Four Introspective Saints

by Tom Wolpert on May 18, 2023

When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour:


The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before him. Didn’t Habakkuk say that? Inwardly a Jew, circumcised in spirit. Silence is worship – to quietly carry Isaac’s wood. In reverence for the Son of God unveiling his will beyond human tracing. Heaven all around, silent. In the council of the holy ones, God is greatly feared. To quietly, reverently, rejoice in life, unsealed now.

When I was a child I thought as a child, looked on silently at life, shy passenger on an ocean liner, not grasping the voyage.  Unable to read letters on life preservers attached to walkways above my short eyes.  Later, tripping silent too, for different reasons. Tongue-tied, numb. Aging we ask for unsealing.  Oracles – a revelation from God, his purposes, his plans. The caustic corrosive revelation – the naked lunch. Stop eating the news from a long newspaper spoon. Think you see it all. That’s a perspective too, half-steps from bedlam, chaos. In a naked world, in the pandemonium – one moment flashing stars, galaxies splashing along eons, kaleidoscope flowers. Next stop, dark thoughts, throats graves, tongues lie, poison the language. Then the dream train, crystal visions, boarding at track O. Escape out, run anywhere. On half-open streets curses the greeting, misery the marker, peace the stranger.  Zero the number.

Dreams, unburied. Bursting startled, articulated.  Night-bound words, drowned words, returned in sable images. Stone dreams, could not speak. Dreams of my mother, in a maze. Floating, flying, running, trapped in solvent, glue, paralysis. Criss-crossed coasts, in two places, in no places, wandered deep-shaded city streets, furtive thrills. Returning to high school, talk with my brother, midnight diesel engines, spiraling stars and freight cars. Conversing with birds, my mouth a mirror.  Garden dream tree.  Vivid summons unheard awake. Invitation moved from phantasms of dharma, duty, task, from wu and k’ung and climbing secret somber mountain to empty cave opening onto a vacuum-abyss. Now to a meeting altogether unseen –  storm-scarred pine speaking.  Gathered mist, pregnant word.  A ripening fruit.

Bondage of the will. Relentless introspection finally quieted in trust. Cemetery silo-walls giving way, dissolved, unsealed. Efforts, resolutions, some well-meaning, well-intentioned. Some mirror-defeated – just getting high. Hopeless on the best days, helpless on the worst – futile efforts to reform, to change my life. A young king, leering – shaking his fist at a storm not understood or to be escaped.  Forlorn, disinherited, disarmed.  Cursing events, cursing the emptiness.  Angry swords swung at ghosts, closets of shattered lances.  Futile tools applied to broken rusted engines at dead ends – their disassembled parts scattered, strewn like broken hearts.  Mocking-inscrutable highway signs, declaring north and south, crossroads of two easts then two wests, thrusting always toward blank horizons – dragon-stretched to grey nowhere. 

To escape ditches, find trestles over low-road snares – the just man to live by faith.  No fruit in the fields, no cattle in the stalls.  Yet I will climb to the high places.  Hemmed by shadows from tenements long disappeared, vague Fourier-Owen ideals, shaped by kibbutzim hopes and pogrom fears colliding years before I was born, vines of water hemlock circling while a child – until Venus fly-trapped no more. The Lamb opens the 7th seal – Maestro of future history. Ecce!  Behold the Anointed – look to live!  Himself history-to-be.  He opens the 7th seal, mysteries unwrap, days come and go. The Seal-Opener remains fixed in being united in being with God.  I will be silent in the presence of my God – holy and righteous. I will praise his holiness forever.  Holiness the flawless shield, the fixed rock, the staff, the beguiling flute in the distance. 

Parents. Cohen – David & Esther. Jewish, secular educated idealists. Named their first son Jayden Benjamin, named their second Isadore Hampton. Socialists, utopian, not radicals, egalitarians. Sojourn in Israel for that reason – egalitarian life. Return to Israel program.  Time spent in school, met there, teaching hospital;  coffee dates joined to earnest cafeteria debates. Energies poured in, sincere, courageous, tireless – yet somewhere the utopia went south. The return was to America. Father a physician, M.D., six foot six, black curly hair. Mother a nurse, a foot shorter, red-streaked hair trimmed, direct, all business. Aunts, uncles, cousins, family gatherings, Bar Mitzvahs for some, but not for me. Parents still determined humanist-idealists. No synagogue or seder, no Hebrew school, religious learning or education.  Long dinner-table ethical discussions about medicine, philosophy, treatments – moral obligation to announce or to conceal bad news to patients.  Jayden would join in, I would listen.

In kindergarten I was on the bus from school and got sick and threw up on myself. I didn’t say anything. Jayden was sitting close by and he told the bus driver. It took me time to speak well – at three and four spoke with a lisp – a blond cherub – but if a relative wanted to ask the two young Cohen boys a question, they asked Jayden. I didn’t shed my lisp, didn’t start speaking clearly until I was seven or eight – Jayden knew what I meant anyway. My mother, careful in details, student of nutrition and vaccinations and warm clothes and homework assignments and parent-teacher conferences. My father busy, worked long and late hours, talked to patients and other doctors at night on telephone calls behind a closed, paneled office door. Jayden didn’t talk down to me  – he knew I knew things from reading. But the rest of the world saw me, if at all, as Jayden’s little brother, a shadow at his heels.  I grew slowly in secret cocoons, happiest at home.

School was not all bad. Oak wooden chairs for right-handers, classroom construction paper pastel-decorated, cubbyholes for lockers, the smell of historied stone Quaker buildings.  First graders, your own pencils, crayons, large-letter workbooks stacked under a desk top, led like ducklings through the school day in a tall world.  Teacher Mrs. Osbourne put us in primer-reading circles, called Robins and Jays. After a few weeks, she told me I was moving from the Robins to the Blue Jays. She seemed to think that was important but I didn’t know why. When I got into the new group – the Blue Jays read out loud quickly, fluently. A child’s day is a universe.  Hours, minutes, days, melted and merged like recess and lunchtime and school and bus rides.  There was just childlike being, each day unrolling, unraveling without any particular or important beginning or ending – until marching years and grades brought deadlines and assignments and marking periods and class rank and achievement tests – timeless being not to be recovered until the Lamb unsealed it once again.

The gentle silence of a weekly Quaker meeting for schoolchildren. The odd belief that a child might have something worthwhile to say – to be heard attentively by a room of older children, adults. Rounded stone walls to divide playing fields and bursting recess-frenzy.  Not always frenzied myself – quietly I nestled, quietly I read, an underground stream, content unto myself, sometimes meeting contentment in others.  I didn’t mind if it rained. Occasionally people understood, other children saw. Jaydon met the world headlong, a charging comet. I was a patch of green grass, soaking up rain-words, each book a cloud. And there is an invisible world the hard-chargers, the extroverted, the award-achievers, never see.  Things are still on the outside but they shimmer on the inside.

Jayden the tall.  The athlete, the star, the captain of everything. Image of father, graceful, handsome. Me,  except in my books and secret fantasy-kingdoms, average, average, average. Never separated from my silver-framed wire glasses. I followed him around, played kickball, baseball when he did, didn’t mind when my clumsy game ended. In first grade too shy to speak. Had a crush on a neighbor girl, never said a word. If Jayden liked someone he went over, clasped a hand – if a girl, he went over, started a conversation. The distance between us more than age or height – my parents talked to him like an adult, a third parent.  I was a tunnel-lair child. Big blocks, toy figures, cars, to build spectral child-cities, stretched across my room where I burrowed holed up.  Pint-sized, four-eyed bandido in retreat. Jayden got into a fight with a neighbor boy, won, bloodied his nose. When I was picked on I froze, waited in fear until I could run, until Jayden would find me. A little older, my world internal, imagined dunes on distant planets, ringworlds, Foundation and the Mule, swords and sorcery, dungeons and dragons, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. Adventures in lost mines, mars-fantasy, middle-earth.  Where I was captain.

I heard my father talk to my mother, saying I might be a success, but Jayden would be a success. Jayden raced off on his bike leading his friends. I walked nearby railroad tracks, balanced on one rail, dreaming. It was a small town, our parents let us go our own way – they trusted America, America’s politics, its ideals.  They trusted us in America.  Little talk about Israel, their time there, where they collided with something – not to be brought up.  Palestinians? Ultra-Orthodox?  An ethnic-religious state? Whatever drew them in, whatever sent them out, not discussed. American politics was, but only in an abstract sort of way, like a discussion about characters and plot after a theater performance. My father upset about medical malpractice lawyers, not about taxes. My mother decorated in monochromatic colors, clean lines, glass tables, natural light through large windows, uncluttered living spaces, elegant, sparse vases.  Our living room could have been a magazine cover for Swedish furniture. Prices got her voice up a decibel, perhaps even if we could easily afford it.  Clutter was not acceptable. Once they discussed staffing at the hospital – then got upset, angry, although I couldn’t understand why.

My parents visited my grandmother every month, living down in Pleasantville. Jayden and I spent days at the beach around Atlantic City.  He could swim out far and deep – I brought books to read in the sand. My grandmother Sarah’s house had rented rooms. An elderly Jewish man, an even older Jewish woman, rented upstairs rooms from her, lumbering up and down the stairs no more than twice in a day. The house had a smell, an aroma of matzoh-ball and Campbell’s mushroom soup and old people and their clothes – their photographs, their sequins and neckties and sorrows deposited into closets of the past.  Grandmother’s decorating style was a jumble, full of chintz fabric, knick-knacks, ceramic figurines of fairy princesses, ballerinas and swans in glass display cases, furniture cushioned and uncoordinated.  Her home was like an antique shop – to move around we negotiated carefully to not knock anything over. Outside was safer -the thin soil was sandy with little round pebbles in Pleasantville but nothing was breakable. Our parents brought bikes for Jayden and I – we rode around on bright, sunny New Jersey afternoons, past liquor stores and nail salons and hairdressers and pizza shops and offices for insurance agents and tattoo parlors and martial arts studios and bait & tackle shops and retail branch banks and the grocery store with its sprawling parking lot, kept company by a few squawking sea-gulls, past salted homes 60 years old wearing faded pastel clapboard, mottled roofs, drooping gutters, in need of caulk for shaded windows and patchwork mortar for cracked concrete front steps.  It was a nice town for two boys on bikes sent out to play.

