Wednesday, August 16, 2017


There were ghosts everywhere, within and without, waxing and waning in the basement especially, but also under my bed. The ghosts within were better than the ghosts without, and so were much more to be feared. For a ghost within can lurk in the hidden places of your body—in the grape-like sacs of your lungs, the space between cuticle and nail bed, and more terrifyingly, in the synapses of your neurons.

You know them when you see them, the ghost-possessed, the ghost-afflicted, the ghost-ridden. Or perhaps the ghost-drenched, since they had taken me and thrown me into a pit of ghosts, who caressed my face and lulled death songs into my ears.

Yes, one day I would be one of them—I knew that. I too would fade and flare into the minds of the living, sucking at the life sap that surged through their veins, that sap that fueled the rage, excited the loins, made men mad blind with power and women faint with love.

Ghosts, so many ghosts in my childhood. There were the basement ghosts: one put his hand on my chests as I was sleeping, in the improvised room that was never finished. The carpet—a cheap remnant from a seedy store. The fireplace—red brick. All very good for ghosts, but it was in the back of the basement, where light was shunned, where the dust balls could strangle cats, where every demon on earth came, on special nights, to mingle and consort—the back of the basement was the very evilest. Mother, my mother—why did you keep the food you had canned back, on the scratched-together shelves that, by themselves, would have been a magnet for ghosts? Didn’t you know that that’s how they got into us? Infinitely tiny, they crept through the Mason jars, moved through the stalactites of the glass and sand and water. Tiny, yes, but then they grew engorged by sugar and water and all matter of nutrients.

The applesauce you made—it was laced with ghosts. The green beans—not so much. The beets were irresistible, and so full of ghosts that they even came out of our urine, the next day. And so we became ghost-filled.

Filled with ghosts, we moved like ghosts—from the green sofa where my father lay after breakfast, trying to cast the ghosts within into the ghosts without. Mother, in the kitchen, waiting for father to leave, so she could sneak a forbidden cigarette in the porch outside. She crashes the cheap, plastic dishes together, and scolds them into the drainer, the anger and the power tidal-waving out of the kitchen, all the better to wake him. To get him to leave, so she can expel the ghosts in smoke.

We were three, my brothers and I—and all of us had ghosts that crept along the sinews of our muscles, and roller-coasted down our nerves, exploding into the synapses.

Ah, a ghost in a synapse is fearfully bad, for the ghost tears from one nerve ending to the next nerve beginning. No other message will get through—and none did. The feet moved, of course, and the mind worked well enough, enough so that I can tell you: Lansing, state capital of Michigan. Principal products of Idaho: potatoes, wheat, and livestock corn.

These facts were important, since they could occupy the spaces not yet afflicted with ghosts. But each day, the ghosts grew more numerous. They flitted through our brain and played Frisbee in our guts, nor did they hide or flee when any ghost removal specialist, sent from the Department of Ghost Affairs, came by. No, the ghosts stayed at the street corners of our minds, leaning against lampposts and jeering.

It may have been that they wanted us, our parents, to have the ghosts—and why shouldn’t they, since they themselves soldiered on with ghosts, while the dreams of power and love slowly greyed—the color of ghosts—and then faded, and then turned into a wisp, and at last ceased even to be a memory. Yes, that can happen, I can tell you—I come from the land of ghosts, and I know.

Miss Cairns
Kindergarten teacher
Died the summer after my Kindergarten year

Miss Warren—first grade teacher.
Room 148.
Referred to only as SHE.

The rest? Ah, the ghosts had gotten to me: the names and the faces and the individual quirks all forgotten now. Shoved away by the ghosts, who only got more numerous as the minutes dragged in those leaden days when the holidays themselves refused to come, and summer was a place like Paris. A place for other people, who would know how to order the café au lait and converse with the waiter. Yes, the holidays kept receding even as you approached them, so that Christmas day was an impossibility, a figment of the mind, something occurring—if at all—just after the Last Coming.

The little desk with the chair attached, and the desk top that comes up and reveals last week’s math homework which you were afraid to hand in, so riddled with mistakes it would be, and now your name is on the blackboard, under the heading of “Pending Homework” so that everybody can see. And whose fault is it? The ghosts, of course, who have come up through the hole in the desk and turned the sevens into threes, and have twisted subtraction into division, and have rolled all the sixes down to the bottom of the page, where they are learning how to invert and become nines.

