Crawling Through the Grass of Grief

A Poem by John Lee


As I crawled through the tall

grass of grief I saw so many

interesting and disquieting things.

 

The priest asks us to bend our knees

and pray but doesn’t he mean crawl?

 

Crawling makes us indistinguishable

from nearly eight or ninety percent of life.

 

Ants crawled right by me yesterday

on their way to work.

 

Ants don’t take off Christmas Day

anymore; they used to when they were pagans.

 

Beetles crawled over me as I

wept my way through the tall grass of grief.

 

I heard one say “that is the first human

I’ve seen here in a long time.”

 

“Yeah,” said his partner, or wife, or son.

It is hard to tell who is whom in the beetle world.

 

“Most just go down as far as a bending

knee asking the new God to bring back whatever was lost.”

Pagans, Poetry and Back sliding

The University of North Alabama, formerly Florence State College, formerly Florence State Teacher’s College, spread out before me waiting to suck me into its academic belly, digest me and spit me out an educated hillbilly, redneck, retired salesman, boozer and babe chaser, and send me on to seminary and then out into the wicked world to preach the gospel according to me. What a system! If I could crack it anybody can.

Those first few months I learned a lot—mainly that goofing off with my best buds, Bob White, Roger Fuller and Dane, all through high school and irritating teachers to get a laugh had left me virtually illiterate. So I began reading not only what was expected in each course, but everything I could every waking hour. I carried paper-backs in the back pockets of my Levi’s and would pull them out in the bathroom while I peed or pooped—every moment was precious and I didn’t want to waste any of them. I had a lot of catching up to do. Although I was sucking hind tit compared to my compatriots in class, it didn’t dissuade me from thinking I was chosen by God almighty to spread the word of Jesus Christ to the rest of the heathens around me.

Somehow I got signed up with the local Methodist ministries to become a substitute minister.

When the regular pastor could not be present to preach and attend to his flock, they would give neophytes like me who were preparing for the ministry a call and we’d mount our white horses, or in my case, a rusty, blue Chevy Vega, and go pretend we knew what the hell we were talking about at the tender age of twenty-one or -two. I thought surely this would impress my red-haired angel that I really wanted much more than Jesus.

Somewhere along my way to getting on “The Dean’s List,” I started veering off the straight and narrow. Something was pulling me. Was it Satan, the great seducer of potential seminary students? Beelzebub, the Devil himself, trying to penetrate my psyche (Greek word meaning soul) – see Dean, how much I learned? Was I such a treat to Lucifer’s diabolical plan, the old serpent himself that sent me towards the pagan professors, back-sliding preachers and weirdo poets who became a huge influence on me in ways I didn’t even know at the time?

I had taken a few sociology classes before I was asked to leave college back in 1970. I had to declare a major upon returning. I had done pretty well according to my transcripts—two D’s and one C—Sociology it was. Besides even would-be saints like myself needed to know about the society I’d be preaching in and to, and there was nothing that went against the Gospels. But then there was the electives and courses that would transfer into most any seminaries that would take me – courses like The New Testament and The Old Testament. Every upstart Bible-banger needed those, but here is where the slippery slope that led right to Hell began—The History of World Religion, Comparative Religion – they were teaching the heretical ideas that there were religions besides Christianity that had satisfied and soothed souls for centuries and some even before Christ came to earth.

Dr. Miller (I’ll call him) was a short, cheery, Episcopal priest in his late seventies or early eighties that taught these pagan philosophies. Turns out the word “pagan” comes from the Greek or Latin word, I forget which, “paganos,” which means “country folk.” I could relate. I took every course this distinguished, easy-going, gray-haired man taught as my back began to accumulate marks from the slide I was taking by giving credence to these blasphemous creeds. So while I’m studying the historical veracity, or lack of the Four Gospels, I’m also being introduced to Lao Tzu, Confucius, Buddha, Shintoism and much more all the while eating it up with a spoon.

Now to make matters worse I was accumulating quality points, becoming Vice-President of the Sociology Club and meeting non-believers who had to be the Devil’s henchmen because a couple of them, Ed and Dan, introduced me to the poetry teacher they admired. Dan and Ed were two aspiring poets themselves. We would meet in the Student Union for coffee and conversation, not conversion, well maybe they were converting me. Dan reminded me of a southern version of James Dean—tall, lanky, tanned and intelligent. His cohort Ed, was shorter, studious-looking and eccentric.

