A Splinter in the Brain

Chris Visminas, Episcopal priest and Church historian, once led a discussion of Liturgy in my home parish. The usual complaint about liturgy is that because it’s the same — or practically the same — week in and week out, one can mumble one’s way through it without engaging. True, said Chris, but the beauty of it is that, on occasion, a bit of liturgy will rise up like a splinter and lodge itself painfully in the brain. And it will remain there until dealt with. I have found this to be true. Annoyingly so. No matter how hard I try, there’s always a bit of something worrying me. I’m pretty much over the creeds; they are so firmly rooted in their origins that I’ll never wrest much from them. But that leaves a whole lot.

This week, it was the Prayers of the People, Form I, as offered in the parish where I currently worship. (See photo for snippet and http://www.bcponline.org/HE/pop.htm for complete text.) It has been irritating my mind for two weeks and now it’s risen to consciousness. We use Form I during Advent. The leader gives the call and the congregations responds, “Lord, have mercy.” All perfectly ordinary. But look at these two calls, taken from their places in the litany so you can see them together:

Leader: For (insert military prayers here), let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord, have mercy.


Leader: That we may end our lives in faith and hope, without suffering and without reproach, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord, have mercy.

First, let’s look at praying for the military. In this parish, everyone serving in the military is named every week, followed by a fairly lengthy prayer for their protection. I don’t care for it but I can live with it. The parish is located in a place that came into existence as a consequence of war, so maybe that’s fitting. And maybe it’s a good thing to regularly remind us how many of our young people are employed in military service. Those who know them personally can include them in their prayers, send them notes, beseech God for their safe and rapid return. Since I don’t know any of them, I listen with awe to the length of the list; this is a small church in a small denomination in a small town, after all.

Then, a few seconds later we pray that we, personally, may die in comfort (“without suffering and without reproach”). What’s that? I want to die in peace and comfort, but I’m OK with the violence and chaos our “all volunteer” military personnel give and receive? I’m OK with those who don the uniform of Empire and go to any of our 700 bases abroad to “assist” the locals and risk getting blown up or shot, many in hopes of learning a trade or funding an education thereby? How can I, with any sense of justice, demand a peaceful end when I passively acquiesce to the violence endemic to the United States’s Endless War? How can I claim peace for my own end when so many return from war physically maimed or emotionally broken? And when our support for veterans seems to end with flowery phrases about their “patriotism” and “sacrifice”?

Asking the Lord to have mercy on them — on the young men shooting into homes out of fear; on the young women living in as much fear of the men in their units as of the “enemy”; on the officers covering up soldier suicides, sexual assaults, killing of civilians (euphemistically known as ”collateral damage”); on all who suffer from the corner-cutting of greedy, unaccountable private contractors who do so much of the work formerly done by real soldiers; on the recruiters who go into our schools and misrepresent military service to poor, idealistic kids — is an abdication of our responsibility for the mess they’re in, in our nation’s name. A more appropriate response might be, “Lord, bring them home,” or “Lord, teach us peace”. I’d like to add “now” but that might be asking too much of the Church, especially in this town.

The more I reflect on “That we may end our lives in faith and hope, without suffering and without reproach…,” the more distant from recent American experience it sounds. We die slowly, expensively, consuming resources that place us beyond suffering long before our bodies fail. As pensions and good medical insurance succumb to the greed of administrative corporations (fund managers and insurance and pharmaceutical companies, for example), dying will become either faster and more painful or more stressful as our heirs worry about paying for our sedated end. Who, besides the richest among us can aspire to die “without suffering”? As for “without reproach,” who but a middle-class white man, that most endangered creature, would even consider the possibility? It’s such a shallow, selfish, and silly prayer.

Or am I missing some deep irony here? I hope not. Lord, have mercy.

The Book of Common Prayer was last revised in 1979, and those revisions are the result of years of hard work. Consequently, the language reflects norms that are almost half a century out of date. It may be time for another revision, though I don’t think that’s a particularly good use of resources at the parish level. It might be helpful for parishes, especially those lacking a cohesive public mission, to informally revise the prayers to reflect the urgency of our collective need to return to justice, peace, and the common weal.

PoP formI0001

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Yesterday was just awful….

I told a friend I’d drive her to an outpatient surgery center for “a procedure”. That meant getting up at 5 AM and sneaking out without waking the dogs. When we arrived, they informed us they would not do surgery if I wasn’t parked right there. In the building. Until she was released. T.  At this point we learn her doc wanted her there by 6:45 but had her surgery scheduled for 10:00.

