Look Everywhere for It

September 16, 2014

Look for Death Everywhere

They've just begun looking. Photo Credit: Ruthie Fraser.

They’ve just begun looking. Photo Credit: Ruthie Fraser.

“Where death waits for us is uncertain; let us look for him everywhere,” or so said essayist Michele du Montaigne—who had a fairly jovial, frank perspective on The Great Matter.

In fact, it did seem the dying baby turtle was there, waiting for me.

In fact, the turtle was waiting for anyone. But it was only waiting because it couldn’t move very much…

I don’t know much about turtles. Only that in my childhood, by the beach in the summers, we used to come across a lame turtle, missing front claws on one leg, who occupied himself by crossing the road. He was the embodiment of the tired chicken joke, and we named him Tommy.

We brought him home to Brooklyn at the end of one summer, thinking we’d rescued him from certainty of being squashed. We put him in a tank in our backyard and fed him wet dog food, as instructed by the local pet store. Being smarter than that fate, he escaped, and dug his way into the neighbor’s garden, where he lived pleasantly for a few years, just ahead of the self-subsistence, urban ecology movement.

I do know some other things: if you’re really small and really cute, then you can’t have been on this earth too long. And if you have one eye oozing what can only be blood—poetically fuscia blood—you haven’t got much of a chance. There aren’t turtle band-aids, nor turtle prosthetic eyes—not in the park.

 Turtle Blues

Here’s how it unfolded:

I’m in Prospect Park on a path that hugs the lake, which shimmers under a green gloss and under the blue throes of sky. The foliage canopies over the path; the spring is as fat as it can be; the flowers have pulled back so the leaves can explode. They call this “the setting.”

 

Blue sky for turtle blues: "the setting"

Blue sky for turtle blues: “the setting”

There is legitimate thicket between the paved path and the shoreline. People are fishing—and fish are latching, too easily duped. The shore is buffered by woodchips, where the caught fish are laid out. They don’t even flail. It’s their oh shit moment.   They take it lying down, so to speak. They call this “the obstacle” or “the membrane” or “the margins.”

A couple is walking toward me. The woman has a tiny baby tied to her front. The man has that dazed, admiring look of the one who is not carrying the baby, and so can marvel at it. You know they’re not sleeping much—the baby could almost fit back into the uterus, so small is it. The colors of her skirt and ruffled nursing shirt echo the trees. His clothes look like they could have been pulled out of the dirty laundry pile. Suddenly, he stoops, takes something up in his hand from the path; the couple’s attention is pulled from the baby, and from inadvertently checking on its aliveness, to this little thing. It takes a lot to divert from the baby. The baby sleeps cooperatively. Maybe it knows it has met its fragile match, and defers.

When I get close enough, I can see it’s a turtle he’s got in his hand. Almost the size of a half-dollar, its legs the size of a teenage fly. I’m on the phone with R, my teacher, who’s telling me about the uncompromising morality of his best friend C, who just died. He now wears a thick plastic purple memorial bracelet that asks, “What would C say?” That question makes him pause, recollect his own off-beat heart and frantic kidneys. It encourages him to be direct and let (a love? Or is it always love?) go. This is called “not filling in the blank.”

 Diagnosing fatality

“It’s injured,” the man says, looking at the turtle clinically, dispassionately. His voice sounds new to diagnosis, the way we hear parents speaking around their newborns, assertions that sound like questions and vice-versa (“He’s hungry?”). The man is trying out being definitive about the status of a creature that can’t supply its own words for what’s going on. But in this case the turtle seems to agree.

R’s friend C got so sick that she went off like a mist from the lake. That’s what a poet could say. In reality, her death was a window slamming shut. And as my 17 year-old student said about the death of his mom from an aneurism: the glass broke into a million pieces, waited in tact for a moment that gave you dumb hope, and then fell.

Blood is coming out of the turtle’s left eye in a perfect bead, the exact size of its other eye. The drop isn’t even going to drip—how much blood could its body possibly contain, anyway? A thimbleful of circulation? The turtle doesn’t move its legs at all, but stays perfectly still, as if cooperating with death, or knowing not to waste an iota of effort on pointless movement.

But I feel, when the man hands the creature to me, without really asking if I want it—the way a mechanic hands a wrench to his assistant—that I have the whole universe pinched there, between forefinger and thumb. The task, whatever it is, feels as huge as the turtle is tiny. Like the whole park is backing me up, being the bigger Hand in which we both are held. Putting me in charge. What the hell am I supposed to do?

I don’t know how this turtle got itself in this condition from the shoreline to the path. In a blind daze? Lear in the storm? Or perhaps the couple found it still in pathetic motion, mid-stride to the other side. The turtle’s crossing echoes the will-to-change of our Tommy, though this little one is far less well-equipped for survival on either side of any road.

Are you going towards the Audobon center,” the man asks. It isn’t a question, and doesn’t deserve a question mark: it is an instruction.   The man has a brown bag in his hand, a bit of grease gathering on the bottom. He wants to eat his bagel and hang out with the baby, I think. He wants to celebrate life and normalcy, not be pulled into this most mini of tragedies. He gestures at the baby, not even on purpose. As if to say: We have other responsibilities. Jr. will inevitably have to breastfeed. As if to say: We’re in the business of life. Can’t you see that, childless pedestrian?

“Can you take it.” Again, an instruction.

“I don’t know where the Center is,” I say, apologetically.

And both of them immediately point—this they know. They become a Greek chorus of two, choreographing the procession of the tragedy: “That way. The direction you are walking. Unmissable. By the boat house.”

I nod agreeably.

The turtle turns the other cheek

They go off down the path, the other way from death. Turns out the Audobon is only a stone’s throw away from where we found the turtle. But now the turtle is my problem and death’s problem.

And of course the Audobon is gated, locked up for the weekend. R is very patient, still on the phone, ministering to the turtle with me, while I make half-sentences, half talking to him, half talking to the turtle. He’s used to the interruptions.

