

The silence was as awkward as it was long. No one knew what to say or what to do. The old man began to sputter, the ends of his mustache flailed up and down as he tried to explain.

“Why…but…I thought you said…” The old man was flustered and it was uncomfortable for everyone at that table for what seemed like an eternity.

“No,” the wife barged on. “I had my heart set on the silver plated handled hairbrush that day. Don’t you remember? I told you how it reminded me of my grandmother.”

The old man’s wife seemed genuinely hurt but she recounted the memory in such a way that she was trying to mask the pain of her husband’s forgetfulness. The old man merely shook his head as the words, “I swear” were all that was audible.

As the wife opened the box, she began to describe the brush to the other couples, how ornate the design was; how there were flowers on the back with rolling swirls that were like leaves that traveled down the handle. She knew it was only silver plated told the others, but it so reminded of her of when she was a little girl, how she would spend hours sitting and brushing her dear grandmother’s hair with a sterling silver handled brush of which this was a dime store replica.

As she spoke, she looked at each of the other couples, hoping this would help her keep her composure and not cry in front of them. When she reached into the box, what do you think she pulled out?

It was the very same replica brush, which she had just been describing. Her face froze in shock and the other two women shrieked with joy when they saw what the old man had done. The other men gasped in awe and then applauded, clapping the old man on the back.

The old man’s wife collapsed into the arms of her husband, crying over and over again, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Soon the whole table was awash in tears.

The old man looked over at the other men, his wife’s head on his shoulder, and gave them a wink.

“When you dine at the table of romance,” he admonished them, “you need to be prepared to change the table cloth every so often.”

The other men knew exactly what the old man meant and they all agreed that the old man clearly won the wager.

But really, they were all winners at that table that evening. For when love is served with true and steadfast hearts, there are never losers.

M C Biegner

Saturday, January 08, 2005

POEM: Faith in the Jaws of the Lions

“We must learn to love each other or die” - W.H. Auden

Each time you build it,
I will tear it away;
I will snatch whatever you have accomplished
Without feeling,
And with the fierceness of torrential water
That destroys the cocoon of all that you love.

Buildings or lives – it makes no difference:
To you these things hold everything,
But to me, they hold only sorrow in escrow –
The way a large rock
Pushed to the top of a hill
Holds potential energy.

And like air that bubbles up from mud
When I wipe you smooth,
Questions bubble up,
But I wipe you smooth anyway.

You seek God in these questions,
But He just stares back
In the unblinking devastation,
Divining faithlessness to come forth
Like calling Lazarus forth
From the tomb.

But God is in the rebuilding
And the bottomless grief;
He is in the courage of the most ordinary,
Where it gathers at the bottom
Of souls, unseen in most cases,
Like tea leaves at the bottom of a cup.

It is a most uncompromising sort of faith:
One where there are no promises
To be found but in each other,
And fresh beginnings
for us all.

Friday, January 07, 2005

POEM: Resolution

The day has an edge like a ruler and is as inviting
As an open clearing in the woods.

I have resolved to walk among these shy hills New Year’s Day;
I seek resolution in the roads that push and pull me .

There is order and beauty in everything -
Even in the litter that lines the roads –
Orphaned cigarette packs, flattened juice boxes
Beer pack rings, all the dullness of road salt.

I follow the Sacred Silence into the New Year.

Winter’s voice is a series of wind chimes
When I am greeted by disembodied voices
Carried on the wind like insects –
“It’s so nice out!”
and without seeing anyone
I make human contact.

A pair of ponies and chestnut brown mare
Turn their heads and want to know what I am about.
How do I answer them?

Still, I follow the rock path,
Upward, like Ezekiel in his chariot of fire,
Into the hills.

Into the Sacred Silence of the New Year.

The jays have marked their territory
With darting, nervous eyes –
They flit just above the brown grasses
feathered by the Wind.