I should have put tape over that hole, that stupid, meaningless hole at the bottom of the desk—did you know that’s pupitre in French? That’s the kind of fact we hurled against the ghosts, only to have them hurled back at us—why else can I, age 59 and with a broken back (so heavy have the ghosts become), tell you this silly fact, that even the French don’t know?

It was a conspiracy, that’s what it was: they knew that Mindy Peckham (future Harvard alumna) had gotten to the desk first thing in the morning of the very first day of classed, and she had PLUGGED that hole, dammit, so that actually doing homework was unnecessary. All that was needed was to lift the desktop, and poof! The homework assembled itself, and then the grade appeared, and then was entered into the fearsome book (grey, of course—though sometimes red, for failure) that the teacher alone could see. Yes, the grade-book, filled with check and marks and letters and numbers—all the better for the divination of the calculation of the sum and subtraction of the products of the square roots that would be you, on a June day that will never come and that cannot be escaped. Well, by merely lifting her desktop, the numbers in the grade-book are soaring, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of Midvale Elementary School hitting the highest notes of Joy To The World, which is what Mindy is, and why John Harvard is salivating bronzely from his perch above the slab of marble in Harvard Yard.

But the ghosts had gotten to me already, and befuddled my brain and fogged my vision—so I didn’t, like Mindy Peckham, who would become the spiritual consort of John Harvard—I didn’t see the hole. And then, all the papers and erasers and pencils and books and notebooks got all crammed together, and then the pens exploded, and it became a SURGING MESS, and that’s when the teacher announced—desk inspection!

I can’t open the desk because the ghosts will come out—you can see that, can’t
you?—and Miss Steensland will look at the ghosts and know: I am soiled and polluted and dirty and filthy and ridden with ghosts. More ghosts than a dog has fleas. More ghosts than a leper has sores. More ghosts than all the piranhas in the Amazon and all the snakes in the steaming jungle.


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Chapter One

(Note--first chapter in yet-another attempt at a novel....)

She didn’t waste much time starting in on me, today.

“You ain’t Hank,” she said. “Where is he? Why ain’t he here? And where’s Fred.”

“Now Mary Ann,” I told her, “remember what I told you yesterday? I’m Paddy, and I’ll be taking care of you, this morning. And I don’t know who Frank--or Fred--is. Anyway, they’re not here. It’s just you and me. You had your breakfast?”

“I ain’t eatin’,” she said, “I’m fasting, as the Blessed Virgin commanded me. Ain’t it Friday? The second Friday of Advent?”

I told her--I don’t know anything about that convent stuff. Sure, they sent me to a Catholic school, and that’s probably why when it came time to getting rid of the baby, they sent me off to the orphanage. Or the home for unwed mothers. You know, The Seven Sorrows of our Sorrowful Mother Home for Unwanted Children.  

“You’re shitting me,” said Ed, my boyfriend, I guess. “That’s what they call the place you’re going to? Wow….”

We were sitting on bean bag chairs at the pad on Mifflin Street he shared with an ever shifting group of people. Early on, I had tried to figure out whose place it really was, but that wasn’t cool. The place didn’t belong to anyone, though of course it did. It belonged to a pig: the son of a pig who had inherited the place from his pig father, and who did nothing all day except tell his receptionist which calls he would pick up. Prospective renters--fine. Current renters, who only called when their apartments were flooding, or the building’s furnace had exploded--they were put on hold.

“Private property is a capitalist construct, and therefore a lie,” said Ed to me, in the days when I tried to figure out who was who. “You want to know who rents this place so that you can accord him a specific role: the role of father, provider, alpha male of the space we all inhabit. But we reject all that. You have as much right to be here, to use the space--hell, to own the space--as whoever it was who put his name down on the lease a couple of years ago. Maybe it was Pete? Anyway, it was before I got here….”

That was the point of the pad: it was a free space where anyone could enter, sit down, smoke a joint, rap with brothers, make new friends, bang a few chicks, and bed down. It was a communal place, with no rules. People ate when they wanted to eat, and if another cat came when you were cooking, well, it was cool to share the food you were making. It went with the vibes of the place: everything flowed, people came and went, and the chick you were banging one day would turn up in your best friend’s bed the next.