Some things that might be true about death: Death tires you and lightens you in a very particular way. Death is like sea turtle sitting on your lungs but trying to teach you how to swim in new waters. Death is like the sky over the lake. Death isn’t like anything.

The turtle is saying, let’s get on with it.

The turtle is saying: I’ve just been through this. I just got born. My body will remember the way out.

No, the turtle isn’t saying anything. I feel panicked. It’s supposed to help me out here. Like I have a chance I can’t understand to do something I don’t know how to do. At the same time I feel peaceful, like there are no decision to be made, and we are getting on the mortal slide together, and throwing our hands up, and descending to a groundless place.

I live here, but I don’t know where a vet is nearby. R says I could take the creature home and get my J to tend, but J won’t be home til nearly midnight. I don’t think the turtle has that long. I ask myself if it has resources here, in its natural milieu. The shore of the lake by the Audobon center is steep and clearly man-made. A drop-off that resembles the ledge of a swimming pool more than a proper liminal descent.

The turtle is punctured; nature does to all of us eventually. I fret that I’m stressing it out, carrying it around indecisively like this in its injured state. It was finding its own way through death, and then we swooped in with our personal, somewhat heroic notions of salvation.

The path around the lake is newly renovated, and meant to increase human enjoyment and animal presence on the cleaned-up access to shoreline. Still, it takes me some stumbling around to find a proper patch of mud an animal might recognize. Might die or nurse itself back to health in.

I began to look here

I began to look here

It wouldn’t seem mud would be hard to find here. But that’s how it is. I imagine the couple with the baby, now happily perched on the grass proper, a mile away, the turtle no more on their mind as they watch their baby do the idiosyncratic cute things babies do—open and close its mouth, wince at the light, root for the nipple. While they chew their buttery bagels, glad to be sitting and eating and parenting, somehow. By instinct.

“Have a good death or a good life”, I say to the turtle. “Whichever comes first.” And R does his mantra, mumbling, the kind of mumble that is proper to reverence, where you honor someone’s clear path out by contrast, by speaking with blurry edges.

And I put the turtle down and turn and go. What happens next is truly not my business. And R reminds me, gently, as the living must do, “Wash your hands sometime soon.”

“Of course,” R adds later, “there are some things you can’t wash your hands of—ever.”

All the while I had pinched it between two fingers, not cupped it in my palm. Its energetic imprint remains there. I’m resisting the urge to go back and keep vigil—I don’t think animals need our vigil. They have their own ways of dying that anthropomorphizing can only disrupt, not honor.

Still I wonder how its eye had come to be gone—as if someone had committed a violent crime of passion—an eye for an eye. Just this.

The lake and the big sea

All around the path, the animals come and go, bustling with not being dead. An egret, slender as a number two pencil. A red wing blackbird. More of those fish, banked—they’ll get thrown back and start again. A plastic bag or two in the algae.   You can feel the quiet tolerance of nature for the dumb and unnatural things we do.

But everything looks a little tilted. A man practicing headstands in the grass. A couple, doe-eyed at one another, their hard-ons and soft-ons barely hidden by their pants. Children on their popsicles, a mature form of latching, the popsicles already blending into the t-shirt fabric. I imagine I can feel the strain of my uncle dying states away. All death connected to all other death in a secret pact made on our behalf before we have a say in the matter.

There are birdcalls, and leaf-blooms, and funny human screeches from the fountains in the converted ice-skating rink. Small ones running between the jets. Boys on skateboards, looking for an audience for their tricks. A bum fumbling with his pants button unsuccessfully on the newly paved promenade.

And what could the baby turtle hear? And did it care to be saved? Was it already confused enough by having just been born—was it returning, with accepting familiarity, to the place it had newly come from? I prodded it a little when I put it down, as if to awaken its own internal drive to go towards the water, and either drown or live on. It didn’t seem to take any particular cue.

Most endings are constructs, or tentative, like this one. We crawl down the bank. We submerge in the greater thing. We are tossed beyond our semantic system. We turtle towards the Universal Objective.

And then we enter the sea—the big sea, where all semantics dissolve, where all sense of name and form is subsumed by nameless and formless—as Montaigne says: “Young and old die upon the same terms; no one departs out of life otherwise than if he had just before entered it.” Surely, in turtle-time, we’ve all just entered it.

We’re still baffled, looking everywhere to know what this place really is, where we are, and how we might crawl on. And the answer is everywhere, everywhere.

Little Losses

May 17, 2014

Sayonara, Baby Beardie: A short tale of a short life

First, the tip of his tail broke off the way a burnt pizza crust breaks.

“Wilbur’s dying,” John said.

John had incubated the clutch and taught the neonates to eat—first roaches, a colony delivered by mail, arriving in the cardboard box marked “delicate” on the same day the chirpy exterminator came to evict the native pests in our apartment. Then John coaxed the neonates into hand-fed vegetarianism, with ribboned kale and dandelion.

Egg-tooth and effort leap lizard into life.  Nap time.

Egg-tooth and effort leap lizard into life. Nap time.

 

The little guy Dying, capital D? That made no sense. People didn’t expire from broken arms. Lizards shouldn’t expire from broken tails.

Wilbur was the runt; runts are supposed to live a runty, underdog life, giving us something to root for. They help us see the runty parts of ourselves, tucked behind our competence.

I protested, “But he’s so cute! Take it back” As if the universe had ever once made exception for cuties.  A special primordial panic sets in when anything in your care is dying. Pity the fly. Pity the spider-plant.

There should be a rule: if you have just been born, you can’t die for a bit. Amnesty.

But there is no such rule, no such amnesty, and no such guarantee. Infant mortality is still a major employment opportunity for The Stork’s dark brother. Clearly, life does not work differently for lizards than for any other creature.

Pregnant Expectations

When Sunny was pregnant, and too skinny for the job, I could feel her from the other room.  Not an “animal person” or even “kind of an animal person” (get it?), I communed with her unabashedly.