Ashen cedar bat boxes line the barbed wire
That protects a local reclamation project –
These are the legacy of an ex-brother-in-law
Who loved the environment of earth
But could not reclaim the environment of his own heart
And soon, left his wife and the area.

But I am not here to judge today.

Today, I march upward over lazy, slothful oaks;
I count rings in trunks that seem like open faces
and try to relive the life of a Tree.

Can anyone do that?

Speckled green and white lichen
decorate mortally wounded trees,
Resting with ears pressed against the soft
Brown autumn carpet.

I see bare blueberry bushes,
Denuded and frozen in hardened sunlight
Purple in the quiet and stillness,
They suggest a New Years Eve Celebration –
When the ball has dropped
And the champagne is popped
And confetti flies –
Limbs flagrant and spontaneous,
Locked into positions,
Calling me;
Waiting for me to pass by and take notice.

The thickness of wrinkled tree bark,
Bent and splintered, twisted and gray
Is like some Civil War battlefield,
Evoking ghosts of something wild,
Some bravado of nature at her very worst;

“Something courageous has happened here,” I think.

There, up ahead, an Irish Setter the size of a small bear
chases a tennis ball tumbles
down the path to greet me –
the dog’s owners descend
As I ascend, and we meet
To discuss the plight of wounded deer in the woods
And trapped, injured animals
And writing and poetry –

They tell me to be on the look out for an owl
With a heart shaped face –
So I watch
My breathing stills
So that I may see such a creature –

My heart is lifted
When we part,
And a newer, larger nearly yellow dog approaches -
I am his brother.

I do not stare at him directly,
For I do not want to challenge him –
This land is his and I am the stranger;
I intrude with every breath.

Still, I look for the owl
With the heart shaped face,
But do not see her.

There is now a boastful wind among the Pines
That stand so erect,
With no idea of correction;
The dull waving of evergreen
Announces the wind like royalty.

For the wind, too, is my brother
And I do not want to look into its eyes either;
I stand by broken pine and the wood
Mourns soulfully;
The wind coaxes sad songs
From the pine:
“I am broken and used”.

And the sad melody moves me
With the compassion of a mystic.

Crows as dark as pitch
Wrap cold air around themselves
And slide down among the shadows,
Expanding the distance of the demur rolling hills.

Apple trees with rickety twisted arms
Sneer and make fun of me
As if holding their hands to their ears
And taunting me the way children do.

Playful streams
Full of meandering spirit,
Are stopped dead
On their backs, flat and serpentine
Willy-nilly, like kids playing freeze tag –
Like Lot’s wife, turned to salt –
These are turned to Ice
With a single glare of Winter’s stare.

Suddenly, there is the embrace of stillness.

The flaxen grasses unfold before Mt. Tom’s head held upright
Aloof and does not care a whit what goes on below.

I pass the tired Oldsmobile hubcap
And wonder if it will be missed –
Does anyone know it sits here at all?
Even the trash seems so sad now.

The downhill road now spills me out
Like a giant black tongue
Back down to where I started.
As I pass an angry red “POSTED” sign
Which warns:
“Keep out!” “You don’t belong” “No Hunting”

I hunt only Beauty.

Surely I do not need my hunter’s orange cap for this.

But I hunt beauty in reverse. I let Beauty stalk me quietly,
I let her kill me
And make me into a holiday dinner –
A feast for everyone,
The way I am changed when I walk among these hills

The bragging wind shrieks around a telephone wire –
And asks me what is it I seek in all this emptiness
And I respond,
“Yes! That is it! That is it!”

I have made a New Year’s Resolution
That I should walk these shy hills
On the first day of each New Year.

I have not asked you to walk with me,
But perhaps you will.
For though we are men,
Today we are gods.

There is much yet to suffer,
I will be courageous;
There is much yet to build,
I will be industrious;
There is much to forgive,
I will be gracious;

For it would be a shameful thing to pass another year
Without making something new for my children.

It would be shameful to die
Without leaving something behind.

Jan 2005