Oh--sorry. Nobody had a bed, and nobody had a bedroom. Why should they, when anyway who knew who was going to be sleeping where on any given night? There were cats who drifted here and there for years, it seemed, staying no more than a week or two--max--in one place. Then it was time to hitchhike to San Francisco, or go and detassel corn in summer, or go surfing in the Baja Peninsula in winter. Or maybe they OD’d, or maybe they gave up and went to law school, or maybe their mom got sick, and they had to go home. Anyway, sometimes they were there. Sometimes they weren’t. The Pad was always there for people who needed to crash, or who wanted to stay for a while.

Which is what we were doing, I guess. Ed was older than me, from Long Island, and he had chosen the University of Wisconsin-Madison because his cousin had gone there. It took Ed a little time to get used to Madison, he told me. I mean, what kind of place had only one deli? And what kind of deli was it, anyway? Sure--it had lox and bagels, but what did everybody order when they went there? Some monstrosity called the Grilled Pound Cake Hot Fudge Sundae. The deli, you see, was also an ice cream parlor, which made Ed snort.

“It’s a hick town, but it’s cool,” said Ed. He was getting--off and on--his Masters in political science. When I met him, he was in the “off” phase, since his favorite professor wasn’t teaching that semester. Or maybe Ed didn’t have the funds. Or maybe he had been stoned the day of registration, which on “spring” semester actually took place on some unimaginably cold January day. (The spring did come, but only after several awful months--it was a Wisconsin thing.) Anyway, it didn’t matter whether Ed was in school or not, since education and degrees were also just constructs to allow for the political and economic distribution of goods and capital. In fact, the working class had the more valid claim to be considered educated, since their role as outsiders / infiltrators allowed for them to be more highly attuned to the classist dicta that unwittingly and non volitionally governed relations between economic strata, and those living within them, and straddling them.

At least, that’s what I think he said. We were sitting in the living room of the house on Mifflin Street. At least, it should have been the living room, though there were a few mattresses on the floor, and the couch had ended up last summer on the porch, where it should have been ok. But somehow, it had got wet, and then it had gotten mold, and that would have been OK, since mold was good and most of the time the pot smell covered up the mold. But anyway, the couch had never made it back into the living room, so the bean bag chairs had to make do.

It was a new world to me. I was sixteen, though I looked older and told everybody I was eighteen. I was going to Edgewood High School, on the city’s near west side. It was a good- sized school on an oversized property: it had been the country estate of a governor of Wisconsin, who gave up the property to the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters in the 1880’s. The sisters lived in some crazy tower above the school: they would creep down, occasionally, to teach some class or attend some activity or just remember, maybe, a time when they actually had something useful to do. But most of them could barely walk, so they had to stop, at every landing of the stairs, and and rest for a bit. Did it ever occur to the younger sisters who ran the place to buy their elders an elevator? Or maybe move them to some first floor? Nah--but they did put chairs on the landings, and then icons of extraneous or unwanted saints, and then real candles and fake flowers. So the ancient nuns lived above us, as we studied our Western History or English Literature. The nuns dozed in their dotage, the students dozed through their adolescence, and everything was as it should be. My mother had gone there, before her marriage; my grandmother had gone there as well, before her marriage.

Did you hear the word “marriage?”

It wasn’t a word, it was the final destination--as the flight attendants like to say--of the particular journey called Edgewood High School. We knew what was in store for us, or thought we did. We would go from Queen of Peace Elementary to Edgewood Junior and Senior High Schools. We would attend mass during the week, and always on Sunday. Confession. Communion. Youth retreats. Friday night movies, and yes--it was often the Bells of St. Mary’s. Then--and this was the tricky part--a choice might be contemplated. For those girls who wanted only to be teachers or nurses, Edgewood had its own college, and perfectly good it was. But what if a girl wanted to study molecular biology, or Mandarin Chinese? Then--perilously--the state university, with its pinko professors, was the only choice. Parents had to hope that the sedative effects of Catholic school lasted through the university years, or at least until a nice Catholic boy--in law or medical school--came by to woo and wed. Then, another generation of Catholic boys and girls would be on its way, and they would be sitting in the chairs of Queen of Peace or Edgewood where their parents had sat, and most of their old teachers would still be there, or at least shunted up to the crazy attic, from which they might creep down. The Bells of St. Mary might be replaced by some more adventurous affair--the Sound of Music, perhaps. And so it would go on just as old Governor Washburn had planned it, when he had given the land to the sisters so that they, not he, could swat the mosquitoes in the winter and shovel through snow drifts in the winter.  Yes, the governor would move on, move even further and farther from his native Maine. He would found a flour mill in Minnesota, after having given up on the Wisconsin Mining Company. The mill would become General Mills, and his old estate would become a dormitory, and the nuns would be given the lands and the power to rap knuckles, play old and uplifting movies, and inculcate the young until they could be graduated.

