New Poem: Bad Luck in Ghost City Review

 My latest poem, "Bad Luck," appears in the June edition of Ghost City Review (whose title alone makes it worth reading.). You can read it here:

This poem will be including in my forthcoming chapbook, woman on the run

The Meaning of Life: an essay for Father's Day

 The Meaning of Life

Carla Sarett

Not many people talk about the meaning of life, at least these days.  But my father did.  He was always seeking the One True Answer.  Waiting on a supermarket line, he’d look around, and comment, “Is this all there is?  Really?  Maybe.”   

Most adults didn’t speak that way to children-- my guess is they still don’t.  The funny thing was that he expected me, all of seven or eight, to figure it out. Perhaps he reasoned that when it comes to metaphysics, children know as much as anyone else.  I was his equal in the quest for meaning, even though The Velveteen Rabbit was more my speed in those days.

“It’s not so bad,” I said.  He gave me his wistful, disappointed smile. We both knew mine wasn’t a good answer, but neither of us had a better one.     

When I hit the grand old age of twelve, he handed me a copy of Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian. “Honey, you need to read this.  It tells it like it is,” he said, using what he imagined was popular lingo. 

Of course, I accepted the book with thanks.  What else could I do?

It was a strange sort of gift for a child, even a supposedly precocious one.  Did my father worry that I’d take to daily prayer? At best, I had seen the inside of a synagogue or church once or twice—our family hadn't yet begun its steady stream of funerals. Our library was filled with leather-bound editions of Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Tolstoy, but not a single copy of the Bible.  To me, God only appeared in Hollywood spectacles about miracles, and I knew that life didn’t offer miracles. Tragedy, wars, genocide, illness, but never miracles.

“Religion is the biggest source of evil in the world,” he said gloomily.  

“I guess so, Dad,” I replied. I was no rebel, and besides, I wanted to prove I could read Bertrand Russell. 

Well, I skimmed the book.  It’s hardly gripping fare for a twelve-year old, and anyway, atheism was old news to me. I'd been well-trained as a Non-Believer from kindergarten (although my mother once confessed, in a tense whisper, that she just might be an agnostic after all. You never know, she said.)  There had been a year, or maybe longer, when I had asked a higher presence for help, never for myself, only for my family. But I didn't get results, so I gave up praying. It’s one of those use it or lose it things. 

But I think my father did miss prayer.  I think he missed faith.  Yes, he had a scientist’s contempt for the blindness, the irrationality, of faith. But I could see that he desperately craved what religion promises:  a sense of moral order, a sense of belonging, purpose.  Everything he craved but denied himself.  Instead he watched films like Kurosawa's Rashomon, pondered the multiplicity of truths, the unreliability of narrators.  “That film says it all, doesn’t it,” he said.

Inevitably, I became a philosophy major in college. It was a natural progression. I hoped, or part of me hoped, to answer the big questions, the nature of reality.  But it was the era of semiotics, deconstruction, and I got distracted by the mind-body problem. I forgot about the meaning of life, which I’d decided was relative and had something to do with Einstein.  

My father looked mildly surprised at this.  “Einstein says energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared,” he explained. Only he imagined that I could understand that equation.  To him, I was that brilliant.  Really. 

He added, “I am enjoying your Nietzsche books.  That guy has a lot to say.” 

By sixty, my father’s dreams had died.  He had gone bankrupt, endured a grueling surgery and seen his only son – my older brother—die a sudden, painful death. And just as my father had found relative peace in a new job, he was diagnosed with a rare cancer.  One of those freaks that hit one in ten million, something like that.  It fell to me to deliver the news,  don't ask why, it's just the way things were in my family.  We sat on his hospital bed—he and I—he was recovering from exploratory surgery, but he looked robust, younger than his years.  He waited for me to tell the truth.  The plain, unvarnished truth. He could trust me for that.

“It's a malignant tumor,” I began. 

He nodded.  Cancer had killed my grandfather when dad was six.  My father never mentioned cancer or his father—or, for that matter, my brother. 

“Chemo?  Radiation and all that?” he asked.  