Our Philadelphia suburban home neighborhood had walnut trees lining back yards by the alley cutting through to garages.  Green walnuts fallen from the walnut trees had a smell too – I liked it, would chuck them into a nearby pond, sometimes for hours. Plunk – plunk – plunk, a splash and the ripples moved out in concentric circles, every time. If Jayden came by on his bike and asked what I was doing, I shrugged, could never answer. But he was checking on me  – saw I was content, whatever I was doing – and would ride off to his next adventure. When I was in fourth grade I had a crush on a girl named Bettina with a very German last name, like Mensch. Bettina was slender, with light freckles, an aquiline nose, clear eyes and light eyelashes. She could run faster than me. I never said anything to her, but sometimes I thought about her when I was chucking walnuts. Before I threw the next walnut, the water was still – the pond like black glass after the last concentric ripple quieted.  The tree was still, the walnuts laying on the ground were still, the sun was still in the sky – I held the green-black rotting walnut in my hand with its nearly overpowering smell – the smell was still too.  I liked those moments, when the world was poised at full stop for me.  All its motion was at my introspective, soon-to-be-adolescent command.

All those books I first read because Jayden read them and left them sitting around on coffee tables and nightstands, where I would inspect them unobserved – O’Neill, his Long Day’s Journey into Night, On the Road, madman stuff of Holden Caulfield, Naked Lunch, sally out to Zen, eastern religion, Ashrams.  If he saw me reading one, he might say something evocative, something to make me think. The days changed although I only slowly noticed. Jayden changed and I had to notice that – but there was little for me to say. He was in conflict now, even if I didn’t know why. His world was a battle-field. I was a sapling in a peach orchard, watching the soldiers scramble and race about me, not understanding the terms or point of their warfare or how my brother got involved. If he saw me reading on a window seat he would still say something, but now it was provocative, a boy who was becoming a man by getting ready for a fight.

I had a friend with two first names, Amy Beverly – she and I would find a corner to read and wonder why anyone wondered at us. They teased we were hiding out together, but we only wanted a quiet place to read. Libraries have a certain smell, the isolate repeated tick of a single clock on the first floor a distinct echo, the black spindle-back chairs with their certain feel on the buttocks, the fluorescent light a certain flicker – that was our world. In it we found no fault, no shortcoming. To us, the stacks were rich with words, like walls erected against missiles whose purpose or anger we couldn’t grasp. Amy Beverly would twirl a black knappy hair in her fingers as she read – and other than turning pages, be stiller than stone for hours.

Idealism meeting reality, like an 18-wheeled truck meeting a herd of deer. Not all the deer die at once, but the herd is never the same.  Jayden wasn’t much talking to me anymore. Jayden was gone from the house for days at a time. My parents were lost as to what to do or say. They were passive-frozen, paralyzed in fearful indecision about their man-sized adolescent. They were alternatively resigned, philosophic, dismayed, wishfully-confident, then helplessly agonizing over what to do.  Inept, flaccid in the face of Jayden’s determined, misguided will and their own unwillingness to be disciplinarians.  They wanted it to be all okay again – didn’t know how to act if things weren’t okay – had little way to tell the difference and few tools to employ. Nothing in Jayden’s head, whatever it was, was anything like what had been in their heads, in their adult lives or even when they met in Israel.  It didn’t occur to them that Jayden was taking his ideas from elsewhere – they were under the impression that their own ideas were of their own making.

Older brother Jayden – one day, nodded, made a comment as I was reading Autobiography of a Yogi – next day, gone. Dead of an overdose. Accidental or deliberate. The news was crushing, an avalanche of grief. My business-like mother collapsed shrieking, sobbing.  My father’s face fell into a place I had never seen, spiritually collapsed. Jayden, gone like Allie in Catcher in the Rye –– Hammy, younger brother, carries on – reads Franny’s Jesus Prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Parents have the heart-stabbing, grief-strangled duty of making arrangements. Identify the lifeless body of their son. There are no worlds to hide in, no words to hide behind. A person beloved at the very center of their lives – so anointed with hopes – their engine of hope – had become a corpse, bluntly a slab of meat.  All too familiar to them, to be tagged here. Moved there.  Autopsied.  Placed in an outrageous box to be buried in some insulting dirt piled in advance under a mocking outdoor canopy.  Warlocks, if I couldn’t see them I felt them, warlocks and witches everywhere at his burial, standing at the crowd’s edge, handing out weedy flowers, holding sharp-pointed shovels, with their gargoyle-green faces making sympathetic noises, shedding a conspicuous tear to wipe away with a claw, to pretend, mock and mime at the grief upon which they demonically feasted.

Parents never got past Jayden’s death. Not in the first year, not in the second, not in the third. Perhaps some religious belief would have helped them to get past the corpse of their son, but they didn’t have that. Whatever dignity or comfort such beliefs might have held was lost to them. Jayden’s room preserved like a museum, a mausoleum. Books still sitting on shelves, school pictures, his smiling face. Excruciatingly sad to go in. After a while, no one entered his room. Parents shell-shocked.  Left to go my own way. We walked around his memory in the house – Jayden disappeared, converted into a grief-spirit in some absurd play where the characters talk to a ghost they never see but are always conscious of and never forget. If not for a bare veneer of rationality, they would have put out corned beef and kugel for him on a neatly-set placemat. But off-Broadway ghost plays are funny and this was just unbearably sad.

Change came to me too. Jayden’s death walked through my reading room, knocked over the shelves, scattered my books. Implacable grief entered, announced – ‘You knew I was always here. From when you were four. Everyone knows.’  I had no answer – that was the story, we all knew it. I drifted into my own scene, wandered away from a life of books at home places. No one came chasing me. The users and the losers were my high school teachers – until they drifted away too. Once in a while Amy Beverly and I would have a sandwich, but something had taken down her soul too. The only black and white she was interested in were black letters on a white page but the world wasn’t giving her that choice. I had choices too, but my choosing didn’t count for much. I would get high and make a different choice the next week but all the choosing wound up the same choice.

I drove west across Pennsylvania for college – the path of least resistance. If I had been another person living another life, I might have found something starkly beautiful in the rural pines, red maples, chestnuts, walnut, oaks, even the brown bears rooting around midnight garbage.  The campus and local town were carved out of the surrounding woods like two handfuls of sand taken from a beach. I found a local park with wild grape arbors and benches underneath, and that was my spot for reading, the sun spackling through the vines onto the pages of my book. Two years as an art history major in a place where deer season was the major holiday and convenience stores the major shopping outlets. Then I transferred further west, waved goodbye to the campus dorms, town sports bar, convenience stores, outdoorsman’s hunting and bait shops along the highway. I had applied to an obscure place for arcane studies, thinking a few hundred miles of the Pennsylvania turnpike was far enough from the entombed séance of continuing sorrow, chiseled into every telephone conversation with home.  After two years, I wanted three thousand miles of Interstate 80 between us.  I wanted the raw edge of a distant ocean that said apply here. 

West-coast living quarters were a series of haphazard communal student arrangements until I arrived at a real urban commune. By then I was finished with a degree that enabled me to talk at length about Botticelli, if anyone asked. My commune mates were older, two filmmakers, psychologist, entomologist, writer turned coffee house barista. Robbie, intellectual, giraffe-like, was the guide. This group wasn’t casual about their psychedelic adventures – they were organized, purposeful. Role play was highly organized – we got costumes – Frosty knew where to get them. We got high quality drugs – Vermy knew where. The interpersonal relationships could be intense or casual – or in the case of G-Lucky, wishful. Meals were prepared – we took turns – I learned to cook for six. The house was not far from Glen Park, canyon in miniature, and I would walk our dogs there, sometime with Weezy and her service dog. California fir, pines, cypresses, ironwoods, some palms with that fresh green aphrodisiac aroma. There were poetry readings, script readings in the commune, a chessboard, round telephone-cable drum coffee table, music scattered around four-foot Bowers & Wilkins floor-standing speakers. An oversized roll of brown butcher’s paper unwound to hang broadly for posting front hallway notes to each other. Tripping on outings – to movies, plays, planetarium shows, picnics on nude beaches, hikes up Mt. Tam – part of the ritual.

Our house was stenciled with green curling vines around doors, decorated with posters from old movies, framed impressionistic art of Monet’s flowers, Picasso’s Guernica, elegantly-framed charcoal sketches of nude models, pastel super-sized flowers cut from construction paper hung high about.  There was an open kitchen cornered with nooks and crannies, stocked with spices, herbs, nutritional supplements and condiments neatly stored in rows on hand-crafted built-in shelves.  There were framed still photos from Robby’s films, x-rated movie scripts from Frosty’s on coffee tables, an oversized glass display of three dozen butterflies with wings spread for display, a colossal water filled hookah with elaborate gilt & coloring.  There was a chessboard with ornately carved chess pieces, a board for playing Go with its black and white stones.

The built-in bookshelves were stocked with metaphysical philosophy, Plato’s Republic, psychology of Freud, psychology of Jung, of Otto Rank and Ernest Becker, pharmacology, biology and chemistry textbooks, field guides for entomologists, handbooks of California birds, still photography reference books, technical manuals on cinematography, political biographies, treatises on eastern religion, the I Ching,19th century novels, Stendhal, Balzac, volumes of poetry from every century, Ginsburg’s Howl, Burrough’s Naked Lunch, confessions and true crime nonfiction of various sorts, Capote, a whole shelf of international erotica and one-dollar grimy paperback porn, Candy, pulpy detective novels with covers of languid blondes and tough private detectives, oversized photographic books of Hollywood comics, Chaplin, Keaton, of silent movies, of geographical wonders, of the oversized photography of Ansel Adams balanced precariously, too large to tuck neatly on a shelf.