The students in their desks, the nuns in their tower, the governor who had made it all possible now in his grave but also in his frame, since his portrait was given a choice place of ignorance, or ignoral, or…. What do you call it, that central spot in the building’s lobby where the founder’s bust or portrait is placed so that he can be unseen and unnoticed by all the people rushing past? At any rate, there he was, Cadwallader C. Washburn--a portly figure who peered in profile into the future for the photographer, all those many years ago.

Well, the future had long since faded into the past, and even the nun who had to dust the frame of the picture didn’t see the old governor. That governor who had looked to a future, which had settled down comfortably and given him and his now-dead children nice full pockets. The governor’s other progeney--General Mills--in turn, had given me breakfast, in the form of my Cheerios. And so I used to look at Washburn, as he looked forward confidently into the past. Even his grandchildren must now be dead, I thought, and nobody but a few old nuns knew the truth about Washburn’s past, as opposed to his past / future. Because Washburn, for all the logs he had cut down down and all the flour he had milled--as well as being as colonel in the Civil War and congressman and governor--had a secret. He was an epileptic, and his wife turned bad after their second daughter was born. And so a lot of the log and the flour money went back east, to the sanitarium where Washburn’s mad wife was confined.

Beats me why, but I used to think a lot about Washburn, when I was up there at the Seven Sorrows of our Sorrowful Mother Home for Unwed Mothers. I’d be up there late at night, because who can sleep when the baby is kicking and you have to go to the bathroom every twenty minutes and it’s snowing outside and the trees are groaning in the wind? Funny, I didn’t think about Ed, the father of my child, if that’s what he was. And I didn’t think of my old classmates, who were now well on the way to becoming wives or librarians. And of course I had barely even heard of the old bat who would make my life hell in the next six months.

No, I didn’t even think of the baby I was bearing, since that was going to go too. There were good Catholic parents waiting for my child, and they would take him or her and love it more than I could, and what future could I give it, after all? So late in the night, when I couldn’t sleep, I used to remember that old portrait of the governor. Washburn, who had succeeded so well at success, and failed so badly in life. If life means coming home to your wife and children, eating a good dinner, and smoking a pipe in your library after your meal.

Who cared for Washburn’s girls, after their mother had been shut away in the madhouse? And who would care for my child, after I left the home? And I--wasn’t I as loony as the governor’s wife? I was in, after all, Necedah, Wisconsin. I was months away from giving birth, and half a year from meeting Mary Ann van Hoof, who swore like a truck driver and called me a slut and wept because the Virgin Mary had visited her--years before I was born--and now visited no more.

“You ain’t Hank,” she said to me, that first day.

No, I wasn’t.

I wasn’t much of anything, really. I was as ephemeral as a falling leaf from an old tree in the grounds of the asylum that the governor of Wisconsin tries to forget, as he stares out into the widowed future in his portrait. I had been through Edgewood and Ed, pot and pregnancy, Mifflin Street and now Necedah. I had been a girl, and then briefly a mother, and was now a madwoman, just as mad as the governor’s wife. She was gone, as were her two daughters. I was gone too, as was my son, and all I had left to do was take care of an old lady, as nasty and crude as any I had met. The old lady who saw the Virgin Mary.

“You ain’t Hank,” she told me, that first day.


I wasn’t anything at all.             


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Bumping into Mary

“Don’t,” said Lady, “don’t start. I know I’m not here, and I’m starting to get seriously bugged about that. So you’re going to have to get along without me today. Anyway, you’ve gotten seriously weird about this van Hoof person, and don’t I have enough trouble with my poets? You might as well herd cats….”