You know how women’s menstrual cycles will synch up when in one another’s extended company? So I worried about her Calcium dust and nutrient ratios. Before she was “with lizard”, it had been hard to remember that she existed, tucked away in the boys’ room under the heat lamp. Occasionally it was good fun to watch her put up with Drako’s male dominance dance, head-bobbing atop her; it looked like the volatile prayer of the ultra-religious with a little James Brown.

Yet once Sunny was gravid, the whole house seemed pregnant. Eventually, she dug frantically in the dirt box that John had prepared in the middle of the night. At sufficient depth, she dropped her clutch, covered them, and forgot they existed. So we took over their survival.

The eggs nestled in a Tupperware filed with dirt in a humid, heated, unused fish tank, well covered up against the descending autumn chill. It was hard not to anthropomorphize the situation: how could she let go of these new lives-on-the-edge, and not care for the fact that they were growing into form mere feet from her tank? Imagine if our gestation happened at a short, cold, unacknowledged distance from the womb? There are freaky movies about such things.

 

This is how it works post birth.

This is how it works post birth.

Eventually, the lizards hatched, rested and leapt forth, with extraordinary little burst of life facilitated by the handy egg-tooth. It made me really want an egg-tooth.  John and the boys lay on the floor and stared at them, these little prickles of creation.  And I stared at the three beloved boys staring at life. This may be something like what yoga means by “the Witness.”

Runty Days

Wilbur was the runt, and so he always needed more naps than the other eight. Just getting up from one nap necessitated another nap to recover. The rest of the brood stepped on his head, while climbing up the stick towards the heat lamp. Wilbur just took it, as if he was part stick.

His body was little, much littler than his head. It looked like he could have big thoughts about lizard things, but never gain that much ground.

We favored him. When we gave away the brood, we were going to keep him. In Charlotte’s Web, the runt not only lives, but also becomes a famous speller. Could we not hope as much for Wilbur?

I got your back.  Don't mind that I just stepped on your head.

I got your back. Don’t mind that I just stepped on your head.

But once the tail broke, once the pummeling started, even easy spelling words weren’t in the cards—only one, the Big D, the Big I, the Big E. The huge spiders zip-lining in our bathroom could write it all out for him.

The universe was sucking the meat back from his body through an invisible straw. Every day, Wilbur’s skin hung on him more and more. He was the world’s youngest old-man lizard.

John does not give up on any creature, of any size, of any species, no matter how unfriendly the creature (or human) might be toward him.  In this we unite.  But aside from weeping over a few failing tadpoles as a young person and trying to poke them onto a rock with a pencil tip, I’d never really tried to resuscitate an animal.

He pried Wilbur’s mouth open with a tweezer and fed him through a syringe, squeezing in a last-ditch drink of dandelion-leaf and egg whites we’d made with the hand blender, the kind of meal a paleo-athlete brags about. Most of this concoction came right back out of Wilbur’s mouth. He hardly had the energy to open up. Luckily, he would never have to go to the dentist.

John has a strong constitution; he can eat anything (expired meat), break anything (a few ribs), handle anything and still thrive. But stooped over, caring for this fragile creature, his physical strength was all in service to tenderness.  This is the kind of strength I vow my life to. In John’s palm lay a husk of a thing, drained of will.

When animals give up, they don’t need to make excuses for it. Done, their bodies announce. And off they go.

We put Wilbur in the bathroom sink and filled the basin with water to rouse him enough to administer the syringe. Little Q was helper, but he was squeamish, not sure he really wanted to: “It’s not nice to force someone to eat,” Q said.   Perhaps he was empathizing, since for his own mysterious reasons, perhaps mysterious even to himself, he often doesn’t want to eat the food set in front of him. (Unless it’s a cupcake.  Bless the eternal palatability of cupcakes).

Wilbur’s mouth opened by dim reflex. We respond despite ourselves to the feeling of water.

Over and Out

Wilbur died just then in John’s palm, but John didn’t say anything. Wilbur had drowned in his liquid meal, the best he could have hoped for. A smoothie for the last supper. Certainly, this drink would at least give Wilbur an athletic boost over the Big Vault. Into the Lizard Unknown.

That night, John dreamed of his own father, also two years dead. His dad, opining, was sitting on our couch. The reality of the feeling itself let him know it was a dream. The horribleness of that fact came creeping on, like the feeling of one’s bladder at capacity while sitting in car traffic in a tunnel.  Have you ever dreamed this way, woken to what’s worse, the loss made fresh? I’ve had this feeling after deaths, and I don’t know the word for it; I bet the Japanese do. It is bound up with yearning, but more existential.

Before dawn, out practicing with the Naga Buddha who, no matter what, clasps his-her hands in boggling faith, I could feel John’s sadness balloon in the bedroom; the sadness was another kind of pregnant, resonant as I had been with gravid Sunny. His dad could have been grabbing me by the collar and pulling me to the source of all sorrow. Sometimes love has you that yanked.

Bowing to the source of sorrow, which is the source of love

Bowing to the source of sorrow, which is the source of love

And when John woke up, he confirmed that not only was his dad dead, but Wilbur was too, and now he would wait for the children to wake up. Then, he would speak briefly about the beautiful frailty of life, and bury Wilbur in the biggest planter that we had.  Ugh, death; ugh! Every little loss gouges my chest.  Or maybe I, like Wilbur, was born with this gauge already activated. Creation draws up its funny contracts: Please check this box: I allow you to release my personal information to the universe. No, you cannot have an extension on your taxes.

Safe-Keeping

Like attracts like: the planter where we put Wilbur held an overgrown corn plant, which didn’t look like it would make it either. Despite all the months it had seemed to be dying, a species of palm tree frightened of the Northern low light, it hadn’t done so yet. It pains me to have indecisively dying plants around that just can’t seem to thrive or expire. They don’t have to waste their lives: I’m wasting it for them.