In the house sometimes chatter, even extended conversation.  But often a kind of silence -the silence of users – intellectual users, but users – like waiting at a Dunkin Donuts, descending into the Velvet Underground, waiting for your man. Even when users are well-supplied, studded with open drawers of well-labeled concoctions like a home pharmucopia – even when there’s superficial talk at the dinner table, a user’s silence persisted like fog at the curtains. It was supposed to be intellectual, hip, but intellects were melting away.  If there had ever been purpose, a vision for this commune, it was swallowed into the silence of neon at an all-night diner, a cup of coffee never finished, waiting for a connection.  For very smart people, they never quite got that drugs eat up arts, thought, culture like a fire eats up wood. So talk was usually empty diversion – the reality was silence when the needle hit the arm, the vein, the sting, the blood blossomed and appeared like a rose at the top of the bulb. No one talked then. You watched in silence. The rush is going to come soon, upon the instant. Silent seconds, open round waiting eyes really seeing nothing, images turned inward pregnant with unfocused death. The crystal ship being filled noiselessly, dropping human petals overboard as it glides. I am glad we have here come to a different kind of silence.

My soul ached for more than one reason. I walked the streets of the city late into the night. I ached, walked more. Wore out on the psychedelic trips, wore my eyeballs out looking through windows turned to waving transparent jelly, wore out floating in a crystal sea, waves breaking, reforming, breaking. Wore out on steady decay where psychedelics and smoke came out every evening like cards from a blackjack dealer.  Wore out on the subterranean tides we swam, tropical fish darting around reefs of wasted introspection. Wore out on ever-reshuffling tarot cards, affairs like fireworks, one-night stands pursued blindly through caves. Wore out on the sexpassion-drama with its pseudo-suspense, gossipy emotional vandalism recurring but never resolved.  There was a bout of repentance after our escapade at the planetarium but it was the repentance of Nineveh – dramatic, but it didn’t last.  We lapsed into further episodes of the cycling opera bouffe.

My futility was like surrounding flocks of sea gulls – I chased them off but they came back single, returned in groups.  Charged arm-flapping to shoo them, read fervently about gull removal, engaged falcons for intimidation.  Introspected in so penetrating a way it would have done the chief Gull, Sigmund Freud, proud – still found myself surrounded in the same spot with the same flock one year to the next, bird-droppings of pointlessness, laced with vacuous uric acid, etched in my hair.  A day came when I said to myself – too many gulls.  Repeated, unrelenting frustration accumulated in feathered layers.  When I said goodbye to my communal mates, no one was surprised – no one said ‘wait’ or ‘stay.’  Perhaps Weezy was sad, but she was sad about so many things. She put the leash on her service dog without a word and went for a walk. I packed in a few days and left as silently as a shadow.  

I had been away from home.  Ghosts waited in Pennsylvania – at least I stopped the ghastly process in California.  Hoping I was ready to talk with my parents about Jayden.  Anticipating, maybe it would be something of comfort, of purpose, maybe just a long silence.  In the teeth of grief, I found out something- if anything hurt that much, it was important.  I wanted to say it to them to say it to myself.  A dead brother laid into a box is more serious, more worthy of thought, than yet another drug fantasy.  If life with intellectual hippies was a useless band-aid, because the wound was so deep and no answers were ever provided, just mystical platitudes – I had to have some real soul-wound bleeding on the inside.  We all did – the entire human race – something inside more than a clever, insouciant, insolent appetite for thrills, for grandiose fantasies, for a kaleidoscope of deep insights that barely lasted a day, to the next trip, another day at the amusement park, another ride on the merry-go-round. 

Driving back was silence, reflective as snow on surrounding cliffs, accepting pain like lightning strikes, feeling imaginary forests crash.  My emotional redwoods absorbed the jolt, the sound of their stately irresistible fall reverberated, put motion to swaddling cradles of interior mountain lakes, shimmering crystal-icy, startling birds, painting ripples onto shocked blue mirrors of water – then there had to be something inside, deep, to start. We were not squirrels, not even clever, educated squirrels, could never be sedated enough – even perpetually-introspective psychology-reading squirrels couldn’t have so much pain.  Loss is a stern teacher – the symbols on her butterfly wings signal dread.  Silent grief did that much for me.  Melancholy in the night, the sadness of long highways, of the sparse, distant taillights of the isolate trucker far ahead.  Driving across country was time to think.

I arrived home in Pennsylvania, fighting stark-evil thoughts – alternating with ephemeral lightness. Blind prodigal Isaac, carrying wood, repenting of I knew not what.  Didn’t understand why or where to point the wheels, only to a place well known once, alien now.  Flocks of starlings rolling over storm-billows. Nightingale singing under a shroud.  I brought along bone changelings, shadows I could not peel away or shed. Unpacked for my empty corridors, deserted bunk, incorrigible dreams in nightmarish lodgings fashioned like a hospital ward. 

My anonymous rented room, laboratory for tattooed flaws of my mind – hex symbols drew themselves across my walls – I scrubbed out invisible pentacles on throw rugs.  Pushed away clutching dreams, naked on broken bottles in the alley.  Sordid self now in revolt – madness not hidden, emerging in majestic delusions, stretched naked across linoleum floors, roped to blandly drawn blinds.  The cup, the plate, the single setting for a chair sitting alone against a pressboard table.  Vacuum of the soul, voluntarily self-committed to bare walls.  But then – if the room was cheap and sordid, if the soul was empty, filling was possible. If demons stalk the night, if pain is great, they can be dispelled, it can be ended.  Wasn’t there grief because something, someone, was lost?  If my visions were estranged, only horror and nothing else, half the landscape had to be missing.  

In the midst of death-story, sunline of morning – not prayers, not yet – but something. Reading Job and the Psalms. The silence of God spoke.  Job put his hand to his mouth in silence before God.  Almighty God, Holy and Righteous – in wrath, remember compassion.  I wasn’t the only one returning to a confrontation, returning for a meeting whose purpose I could feel but not understand.  I stand in awe of your deeds, O Lord.  Remember mercy, when you visit me in judgment.  Plague goes before you, O Lord. Your silence measures my travels. You scatter fire-line scarred mountains – the cedars crash, the perpetual hills bow. The ways of God are everlasting.

I saw many tents of America in affliction, and my own. Why was it, O psychedelic sea, that you fled? O pseudo-Jordan, impersonating, disguised, why did you turn back when your mask was removed?  You unmoving stone mountains, why did you skip like lambs – if there is only empty?  There was trembling at the presence of the God of Jacob.  He could turn rocks into pools, hard rocks into springs of cleansing water.  After a few weeks, I calmed down a level or two.  And yet  – 

There’s something Jewish about carrying grief around with you – luggage you can never unpack and never find a locker to check it into.  I couldn’t process it emotionally, I couldn’t process it intellectually either.  Isn’t God in charge of things?  Couldn’t Jayden have been influenced by better friends, waylaid by benign thieves, arrested pre-emptively by diligent cops, counseled by mysterious strangers, smitten with the flu, tempted into other diversions by some prostitute, on his way to the drug mart to buy the dose that killed him?  Arguments about free-will seemed absurd to me.  If Jayden had free will to kill himself with a drug overdose, what happened to my parents’ free will?  Where did that go after Jayden died?

What happened to my free will? Where did that go? Jayden crashed that too. Suppose someone had asked me, on the day I was born – would you like to live in a house with a ghost – or not at all? Is that a free-will choice? One death ripples so. To run around and chatter away about free will – it seemed like astrology, like attributing to the stars our characters, mates, lives, fates – an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition at the charge of a star. And what if our dispositions are not only goatish – but tragic, self-destructive, laced with despair? What if our dispositions are just what’s left over, after the idealism dies, after the deer of fond and foolish hopes are left as carcasses by the side of the road?  O mighty free will.

I read Isaiah.  Lord, you were angry with me – isn’t the affliction of grief the most severe form of God’s anger?  Has your anger turned away?  You have comforted me. What was this comfort, that I could feel, but not explain? Surely God is my salvation. I could not make head or tail of that, but it reverberated too deep within me, not to mean something. I will trust and not be afraid.  The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song. There were no songs for a long time – what was the new song? He has become my salvation. What is this? Why does my salvation help with Jayden’s death?  With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

And in the midst of my stark visions, I had a dream about a tree, the very tree that stood in my front yard. The tree and I dialogued, as if I were Chuang Tzu exploring the inner chambers – but purified, sealed. The pine tree had its own mission – included me and more than me.   There was a reality I turned to mush, now trying to recapture. If drugs turned thoughts into wild flocks of birds beyond capture, then something else recaptured, re-centered those visions, might extract out of a strange dream a word true or useful. There was coming a wind to take the tree away, but held back for me. The tree was posing questions to me. And who was I, to have a tree in a dream pose riddles to me? 

Sing to the LORD, he has done glorious things. Now I was in a world with no road map, no explanations, but something was here that made me dream.  My only job was to ripen – like some fruit.  And if all of this seemed bizarre, it was so vivid, so powerful. It was a message, a directive, a direction – that didn’t depend on me at all.  No one told me to stop mourning for Jayden. I had many pictures of God – some drug-fueled, some sober. But I never had that picture of God. I wasn’t supposed to do anything at all. Just listen and ripen. While dream angels sealed many, including me – and dream trees spoke to be carried off by great winds – where being and un-being went to fight some battle of ontology.