“It’s hardly my fault,” I told her, “since you know I’m a sucker for Marian apparitions. And somebody has to do something with Mary Ann van Hoof. Her bishops completely failed her, which is a shame, since look what they just did with Sister Adele? I say it with pride--the only time that the Virgin Mary ever set foot in the good old US of A was right there in my home state. True, that was in 1859, and I’ve never even been to Champion, Wisconsin, but it still, it makes one proud. More to the state than cheddar cheese and toilets, I can tell you that.”

“It’s starting,” sighed Lady, “I always tell myself that I’ll smile pleasantly, if distantly, and glide right past. And then you tell me about about cheddar cheese--which I know about--and then toilets….”

“Kohler, Wisconsin,” I told her, “purveyors of fine thrones, some of which you undoubtedly have warmed. Unlike the toilet here in the Poet’s Passage--a Crane. Distinctly inferior, and it’s never performed satisfactorily. Well, well--the cheap leaves dear, as we say.”

Lady gets distracted, until I see her form the words,  lo barato….

“Lovely,” said Lady, “and should I ever win the lottery, you can be sure the first thing I’ll buy…”

“Excellent,” I said, since that’s the only way to deal with sarcasm. “Wonderful that the company is still plugging along. After all, look at the Madison Museum of Bathroom Tissue! Closed in 2000, after a mere eight years in existence. Whose life wasn’t improved with exhibits like this?”


“Should we perhaps return to Marian apparitions?” asked Lady. “Not that I much want to, but if the alternative is bathroom tissue, AKA toilet paper, well, the Virgin Mary has a strong lead….”

“You are wanting in the ways of Wisconsin,” I tell her, since as a poet, of course she will appreciate alliteration. “Well, it’s all official, since Bishop David Ricken of the Green Bay diocese put the episcopal stamp of approval on the whole business in 2010. I missed it at the time, since I was cozening the dying, or getting ready to do so…”

“But wasn’t Adele whoever she was seeing the Virgin in the 1800’s?”

“1859,” I told her. “Yes, and it took a two-year investigation to get to the bottom of it all. But yes, here’s the dope…”

On Wednesday, December 8, which is the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the Most Reverend David Rickin, Bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay, decreed with "moral certainty" that the events, apparitions and locutions given to Adele Brise in October of 1859 do exhibit the substance of supernatural character, and approved these apparitions as worthy of belief (although not obligatory) by the Christian faithful.

“Not obligatory,” cried Lady, “the Virgin takes all the trouble to run up to a small town in Wisconsin, and then it takes 150 years to officiate her, or recognize her, or whatever it is? And now, after all that time and trouble, it’s a theological flip of the coin to believe in her or not? Well, screw that! I’d be scraping my knees in devotion, if I were a Catholic….”

“An interesting point,” I said, “and did you know that there are only 11 approved sites, as well as Our Lady of Good Help, up there in Champion, Wisconsin? One does begin to wonder--why doesn’t the Virgin appear to Methodists, or even Unitarians? Or maybe she does, and nobody recognizes here. Perhaps they think she’s there to do up the flowers on the altar. Though it does make you think….”

“But didn’t this van Hoof person see the Virgin as well? You know, the one that you’re so stuck on….”

“Mary Ann van Hoof,” I told her. “Odd--as the alcoholism fades away (we say this hopefully), Mary Ann’s star just gets brighter. I’m already through volume one of Henry H. Swan’s momentous epic, My Work with Necedah. And since it only goes from 1950 to 1955, there’s quite a bit of gold left to be mined. We haven’t even gotten to the spaceship manned by “Alex,” or whoever it was….”

“Dear me,” murmured Lady bloggily, since she would never say it in real life. “The goings-on in Necedah. Spaceships and virgins! Hadn’t the motion pictures penetrated up there, by mid-century?”

“Presumably so,” I told her. “Though my father once told me that Necedah, and all of the ‘sand county’ up there, is just one of those intrinsically bad places. The mob, back in the days of Al Capone, used to run up from Chicago to get rid of their corpses in Necedah and Juneau County. It was a place that attracted evil, and if it didn’t attract it, it created it. Strange that they would have put the whooping cranes up there…”

“The same cranes that are on our excellent toilets?”