“You’ve got to take a course from Dr. Thompson,” was their almost daily battle cry.

“I don’t know guys; English is not my forte. I mean I’ve barely mastered Southern Appalachian and I’m almost finished with my hours to complete my bachelor’s in sociology.”

“Listen, Dr. John Thompson will blow your fucking mind. Sorry, I forgot you don’t curse,” said Dan jokingly. I was trying to stay with my self-imposed asceticism—no cursing, screwing, drinking, smoking or caffeine.

My mind had already suffered a serious shock by exposure to Eastern thought. I wasn’t sure my neocortex was developed enough to handle more disruption.

After many more hours of brow beating, I gave up and went to registration for the next semester and signed up for Dr. Thompson’s Advanced Romantic Poetry class.

Let the Inquisition of my faith begin.

Ancient Paths

A Poem by John Lee

previously published in The Dragon’s Letters

 

Geese know the ancient path

their parents laid out for them

in the sky.

When horses are born

the first thing they do is walk,

even if their legs are like water.

Animals seem to know what to do

when it’s time.

 

I remember the first time

a woman said, “Let me hold you.”

This was a path I could not remember.

I turned and twisted my body like a

colt leaving the birth canal.

Finally I fell into the deep grass of her arms.

I lay on my left arm

till it went sound asleep.

Unlike the newborn, I didn’t care if I ever

stood on my own two feet again.

Machine Shop

Excerpt from Life is a Funny Old Dog

I worked in my dad’s machine shop after school and on Saturdays and sometimes on Sundays. During the summer he would give me a full week’s vacation with pay, and I’d go and visit my granddaddy and grandma on his side of the family.
It was there that I found a little comfort and caring when I wasn’t cleaning out one or two of his four chicken houses or getting my hands pecked by mamas who didn’t want to give up their eggs. Even there I’d have to earn my keep by cleaning out their nests after they had laid all the eggs they could and been shipped off to Colonel Sanders. It was as brutal job a job as any nine-to-twelve-year-old boy ever had.
The only enjoyable thing about it was getting to be with my granddaddy, a small man named Audie, and my grandmother, Addie. Both so diminutive I’ll never know how they produced a six-foot, two-inch son.
Granddad let me do three things. After the chickens were cleared out, he would let me and my red-haired, freckle-faced cousin Donald, go shoot rats with our 22’s. We’d become excellent marksman in our minds having killed everything from empty Coke bottles to crows. We’d compete to see which of us was the best rat murderer, sitting for hours in silence waiting for one to make a run for it. Pop! Pop! Pop! Three for him, none for me, most nights. My sights must have been off or tampered with by my villainous red-haired, citified cousin.
The other thing my granddad and I did was watch The Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs Show, and Porter Wagoner shows on Saturday nights while he washed his feet in a pan of hot water, brought to him by his dutiful wife, who sometimes referred to him as mister. After hearing the best banjo picking in the world, Saturday night wrestling—the most natural and authentic sport that has ever been—he would pull down a jar of peppermint sticks. We’d suck on one or two as the guys threw their opponents over the ropes and picked up folding chairs to seriously bash over their backs. Were we in redneck nirvana or what?
I couldn’t wait to get back on my grandfather’s safe island from the sea of chaos at home, but like all good things end, he died too young and too soon. Audie Lee died at the same age I am right now as I write this tiny eulogy.
This was a man my father did not know. I got the common sense and compassion that old age and experience had brought to my grandfather. The Dr. Peppers and Cokes Granddaddy bought for me when we went to Crossville became paper cuts to my dad’s soul.

Ophelia

A POEM BY JOHN LEE

A baby’s pink and shy blue hydrangea
sit like colorful lions guarding
her steps that were made out of
field stones.

The porch was, as we say here
in the South, wop-sided to
begin with, as much of life down
here is.

The whole house sat on these
same kind of stones just high
enough for old dogs and children
to crawl under to play and sleep.

The woman who lived there,
I am pretty sure her name was
an old Shakespearean one—Ophelia
I remember you now in your bonnet.

I remember your kindness to my
frail grandmother. Unlike hers, your
back was built by long hours
chopping and picking the cotton at ten
pennies for a pound.