He wants them all there first thing.
And, mind you, their keepers, as well. For every minute.

I had planned to go next door to my doc and have blood drawn for next week’s appointment, and then grab some brekky and come back all fat and happy. They let me run off to the phlebotomist, but only after I promised to be back before they took my friend in for prep. Easily done, under the circumstances.

At 10:45. the beeper (keep it with you at ALL times) went off and a chipper message told me “Surgery has begun!” About an hour later I get a call from the doc, who seems to find it odd that I don’t recognize his name. (No, I am not her partner.) I’m also focused on his name: something charming and Italian. I want to ask about it, but realize it will distract from my Cause. He says all went well. I say, that’s nice. Can I go get something to eat? He says yes, of course, and sounds surprised – like he doesn’t know the damn rules? The desk staff – the ones who earlier told me my staying was “doctors’ orders” – tell me that’s not his call. I tell them I’m really not safe to drive their handiwork home. I threaten to bite them. They get a nurse involved. I promise to get take-out and come right back..

Then there was the whole comedy with fucking CVS.

We dropped off her scrip and went to my locally-owned pharmacy so I could get this weeks’ stash. All is sweetness and light at my place. They know my name and we all laugh and have a great time. I got what I need, even though I was willing to return tomorrow.  Go back to CVS, leave my friend in the car – I’m not going through the damn drive-thru again because: 1. I hate drive-thrus, 2. It’s on the sunny side of the building and damn hot, and 3. I don’t want to brangle from inside the car. They ask me for : patient’s name. Patient’s street address. Patient’s date of birth. MY photo ID. I have only the the first on me. At this point I damn the entire for-profit system to hell and announce plans to stomp on its grave. There’s an actual human being – one who buys medical insurance, no less – in my car, in actual pain, and they want WHAT?? She had to come in herself and pay something on top of her monthly prescription “protection” plan.

At last I got her home and settled with her TV and her drugs. However, officially, I’m still with her, because they don’t want her left alone for 24 hours and her fucking 16 year old hasn’t been asked to show up. (My friend was making brekky and lunch for the kid when I arrived at 6 AM. And spent half the trip in worrying about the kid’s car. This is the kid who doesn’t do her homework….)

I finally got home a little after 2. Dogs had not messed. Walked them.  Fed them. Another friend called. Talked forever. Neighbor  called. Talked forever. And now I should run out to see a friend who has dementia.

And that’s my experience of “the best medical care in the world.” Tell me how my friend’s assembly-line, impersonal experience is better than the “nightmare” of national health programs? Our system  may work just great for the profit-takers: those who run the “facilities,” and the equipment suppliers, and the insurers, and maybe even the docs. But they sure as hell do not provide healing experiences for patients. No, the healing takes place on somebody else’s time, preferably in the patient’s own home. There’s no money in healing. Just beaucoodles of it in “health”.

P.S. I may have figured out how to “work the system” by choosing a doc in private practice and a neighborhood pharmacy. I shopped for specialists and made – or lucked into – excellent people and care. Now I have a referral network that works. I’m sure my chart arrives with a big red stamp on the cover: “This One Snarls and Snaps. Judicious Use of  Information Treats Brings Her to Heel.” At any rate, the docs who end up having to treat me will take time to answer questions, even the ones that challenge them. You know who you are: Thank You.

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First Love

First Love

Years later, I watch my love
Sleeping, again, in my bed.
Sun floods the room, lights her hair and skin.
She is lovely as light itself.

My hands grow hot, heavy, red.
They drift toward her slender throat;
They remember everything I have stored in the bunker.
I stop them before they can touch her.

Anger. Frustration of an Abandoned Child.
Eyes bandaged; sandbags holding my head immobile.
Hands tied to the bedrails.
Exhausted parents mark the days as they come,
And leave.
They always leave.

I learn to hide pain, fear,
My fury at being different;
At the coke-bottle glasses I must always wear;
Glasses that leave me sidelined.

She eased all that.
Her love masked what the bunker could not store.
We had Music, and Books;
We had Youth, and Love, and Boston.
We were invincible.

Until she asked me to listen, to hear: to change.
Things I could not do without unpacking the bunker
And that, I would not do.
Desperate, she threatened to leave and I,
beyond desperate,
Called her bluff.

As I watch, she stirs, but does not yet wake.
My hands revert to their proper size and place.
The bunker remains secure, all these years later.
I am safe.
Bending, I gently kiss her cheek.

© 2013


I lie still
Feeling early sun warm my body;
Seeing red velvet eyelids;
Hearing salty whispers from the bay.
I am completely at peace.