I went into Valley Forge one day to walk. It was Palm Sunday – although that did not figure in my calculations of the day. The Holy Spirit came over me, gently, comprehensively, experientially. My mind was changed for the time period of a two-mile walk – its forward orientation was reconfigured – as if one took a north-south bar magnet and turned it, faced it east-west. God was omnipresent at all times, ever-where, everywhere – as if I were having a direct perception of God. God’s being was being – the being of God was, is the being of Jesus.  Flowing Father, Receiving Son. I walked and there was a family picnicking near the macadam path. Playing mildly, they kicked a peaceful, errant ball in my direction. I retrieved it and threw it back in shimmering, palpable peace. As I crossed Gulph Road, walking along a stone lane that ran parallel to Joseph Plumb Martin trail, I was passing as if through a door. I realized I was going to be a religious man. This was not what I had expected of my life. I’ve had many experiences but the kindness of this experience was different – drug experiences have an element of being harsh, make your head big (Grace Slick sang go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall).  This experience made me feel vulnerable, small, condescended to, not out of meanness but only because of the enormous difference between me and the Spirit who loved, protected, descended over me. It was as if I were a young boy playing baseball and Babe Ruth came to visit me. I was a small child being tenderly touched with fingers of the Spirit, spiritual, spread open, gently descending. Peacefully, like a summer ocean tide, the experience – God at all times, ever-where, everywhere – receded.

It wasn’t long after that – I just showed up at a church, chosen more or less at random. I said, ‘Will you baptize me?’ And they said, sure. They asked why and I said I felt as if I had an experience with God. The pastor asked could you tell us more and I said, no. And the pastor, a nice young man, said, well, okay, next week. They baptized me on a quiet Sunday morning in a church with a small congregation and not a lot of discussion. The rite and ritual was out of a green book and the pastor followed the book. Not without some trepidation, I repeated the words he prompted. (All that renouncing stuff – I was hopeful but not overwhelmingly confident). I got water poured on my head three times and the Trinity was pronounced – baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The pastor made the sign of the cross on my forehead. Like my experience in Valley Forge, it was both comprehensive and gentle. The congregation came around to shake my hand afterwards and invite me to lunch at the church picnic. I didn’t really know them or even the type of people they were -as a social, cultural group, we were far apart – but they were warm and inviting and they seemed to think I was one of them. Things started changing in my life after that.  The human experience is an interaction with God.  Later on, I had a conversation with my parents about Jayden. I’m not sure it did much for them, but I think the effort was worthwhile.


Silence. The silence of the opening, the unveiling of the mystery, breaking of the code. The coronation of the Prince. The child of Mary asserts his position, his power, his authority, omnipotent, omniscient, ascending to that throne from which all light emanates as the seals are broken, to the very last, even the hushed 7th – to the outermost reaches of his Father’s ordination of time, destiny, life and peace. Rejoicing saints inherit an overwhelming gift.
Totum venerabile, sanctum silentium.

I had a child’s daydreams in Bel Air, nestled between metaphorical castles of the Army – Antonio Brendan Quasimodo – little-league nicknamed Quasi to all friends. My Italian father, Pietro, swarthy wrestler build, Petey to all, my Irish mother, Kathleen, slender, looked frail but wasn’t. Two older sisters, Mimi, frail, lightly-freckled and wan herself and Lizbeth, dark ringlet curls, copper-skinned.  One younger sister, short, glasses always until old enough for contacts, lithe, eventually a model, forever known as Chuckie.

Parents started out intensely religious, devout, regular at Mass, loyal to our parish, devoted to the sacramental life of the Church, to all mysteries joyful, luminous, sorrowful, glorious. Later on, quieted somewhat, pull of events, friction, disappointment of life, but neither did without last rites. My father had been a machine operator, made good money, got his right arm chewed up in a CNC machine. Worker’s comp checks and the product liability settlement. My mother worked for the defense department at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. Didn’t say exactly what she did, probably wasn’t allowed. Her passion at school was mathematics, a passion which did not transmit to me. Spacious ranch house, breeze room, two-car garage, gazebo surrounded by red and purple azaleas, rhododendrons in back yard. Played summer badminton on the lawn. My father played good badminton with his left arm swinging the racquet like a windmill, his right arm dangling, his injured Italian pride emerged in sending the shuttlecock into orbit.

Some of my daydreams revolved around my friend’s sister. We were children, eleven years old, religious children, Catholic children – but Brigid pulled her skirt up over her knees to show me in the basement. In the dim light, unseen by that cloud of witnesses that always seemed to hang around a Catholic life, I touched her hand. I rested the tips of my fingers on the palm of her hand. She held her hand open for me. We were both shocked by the moment – the electricity of the touch – no one really explained this reverberating sexuality – you experienced it. It ended quickly – somehow the cloud of witnesses re-appeared and we ran up the stairs. Her brother was still in the backyard digging up something. In the kitchen I asked if I had to go home. I don’t know she said and ran into her room. I went out back and her brother asked if I was going to help – there were tunnels, some burrowing creature in the backyard he wanted to hunt down. I helped dig for a while but my mind was elsewhere – not just on his sister, but on some element of life that didn’t seem accounted for in the expansive, well-organized universe I inherited, inhabited.

There were undercurrents in our house that were difficult to understand, erupted without warning. One Saturday morning in late December, for inexplicable reasons, my father decided the cars had to be washed. It was near freezing outside, our neighbors didn’t care, no one cared – everyone’s car had road salt and cinders from melting road-snow and looked grimy. Ours weren’t any better or worse-looking than anyone else’s. My father insisted, shouting that we were all going to wash the cars, especially the wheels and wheel wells. All four of us had to go outside with buckets of water, sponges, soap and rags and get down on our knees to scrub out the wheel wells. My mother was distressed, or ashamed, or angry or sorrowing or retreating into her own feelings whether of guilt, anger, self-pity, righteous indignation, I knew not what – she could keep an inscrutable poker face and I was trying to read everything in her eyes. But she didn’t object so we spent an hour with our hands in near-freezing water rinsing away road grime and salt. Chuckie was crying. We were all miserable, our hands hurt and none of it made sense. But there was never an explanation.

I was riding with my father one day from a little league game and he announced, without preamble, that he wanted to go to confession. So we took the short detour to our church and he did – he had me wait in the car. I waited patiently enough, it was a summer day, I rolled down the window, contemplated my at-bats in the game – on base four times. When he returned he seemed calm, unburdened and we carried on. He didn’t say anything to me, didn’t ask me not to say anything.  I had no reason to talk about it either.  There was something I think my father expected me to get – if you were a man and you did something wrong, you dealt with it. Didn’t cry, didn’t complain, you navigated it. That’s what the Church was for.

When we came in my mother was reading a book by a woman, Jane Wilde, whose name matched her disposition, collecting ancient Irish legends and mystic charms. I remember they were both pretty generous pouring out wine at dinner that night. Near the end of the evening, I thought I saw my mother give my father an evil eye – but like everything else in our family, things happened like unseen riptides.  If something died in our house, be it a pet or a certain feelings among us, there were no headstones marking the grave.

Age 12, my world was expansive, well-ordered by the Catholic Church, by our parish and parochial world, by nuns, priest, deacons, our lay teachers, by a bishop and archbishop and Cardinal somewhere, by my swarming, chattering, exuberant classmates, by the physical building of my school, its playground and ballfields and central standing crucifix, by my baseball team and Catholic lay coach and my father in the stands, by the crucifix on a slender silver chain around my neck never removed.  My world was further defined by mother-demanded diligent scholastics accompanied by religion classes in school with regular questions from her about my progress with special attention if any aspect of Irish literature was in view; by regular Mass attended by both parents and my sisters and generally on Saturday evening and its haunting mysteries and family gatherings where every aunt and uncle and cousin was Catholic, by our priests (always addressed with the title and first name as ‘Father ___ ‘) with their vestments and Our Fathers and Hail Mary’s, by organized prayers and novenas, by a world that presented itself in broad physical display but held also within it a mysterious unseen life and presence.

This sacramental life at age 12 was not altogether lost on me hidden from visible sight though it was.  Even precocious 12-year olds may attune to the central mystery of the Real Presence of our Lord and Savior in the Mass who was raised from the dead and instituted Peter as the first Pope, to the Easter celebrations of the Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ, to the Immaculate Conception and Marian devotions and prayers for the intercession of selected saints for selected problems, by a calendar of feast days and observances for these saints and important events in the life of the Church. Further, there were relics and statuary of Jesus and small groups of people who met who had great interest in such things. 

There were physically detailed white alabaster depictions of the Crucifixion and crosses or crucifixes everywhere, by regular recitations of ancient creeds, by a tension with the world at large which never went away but never got too out-of-hand, by a superintending structure leading right to the Pope, Christ, God, by surrounding Catholic cemeteries with large impressive monuments which seemed just as connected to the entire structure as anything else.  There were spontaneous interactions and informal talks from priests and nuns and deacons because they perhaps sensed I was a bright boy and they always seemed to want to talk to me about something without always being exactly candid as to what that was but they seemed to be sounding me out about my future life interests. It was a very complete world.

In a few years I started fantasizing. No one talked to me about that. My fantasies grew quickly like well-fertilized weeds until they were monstrous, beyond the pale. They swept over me. I didn’t have any way to compare my imagination to anyone else’s – instead, I was restless and sick. I conducted precocious orgies in my 14-year old mind and loathed myself. I was a baseball-playing Orioles sports fan, top student Catholic adolescent in one world – and engaged in gargantuan, deformed sexual fantasies in another. My sexual imagination stretched the limits of reality – or at least I thought so.

My two worlds were not to cross – kept at a distance, until an echo in the brothel of the imagination burst images into my thoughts while sitting in class, or on a dugout bench waiting for my at bat, or while sitting in my living room watching the Orioles. For 60 seconds, for a few minutes, every image of my heart was showered in lust, in physical contortions and penetrations. It went on during Mass with my parents. The ornate tapestries of the church, the singing as we entered, the commencement of the responsive liturgy, the candles, the robes and vestments, the stained glass, statuary and the images, were cardboard backdrops – props in a raunchy theater for one-act porn dramas. My attention separated into compartments; the priest’s words of institution – and lewd performers strutting impudently across the nave – the visible evidence of the grace of God – and corrupted, licentious ghosts carrying on at the altar, invisible to all except me. Inflamed visions never doused – I hid my erections under hymnals and church bulletins. What could I possibly explain to my parents? What would I confess to a priest?