John brought the plant home for my birthday last year; it had been given away by a couple about to have a baby. They needed to reduce the number of other life forms and space-hoggers in their apartment, and so also sold us our dinning room table, made from old telephone poles. Sit here and bless the yummies that sustain us. K and Q and John and I sit at the table and link fingers and thank every little thing on our plates, “and especially the mac n’ cheese for being awesome.” Yes, especially that. Objects, creatures, all in transit. Invented cheese, in transit.

A little stone marks little Wilbur’s spot in his little plot of dirt. Surely the casing of a body would deteriorate quickly, and where there had been a Wilbur, richer soil would be, giving the corn plant a chance, or at least company. And so the cycle of life goes on. Pretty much right away, Q and K set about aiming at the headstone with a water-gun, as very temporary grief becomes play for resilient children.

In the night, I silently place the little runt at the center of my heart into John’s sleeping, half-open hands. For safe-keeping and safe-tending; for this unmeasured journey onto which we embark.

When Wilbur weakened, arms and legs splayed, looking like a cave drawing of a lizard, his desiccated tail had seemed so odd, wrong-sized, misplaced.   But when one crust breaks, so to speak, another dough is just rising. Feel, feel for the rising.

As light does

As light does

Note: This began as an essay I wrote for my 7th grade students as a grammar parsing exercise.  Which goes to show that attention to grammar, and deep love of 7th graders, can lead one to seeing life a bit more clearly.  Also below I am testing out moving away from MM’s longtime stance of representing humans by initials only.   It is hard to capture love in words without strattling the utmost corny of expressions.

 

Love’s Paraphernalia

October 28, 2013
Image

the phoenix we have. perfection in an imperfect frame.

Needing It

There are frogs living in the desert that only need to drink once every five years.  K, 8 years-old, tells me this excitedly over brussel sprouts and chicken sausage, which he pulls apart and eats with his fingers.

Every five years?  Nature is weird, but that’s pushing it.

He nods, and explains.  The frogs just take a really good soak.  And if a dehydrated human comes across one– lucky lucky!  You can just pick it up and squeeze it and drink to your delight out of its butt.

I have to fact-check that one.

But K is uproariously confident.  He is as full of nature facts as the frog is filled up with water.  He jumps from the fantastical existing creatures into mythological ones, with just as much scientific umph.  He tells me that the Phoenix’s egg combusts into fire, and then the phoenix is born anyway.

Like the rest of us?

Born, anyway.

Oops, Hee Hee

Q, 6, brings home a pet stick.

The stick is about the size of his forearm, thick, rained on a bit too recently and still holding water.

J says, You won’t believe what this stick can do. He gestures deferentially to the stick’s adept trainer, his younger son.   

Watch this, Q says, eyebrows raised, and tosses the stick across the room.  STAY!

The stick stays, with utter obedience.

Q claps with joy: Now that’s a great pet!

Wow, we say.  You just trained it to do that? 

Yes, Q says, anyone can.

Later, when we play our board game, he must slowly sounds out the word EXPRESSION.  Reading—one of the many things we non-sticks train ourselves to do.

E X P E N S I V E?

Nope, I say.  And cover the letters one by one, so he can tackle it in parts.

E X ER C IS E?

Nope, though expression can be an expensive exercise, for sure.

Eventually, when he is ready, he gets it right.  He has to stop in the middle to feed the pet stick.

Because the card we picked said so, I have to draw for him the expression “Don’t cry over spilled milk” while the sand timer runs out.  Funny, because this expression is exactly about using time wisely, not getting caught up in a past.

He watches me draw a carton, a cup, an overflow from the cup, a face crying.  He guesses wildly:  Milk!  Sad face!  Fall!

Something like that.

Anyway, K says later, why would you cry about milk?  You could always get down on the floor and lick it up.

Yes.  It really does taste the same.  The boys are unshy about rescuing fallen dinners in this way.

When we eat, we hook pinkies to thank every bit of food that made its way to our table.  Q leads us, extending sincere gratitude to the carrots, tomatoes, lettuce—and  what’s in the pesto? Mac’ n’ cheese.  S—me—for cooking.

When we let go, Q makes a halt sign with his hand, one green pea wedged at the depression between each finger.  Hand of peas!  He says gleefully.  Hand of PEACE! 

Like the feeling when your pet stick settles down for the night, when the dishes are clean on all sides, when there is no milk to cry over.

If you wish to weep, though, as the ordinary often provokes, there is instead the degree to which love has taken root in the storehouse of your life.   That is always fodder for tears.  Love is always a burning phoenix, with a bright egg in its center, ready to break open.

Breaking Open in Collaboration

Put Your Butt Here

July 26, 2013
Put my what where?

Put my what where?

My seventh-grade students dream bigger than any directive.

When a street sign like the one we saw on the way to the High Line tells them Place your butts here, they will comply like good citizens, and then defy like even better citizens. They are budding semanticists who know that words both open and close doors.

Each word has a special charge.  Thus surely my students will also put their “buts”  here—and their “ifs” and their “ands”, amending signage to reflect a vaster cause:  Please place your dirty cigarette BUTTS here, but don’t stop moving your ANATOMICAL AND MOTIVATIONAL BUTT towards the greater good. 

When their personhood and minds are respected and “bolstered”–thank you for adding that to our vocabulary list, Obama!–my students think with their hearts: with this kind of cognition from a contingent of twelve-year-olds, the results move (the urban equivalents of) mountains.

Writing Up High:  What's your inner phenology?

Writing Up High: What’s your inner phenology?

These young people follow the signs that maintain convention only in so far as this doesn’t handicap the growth of a vital community.  Otherwise, we teach them how to edit radically, and use words to set everybody free.

My students now look at their city and see the secret gardens reestablishing themselves incognito in the most misshapen, arthritic sidewalk cracks, in rich and poor neighborhoods alike.  Like the human spirit when nourished, these “invasive” plants won’t be held back.