Something brushes my cheek,
Soft as a kiss.

I know he’s there, looking down at me
I smell the memory of sun-baked skin:
His smell, once.

One kiss brings it all:
Love, pain, and hope.
Projects brought to life.
Problems laughed away, right to the last.

One kiss, that’s all it takes:
Piles of small hurts we
Threw back at each other.
Conversations avoided;
One drifting and the other digging in.

Our marriage failed;
It had to.
Our love never failed:
Anger faded.
Time assuaged what nothing could heal.
Wisdom ruled our hearts.

I open my eyes.
We smile.
We have built our peace.

 © 2013


Clarity is a benefit of sobriety.
Clearer sounds,
Crisper patterns,
No buffer between:
finger and thorn
tongue and habanero
foot and my path.

Mornings go better now,
Once I face the sum of losses and find what remains;
Once I win the daily battle with Futility
And rise.
Once I
walk the dogs
make the tea
take the meds
I sometimes have energy –
and will –
To work.

Afternoons are the same Twilight Zone of
necessity (self)
obligation (others) and
A slow dance I can do in my sleep.

Après Zenith, my strength sets with the sun.
Pain rises, a moon perpetually full
of memory
of loss
of longing
I bear it without help, without hope.

Sleep evades me.
Dreams have died…

Light creeps back and
I begin again.

 © 2013

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For Penny and Sam

Somewhere To Go

They pass me in the early morning,
These People With Somewhere to Go.
Their cars churn the rising river mist
They smile and wave.

Or not.

I saunter along the crumbling sidewalk,
All we get, here in the Old Part of Town
(the part where the world-savers lived
Back in those historic Glory Days).

My little brown bitch leads the way,
Twitching happily at both ends.
But Sam, the ancient Pekingese, is the one
Who sets the pace.

He sniffs; he ponders; he pees a drop
Before lurching two steps to repeat.
I urge him forward while holding her back—
We have nowhere to go but breakfast.

In mismatched sweats and Birkenstocks,
Scarf, hat, even gloves (though it’s only October)
I have become a neighborhood fixture:
The Old Woman With Dogs.


Sam’s P-Mail

 OOOH — here’s another!
<Sniff, sniff>
Ah, an ad.

OOOH — here’s another!
<Sniff, sniff>
That joke’s not funny.

OOOH — here’s another!
<Sniff, sniff>
Hmmmm…. Might be an idea.

OOOH — here’s another!
<Sniff, sniff>
This one requires a response.


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How It Feels Today

Over the last year or so, I’ve been grieving deeply for so many kinds of loss. These poems are snapshots of aspects of my grieving process. I hope you find them interesting and, if you’ve also dealt with grief (as who hasn’t?), comforting. I’ll post them a few at a time.

Mindfulness I

What price peace of mind?
Thoughts drift like clouds,
Memories, mostly.
I watch them pass and
Return to the breath.

I see a flat plain—
Red and sere:
No water
No shade
No books
Endless, isolated.

This is how it is, today.


Christmas Cookies

Reverently draw from the oak file box
Three-by-five cards, yellow with age and vanilla.
Fragile recipes, some in the giver’s hand:
Tassies, fruit slices, rum balls.

Measure with care.
Butter, sugar, eggs, flour;
Omit the salt, adjust the liquid
To allow for tears.

One card, Aunt Eleanor’s spritz,
In the hand of a long-lost love.
Made every year for an army of kin
All fair, Swedish enough.

Knead Wanda’s shortbread right on the counter.
Butter, sugar, egg, flour;
Halve the salt, adjust the liquid
To allow for tears.

Sweet ghosts of Christmas Past.
Traditions from mothers’ kitchens
Will not live in mine.
Each year I try and fail anew.

Use real butter—it’s Christmas!
Never substitute!
But omit the salt and adjust the liquid.
I cannot hold back my tears.

©2010; Published in New Millennium Writings, 2011

On Grief

Last year, Grief was fresh.
It’s Wilkinson-sharp blade sliced bits off my soul
With every memory, every Christmas tradition.
I bled tears as Grief pared away my heart.

Now Grief remains, but tamed;
Constant and reliable; His blades worn to softness:
A toothless companion through long silent nights.
Hollowness has replaced pain, and there I drift.

This is how we go on:
Loving without grasping those who come after.
Passing on our traditions,
Our ancestors’ cookies — and their love.

Parents, mentors, friends
Slip away one by one.
They cannot be replaced.
We grieve, then turn back to living.

