Thursday, April 27, 2017

All the Fluttering Unknown Gods

When the Star Spangled Banner ends . . . “o’er the la-and of the freee, and the home of the braaave,” I reflexively say to myself “Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.”  It was the nun at St. Michael’s, who invoked us daily: “Praised be Jesus Christ,” and we, her third graders, who chanted in Pavlovian response: “Now and forever, Amen.”  1961.

The things you learn from the other kids in the neighborhood: step on a crack, break your mother’s back. But it was easy to not step on a crack, the new sidewalks blocked off in large squares.  Still, you had to concentrate, you had to remember.  Or you might easily step on a crack.  Taken to the extreme we now call this OCD.

When I recited the Apostle’s Creed I used to love saying that I believed “in all things visible and invisible.”  However, what the words are supposed to mean is that we believe that God created all things visible and invisible.

Sacred Heart occupied the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Miltary: a parish church, a couple of school buildings, rectory, and convent.  These buildings housed the center of our lives for four or five years and kept most of the rest of the world at arm’s length.  We wore neckties, and plaid skirts to knee-length. 

In almost every classroom at Sacred Heart a familiar print of Christ hung on the frontwall, one hand appearing to bless the viewer, the other pointing to his heart floating visibly in his chest, appearing to be on fire and wrapped in thorns.  No one I knew there grew up to have a vocation, though it was generally agreed on––but not examined too deeply—that going to mass was good thing.

We prayed before football games, knelt on the church steps of Sacred Heart in our game uniforms, helmets in hand, eyeblack high on our cheekbones.  We were supposed to be praying that no one got hurt, but we all knew we were praying to win.  The other schools we played were all Catholic as well; they were praying to win, too.

The walk from football practice back to the locker room was about a mile. Tom Bailey and I believed that if we did not walk this mile together after every single practice bad luck would befall our team.

We lost only four games in three seasons, so who’s to say it didn’t work?

Tommy passed away suddenly and too soon.  But without knowing more of the facts I couldn’t say whether that had been a matter of luck one way or the other.  I know he’s gone, but it’s hard to believe.

The Litany of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is rather unremarkable, though in my St. Joseph’s Daily Missal the litany is prefaced by its spiritual value (italics mine): “An indulgence of 7 years.  A plenary indulgence once a month under the usual conditions, if the entire Litany with its versicle and prayer is recited daily for a month.” A drop in the bucket of eternity.

Stevie Wonder provides a pretty good definition of superstition in his eponymous song from 1973: “When you believe in things you don’t understand . . . .”  But you have to listen very carefully to catch the next two lines: “Then you suffer, Superstition ain’t the way.”

“The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” So observed Oscar Wilde. 

In the Liard Hot Springs in the Yukon my friend observes the red ribbon my girlfriend tied around my neck for luck and to keep thoughts of her close.  We are on the Al-Can Highway on our way to the big unknown.  1977.

For many years I wore a yellow plastic Livestrong wristband as a talisman against cancer, which I have survived, so far, many times.

My cardiologist, profoundly indifferent to the concept of bedside manner, has assured me that, although my heart will require surgery, I will die of cancer.  My heart problem, my cardiologist tells me, is electrical.  His actual title is Cardiac Electrophysiologist.

On an excursion to Long Beach, Washington in the summer of 2015 to see Jake the Alligator Man I had my fortune delivered to me by Zoltar, a glass-encased automaton: “As blessings of health and fortune have a beginning, so they must also find an end  Everything rises but to fall . . . .”

Of the three medals I wear around my neck only one did I choose myself: St Bernard, patron saint of alpinists and skiers.

I take my friend John into St George’s, a small church in Banff, to see its simple beauty, stained glass. You made the sign of the cross, he observed, And, genuflected.
Yeah, I said, barely conscious of having done either, or at least not conscious of him. Yeah, I did.

After our climb we have an early dinner at that Chinese restaurant on the road just past the bridge over the Bow River in Banff.  My fortune reads: Be persistent in pursuing the goals in your life.  I have been.  Perhaps there is some question as to whether I shall continue to do so.

John’s cookie has no fortune.

The third time I drive the AlCan I am with my sons, their second trip up.  They are not eager to stop at the Liard Hot Springs.  I fear perhaps they had heard that a woman was mauled to death by a grizzly in the upper pool.  No, they say, we call that place the pools of misery.  I am baffled.  Yeah, they said, it’s all old people who are miserable, complaining about their health and how the world has gone to shit.  The place is a drag.

The summer before my son Macklin died he attached the kayak to the roof rack in a hurry and when it flew off, it shattered the car mirror on the passenger side.

I have always picked up pennies, almost obsessively. I then irrationally connect finding them to any good thing that happened that day.  And I sometimes knock on wood.  Black cats, walking under ladders, Friday the 13th have no hold on me.  Though, walking under a ladder seems kind of stupid.  I see that mirror every time I drive that car. I’ll wish on a falling star every chance I have.