“No, the arm has to be amputated. They have to cut the tumor out.”  I touched him where the tumor was, to show him just how high the surgeon’s knife would go: high enough to lop off his shoulder.  I felt a sharp pang picturing my father, no longer the handsomest man in the room.  He’d lost so much already; it was hard to bear. 

“Well, that’s that,” he said, and he cried.  He wondered if his missing shoulder would make “the guys at work” awkward. At his age, he couldn’t afford to lose this job—money was tight, he wouldn't get another chance.     

“It will be like diving into icy cold water.  After a while, you're just swimming,” I said.  I offered him the disappointed, tolerant upside-down smile that we shared.  I’d acquired his habit of leaving jobs, and I knew what failure tasted like.

He grew calm.  We talked about his youth – he’d been a great dancer, a tennis player, he loved swimming.  “How many years could that last?  Ten?  Everyone grows old.  I can still play chess, play bridge, read, listen to music, take walks, drive. I can work. It’s all a trade-off, a life for a limb, isn’t it?”

My father returned to his job a month after his surgery.  

Decades of intense pain lay ahead:  phantom pain, the grim joke that the mind plays on the missing limb.  Not one doctor had warned him. He tried meditation, he tried drugs, but the pain only worsened: a feedback loop, he explained.  

Yet, in spite of everything, he seemed happy. He stopped asking about the meaning of life. I suppose, by then, he knew what it was: it’s the opposite of dying.  Life breaks your heart, but it’s too beautiful to leave. Much too beautiful.  

Astonishingly, he started to read the Bible.  “It’s an amazing work,” he said, “you should read it, honey.” 

Soon, I promised him, soon. 

Podcast with "Into the Absurd with Tina Brock".

 My thanks to Tina Brock for interviewing me on her wonderful podcast program, "Into the Absurd.". For those of you who don't know, Tina runs an amazing theater company in Philadelphia,  The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium-- I've seen some great Ionesco productions, as well as other terrific absurdist plays.  Tina interviewed me about my poetry as well as my forthcoming novella, The Looking Glass:

You can  listen here. for the podcast.  

Run Sally Run, an essay by Carla Sarett

 Sadly, during the pandemic, several wonderful magazines have vanished.  Among them, The Olive Press, which printed the essay below and nominated it for a Pushcart Prize.  

It's among my favorite of my essays, so I am reprinting it here. 

Run Sally Run

No one called me precocious as a kid. 

At five or six, I was content to amuse myself with making leaf chains, singing, and doodling, and if I could manage it, watching television. My mother was convinced (how, I don’t know) that watching TV made kids blind, so I snuck on tip-toes down to the basement, for my morning fix while my parents slept. My ritual was to arrange cereal boxes in a row so I could synchronize eating with advertising jingles: a spoonful of cereal with its matching ad. That’s as much as I recall of my reading instruction: in a matter of days or weeks or months, I could read.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t bother to explain about the reading aptitude test, which my school had administered in the first grade. The test was based on Dick, Jane and Sally and their dog. First, a row of three pictures, such as a plate, Sally carrying a plate, the plate breaking, and then gave three choices: Sally happy, neutral, or frowning. I got bored: why was Sally supposed to get happy about cakes, and sad about plates? Surely, Sally had bigger problems in her life. I quickly checked off neutral for most of the test questions, and laid down my pencil before anyone else did.

Unsurprisingly, I ended up in the slow, or slower, reading aptitude group. We copied letters of the alphabet while the clever “readers” were given real books about Dick, Jane and Sally. The “readers” sat on one side of the classroom, the rest of us on the other. I didn’t care, since I brought in my own entertainment; by that point, I was engrossed in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

For the record, I worshipped my first-grade teacher, whom I thought kind and pretty, and I was not frightened of her. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to tell her I read, since the test had dumped me in the slow group—and tests must say something about me. Something bad, I felt. Maybe even very bad.

I apologized when she caught me with a book instead of copying the letters, M, N, O. “I’m sorry, I was reading,” I said, and held up the book as my defense.

She seemed flabbergasted. “You can read this? Without help? How did you learn?”

I admitted that yes, I could read, all by myself, without help.