“What a curiously digressive mind you have,” I told her. “Especially when you could be focussed on essentials. Mary Ann van Hoof, and the Virgin. One feels a bit sorry for both of them. Necedah doesn’t seem to have brought them much good, either one of them. Well, the Virgin is still stomping about, though the bishops keep sniffing their noses at her. But Mary Ann van Hoof died in 1984, and is all but forgotten, and she went to her grave just as she sprang into the cradle. Poor as Job’s turkey, according to Father Sheetz!”

“Cranes, toilet paper, Sheetz,” said Lady, trying to make sense of it all. “Well, are you ever going to do it? If anybody is pacing the afterlife, waiting for someone to write a novel about her, it’s Mary Ann van Hoof. And since all you have to do nowadays is not drink, well, you might just as well write the story of van Hoof and the Virgin. Then we can all have a book presentation, and drink champagne to your success. Sorry, none for you….”

“I might as well,” I told her. “Anyway, writing about the Virgin and the van Hoof is probably a thousand times better than being her, and seeing her. Did I ever tell you about the tarantula that lived in our bathroom?”

“Forget it,” said Lady, at last squishing the digressions under her firm, poetic foot. “And no, you can’t drift off into a discourse on poetic foots, or feet. Get to work! I paint houses, you write the story of la Hoof! Let’s see if you can get it done before the bishops finally get around to giving their OK to the visitations. Let’s see, that’ll be in the year 2160….”

Ah! Just time enough!  

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Visiting Hours

We’re going from bad to worse.

I had narrowly escaped the God issue, I thought, though maybe I hadn’t. Yes, I conceded that there were miracles all around us, and indeed within us. I granted—perhaps arrogantly?—that since it is unbelievably-next-to-impossible that we should be here, the jump to the shores of God was a short hop indeed. And then I said that God made Himself known, and spoke to me, through music.

Right—took care of that!

And so I ventured on to Chapter 5, which is entitled How it Works. ‘Aha,’ I thought, ‘home free! We’ll get down to a few practical details, a bit of “how-to,” and then we’ll be on our way! We can tiptoe around the God issue once again!’

Big mistake!

In fact, I had bemoaned the need to cook up a Higher Power to my sister-in-law, who is as godless as I am. She is, however, one of the best people I know, as well as being a virtually teetotaler, which in my family is unheard of. Anyway, she had the answer….

“Why not have the best part of you be your Higher Power? You know, the part of you that is loving, generous, wise…”

She continued on to list other adjectives—places I’ve read about but never visited, much less settled.

“It’s not that easy,” I told her, because by then I had waded past the twelve steps (daunting by themselves) and gotten into the real meat of the chapter. I had read (or thought I had, since I can’t find it now) the paragraph that says that people who try to lead “good lives,” or who “try to act morally”—sorry, but these people are outta luck! No, dammit, step three means just what it says, and no weaseling or pussyfooting! Here it is, dammit!

“Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” (Italics in the original.)

Well—I’ll out myself. My biggest fear is of living in a world in which people have turned over their will and lives to the care of God as they understood Him. Which is why, today, I have not read much about the bombing in Manchester, England, immediately following a pop concert that attracted mostly teenagers. 22 people are dead, including (it’s thought) the man who made the IED. (Remember the first time you learned that IED was an “improvised explosive device?” Before then, they were just homemade bombs….)

So I can’t tell you much about the guy who killed 22 people yesterday. I don’t know his background, and I’ve really stopped caring. It was clear after the Boston marathon bombings that reading the biographies, getting the back story, watching the sobbing mother and the angry father—all of that was not going to explain how a suburban Boston man could put a pressure-cooker filled with nails and a timer in front of a child. Yes, a child he must have seen. But is there any doubt that he was giving his life and his will (as well as several other lives and wills) to his God as he understood Him?

This is extreme, of course. But I could also recount an experience that happened to me the last time I went into swimming in a pool.

We were in St. Thomas, staying at a hotel instead of enduring the San Sebastian Festival. And among the hotel were a young couple, clearly Muslim: the woman was draped in full-length black robe, and wore hijab, or head covering. We observed her as we frolicked in the pool, which was dangerous even for me, tall and a strong swimmer. Why? The first ten feet or so gradually deepened, but in a footstep the water went from being at shoulder level to being over my head. And it was into this pool that the young Muslim women entered. Dressed, yes, fully in her robe and her headscarf.