I was filled with shame, in a state of mortal sin. My fantasies were defiled, brutish, orgiastic, humiliating and surely all too satisfying. At night I would bring them to a masturbating conclusion in my bed, guilt-ridden and stained. In my imagination was a baffled, prowling beast, obscene presences moved irresistibly, subtle, murmuring.  One hour a boy becoming a man, taking my at-bats, eating pizza with my team, talking about curve-balls and catcher’s mitts, then in silent, sporadic fantasy and then despair. Life darkened, was a maze of narrow, dirty streets intersecting with whatever was normal, customary – where each succeeding sin accumulated guilt – and then I would re-emerge onto a sunny baseball diamond, to a classroom where I knew the answers, knew who Yeats and Swift and Joyce were and what their major and minor themes were.

Repeated sermons on sanctifying grace did not make one drop of it penetrate to my soul. It made me think more about actual grace, but actual grace was hopeless. I was too ashamed to pray at night. I had neither analytic or theological tools to address any of this, so I concluded that my soul lusted in a rage to seek its own destruction.  And my contact with my world, divided into two distinct pieces, started to drift. My spirit was on a sunny baseball diamond fielding my position, filled with chatter for our pitcher, signaling with my fingers how many outs, where the play was if the batter hit a ground ball to short and the runner on third took off, and hunting whores in a slum for degraded acts.

All this, at the age of 15. And although there were many people around, there were none to say – it’s okay. You’re 15 years old. We get it. We were 15 once too. You don’t have to explain. But nobody said that. I tried a couple of conversations, vague, indirect, with pious, religious people I knew. What I heard was that Mary was the refuge of sinners. She would feel sorry for me. I should pray to Mary. Seek her intercession. Recite the rosary. The glories of Mary would make it better. You were not supposed to question the glories of Mary. People didn’t yell, but their eyes narrowed, the tone of their voices got a little firmer. If you did that, questioned Mary, you were not only not really being Catholic – perhaps you were no longer a nice person – their suspicion was you might be a mean, fundamentally unpleasant young man. You didn’t believe in Our Lady. What kind of person doesn’t like Mary? A rhetorical question with no answer but a very clear point. She’s at the tender heart of our faith. Not even James Joyce questioned Mary.

My two worlds separated wider. The bridge between the two became more slender, tenuous. I was developing some sharp, caustic edges, learned how to mock quietly under my breath while nodding my head reassuringly and saying what my listener expected to hear. You could lay words in front of people to lead them along.  You could hide things.

None of that, at the age of 15, did anything for my imagination run riot. There was no balm in Gilead. Concocted images spun up, lewd cotton candy. While the litany of saints was recited, I had questions. Fear, terror, death, judgment, words blew like a harsh desert wind, like a corpse, feeding rats. A confrontation with a child’s vague notion of God turned into a sinner’s more studied concern. The Judgment Day of God Almighty did not seem so remote.

Where would my imaginary jewel-eyed, scantily-clad harlots flee on that day? Would I carry them with me in my mind to heaven? Would my phantasm paramours squeak like mice in terror and flee?  People in my family, mother, father, even my elder sisters, may have intuited what was going on with me – but they didn’t have a means to recognize, acknowledge, communicate with me either – both our larger culture and family culture imposed a kind of omerta, a law of silence, on sexuality in practice or in thought.

Hell started to take on a more palpable form. Darkness, horror, stench, torment, fire, the company of the damned, mocking devils – deprived of gracious Light, separated from God’s affection, loathing myself. Would I feel sorrow then, too late? Because I would not abandon my unspeakable, polluted, degraded, defiled, vivid but nearly entirely imaginary teenage sins? I began to acquire an interest in the afterlife. An Irish gene inherited from my mother’s literary soul began to perk up at this line of thought. If the Church wasn’t providing a direction perhaps Yeats or Jane Wild would.

Eternity! And hell. A great ticking clock – ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven. I had learned the religious doctrines in the Church in the same way I learned to conjugate Latin verbs – the teaching was engraved in memory but I had little prior need for it. I had much, but not trust. And trust is not so easy for an adolescent – trust takes time, maturity, slow, accumulating experience. As useful as the sacraments might be, they never resolved my imaginary orgies or developed in me any trust that God got it, understood the problem, intended to fix it, wasn’t going to strike me with immediate lightning bolts, had been gracious for a long time to other adolescents who had the same problem and that the solution which might be impossible for a 15-year old would gradually emerge over years and in the meantime it was okay if I continued to play third base and bat clean-up as long as I kept my grades up. I learned that useful message, but later, in a harder school.

My interior landscape was bestial, reeking – convulsed in sex, nauseated in excess – and simultaneously, could be arrested in a moment when I stood up from the bench to get into the on-deck circle. I developed and improved my melodramatic exaggerations –  how my degraded imagination was assuredly ravishing my soul. Who are equal to the Irish in floridly describing their misery? I rehearsed woeful speeches, composed pages of lavish words chastising my incorrigible moral collapse. I resolved to confess – transports of lurid imaginary sin were well-suited for excesses of lurid, emotional guilt.  A poet was born.

Following my father’s example, I resolved to use the resources the Church provided to deal with my problem. But I needed to find an anonymous place to confess my lecherous exploits with squadrons, platoons of nubile, long-legged pornographic actresses. I certainly wasn’t going to expound sordid details in a litany with our home-church priest who knew me, my family, my teachers, my baseball coach, my teammates, for years – Father Jim even came to see our games.

In our Bel Air church there may have been a vow of silence or penitent’s confidentiality – I needed an audience with a confessor who had taken a vow of amnesia. So on some inventive excuse at age 16 I traveled to a more-or-less randomly chosen Catholic church halfway between Baltimore and Washington near Bowie, for a recitation of my licentiousness. That was one advantage of being Catholic – spiritually speaking, the same lineup & batting order are provided nearly everywhere. Even driving down, preparing to confess and repent, to make a clean break with my porn-licentiousness, to cleanse the poison from my spiritual well with a sincere, yet poor/naked/blind wretch’s account, to throw myself on the sweet mercy of God being sacramentally offered to me purely out of His grace, images of lithe young women poured into tight sweaters and very short skirts came into view.

To confess everything! It occurred to me that if word leaked, no matter how improbable that was, my coach would find out, would take me off the starting team and bench me. That would be completely humiliating, soul-crushing. I re-applied my intelligence and resolve – this was important, it was critical to my eternal soul – and there was no way the coach would find out. But how does one start? I was ready to weep for the childlike innocence I thought I had lost. I was still an adolescent – if all my bestial, imaginary sins, my demonic dreams, leading down to the black, cold wasted void, generally took place in 45 minutes, then my confession and repentance, ushering me back into a state of heavenly, radiant grace, so dear to God, should take 45 minutes too.

Long, slow movements of God, soul-measured over decades, were still far beyond me. The acorn was ready to wait 45 minutes to become a mighty oak, halfway between Baltimore and Washington. It never occurred to me that my sexual fantasies were symptoms of something that was both more problematic and more promising – an interior spiritual life is not a game or a joke. I needed to interact with God on another level. Going four-for-four at the plate does a lot for self-esteem, having lurid sex fantasies is negative to that self-esteem, but there are some things that neither of them touch.

I approached the confessional meek and humble of heart. I confessed my sins, Masses missed, prayers not said, lies. Then I began with my sins of impurity. It was quite a list, a lengthy narrative of fantasies, erotic adventures in the mind, couplings, triplings.  Even summarized, it took some time to go through. But I wanted to say everything, to confess the worst. I thought that if I could say these things, I would acquire power over them. I had never previously used hyper-sexualized and indecent language, vocally described such acts in detailed, audible words before, so I stuttered a little – uncharacteristically, as normally I can scatter words, talk to people – the captain of the team giving the pep talk. The priest listened patiently.

I daresay the fact that the priest had never heard me before was not lost on him, that he knew he wasn’t going to hear me again. I blushed at providing descriptions so graphic – but it didn’t work if I didn’t say it plainly. Being vague and general and circumspect was one of the reasons my previous discussions had not been useful – my listeners didn’t really hear me – didn’t really grasp what I was saying. Instead my points and problems were declared explicitly to the young, unknown confessor-priest of the Bowie church, right down to the last-act windshield-appearing, phantasmagorical clinging blouses and skin-tight short-shorts of my ubiquitous imaginary companions.

When I finished the priest did not respond to the lengthiness of my confession. He directed me to an act of contrition, told me to give up my sins. He told me to pray to Our Blessed Lady. He asked me to make a solemn promise to God, not to intentionally repeat my sins. The priest spoke the words of absolution. Then the priest asked me in a calm and serious tone, as part of my penance, to pray also for him and the entire Church, from priest and bishop to Pope and to do so for seven days.  I felt as if I had entered the confessional as one person, but left as another.  I didn’t immediately leave the church, simply found a corner in a back pew to sit.

I completed the prayer for the first day, kneeling, praying in a corner of the dark nave of the church – I felt my prayers ascending from a cleansed heart, like perfume streaming upwards from the heart of a cleansed soul. When I went out, I found the streets glad, even in the dark. I drove home, conscious of grace suffusing through me. I was pardoned. My soul was made fair, holy and happy – it reminded me of being a toddler and my mother reading out loud to me from some Irish writer – I had become a young Dubliner of the spirit.

It was beautiful to be alive in a state of grace, to have and to hold a life of peace and virtue, even forbearance with others. I came home and entered quietly, from happiness. My life had come back, and lay open before me without the interior warfare. I planned to attend regular mass, to lead a life of greater piety. Over the next months my sisters noticed some change in me, observed my altered conduct – they were in a state of some surprise, but since I was less irritable than usual, it was okay with them. If I weren’t snapping at them sarcastically, curling my lip as they claimed – then praise God for that. Every part of creation expressed God’s power and love – and I saw that creation beyond the confines of a baseball field. I made real efforts to resist my uncontrolled fantasy life. Even frequent and violent temptations were proof that my soul was still in God’s grace. I was fighting the good fight.