That afternoon, I was marched to the guidance counsellor’s office. I was seated while three tall grown-ups –the guidance counselor who was a grey-haired woman, the elementary school principal (in my memory, tall and bald), and my first-grade teacher—stood and stared. I had never been alone with so many adults who were not related to me. They handed me a children’s book to read for them, which I read aloud, as fast and as loud as I could.

Afterward, there was an awkward silence. “But the test,” the guidance counselor softly began, and she held up a copy of the booklet, The Reading Aptitude Test.

I shrugged. There was nothing to say. Besides, I didn’t like talking about myself.

Decades later, I understand how much money, decision-making, social anxiety had guided the school’s selection of that “instrument.” It was a middle-class public school that prided itself on innovation. Probably teachers and administrators had endlessly debated which test was superior, which was “cost-effective,” which test helped sift the “gifted” from the merely “average” or the “slow” children. But that day, all I felt was frightened.

The guidance counselor re-tested me as the other two observed, with grim fascination. Question by question, she asked about my choices. Was that what I really meant to check? Hadn’t I seen the frowning Sally after the broken plate?

I tried to explain that Sally ought to know that a broken plate is not a broken leg, and if no one got hurt, that’s all that counts. Maybe Sally didn’t like that plate, maybe she smashed it deliberately just for fun! But their stunned faces told me that my answer was wrong, a broken plate was a big deal—and other kids knew the broken plate was a big deal. The why of it didn’t matter.

In a snap, I “got” what tests were: a series of “trick” questions you had to answer the way other people thought. Well, even in first grade, I knew I could master that. Next time, I’d know which box to check. I wouldn’t give it a second thought. Broken plate, Sally frowns. Cookies, Sally smiles. Next?

Today, we take multiple choice exams for granted. But such tests were rare until the 1930’s; and gained widespread acceptance in schools with the advent of electronic data processing. Tests that could be electronically graded were both cheaper to administer, and faster as well. By 1936, IBM had developed the first automatic test scanner; by 1958, computerized scoring was available nation-wide. Elementary schools quickly adopted them, starting with IQ, then a host of other aptitude tests. Testing mania in America had begun, and it has only accelerated. Oddly, IQ scores keep rising – sometimes dramatically, while people (I think we can agree) are no smarter than they were a century or two ago. And while SATs demand that students discriminate between torpid and turgid, in “real life,” such words go unused.

Personally, that afternoon was a success. I advanced to the second-grade reading class, which was reading The Velveteen Rabbit. Needless to say, a big step down from Mark Twain. After that day, I began scoring “high” on aptitude tests; from there, I sailed, without too much complaint, through school, college, graduate school.

I wonder, though, how I might have fared if my first-grade teacher hadn’t noticed my reading the book, if I had not been re-tested. How long would I have taken to discover my “error.” I was intensely shy, afraid of other kids—I never would have asked anyone on my own. Besides, deep down, I felt I was in the right, that a broken plate can mean many things, and it’s rarely something to cry about. And every time I hear another lament about children’s failing test scores, I think of that lonely hour when I began to pretend that the world can be contained in simple choices, and there is only one answer.

Run, Sally, run, I think, before you believe it.

New poetry from Carla Sarett

It's been a busy month, publishing-wise.  My poems appears in several wonderful journals this month.  Thanks to the editors of the journals below.  

"The Alamo Tour" appears in this Spring issue of The Remington Review.  This will be the first of several poems about American history.  

In One Art, you can read the poems "no one says it ever" and "They Made Wars"  Click Here

In the spiritual journal, Soul-Lit, you can read reprints of my poems "Saint Sebastian" (first printed in Third Wednesday) and "Ajar." (first printed in Leaping Clear.)  Click here to read

"late at night (wilder)" appears in San Pedro River Review, Jack Kerouac's Highway Revisited, which is available in print.  

"At least five things" -- a story with a cat by Carla Sarett

 Yes, it's spring and time for another short sweet story for dark times.  This one has a cat (perhaps in preparation for my adoption of a cat soon.).  Thanks to the editors of Sunlight Press for publishing this optimistic story:  "At least five things."

To read it, click here

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