This same crew is learning Urban Ecology.  I make the pleasant mistake of writing Nettles Prick on the board as part of a parsing lesson.  They have to squeeze their anatomical butts and slow down their breathing to keep from erupting into hormonally-mandated giggles without end.  Prick: thank goodness some body parts are inherently funny.

The Buddha said all life is suffering, and certainly studying grammar, were it a shaming prison for their otherwise rolling thoughts (as it is often taught), can be that.  But these little Buddhas know how to keep the joy in the rules and the rules in service to saying what they need to say.

Serious Laughter Pollination

Serious Laughter Pollination

A short prayer to the Curriculum Fairy: May all young people use their whole body and whole mind to follow their whole heart.   May all young people sit down on their anatomical butts RIGHT HERE and refuse to budge, should anyone try to fence them from their wildest dreams out of  fear about the vestigial societal anatomy they may dismantle in the process.

May those who would rather pick their butts than support our young authentically have an ingrown hair that wakes them up to what pain is.

May all young people without exception be happy, healthy, safe and at ease.

(And to all you young people who are applying to college shortly and are ready to write your essays, visit our Essay Intensive programs to guide, inspire and challenge you HERE!)

Natural Grammar

Natural Grammar

Big G’s Loose Leaf

April 12, 2013
Image

Writer’s Block is Relative

To console the stymied artist, Sidney Sheldon, a writer known for his TV-style serialization, explained, “A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.”  Sheldon’s reliance on formula made him prolific and successful, but his career was much steadier than his mind.

Yes, the unreliable state of our world can make a person think that its presiding deity may have been manic-depressive too.   However, my job today is not to diagnose archetypes, but to be cheerful.

With the stinky red dry-erase marker, I write Sheldon’s quote on the conference room whiteboard.  Over the heads of my students, out the floor-to-ceiling windows, midtown Manhattan looks like a Legos project.

K reads Sheldon’s explanation aloud solemnly.  How hard it is.  Nods of resonance from my twenty-eight adolescents, confronting their own blank pages: Yeah, man, rough.  Epic rough.  A few of them even touch the pages on the desk like they might a crush’s arm in the cafeteria.

Sheldon had a god who dug deep for content, and my boys know about having to dig.   This fellowship serves young men of color with big dreams.  Sometimes their dreams are bigger than their attention spans.

dreamscape.  attention span can be seen reflected in water.

dreamscape. attention span can be seen reflected in water.

It’s August.  In business casual, sequestered at the enrichment program, they adjust their belts under the tables.  Some chew on their lower lips, hoping for a big lunch sandwich.  Look fondly toward where their phones are charging.  J sticks a pick in his hair as if an exclamation point for his acrobatic thinking.

T rereads the quote and says, maybe for the first time, Oh, that totally makes sense!  Who is the guy that said that?

A writer, I say, just like you guys.

Hmmm.  “Being a writer” just got an upgrade from chore-status.  A ruffle of self-importance sweeps the room.  The corporate building—with fifty-plus floors, King of the Lego’s—is freezing cold “to protect the equipment.”  Even my 16-year males, testosterone toasters, have the shivers.   Their body heat could normally power a small shack, or at very least a reading lamp.   I want to hug them.  If I could, I would be a hut for all of their dreams to stay warm and alive.

But right now, I’m doing some sloppy math on how much it costs to keep a financial behemoth like this so chilly.  My inner conservationist wants to reregulate the building’s temperature to protect the truly premier equipment—our bodies, absolutely irreplaceable.   But flesh and blood are not expensive enough to put first (or so goes my snarky assessment), and so the AC rules.  My students, empathizing now as God’s newest colleagues, focus their gazes on the quote.  Knowing just what Big G feels like, ay-ay-ay-men, they bend over and write.

Ideas & Images come in patchwork.  That’s how I suspect the world manifested itself during the imaginative flurry and giddiness of creation days.  My little brother’s hot breath.  Laughed at in school for the immigrant mispronunciation. Stopping mom from hitting dad with a vase.  Doing HW in the bathroom stall.  The bright orange tubes for spanking.  The cliff-face.  Sham Valedictorians.  At the beginning of a long, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting process of intellectual transformation, my students are realizing that god must be a workaholic.  Or at least a serial fiction writer.

So while they play Creator, chewing on their pens—or mine, if I’ve lent them—, hunched over, a few of them protecting their pages with an arm, I play Nature.  From where I sit, October is still far off, but I’ve already decided I want to be her for Halloween.  I’ve never been one to plan a costume, and now I don’t need to.  I am already wearing it, and always have been.

Image

Dress me

It might feel like Nature is not in the conference room, or purposefully aloof from this part of the city, but she is.  Just like Big G is, streaming through the big hands and edgy minds of my teens.

With my beloved J, who riffs on the magnificence of evolution all the time, I have been watching BBC’s Life & Planet Earth, ingenious series that move up close and personal with all the animals and plants that live Here.  The film crew reveals the design of the macro and microcosm in tandem—the profligate octopus, the swollen mycelium, bowing pines, Arctic pin-wheeling sky.  Their cameras can capture even the blinking eye of a hummingbird.  Most of the shots make me cry.

Image

Flower sneezing bless you

But here’s why I dig on Nature as writer and artist.  She’s is not so attached to her own ideas—not any of them.  She’s too prolific for that.  Each idea is just fine: none are particularly special.  She creates in excess of need and favors only what works, without preconceived notion or plan.  She doesn’t brag, but she puts out everything she’s got.  She’ll never explain to you fully how her mind works.  She’s got art down to a science.

Nature hands God a fresh piece of paper on demand.  And so I walk around with loose-leaf, catering to those whose enthusiasm has driven them over the edge.   K takes a small stack.  T has written more than his name and school and is nodding with approbation at his paragraph.  Not so hard after all, to bring a little life into their narratives and the room.  Just let them pretend heaven is impatient for their proposal, and have faith that earth, running out of some things quickly, still has ample ink.

The Next Big Thing

February 27, 2013
And in a brief departure from MM’s usual flavor…
The Next Big Thing: Sara Nolan

 

Travis Cebula, thank for inviting me into this delicious arts crucible.