But they are more real than our children
For they are our anchor, forever.
And memory is more reliable than the present
(Even if not quite true.)

We are creatures out of context,
Adrift in a future we never expected.
And so we go on through uncertain days
To our certain end.


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Slow burn

My Introduction to Economic Darwinism

I made the mistake of going to the League of Women Voters meeting yesterday. The speaker was an economics professor from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville; her topic was “Virtues and Limits of Free Markets”. She started by telling how she got “stuck” with developing and teaching a class on business ethics and she hadn’t known any more about ethics than we do. My hackles started to go up; neither a PhD nor a Phi Beta Kappa key qualifies her to talk down to her audience.
Then she blithely oversimplified a capitalistic cycle, which was OK … until she said, more than once, [paraphrase] “we give” resources to corporations and they turn out goods. I asked her WHO gives and she said, essentially, the government, which she equated with “society”. She clearly demonstrated that she had no concept of PUBLIC land or PUBLIC goods. “Unowned” land and resources are there for the taking. I suggested that in many cases, specifically fracking on public land, the government usurps the peoples’ right to that land by, essentially, giving it to private concerns for their personal profit. I didn’t go so far as to call it theft, but theft it is.
She then sided with Walmart – it’s OK to pay poverty wages and it’s the society’s obligation to decide what floor to put under people so they don’t, well, die. But it is NOT the employers job to take care of workers; their sole job is to maximize profits for shareholders. If workers can’t make a living at Walmart and fast food type jobs, they should retool, get an education, and find something to do that will pay. Like her. She as much as told me later that money is her prime motivation.She thinks her mother’s a fool to buy American. She thinks labor unions are bad — the model is outdated (though the older corporate model she espouses is not outdated?). I went up to her afterwards and mentioned John Kenneth Galbraith’s idea of countervailing forces, which he deemed necessary for the health of any economy. I said that workers need to be able to come to the negotiating table as equals or there is no hope for fair exchange of time and skills for money. She sort of frowned a little at Galbraith’s name and seemed to have trouble understanding the words “countervailing forces”. So much for her PhD and her Phi Beta Kappa key.

I’m afraid at this point, I  rather lost it. I looked her up and down, turned and left. I’m very much afraid I’ve written off this credentialed scholar as a perky, dumb blonde, on whom thousands of dollars were spent to gussy her up as an academic. Then I went home and looked up her vita; her first job was with Bain Capital. Explains a lot.
And I got to thinking … she’s young. She has no knowledge of life before Reaganomics. Did she learn ANY history in her economics studies, or was it all math and finance? Has she read John Kenneth Galbraith, or his son, James? Or anyone else who’s not in Alan Greenspan’s Cannon? Clearly, she’s been blessed to live a safe, cocooned life in pre-trickle-down middle class comfort.
I was harsh. I should pity her and pray she never has to live in the real world; that she may stay in her economic bubble, where tenure, and employer-paid medical insurance, and paid vacation, and paid sick leave, and regular raises and promotions, and generous retirement matching contributions are handed down from on high, without end.
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“A System of Despair”

Earlier this week,  friend used the phrase “system of despair”. I know a little about structural violence, but the idea of structural despair stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been thinking about it in horror (not to say despair) ever since.


intransitive verb

1: to lose all hope or confidence <despair of winning>

transitive verb

obsolete : to lose hope for




[mass noun]

  • the complete loss or absence of hope:a voice full of self-hatred and despair in despair, I hit the bottle


[no object]

  • lose or be without hope:we should not despair she despaired of finding a good restaurant nearby



Violence is tangible, and has tangible, predictable results. It is built into may of our social and economic structures and foments war, famine, pestilence, incarceration, oppression,….

The results of war include death, destruction of bodies, minds, and property, squandering of resources, fouling of common goods (air and water, for example). Some people would include technological and medical advances as direct results of war, though I question whether these perceived benefits are necessary or inevitable results of war. I can envision a world where civilian research develops even better, healthier advances. I include pharmacological and bio-engineered agriculture as technological results of war, since pesticides resulted directly from the need to re-purpose military chemicals after WWII, and agribusiness followed.

It’s easy to build violence into social structures. Militarize police (cut actual numbers, but make them highly visible and arm them heavily), start wars (send the same few soldiers off to fight them and cut their benefits to the bone), glorify athletes – especially those who play violent sports, make every social experience a competition. Then cut funding for public services so an increasing number of people lack food, shelter, and transportation. Privatize the few services that remain so that tax money goes to managing contracts rather than providing public services. Next, make workers insecure and their payment inadequate to meet all but the most basic needs. Treat employees as disposable objects; brutalization will inevitably trickle down. In short, strive to crowd as many people as possible into the lowest sections of Maslow’s pyramid.