I have no idea why you came
and visited me this morning
during my writing time but you
have been remembered and you are always
welcome to join me again.

School-Dazed and Confused

Now for a totally different kind of blog post in a more personal story/memoir format. Part of the reason I’m doing this is because memoir will be heavily discussed in my latest Writing from the Body workshop.

If you like these types of posts, please let me know and I’ll post regularly.

Life is a Funny Old Dog

“A 0.02 average,” the white-haired Dean of Students said with a mixture of sarcasm and disbelief in his voice. He took off his glasses, pinched his nose and rubbed it before looking up from my transcripts. The bookish man with girlish fingers laid his wire-rimmed glasses on the table and looked around the four tables in a square that had been placed in the cavernous cafeteria as a makeshift courtroom that would decide mine and others’ fates who had murdered their chances at a college education.

I sat there at the opposite end of their world, a stranger in a strange land, knowing I didn’t speak their language.

“Can you tell us here why we should agree to let you back in with a record like this?” he said looking at the others but not directly at me.

“Yes sir,” was all I could think of to say at the moment.

“Tell this esteemed body why you want to come back to college. But before you begin I want to say two things. I think I can speak for everyone at this table. First, I don’t think I can ever recall someone with your record asking to be admitted a second time, and second, I can’t believe you can say anything that would convince us of your seriousness and gravitas to seek a genuine education. Now it is your turn, Mr. Lee. We are all ears.”

I was lucky I knew what the word serious meant, but I had no idea what the hell gravitas meant. I sat there thinking that before my Christian days I would have thought what an asshole, but I was bucking for sainthood then and had given up cursing a year before to impress that red-haired Christian girl.

“I want to be a preacher and a teacher. I believe with all my heart that is what I’ve been put on this earth to do, sir.” 

Everyone, especially the Dean, looked like I was talking like a tree had fallen on me, as we say in the South, which for you northerners, means talking like I was crazy. The silence was deafening as the corduroy-elbow-patched professors and the two women who wore their hair in a tight bun broke in to syncopated laughter.

“Mr. Lee, I have to hand it to you. That is the most original answer I think we’ve ever heard at one of these, and I think I can speak for everyone here. What a thought—a 0.02 student aspires to be a teacher and a preacher. Well good luck, son. I know you are going to need God’s help because you have got one hell of a job in front of you. I think,” he paused to collect himself and wait for everyone to stop laughing, “We all agree to let you in for a probationary period of two semesters. If you show yourself to be a serious scholar in the making, then you can stay. You really want to be a preacher and a teacher? That’s just the most outrageous and original answer I’ve ever heard.”

I was in to learn this time and couldn’t wait to see what would come next.

Reflections on Becoming a Rogue Psychologist

I needed the money to supplement the poverty wages I was making as a teaching assistant while working on my master’s degree at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I took a job as a counselor/baby-sitter at what the State called a Center for “emotionally disturbed children” – a euphemism for a holding tank for boys and girls who had been beaten, abused, molested, and generally abandoned by parents that were more emotionally disturbed than their children.

I was twenty-eight and had become seriously interested in Humanistic psychology, with a subscription to the Journal and everything. I’d been reading Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls, and other giants in the field. There was little that was humanistic or vaguely humane about the Center. Behavior Modification was all the rage and was a major contributor to much of the children’s rage – their abuse notwithstanding. The pinning down on the floor or against the wall of a kid who was “acting out” and/or hurting themselves or others, was S.O.P. The Time-Out room was the method du jour of choice if the pinning or withdrawal of privileges did not work. The cold cement, steel reinforced door, ugly yellow painted walls and equally ugly linoleum floor – yeah, that was exactly what those kids needed after being hardened and frozen to death from lack of affection, slaps in the face, or in the case of Genene, hammered on the nose by her father until it sat sideways on her face. Even the social workers and nursing staff was quick to grab an offender and push, shove, drag or throw them into the tiny concrete box.

I remember thinking that if I ever started resorting to the Time-Out room as a first resort because of impatience, inhumanness, or thoughtlessness that I would quit and flip burgers to make my tuition.