Image

but this is bigger…

Sarah Suzor, poet who lures words, called The Next Big Thing “the anti-thesis of mainstream advertising.”  TNBT generates nourishing art community like flash mobs.  Appropriate to the project is the M.O. of Seth Godin, a tribal promoter: “My job is to notice things.”  TNBT facilitates noticing things outside of mainstream advertising, which attempts to place whoopee cushions under your most subtle and heartfelt ideas about what matters.

I am going to push this beyond where it is legitimately pushable and describe projects below that have not yet fully incarnated, thereby advertising something that does not yet exist.  But if God, however unfathomable and abstract, can and does have front-men and women pushing her fuzzy agenda, so can my proto-books.  Here they are.

What is/was the working title of the book (s)?

For What It Is: Essays in Transit (I explained to my partner that I sometimes feel like a child trapped in an adult’s body, and he said—something like– well maybe you just see things for what they are.  Yeah. Thank you, title).

Unprofessional. (My beef with professionalism).

Orpheus and Eurydice: To Hell and Back (A lyric sequence co-authored with Rick Benjamin, now small-state RI’s poet laureate).

Where did the idea come from for the book?

From the general realization that Life is unfathomably strange to me, and preciously close.  From taking my shoes off in Corporate America offices and walking in the hallway in Smartwool socks.  Rejecting the micro-wave popcorn style of careering. Obsessing about those who lose everything in a moment of impulsive love and then attempt to shatter loss like it is a piñata.

Image

This is my boss

What genre does your book(s) fall under?


Poetry masquerading as Creative-Non-fiction; Life masquerading as Words.  Self-help with spirit medicine.  Dialogic Poetry.  Cup Runneth Over.

 What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Anywhere “I” appear, “I” would be played by Jasmine Tea, as I am sure my blood is mostly composed of that now anyway, and Jas is too formless to be overly formal.  Loss would be played by an avocado born without a pit.  My characters all shift shape too quickly to be played by any single actor or actress, so a blurry screen would serve the works best.

What is a one sentence synopsis of your book?

Outlandishness takes Rigor on an extended date; both opt for unemployment over Status Quo; en route to humble corners of the Big Picture, they collide with mythic figures in a Rent Controlled apartment with a rusted fire escape, where Love combusts. [Admit what great community service semi-colons do!]

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Lifetimes. 15 minutes.  A lifetime + fifteen minutes. A few years of late-night emails under the influence of heart.

Image

Timetable of a Little Fish In A Big Eternity

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Multiplicities.  Rick Benjamin insisted that I was sent here for my gifts.  Poet Doctor Martha Oatis kept insisting I already had a book. I was irritated about what we are groomed for and so groomed out of.  I think Love should cost everything, because it gives everything.  So I’m spending all my words on that.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I hope its generosity and overactive bullshit detector.  Or maybe its abject commitment to being here.  Its undisciplined genre.  I’d like writing to overturn things—but the right things.   So that the heart beats a little cleaner and more commitedly.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

The jury is still sitting on this egg.  Unprofessional will likely be published by Shadow Mountain Press and the one and only Travis Cebula.

Tagged: Rick Benjamin, Shin Yu Pai, Martha Oatis…and two others unconfirmed!  Look for their next big thing-ing next wednesday!

Unfathomable Web of Verbs

January 6, 2013

What Moves

IMG_4286

emergent subject

My former student, J, to whom I taught Latin years ago when he was a totally bewildered but well-meaning (as they say) 8th grader who would spend most of the class cooing at the pigeons on the window ledge, writes to me:  I love your writing.  I would buy your book!

these be the messengers

these be the messengers

J, do you mean my invisible, incipient book? The one I feel in my belly like a prayer searching 

 for muscular wings?  For a few weeks in the fall of that year, I was very sick with mono, which is only supposed to afflict you from sharing Dr. Pepper sodas or callous, drooling make-out sessions when you’re 14, but I guess Mono didn’t get the memo.  One day my headache was so intense that another nail-bitten student asked me if he could go to the bathroom and then came back after fifteen minutes with a half-steeped Lipton black tea in a Styrofoam cup.  Here, he said, handing it to me.  I got this for you.  He had taken note of my habits, if nothing else.  I could see where he had drawn on his hands with his pen.   And, he added.  I didn’t do my homework.

 Sometimes one accepts love in any medium.

 

leaves i love

leaves i love

Plus, it was Mono that stopped me in my tracks enough to show me the potency of yoga, what yoga was really up to, the face it only reveals once you’ve drawn the mental hospital curtains and signed up for the spiritual blood transfusion, come what may.

So all these years later, to have an attuned, adult-ish J praise my work is just the right medicine for a different kind of disheartenment.

Moved by his profusion, as any writer would be, I say: I think I have a book in me, but I don’t have a subject!

He returns:  If you cannot find the subject, look for the verb.

This is exactly what we instruct young Latin students to do when learning to read the language.  It’s not how literate Romans thought or operated.  But the verb is kind of the boss of the sentence, and it can be useful to take orders from a boss when confused.  Once you find the verb, most of the mystery of the subject is removed, for the verb’s inflection fixes its pronoun correlate: if the inflection is a he-she or –it (shit, for short), the subject cannot stray, nor escape the tyranny of the verb’s decision making.  It bows and complies.  If you didn’t understand any of this paragraph, count yourself in good company.  Now you know or remember what it is like to be an 8th grade boy.

So there is a correlate in writing: when you find your action, the movement, you also know what or who is moving.

The maxim is kind of Taoist-sounding, when it isn’t just irritating.

what moves

what moves

And when you are an 8th grader, you take the issue of grammatical agreement personally.  As if the Romans set out to make things complicated for you.  And did a damn good job.  I’ve heard many a middle-schooler whine this whine verbatim: Why did they make Latin so hard?  The legacy of the Romans was hair-tearing grammar.  The aqueducts were really a second-tier invention besides their puzzler syntax.  And for this contribution, no one can forget them, wish as they might.