I could not free myself altogether from a restless feeling of guilt – but I didn’t understand why.  If I conquered my obscene interior fantasy life, didn’t that right all serious, or at least mortal wrongs? Why would there be anything else going on, other than whatever had to do with sexuality and the struggle against that monster?  Someone in our parish life, whom I knew, but not well, Monsignor Stephanos Doudulus, asked me to meet him in his office. Monsignor Doudulus was well into his eighties, frail, slender, a living window into a world that was either entirely past or not past at all, depending on your viewpoint. I was consumed with the thought that some sin of mine had been discovered, ironic now that I had made so much progress overcoming them.  Some anachronistic challenge was going to be presented to my piety.  Even now, my confessions had not been adequate, my sorrowful repentances not sufficiently sincere. Young men can set very high standards for themselves.

Underneath my zeal, I feared the announcement that I had fallen short. How can you amend your life when your sins, even restrained, were escapades into fantastical orgiastic daydreams? It wasn’t just a problem of what I did or what I imagined – it was a problem of who I was – a problem I was far from solving. Perhaps the Monsignor was going to assist. Because I was 16, I did not fully understand that other people were observing me – I did not fully understand that other people had plans, that they were more observant of others than I was, that my self-preoccupations, whether with fantasies or battling them, my self-evaluations, were not everyone else’s perception of me.  Adolescents discover themselves – it takes time to discover others.

Monsignor indicated he wanted to speak on an important subject. His tone of voice was sober, but not angry. His movements inviting me into his office to have a seat were slow, dignified, fragile.  There was a large crucifix on the wall behind him, along with framed mementos of his achievements, awards, honors. Of course I answered respectfully and waited. Have you ever felt that you had a vocation, a calling to the priesthood? he asked. I was floored. I was just barely over, if at all, the most bizarre and grotesque fantasy life. I never thought of becoming a priest, any more than I contemplated growing gossamer wings and flying to the moon.

I was stunned, but one is supposed to answer a respected elder, an ordained, holy priest, so I stammered ‘n – n – n – no, sir.’  Momentarily a stutter had returned. If I had been more alert – if I had paid much attention to what anybody else was thinking and spent any effort trying to understand that – I might not have been so shocked.  But one non-sexual consequence of my interior life was that, without meaning to be selfish, I was entirely preoccupied with myself.  I never saw anybody’s signals.  So Monsignor’s question dropped me. I should have read the perceptions of others better – another way of saying I shouldn’t have been 16 years old, but I was.

He spoke quietly – sometimes there is a boy whom I observe, who it may be possible, that God is calling to the religious life. When I see a boy marked off from his companions by his piety, by his intelligence, by the good example he sets for others, I pay attention. I have prayed for you – did you know that? (Of course I did not.) I have prayed for your vocation and God’s direction life. Perhaps you are that boy, a young man now, whom God designs to call to Himself. To receive that call is a great honor.

I could not connect, not even in the remotest reach of my imagination, me, taking confessions, celebrating the mass, instituting the eucharist, invested in priestly robes, calling the congregation to prayer, dismissing them. I would know the sins of others, hear them in the confessional. I was being considered – I was being invited. Would that mean I had to stop playing baseball? And what if I became a priest, and had a bad day, a bad week, of sexual fantasies? I had just struggled to climb across one imposing cliff – celibacy would be another.

I was confronted with something else, not sexual, not even Monsignor’s invitation to consider a religious vocation.  I stopped being a boy on that day, although it would be years before I became a man – what kind of person was I?  A phrase came to mind out of an old book, one that became an indecent movie – a clockwork orange.  I did not know who or what I was at that point but I knew that the answers being provided to me were superficial. I was not a clockwork boy. That much I saw – with the shock of having been blindfolded and walked up to a great cliff and suddenly having the blindfold removed. All of it – baseball – school – raw unbridled fantasy sex – the invitation to consider the priesthood – all of it, was like a saddle being fitted on me, one saddle after another – but the horse wanted to know what the rider was like, without the saddle.

But you have to be quite sure, the Monsignor told me – you must be sure you have a vocation. It would be terrible to be mistaken. Once you are ordained as a priest, you are always a priest. When I left his office I felt flattered, but escaping like a bird flying from a cage, a rabbit outrunning the fox exhilarated by the near calamity.  If his question seemed to him an invitation – something to consider – it appeared to me, astonished at his apparent judgment of me, the jaws of a trap.

Not having religion was dangerous – demonic fantasies took over your mind.  But having religion was dangerous too – people might lay heavy burdens, enormous obligations onto your back. I felt nostalgic for just being a kid – wanting to be ten years old, with nothing more important to do than field some grounders, shag a few fly balls hit by my father in our back yard. I began to be guarded, seeing snares in every direction – ropes on all sides. I started looking for a new way out.

I took a survey of my interior life and for once, dropped sports out. My mother was the intellectual one – she was the one who tutored in me analytic geometry, who knew every Irish writer’s biography, who dropped their books casually around the house which I read equally casually. Math was not my cup of tea and I knew by then the Orioles were never going to draft me for their farm team.  Where to go?  And then the answer seemed obvious and natural, the way I casually picked up every book around the house to read, without giving it any importance, just something to do between baseball games and school.  I was going to be a writer, a poet forging a new being, myself, soaring out of the sluggish dirt of the infield.  Right or wrong, smart or dumb, it was mine – my direction.  No one handed that to me. 

Wild ambitions passed through me. I was floating, soaring in new air. I would escape incorrigible imagination and the straightjacket of obligations, trudging penances, rites, dawn prayers, the must, the should, the ought.  I was keenly aware of how undisciplined my imagination was – I was not yet aware how undisciplined my conscience was.  So at 16, making serious decisions for the first time in my life, not simply handing up my ticket to be punched by someone else, I came to my own conclusions and consulted no one. I would flee the vengeful oversight of Catholic conscience, marking and indicting guilty sin, beating the drumbeat of duty.  Whatever remedies there were to life, I would discover them elsewhere. I would create and self-create instead.

With a wild new song in my veins, something different, an anger, lurked in my heart. Soon after I had a confrontation with my little sister Chuckie over trivia – borrowing my team jacket and throwing it on the floor in her room. I lashed out at her and called her a stupid little twat. It wasn’t just the words – she cried because of the truly hateful tone of my voice, the contempt leaping up and out to hurt. The family was outraged at me – I was grounded for a week. My older sisters were going their own way too, for reasons not identical to mine, but related. At the core of our family, some things were cracked. I started writing poetry and submitting it to literary journals – it was always rejected, but occasionally I got some encouraging notes and my English teacher handed me top grades and personal accolades. When it came time for teacher recommendations on college application forms, she wrote a lengthy, sincere recommendation that discussed several of my poems – as if I were a real writer.

There were other elements of my character to be discovered. Teenage boys purloin alcohol – generally, as long as no one is driving around drunk, a misdemeanor, a venial sin, not a felony.  An appetite, a taste on my tongue, a thirst, emerged.  Not altogether shocking – not the first of Irish descent who lifted a cup and didn’t stop. I had a new highway now, saw a new road sign – poetry, artistry, creation. I would be a writer – a title held in high honor. It did not occur to me that the problems I was having with Catholicism, with its looming duties, with my own imagination, with family fissures never surfaced, with a stillborn spiritual life, related to anyone else.  I did not know and did not think to ask whether anyone else may have had such problems. Nobody knew what was going on in my mind and I didn’t say.  What transpired in my interior life might be misguided, naïve, but it wasn’t childish – some problems are, indeed, hard.

My exit from family and home to enter college was short in geography, long in psychological distance. I  quietly prepared during my senior year – took the largest financial aid package offered by a nearby college without murmuring or lengthy consideration, because I thought it peripheral anyway – I had another direction in view.  Come away, o human child! To the waters and the wild – with a faery hand in hand, for the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand. So said Yeats and conjured for me a parting song. Christian religion made an insensate foil for passions, fantasies, Irish legends – my mother’s occasionally strange Irish nationalism, buried for years, erupting in a moment, extended into a plan.

On leaving home without my baseball gear, my father resorted to a kind of paisano, barefoot Italian boy identity, fueled with wine, lost in space staring out a window like a man staring at the Abbey of Monte Cassino after it was bombed to ruins. Just as in the battle, his enemies were hiding in the rubble, more fortified and intractable than ever. Dark folk were gathering in my soul like bats in dead trees. Yeats would lead me out to Tara, where faeries danced under the Druid moon to tunes danced in an enchanted circle. Ireland was the excuse, not the reason – the point was escape. Yeats wanted to escape In the Beginning, wanted to leave the Nicene creed behind. His everlasting Voices called. I heard them too.  My fertile imagination took off running in a new direction.  Partial poems, shards of lines, emerged unbidden.

A silent man with a hazel wand came forth out of the past to change me.
In the darkness I met the Boar, grunting,
rooting out the sun and the moon,
bringing in the end of the world like a suicide pact.
The Horses of Disaster plunged into the clay,
shadowy, clinging, creeping, weeping,
sighing as the West passed away.
Yes, it was possible after all to enter the twilight of another world,
the Valley of the Black Pig.
Unknown spears. Fallen horsemen. Perishing armies. Seen through a flaming door.
The most drunken were the most blessed.

Dreams were defeated and reborn, reignited –
the stars blown about by enchanted vapors.
The only thing holy was the wine-vat.
Red dew flamed in a windless world on a grey shore.
I could pass by Christ, an immortal passion in mortal clay,
could bend down to loosen my hair over him,
a lily of death-pale hope, rose of a passion, but I wasn’t going to stop there.

Spiritualism loves playing the tourist with the Gospel.  Death was more than an invitation, it was romance, it was command. Were you but lying cold and dead, rhymed Yeats to his beloved, and lights were paling in the West.

I knew of leafy paths that witches take – knew their secret smile.
I knew of the soul-swans, coupled with golden chains,
the hopeless king and queen, wandering, deaf, blind.
I sailed in a shroud and steered from a gaudy stern.
I saw the crowds on the shore running nowhere
as I left them in a wooden ship.
I cried in the glittering sea, searching in ecstasy for Death.