As a writer I have always adhered to Faulkner’s dicta from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, that “the human heart in conflict with itself’ is the only thing worth writing about.

The two people I prayed the hardest for died within six weeks of each other.  I don’t pray for them any more.  I pray for the living.  I suppose I should have praying for their souls all along.  But let’s face it: I was praying for their lives. 

“When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.” Again, Oscar Wilde.

I used to take a “natural” supplement, glucosomine, for hip pain.  Now I take shark cartilage for same.  Neither has been shown scientifically to be effective.  My brother who lives on Maui told me about this, although his hip has already been replaced.

Every day I apply sunblock to my face, even though here in the Alaskan winter we have about five hours of cloudy daylight.  Most of my melanoma, was caused, I have been told, by exposure to sunlight as a child.  So what does it matter what I do now?  It’s a ritual. 

In his poem “I Believe” Jim Harrison admits mostly to things of the world: used tires, brush fires, as well as memories: “the thunderstorm across the lake in 1949.”  But he ends by expressing belief in “the fluttering unknown gods that I nearly see/ from the left corner of my blind eye, struggling/ to stay alive in a world that grinds them underfoot.”

Thirty-five years later I am on my way to Nepal, My wife, the young girlfriend of 1977, ties a small medallion around my neck.  An amulet, for luck.

I was spinning every prayer wheel between Syange and Tatopani.  There were many.  John is utterly indifferent.  I explain that I need all the luck I can get.  My first cancer had 95% mortality rate, and I survived.  My next cancer, just a year prior to the Nepal trip, the odds were 1000 to 1 that it would spread to my lymph nodes.  It did not spread to my lymph nodes. There is not a day I don’t feel lucky to be alive.  I try to explain this good luck to John.  No way, he says, your luck is bad, that’s how you got cancer in the first place.  My good luck is a luck he wants no part of.  But I’ll take it.

Our base camp below Chulu East was at about 16,000 feet.  After our first night there I woke with all the signs of cerebral edema, fatal if unattended.  We had to descend and abandon the climb.  But, I was alive, and therefore very lucky, right?

At a relatively young age I figured out that prayer was just another way of saying I want, I want, I want.  Thereafter, for many years, I did not pray.

I don’t want to visit a psychic, have my fortune told, palms read, astrology charted.  But once I fell for the facebook algorithim that would figure out my cause and age of death: I would drown in a river trying to save a dog.  Okay, I thought.  However, the fact that this would occur when I was 103 years old rather dampened my expectations.

A few days before he died unexpectedly at 22, my son asked me if I had an extra crucifix I could loan him.  I gave him an old one on a string and ordered a nicer one.  He was alone when he drowned.  We put the crucifix in with him.  His brother added a spliff of marijuana about the size of one of Castro’s cigars.  Accidental drowning.

Water enters the lungs, changing the chemistry of the blood, causing it to become more concentrated.  The heart cannot bear the extra weight.  Thus to drown is to die from heart failure.  A broken heart.

When Macklin was child he nursed a tiny bunny to health.  The veterinarian had said that the odds of successfully doing so were 1000 to 1 against.  He considered the thriving bunny to be a miracle.

Subsequently, he rescued a small hawk, that sat on his shoulder but which, ultimately he could not save.  Thus crushed his hope for the second miracle, for sainthood.  I like to think that he found another road to sainthood.  But why it had to be such a tortuous, but nonetheless fast, path, I will never understand.

When my heart’s electrical system overloaded I was deep in the Talkeetna Mountains trying to ski home through three feet of new snow.  In the long night before the helicopter appeared we clung to each other for warmth in a shallow snow cave. Someone later would ask, What did you talk about all night? The truth was that we didn’t talk much; we used all of our powers of concentration to conserve warmth.

I suppose what those people may have meant by that question was, Did you pray?  The answer is the same: I had only one thing on my mind: what could I do to not freeze to death?

My idea of prayer, to the extent that I believe in it, is that it may be performed only with the intention of serving others.  In this way it’s like Aristotle’s idea of courage: an act can be courageous only to the extent that it benefits other people.

My son Dougal asks me if I remember the time we found a hawk, dead in our backyard in the Midwest.  This was not the same hawk his brother had tried to save, but another.  I remembered that hawk vividly because its heart had been cored out of its body, very precisely.  And this was an eerie fact that I hid from my sons.  I had wanted to consult a biologist as to the cause of this phenomenon, and considered preserving the hawk in our freezer, although I ended up burying it at night, alone, in the frozen earth.  The other memorable fact concerning this event was that it was Christmas day.

The crucifix I ordered for my son arrived the day after his funeral service at St. Benedict.  I gave it to his brother.

Harrison was right, the world will grind us underfoot, along with our fluttering unknown gods. We must summon all our resources, real, and hoped for.  I think God help us all. I’m not sure it’s a prayer, exactly, but I will confess to you I am sneaking myself into the all.



  1. Damn good dirge, man. Tick tock. Made we walk over my own goddamn grave.

  2. Probably the best yet. So many levels. Wonderful.

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