And the subsequent frustration can cause weird, reactionary behaviors (I’ve seen them firsthand)—again, mostly in males: photographing your own eyeballs, seeing how swiftly you can stab a pencil point in the spaces between the fingers of an outspread hand, before you miss and stab yourself.  OopsmayIgotothenurseIjustpuncturedmyfinger?  No.  She’ll just stuff a cracker in the wound.  Conjugate this verb first.

not eight grade boys not learning latin

not eight grade boys not learning latin

But as a rule for writing, as for living: do you know, really know, what moves you?  And if you only sense it, down deep in the pre-syntactic zone of embodiment, can you dare to eff the ineffable?

Because once the prayer comes out of your mouth, its wings take it where it pleases.  You cannot author a bird’s whim.

Bummer Marriage

I rush into the train station as best I can in my air-cast.  It’s a hobbled rush, really. O.K., so not a rush at all—more like a heroic limp.  The time remaining until the train arrives, displayed on the digital screen, is increasing rather than decreasing as I stand there, helplessly late for work.  The trains are cryptic and uncompassionate on Saturdays.

A bum sits beside me on the platform.

He looks like he’s in rough shape.  He’s got a few crumpled and sweaty dollars in his hand.  He unrolls and re-rolls them, watching the physics of it intently, like he is hoping they will turn into a greater amount than they currently are.  The bills are vaguely waxy.   He also looks like he might have just climbed down the beanstalk.  He regards me.  I have dressed for the wrong season—yesterday it was winter, today it feels like early spring.  My dirty backpack and long down coat are on the bench in a heap beside him.   He appears jealous of their heap-ness.

please let it come

please let it come

Will you marry me?  He asks, like a dart protruding from a cloud.

Me: Sure.

Bum: Really?

Me: Sure.

Bum: Hey, wow.

[Considered pause.]

Bum:  So, what should we do now?

Me:  I don’t know, it was your idea.  Come up with something.

Bum: Hmmm.  Could I have your phone number?

Me: Remember this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.

Bum: I have no memory.  [Points to long scar above his eyebrow.]  Car accident.

Me: Ouch.  A long time ago?

Bum: Yeah, when I was a kid…[Regarding me freshly.]  What is your job?

Me: I’m a teacher. I’m on my way there now.

Bum: Oh?  Why don’t you dress up nicer for work?

[F! I’m in my good clothes!]

Me:  Because I’m dressed up on the inside.

Bum:  Damn.

We nod appreciatively at one another.  My subway comes rushing in, like it knows it is late and feels vaguely performative about its compensatory hurtling entrance (This makes me think of when my students are late to class and arrive excessively out of breath, as if they climbed Mt. Washington to get to me rather than walked down a hall).  I gather my things to board.  The Bum looks disappointed, but we have that kind of arrangement—each of us able to go our own way, with respect for the other.  On a scale of 1-10, this marriage already gets a 9: mutual regard, easy conversation, agreement about when to say more and when not to, and effective, even instantaneous decision-making.  Voila.

When the doors close, he is still looking at me, his dollars hanging loosely in his hand.  As the train departs, a spiderthread of affection trails backward, the web of life growing ever-weirder in the fullness of its design.

IMG_1934

Purna, Perturbations & Panache II

October 30, 2012

Part Two: Infinity’s Footprint

I always wanted to be the kind of person who prays not just out of convenience, as in, Oh Benevolent & Erratic God(dess), Please let this metrocard kiosk take my crummy three dollars… Please make this subway come faster so I am not late!

But Earth has let us know—Sandy’s stomping on winged sandals–how badly we’ve perverted our terrain.  Natural disasters, both inner and outer, are impartial and assiduous educators and have slowly tutored me in imprecation.

Durga up in arms

Now I can feel it when I need to, like an urge to pee that wakes you up in the night.

Prayer is a cavorting with what you suspect could be possible, a speaking-up to suffering.  Use your outside voice, God says.  Use your words.  Sometimes, the whole body seems like a very loudly-barked word: PLEASE.

When I told my student S that I was absolutely sure God would understand if he needed to skip his obligatory Wed church meeting to fill out his college scholarship applications in time, I was not kidding.  I trust God takes the long view, is not near-sighted.  S, who is a loving and trusting creature, assured me, “Oh, Ms. N, I know, believe me, all week I have been praying about this scholarship essay!”  Ah, yes, but you also have to write it.  God is still learning MS word and her hands are so big she makes for a clumsy typist.

Welcome to my office

Theologian Simone Weil wrote in her notebooks: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.  It presupposes faith and love”(Gravity and Grace).  So argued, anything done with such “absolutely unmixed” attention leads one closer to God—a desiderata, right?—even, so it seems, writing about plenitude and irreverence.  And it’s a little-known fact that Michelangelo got down on one knee, sick of being pointed at by his own creation, and beamed God back with his extended index finger.  Wham, M said, Pow. And the whole chapel vibrated with laughter, holding the ribs of its beams, colors tearing. Pow.

 

God’s point

Now, there are some prayers I can really get behind.  May you be happy, the loving kindness nun offered us, legs crossed and minds loosened, at the silent Vipassana retreat, October monsoons breaking the thick air.  Her voice so careful, as if stepping over rocks barefoot in the new-moon dark: May you be healthy. May you be safe.  May you be at ease.  This prayer, like green vegetables, is good for everyone.

semper greenness

Most of the prayers in my toolbox are cribbed from the yogic or Buddhist traditions.  The languages in which they are written– Sanskrit and Pali, or even Hindi—are one enormous step removed from the language of my normal thought patterns.  Other prayers are like trying to saran-wrap water: it’s not going to hold anything, but you can still try.

Here’s one that works because it wears the same shoe size as love: infinite.  To say it feels like renewing membership in the totality.