I was fickle, I needed no constant or guiding star. I was free, I could drift in and out of life, in and out of the church, or faith. I looked for a light beyond the grave and hoped to find something to replace what was lost. I could drink with whatever poet-girl was there at the moment. We could get sloppy drunk, fall into each other’s arms, pass out after a short fiery passion, find ourselves queasy in the morning marinating in raw smells with not much to say and little reason to speak. There were no rules – not in my Ireland-of-the-imagination – more unconstrained than ever.  As it turned out, actual sex was never quite equal to my previous fantasies, but I had moved to different realms anyway.

I wanted to change the tune, to turn my flesh to its native-wild state, on the galloping horse of spiritualist poetry, defiant, unconverted, pagan. Sent out naked on the roads, punished, stricken by the injustice of cold heaven. Uncontrollable mysteries to find, secrets to peer into, crypts pried open to gain hidden knowledge.  I was learning to hate life.  Life was noisy, life was filthy. The cradle was an insult, an accident. Everything I once held of value was but a pissing post for dogs. I pissed on life, a perfumed silk purse of filth – or at least, that’s what I thought I did, at the ripe old age of 21. And I drank. Drank myself sick, drank myself nearly blind. I expressed anger by getting drunk and cured my sorrow by staying drunk.  Remarkedly, my intoxication did not affect my grades.  Even hung over, I showed up in class, made a few comments, asked a few questions, which compared so favorably to other students that my grades were stellar.

Gone drunk, I straggled onto barren ridges past the goat trails where daemons convened.  Sober, I was depressed.

Long wavering bodies on the moon,
crone-witches, centaurs, Irish giants, as fantastical as ever,
came, dissolved, all vanished.

Left was a bitter headache, a sick stomach under a timid, ignorant sun.  Life was wanton, its flailing end the repository of knowledge of its pointlessness. Ghost-alone, I haunted a sandy bank. To be a poet, Irish-American, awakened from the common stale dream to dissipation, occult legends sketched with gargoyles – presented in loquacious, highly ornate words of despair, a spired and collonaded tower for poetical goblins.  

I called out to mysterious persona, my imaginary double,
walking wet sands, whispering poetry, hidden like night raptors.
Floating on whiskey, I crossed bridges where a tower cast a shadow,
images delirious under shifting phases of a spell-cast moon –
heard a rat splashing under rushes,
my destiny.
Each phase of the moon filled with cryptic significance –
creeping, crawling, unveiled eyes reflecting in the slime.
Dark moons, full moons, new moons, crescent moons –
arcane knowledge kissed on a spectral channel.
Death I courted, death I chose through phases of the moon.
Walking corpse bearing Cu Chulainn’s hero’s crescent –
then helpless, then frenzied,
still falling into the labyrinth of self.

I was too strange, too lonely for the traffic of my college life, cast away beyond the pale of evening coherence. Properly drunk, posted between a tower of Jamison and a pint of Guinness, I was the voluble and colorful poet in my isolation.  In the morning, the body was coarse, the body was a drudge, a deformity dragging down free flight beyond the verge.  A few pills helped.

Somewhere dark I cried out, a cave-bat.
Changing my body in dream after Tarot dream.
The last crescents of the moon were the hunchback, the saint, the fool.
I dealt the cards, I spread them out, read them to find
the Major Arcana, the Minor Arcana,
my card, the magus-hermit.
Yeats led me to the castle door, I saw the light in the tower extinguish.
I was burning, raving, broken on the wheel.
Obedient to the hidden magical breath of his poetry.
I saw a dead girl dreaming, dancing.
I saw the sphinx lash her tail, eyes lit by the moon, gazing.
We spun like tops, time overthrown.
My body was meat with a beating pulse,
caught between the dark moon and the full.

I lived willfully in my self-ruined house. On and on it went – I published first poems, graduated, obtained a Master’s, was hired as adjunct faculty in Binghamton NY. The next year, Knoxville, the year after that a position in San Jose, where I stayed longer. The itinerant non-tenured associate professor-writing instructor, have resume, have publications, will travel.

While dragons sheltered within a foul world,
screaming, terrified, invisible beasts or birds,
alcohol fueled nights, pill-driven days.
A spider spinning webs, laying stinging traps for pain,
creative paralysis, death of the poet.
Anything I loved too greatly was to be taken away.

My life, falling – my center could not hold – lacked all conviction, my worst impulses empowered a passionate intensity. I saw a different Second Coming – not the Son of Man, selfless love, motived to self-sacrifice, his blood for purification –

I saw the beast of this world, disjointed head of man,
bleak, pitiless in his expression, ponderously approaching.
Indignant, desert birds screeched – darkness dropped for me.
Electro-shock sleep, convulsed nightmares,
advanced to announce another rough beast.
Its hour finally arrived, slouching toward me and all that was mine –
the second waiting to be born of the first.

I drank more, collected Egyptian books of the dead, gathered grimoires to myself, read the incoherent nonsense of Nostradamus, tutored myself on crystals and the astral plain, probed deeper into the knowledge of death.

Still, I was writing poetry. I was going to conferences to listen, read my own poetry, network, drink. For a couple years I had no teaching position, lived in various places in Wyoming, supported myself doing odd jobs in sparsely-populated locations set in the foreground of astonishing mountain ranges, and concentrated on writing poetry, drinking nightly and studying the occult. Conferences could be fun, until they closed the bar and lonely I had to go back to my hotel room. I met Lenny at a conference in Reno and had some fun with him.

Trumpets play – no country for old men,
the derelict song – no refuge for young men either
where every fantasy begotten, dies.
The gin-kamikaze gnosis insatiable, a tumescent chase
never satisfied.

Always one more salt wet fetish to pursue,
one more occult-erotic image to capture.
Yet another ghost in fishnet stockings,
platform shoes, nine-inch heels, cherry lips, imperious eyelashes

Statuesque, she beckons, thanatosis-Kilimanjaro secrets
across the dune-guarded coast highway,
down to the freckled beach,
to dark water, rolling ribbons of moon-colored dancing whitecaps

Cultivate the Mor-Rioghain nymphomanic,
lipsticked crow-smile across her grimacing skull,
floating across breaking waves,
swimming away to a thrumming drumming metronome, deeper.
Always deeper.

Peek. The next occult secret was hovering, peering
from behind a half-closed illuminati door.
The first-promised apple, yes.
She entices, further reveals her curled, intimate privacy to the initiated.
Disrobing, yes.

Old men go under the ocean.
Young ones are called too – yes, now,
go down, fool – yes,
go under.

After my adventure with Lenny I wrote that poem. As it turned out, my communications with Lenny were going to outlast any conference.

After my sojourn across Wyoming I found another teaching position at a second-tier university campus in Colorado, then in Florida the next year, a continuation of house-sitting in a series of professor’s homes left empty while they took sabbaticals.  I liked rambling around in towns with undergraduate bars, tucked-away clever coffee shops, a few sophisticated restaurants, admissions offices, multi-purpose gymnasiums, field houses, classrooms in old buildings, new classroom buildings for the science department, buildings under repair for liberal arts or being constructed within sight of new student dormitories.

My labyrinthian perches of solitude went with me. I was in a polite rage to murder the swans, but in a sensitive, literary way, a mockery of everything. Street-light shadows sketched me across moonlit alleys that provided the rear, parking-lot exit from whichever blue-collar bar was the current choice.  For all of that, I didn’t mind teaching freshmen about American lit and poetry – if I got to move the topic and talk about Yeats or Joyce, I really didn’t mind. Life wasn’t all bad, even with the hangovers.  I kept writing my own poetry, perhaps obscure, perhaps unread – satisfying anyway.  That gave me pleasure too.

For reasons that have no clear explanation, I decided to visit a Pentecostal church one Sunday evening. I was thinking of poems and wanted to throw the Pentecostals in as characters, foils.  I was searching yet unwilling to admit what I was doing. Whatever the combination of motives, I played the tourist, the poet-anthropologist visiting a distant and obscure tribe.  True believers were hidden in a cultural jungle whose ways and customs were grist for my poetry mill.  I could be intellectual, analytic, condescending – and what is more fun than that?

I encountered a mass of people about 75, that appeared to me to be all related, some of whom had extraordinary voices (apparently their arcane customs included musical training). They were being led in song from old hymnals – they used two different sets so the number of the hymn had to be identified in the two separate hymnals, with a brief discussion if the stanzas didn’t perfectly match. The worship space, a rambling 19th-century home converted to church uses, was loaded with children, strewn across couches and up stairsteps, infants in arms, teenagers listening, kicking from behind my chair until I had to politely ask her to stop, which she equally politely did. They were led by a pastor in his mid-sixties and it appeared his parents, based on the visible family relationship, was looking over a clan that might equal Abraham’s.

A chair was quickly found for me, a book handed to me, and I started singing too, quite astonished at this family’s musical sophistication, the participation of so many different ages and stages of singing people, the infants being held in many arms. On some printed material appeared the name Overcoming Church of El Shaddai, our Rock and Core.  I was sitting on a folding aluminum chair, had put my hymnal down for a moment, they were dancing in a circle in front with the pastor joining in.

Instantly I was overwhelmed with the presence of God. !Fear! of God.
Fear-awe, fear-dread, fear-raw in its power turned me around –
I knelt.  Faced toward the chair, my back to the altar and the dancers, my head bowed.
Praying in abject Fear with my folded hands on the chair seat.
I had no thoughts, searched no explanations, a man struck and driven by a tsunami.
I could not bend my head down far enough –
the seat of the chair stopped me from bending my neck down any further.
If there had been room I would have fallen flat on my face prostrated.
I don’t remember the words I whispered in prayer – whatever the form or content,
all they really expressed was !Fear, raw, overwhelming Fear of the Lord
who had shown Himself spiritually revealed, exposed, to me,
to me, emotional, spiritual presence-power that permitted neither comparison or explanation. The experience could not have lasted longer than two or three minutes. The wave of emotion passed, my head bobbed up like a swimmer coming up for air. No one was paying attention to me.