It was lunacy, and no, I don’t think that Allah—as I understand him—cared a fig whether she wore her robe and her hijab into the pool. I cared, and I’m sorry to say, cared almost more for the hapless person who might have to rescue her. I thought it might be me, trying to drag an hysterical, panicking body wrapped in yards of waterlogged fabric out of danger.

It’s easy for atheists to make these criticisms. I freely grant you that we do not—we freethinkers—set up soup lines, feed the homeless, shelter runaways, visit the aged and infirm, and do a host of other good things that good churches do.

And I’ve got step 1 down pat, I’m pleased to say. Powerless over alcohol? See the picture below for a glimpse of how I looked, and how I was feeling, and admission to rehab the second time around.

So—the Big Book told me to scurry around and find a God. Well, I did the best I could, and thought rather smugly that I hadn’t done badly. After all, I dragged poor Boethius into it, and he seems to have given up the consolations of philosophy and living about a millennium and a half ago.

It was the best I could do. I am truest to the godhead, at least as I understand it, when I listen to music. So yesterday, I abandoned myself to the Lamentations of Jeremiah, which are usually listened to in the Tenebrae. I had heard about the Lamentations, and I had read about the Tenebrae, but I never knew much about it until I went to the grocery store. There, I ran into the Episcopalian minister who was the partner to the manager of the gay bathhouse. Since the wait in line at the checkout is usually as long as Lent itself, I got a full description of the glorious music of Thomas Tallis, and of the precise order in which the fourteen candles or more are extinguished. The minister painted a wonderfully evocative of the darkening and then darkened church (Tenebrae deriving from the Latin word for shadow). Wikipedia, here, will have to suffice:

The principal Tenebrae ceremony is the gradual extinguishing of candles upon a stand in the sanctuary called a hearse.[7] Eventually, the Roman Rite settled on fifteen candles, one of which is extinguished after each of the nine psalms of Matins and the five of Lauds, gradually reducing the lighting throughout the service. The six altar candles are put out during the Benedictus, and then any remaining lights in the church. The last candle is hidden beneath the altar, ending the service in total darkness. The strepitus (Latin for "great noise"), made by slamming a book shut, banging a hymnal or breviary against the pew, or stomping on the floor, symbolizes the earthquake that followed Christ's death, although it may have originated as a simple signal to depart.[8] After the candle has been shown to the people, it is extinguished, and then put "on the credence table," or simply taken to the sacristy. All rise and then leave in silence.[9]

Ah yes! The very stuff that got good Pope Benedict (nee Josef Ratzinger) out of bed in the morning!

Well, Jeremiah has been lamenting through virtually every Renaissance composer, and I was tempted to do de Morales, again, but decided on Palestrina. I wanted to get to the bottom of the Jeremiah problem as he (Palestrina) understood him.

Well, I should have done all this in the Triduum, or the last three days of Holy Week, but I was busy this year. In fact, the week before Holy Week, I was being detoxified, which involved toxifying myself with Ativan instead of alcohol. The alcohol banished, the hospital then sent me home to detoxify from the Ativan. The process was nearly as bad as going cold turkey from the drink, and occupied much of Holy Week. At the end of it all, I was more ready to join the Filipinos for a little crucifixion reenactment than a sedate darkening of a church into shadows.

The second problem was that I had never gotten around to reading the Book of Jeremiah (and I still haven’t), nor had I read the Book of Lamentations, of whom Jeremiah was once thought to be the author. So I settled right down to work on the Lamentations, which I read in the King James Version, although on my Zenfone Asus 5.0. After all, if it can play music, surely it could “read” (as in display text) the Bible.

Well, I’m happy to say that for once God behaved like an adult and started acting not as I understood Him. No, this God was a downright Old Testament Son of a Bitch, and didn’t the sons and daughters of Jerusalem deserve it? Ahh, it was good lip-smacking stuff! It took me back to my childhood, it did, when I used to watch my father in church, every Sunday, being forced to admit that he was a “miserable sinner.” If God could get the old man to fess up to that, I thought, he had to be some kick-ass god indeed. What my black son would call a regular Niggah!