At staff meetings each week the so-called treatment team – or perhaps I should say, mistreatment team – would meet and review each “case” and evaluate the progress, or more often, the lack of progress, convinced their subjects were just resistant to their therapeutic techniques and modalities—Psychologists, “More time outs are necessary.” Social Worker, “No we need to make the points more difficult to obtain.” Psychiatrist, “No higher doses of medication.” Nurse, “No we need to change their medication.” Lead counselor, “So do we all agree?” would ask as she looked at the eight or ten of us sitting in the jury box – I mean, conference table.

“Not me,” was my usual response. This standard objection over the twelve months I was there got to be a running joke with her and the other therapists. They pretty much agreed after hearing my alternative approaches that I was idealistic, naive to proceed as if they were people instead of projects, pets, or problems.

One such problem in their eyes was J. T., a shiny, nine-year-old black boy that was just the kind of case that Behavior Mod was designed for. The wiry, funny kid kept wetting his bed each and every night. “So do we all agree that the electric shock pad is the way to go, except for you John?” said the psychiatrist with a slight note of sarcasm in his voice. Right there was one of the main reasons I couldn’t finish my bachelors in psychology because I couldn’t work up the nerve, or downgrade what little consciousness I had, and attach electrodes to un-emotionally disturbed mice and make them maniacs in a cage. “Here’s what I’d like to do. I want to take J. T. home with me in the evenings for one week and see if my methods will help him stop his bed wetting.” The staff agreed, much to my surprise, and I’m sure it was because it meant one less headache each night and morning.

J. T. was glad to get out of the chaos to be sure. When we got to my house that first evening I sat J. T. down, “So here’s what we’re going to do,” pointing to the guest bedroom. “That will be your room and you will have the mattress lying on the floor.” Before I could finish my sentence he folded his arms over his wiry chest, stuck out his bottom lip and said, “I don’t want to sleep on the bed. I’ll just sleep on the floor.” He spoke really fast for a southerner as if the speed of his protest would ease the embarrassment.

“Is that because of the peeing thing?” I asked.

“I don’t pee,” he fired back.

“Yes you do, and you know what, it doesn’t bother me a bit.”

“Why not?” He seemed really curious since no one at the Center held that point of view.

“Because it won’t be me sleeping in the bed and it won’t be me carrying it outside every morning—that will be you. If you wet the bed, then each morning you can drag the mattress outside and put it on the picnic table to dry and air out.”

Long story short, he urinated on it the first three nights he spent with me. Every morning he grumbled and complained about how heavy it was. By the fourth night it was dry as a bone and he slept as sound as a bear in winter time.

J. T. had to return to the Center at the end of the seven days. One week was all they were willing to risk having the boy stay with the weird, humanistic, pseudo-Jungian counselor with long hair and a beard, and who bad-mouthed Behavior Mod. After all, they were sure the three nights he didn’t wet the bed was just a “coincidence.”

The first night back the bed was soaked. The next morning everyone agreed the shock pad was really the right way to go – well everyone except J. T. and me.

But the straw that broke this college student’s back was after working there for several months, fighting off B.F. Skinner’s disciples and getting frustrated with Pavlov’s children, I found myself doing the unthinkable only months before. Genene was acting out and I dragged her kicking, screaming, and sobbing into the Time-Out room without so much as a humanistic thought in my head or heart. She pushed with all her might against the door I was trying so desperately to close on her.

“Please, please, I’m begging you, don’t leave me alone in here. I’ll be good. I’ll do anything. Please, please, please don’t shut the door,” she screamed at the top of her lungs as snot ran out of her bent, crooked nose. I finally mustered up enough strength to wrestle her in, shut the door, and walk down the hall. Even through the closed door and a hundred feet away, you could still hear her screaming, “Please, please, don’t leave me in here.”

I’d become “them” – the enemy – and I knew if I stayed at the Center one day longer, I would lose the little consciousness I’d collected with much effort, and perhaps, my soul as well.

I walked back to the little prison, opened the door, and saw the twelve-year-old girl lying in a fetal position. I opened the door slowly, sat down in the doorway, keeping the door propped open with my body. 

“I won’t leave you in here alone.”

“You promise?” she said wiping the tears away.

“I promise, and I’ll never put you in here ever again.”

“Thank you, thank you, you fucker,” she said half-smiling, half-testing, and half-teasing, hoping it was the truth, but almost sure, it was just a trick.

I sat down with her for about ten or fifteen minutes and then escorted her back to the group, and gave each of them a hug, and walked to the main office and told them, “I quit.”