I gathered myself, stood up, turned around, and reseated myself on my chair, trembling. After a few moments I picked up the hymnal again but I had no idea what hymn we were singing. The dancers hadn’t stopped. I sat there, quietly stunned. Again I looked around – no one around me seemed to think anything unusual had happened at all.  The lack of attention was almost as astonishing as the experience – as if an ethereal grenade went off which was perceived nowhere, touched no one, except to blast me.  I had the sensation that my mother stood next to me, observing curiously, sympathetically, with a touch of parental satisfaction, but offering no comment or explanation.

At the end of the service I shook a few hands, accepted a few invitations to return, and made my way back to my rented off-campus house. The effect of this experience on me was more subtle, slower, than one would expect from such an onslaught. The experience quieted my soul. I didn’t immediately join a church, but I began drinking less. I didn’t, legally or illegally, refill my prescription of wake-up pills. I began to read different books – some books on the philosophy of religion. I still drank, but with less compulsion to drink myself into oblivion. I became a quieter person. The raw fear of God woke up something or somebody in my soul. I read the Bible at times, the Gospels, rather as if they were literature – but literature which now interested me, different than the mandatory reading from the lectern at a Sunday service.

At one point I read Jesus’ words, “fear God, who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”  Of course I’d heard those words before, was familiar with them. The idea of having my body destroyed was acceptable – of course that’s what death was, the destruction of the body. That’s where I’d been going with alcohol anyway –  I rehearsed for the event every night. But the destruction of the soul captured my attention – I’d more or less expected to drink myself into one last stupor ending in eternal unconsciousness – my little life rounded with a sleep.  But if my soul were being destroyed – how did that work?

It seemed as if my soul continued, if it continued being destroyed.  And instead of discouraging or angering me, oddly, it created a kind of hope. Perhaps death wasn’t the end.  Perhaps the dialogue with God continued.  I’d rather not have my soul eternally destroyed, but the eternally continuing nature of this dialogue, with this Lord whom I had just met, had a personal experience with, intrigued me.  Without making any giant decisions, my visits to barrooms decreased from once a night to once or twice a week – and I began visiting churches, picked at random. I was no longer the poet-anthropologist studying the peculiar customs of the local indigenous tribes – I was a worshipper too.  An obscure worshipper, stepping into and out of the church like a shadow, but there was nothing wrong with that.  It was the same way I wrote poetry.

I visited the local Catholic church too, so familiar to me. Of course I knew my way around and I took the sacrament, celebrated the Eucharist too. I was glad, it was comfortable. But it was a group setting – the Host was consecrated for the group, the priest invited us up as a group, we were blessed as a group. The experience was a group, a collective activity. I fully credited every word and declaration the priest said, every song, every confession, accepted every blessing, made my offering of the sacrifice of the Mass, thought the people were warm, the service was holy.

But something had happened to me – to me.  My connection with the Lord was personal, fearful but intimate for that reason.  The fear of God was a communication in a breakfast booth for two, not a ceremony in a great conference hall with hundreds gathered for a great feast.  If I had the bacon and eggs of fear of the Lord, sitting in a small breakfast booth, then it was the two of us, face to face.  He was communicating to me, with me, no one else, me – and the continuation of that unique, deeply personal relationship was implied in my soul and declaring itself in my mind.

Although I was a kind of mysterious stranger in various small independent churches, I began communicating with distant people via email based on posts they made, things they wrote I read. My religious discussions were always via electronic communication – that’s how Lenny and I started communicating. He had questions to ask, was affected by our mutual drunken adventure seeking out the afterlife on the astral plane in the Pacific Ocean. I thought the whole thing was a caustic lark, an elaborate practical joke for which he was the perfect foil.

But he started asking me questions as if I had answers.  In answering him, I was answering myself.  So I carried on in question and answer with him. I visited tiny little churches and heard a broad variety of sermons, participated in a wide assortment of worship practices, bowed my head for many prayers. I missed sometime the universality of a large church with its sacramental life with a fixed liturgy and fellow congregants all around the world.  I remembered my visit to Bowie for anonymous confession there. I read my thought-provoking, eclectic philosophies of religion.  I wrote poetry that was mine, unique, not in imitation of others and made new applications for other non-tenured literature instructor positions. And I treasured the fear of God – who in one instant shocked and frightened me, turned me around to kneel in a room of people who paid no attention – to call me out of my highly-individualized, poet-of-the-latter-day-Yeats coffin.

From there I arrived with a new position in San Diego and found gone-for-sabbatical temporary housing in extraordinarily scenic La Jolla.  After some period of visiting churches I found a large evangelical church which seemed to fit. I didn’t talk to anyone about my experience of the fear of God. It was an experience beyond words, without words.  This church organized its activities – they had a baseball team and they let me try out without asking me a lot of questions. They asked if I ever played before and I answered some and they asked what position and I said third and they said well here’s a glove go ahead we’ll hit you a few grounders and directed me toward third. It was a well-equipped church – they had a nice field with real dugouts and even some bleachers. They hit me a few easy ones, then they kind of looked at each other and hit me a few harder ones. After about ten of those they said, okay, third, and I was on the team.

The left fielder was one of the associate pastors of the church named Brooks, from Little Rock and still had some of his Arkansas accent. We would come a little early before games and loosen up with some throws from left field to third and back. One day when he came back in I asked him what was involved in getting baptized in the church. They did baptism by full immersion a couple of times a year and once a year in August they did it in the Pacific ocean. I asked him if it was a problem that I was already baptized. I didn’t say Catholic but my last name probably gave it away. He said no because the point was my adult commitment, my confession and declaration in public now.

I told him I wanted to think about it. Not only was I taught that one baptism performed by the church was the right baptism, but it was the only baptism. But I didn’t want to have a theological disagreement in my head. This wasn’t a theology debate. My experience at the Overcoming Church of El Shaddai had changed me.  I didn’t have words for the change, but I wasn’t on a first name basis with any bartender in San Diego either. I had stayed out of baseball for a while, years, but when I was ready to try out for the team, then I did so. If you’re going to play for the team, you get a glove, you walk onto the field.

I didn’t wait for the ocean baptism experience. After a couple of weeks I told Brooks I was ready and I got dunked on a Sunday morning and made my profession of faith. Brooks performed the baptism and asked me as we were beginning, with me standing in front of the congregation, why I wanted to be baptized, to make this public confession of my faith. My answer was my own, maybe a little surprising, even to Brooks.

I fear God, I said loudly for people to hear, with no stuttering. Who can cast both body and soul into hell.  Jesus is my Lord and my Savior too.  Brooks nodded and smiled, the way he did when he first saw me trying out for third base. Then he did what he was there for as a called and ordained minister and I presented myself to be publicly, maturely and volitionally acted upon, which is what I was there for.  This was full immersion, three times, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost – all the way under – Brooks made sure of that.

After I was baptized I told a couple of people, including Lenny, still unmoved from his mountaintop or jail or nest in Cornfield. He started to ask some questions from time to time which were a little startling, at least out of my area. He asked isn’t everything we do the product of our minds? Why is rational thought different than what you call revelation? I struggled to answer that. Another he asked – why wouldn’t my set of feelings about my religion, whatever it is, be fundamentally any different or better or worse than yours? I decide for myself, you accept what someone else says – is there really any difference? Aren’t we all limited by our sense data anyway? Another question – Doesn’t language define or constrain reality? Or at least what is possible? Then he asked – do you think there are forms? Like ideal forms – you know the form of a cat, which all cats share? Or do you think there are forms in language, so it makes sense to say Socrates is a man, or Socrates is mortal, or even Socrates is my pet cat – but it doesn’t make sense to say Socrates is an isosceles triangle – because the interior structural forms of reality and language are shared?

He asked if I thought Plato’s experience in the beginning of The Republic, talking with his friends about an ideal city, was like Moses’ experience in the desert at the burning bush. At least I had some answers for that, had a personal experience I could relate to. All I can say is I did my best to answer him – but more important was for him to articulate the question, to ask. My answers weren’t that important. He was working out answers in his head. He asked if I agreed with John Stuart Mill about liberty and freedom of speech and development of the self. Then he asked about the death of Mills’ wife – and although I can’t remember my answer, I remember thinking he was digging deeper into his own questions, questions we mortal beings all share. At times he was like an inquisitive 8-year old, asking his questions non-stop, like a phase my sister Chuckie went through, just to hear me answer, without much concern for the content of any particular answer. He asked if there weren’t some single, moral categorical rule we should all follow. He asked if I thought that such a rule would make an ideal society. He asked what was wrong with Thomas Jefferson crossing out the miracles in the New Testament.

When he asked questions about poetry I was better at answering. He asked me if I thought Walt Whitman loved America. He asked the same question about Allan Ginsberg and Sylvia Plath. He asked if Holden Caulfield was supposed to be a Christ figure. He asked what it meant for some literary figure to be a Christ figure – why did we keep seeing that? Why was it important? He asked if I liked Faulkner, asked if I read As I Lay Dying. He didn’t ask anything about Hemingway. He asked if I liked Charles Bukowski and I remember struggling to answer that, not because I didn’t understand the man or his poetry, but because I understood it too well. He asked if I liked Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry – another one I struggled with, because of my associations and curiosities about things occult. Giving him answers that separated the poet from a spirit of death or despair or unbelief was no small task. He asked if I liked Edgar Lee Masters and Spoon River Anthology with its cast of characters and theological speculations, and William Carlos Williams and his book Paterson and mixing poetry and prose together. I mentioned Louise Glueck.  Lenny wore me out with questions.

One day he asked again about my baptism. Whatever answer I made, then he switched topics and announced he was going to be attending a conference in San Diego in August and asked if it were okay if he stayed with me. And as it turned out, he was baptized that August. I was still working out some things on my own, about my own poetry, my own career. I had some questions too and occasionally talked them over with Brooks. Some of them had to do with small churches, and big churches, and a universal church. The Son of God, who saved me from the wrath of God by means of the fear of God, was unwrapping a scroll. I didn’t have all the answers I wanted either but I had enough to go forward and step out onto the field, ready to handle my position.

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