Maslow's Hierarchy of needs

Despair is intangible though it, too, has tangible results. However, they are less predictable than the results of violence. Systematic disenfranchisement may render people submissive enough to corral in the Warsaw Ghetto, but some few may respond to by rising up to confront despair. An abused work force may submit to economic austerity measures and make do with still less, even after 35 years of slow cuts and attrition; or it may join with others to Occupy public spaces. A woman may stay with an abusive partner because she’s afraid. Or she may set fire to his bed while he’s sleeping in it. It’s hard to predict.

Despair is not inevitable. Yet despairing people may be easier to intimidate and control, at least initially. So can it be reliably built into structures? I think not, but the more glaring the disparity between life as people are told it is and life as they experience it reliably leads to self-doubt, self-criticism, striving, stress, perception of failure, and depression. If there is no balance to or relief from these feelings, I think despair is a logical and rational outcome.

How does this play out in 21st century “America”? Let’s start where our children start: with education. Public schools are systemically underfunded; teachers are subjected to regulation and oversight that amount to abuse and in no way improve our children’s learning; reliance on standardized testing to quantify “achievement” discourages teaching of critical skills and leaves no time for deep analysis of topics and independent pursuits. (These skills have no use in a compliant work force, anyway.) As schools fail, they are privatized – public money is made available to for-profit teaching businesses, which have an unimpressive record of achievement. Higher education is heavily marketed as necessary for earning a good living. Not, you notice, as education, but as the ticket to more and better meals. But who markets college most aggressively? The structures that see indebted students as an endless revenue stream.

A hopeful student works hard, volunteers, takes unpaid internships, and graduates from college. (I heard on NPR that graduate schools care more about whether you’ve done an internship than about your grades or alma mater.) Only to find there are no entry-level jobs that pay enough to live on and pay back those loans, which are now due. This is true for English majors and engineers, though there may be a difference of degree. If our student can’t get a career level job in her field, her options are to go to graduate school (incurring more debt), take another internship (possibly unpaid) to “get experience,” or take whatever paying jobs she can land. Chances are good they will be part time and have no benefits, so she may work more than 40 hours a week and still go without health care and still be unable to both eat and pay back her loans.

In half of U.S. States, she will be subject to “right-to-work” laws, which essentially remove any illusion of trade from the employer/employee relationship and establish contemporary indentured servitude. Should she luck out and get a “real” job, her income will be about the same as mine was in 1990, but her expenses will be totally 21st century. Real wages in this country have not increased in over 30 years, while purchasing power has declined.

Which takes us to her parents, who are approaching retirement. If they are “professional” people, chances are good they have a 401-K retirement account rather than a defined benefit pension. This may have lost up to 1/3 of its accumulated value in the crash of 2008. Other workers have seen their companies fail, merge, and renege on their contractual obligations. Money workers deposited in pensions has been stolen to pay off the companies’ creditors. Those who “get to keep their jobs” may take a cut in pay. New hires start on a lower scale, so will never reap monetary rewards for loyalty, never aspire to the earnings of older workers. Yet they, too, have families to support.

 If a worker should step off his “career path” to take care of family matters, he will never make that up. Should he have a health crisis, chances are good he will spend his retirement money just to avoid living in his car while he regains his health and, if he’s “too young,” pay a stiff penalty for early access to his retirement account. When he is able to go back to work, he will find it very difficult to resume the work he did well for 30 years. It’s likely he’ll find himself completing for the same crap jobs as our student: underpaid, too few hours, no benefits, no security. He will certainly get no recognition of his experience and expertise, though his employer may tacitly take advantage of that expertise.


There’s one other condition of despair I’d like to mention; it’s called “individual responsibility. Glorify the individual and discount community. Be sure people blame themselves for their difficulties. Undermine public life so people are kept apart; privatize things that give joy and hope. Never put a community building story on page one; always run a frightening story above the fold. Make sure celebrations – other than celebrations of sports, wars, weapons, and winning – are not reported in the media. Make sure failures like layoffs and foreclosures are matters of public record; make relief difficult and humiliating to obtain; and, as much as possible, delegate relief to churches and community charities. At the same time, publicize and glorify the wealthy; spread the belief that they deserve their wealth and that wealth is the only valid form of merit.

My father frequently asked, “Why be sane in an insane world?” In our demonstrably inhumane, if not insane, world, despair may be the only sane response.


Next topic: Hope

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