It was so good, indeed, that I started copying and pasting—you don’t want to lose all this stuff back into the Bible, after all. And that meant that I was copying and pasting virtually chapter and verse. Here’s where the action is just heating up….

1:12 Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.
13 From above hath he sent fire into my bones, and it prevaileth against them: he hath spread a net for my feet, he hath turned me back: he hath made me desolate and faint all the day.  

Wonderful, heady stuff! And had I read it—or heard it sung—in a darkening church a night or two before the resurrection, it would have spoken very exactly to my condition. Because being in rehab, and especially being in the throes of alcohol poisoning that preceded it, was to be in sorrow like unto no sorrow, to have been afflicted with the Lord’s fierce anger, to have received his fire into my bones, and to have been desolate and faint all the day.

God had done one number on Jerusalem, clearly—Sodom and Gomorrah had been a mere warm-up for the real deal. And whoever wrote the Lamentations certainly had the conviction of a great writer: he had clearly told every diligent editor to go to Hell. I myself was craving a red pencil as much as I craved the bottle, but the author held my nose rigorously down in the mud. He described every degradation, every humiliation, every devastation, and then he turned around and drove back through the country all over again. My rehab days began to glow quite pinkly in my memory as I read on through Lamentations!

In fact, rehab has a certain kind of wonderful. There is only one thing to be done, and that is to endure it. You go through an almost sadistic rite of initiation (I was stripped naked, patted down—who knew if a razor blade might not be lurking in my hair)? I was forced to bend my knees and lower my waist to my ankles, stretch my arms and cough. All under the cruel, unblinking eye of an “aide.” You are then led to a room, where there is a bedframe, a mattress, and linen. You are exhausted, as much by the completely sleepless night you have endured as by the effort of seeing your loved one see you, at your absolute worst moment.

At last, on that first day of my second journey into rehab, I found myself on the bed I had made—in both senses. A nurse had come in my room bearing comfort, also in two senses. She gave me the 2 mg of Ativan, and then, remembering our last conversation in the previous hospitalization, said, “hey, you tried. That’s good!”

There was then nothing to do. I could sleep, and did. Somebody would bring me food. There was great freedom in being locked away, since I did not have to struggle with the question: should I, or even could I, go down to CVS and buy the cheapest bottle of scotch? Should I, could I, make it through the day to dinnertime, when my husband would come home? What kind of shape would I be in? Would I be slurring my words, stumbling at the table, breaking wine glasses and dropping cutlery? How much work would it take to try and fake being sober, and how likely would it be that I would succeed?

And the worst question of all: assuming I could get through the evening, what sort of night would I have? If I tell you that I was anxious, the night before I went into rehab, will you know what that was? Imagine falling from a skyscraper: you are plummeting downward. In fact, you should be exhilarated, thrilled finally to feel your body free from the ground, from the bonds of the earth. You are, in fact, terrified, because you know that in one second your body will explode against the pavement, and your life, in one cataclysm of pain and blood, will be over.

That one second before the crash? I lived that one second for eight hours, as I counted each quarter hour down to the time I could get up and go to the hospital.

I had brought it on myself, of course. God had had nothing to do with it: he had not put the bottle to my lips, he had not extended my arm to reach for the booze that I hid under my bed. No, no—he had not brought me to this.

But what if he had? He had destroyed Jerusalem, and the Jews, though lamenting, had still welcomed the destruction, or at least granted the justice or the fitness of the punishment. Why could I not say, as a man might have a few centuries before, that God had brought me very low? That He had cast me among the swine, the lepers, the unclean? I cannot claim to know Him, nor do I know his will.

I can only say that He had been there, as I lay drunk in my bed, and got drunker.

And he had been there as well, when finally I came into my room in rehab. It was empty, as empty as the bare mattress awaiting its sheets and human cargo. No, there was nothing in that room, nothing at all. Housekeeping had come, cleaned the blood and tears from the walls and the mattress. They had polished the mirror carefully: no trace of a creased and leaden visage remained there. A squirt from the can had freshened the air. It was only I, sleepless and drunk, who saw the figure on the mattress. He’d been waiting, after all, and he looked up, smiled slightly, less at me than what he knew of me. He shifted a bit. It seemed, after all of this time, that at last, in this infinite emptiness, there was room for God and for me.