Om
Purnamadah Purnamidam
Purnat Purnamudachyate
Purnasya Purnamadaya
Purnameva Vashishyate
Om shanti, shanti, shanti

 

Here is fullness, there is fullness!

In fullness, fullness!

Add fullness, subtract fullness

—it’s all still fullness!—

–A prayer in (my) totally slack translation from Isha Upanishad

I have been filling up the space in my apartment with these syllables.

Fill ‘er up, a motorists might enthuse to the attendants at gas stations.  Everyone loves to give their cars what they need to keep going. But we need such filling too, regularly.  We’re tanks of overlaid elastic diaphragms,   of bone and mind and microvillae—sturdiness, evanescence, and hidden corners.  Where can we fill up? How?  I know from those experienced in prayer that it is one way to fill and empty, fill and empty, like respiration for the spirit.  But what if we don’t really pray?  And what if we do, but God(dess) had another, more-pressing appointment?

more pressing appointment

more pressing appointment

My mother once told me she liked the acrid smell of spilled gas that had dribbled into the station over months and years.  I hope that my writing, anchored to the absurd, harnessed to the thoroughbreds of prayer, or spilled all over the (paper) ground, might be a gas-station of sorts.  Stop your moving vehicle and fill ‘er up.  In fullness, fullness! 

With the purna prayer, I’m courting the infinite.  I get an everyday practice of feeling its pulse come through J, when he tells me about the love he has saved up for lifetimes, carried with him, to be able to give it to me.  I have stopped rebutting in my mind, are you kidding?  The fullness is a bathtub for everyone, and my job is to let love keep streaming out of the tap.   It reminds us that our incompletion is also a form of completeness and inclusion, that however wrong things are, nothing is really Wrong.

As a P.S.: digging the presence of the plenitude is sexy.  The infinite is “all that– and then some.”  This is the kind of unfathomable math I can actually fathom.

numbering light

Purna, Perturbations & Panache

October 29, 2012

Part One: Vesselhood

R and I are talking about capacity.  About doors that close on the path, and how to wedge them open.

Temporary Vessels photo’d from automobile

As if taking a vow to the rolling ocean in front of us, R declares:  I don’t want to stop short of living fully!  It is the last day on which autumn will allow for bare-headedness and thin shirts.  We are covered in a film of sand from the wind.  We ask erosion to forgive us our trespasses and sit up against the relatively young dunes while the plovers plove.

The fussing Atlantic Ocean rolls and rolls, as words and beings roll and roll in the great rotation.   I think the mind is underutilized, he says, and love.  But sand, on the other hand, is not underutilized.

Mind and love: President Obama in the debate debacle has just tried to play the card of the latter at the expense of the former.  And that is the first and last thing I will say about politics.

R is rolling now, too: I don’t want to have just done this partway!

Yes; however, most traffic accidents happen partway somewhere, don’t they?  And in Xeno’s paradox, we are only ever (maddeningly) halfway.  But R means it, and the seagulls flap like they, too, know a wing must pump at full-stroke or be utterly stymied in the sky.

Some lines of an e.e. cummings poem that R coached me to speak at Lil Nolan’s wedding are getting churned up by the mind-wind:

(here is the root of the root of the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life

deeper than soul can hope or mind can hide) 

—I carry your heart with me—

(reprinted without permission).

heart-carrier

On a day as bright as this, what doesn’t carry your heart?  The light is your pimp in white pin-stripes: you’ll sleep with anything it touches. The jagged shoreline of Goosewing beach looks as if a mountain range lay down on its side, as a dying horse might.  R indeed wants his vessel to be the biggest it can be.  Shouldn’t we all?

I carry R’s heart with me; he has always been a deep teacher, guide to those in the darkness by the sheer wattage of his understanding.  When his cardiac muscles flutter precipitously, skipping beats until he bears down and calls an ambulance, and he feels the edge is near and nearing, I hold mine steady, so that his can dock again.  Yes, it is magical thinking and it is quite enjoyable.

He has a chorus behind his humble but sincere proclamations, of all things that realize their capacity: grass as grass, sand as sand, sky as sky.  You cannot say that the sky is only partially sky.  It lives its bigness, or it has no identity at all.  Fully!  Fully! 

It’s possible that the Infinite, a Big Kid now, listens to our professions of what we really, really want as a student listens for the recess bell, so that when people speak true truth, a cosmic ding ricochets in its Inner Ear; its Pavlovian response, as taught in Anthropocentrism 101, must be to reflexively grant all heartfelt wishes.

But what is really listening to me? Only “Me”– whatever that is or isn’t. And since I don’t understand “me” in the first place, there is great likelihood that Me is something way larger, way more infinite and complex, than I ever fathomed, or than convention holds.

Which brings us back to the stretching of the vessel, until, as the yogic texts proclaim, it is as big as the universe, whatever that really is.  This strains the very definition of definition, and tautology drowns in itself.

And we?

We open wider.

Beckoning the infinite

Art Mooning Life

September 4, 2012

Though I think not
To think about it,
I do think about it
And shed tears
Thinking about it.

–Ryokan

Thinking about it

 Yes I Know

K is standing at the shoreline in his little wet suit.  He looks like a half-seal child.

It gets deep quickly, I say from only three feet out, where the water is already over my head.  And because he has not spent that much time at the beach, I add: Do you know what high and low tide is?

At the sage age of seven, his answer to any Do you know is invariably a thinly exasperated YES.  It’s like buttering a doughnut.

The bay is windfluenced. K plunges his sleek form into the water, kicking it rather than just kicking, and elaborates:  It’s when the moon tells the water what to do.

Best explanation I’ve heard.  He swims in circles around a hypothetical centre, one eye trained on the pubescent yacht moored just beyond the fishing nets where egrets perch waiting for a mistake to be made.

So when the pirates pour out of its stern and begin to travel into shore, only K and his little brother Q, who is 5, are on guard.   They have spent the weekend in the sand, building a sprawling castle out of decimated crab parts that litter the beach thanks to the feeding rituals of seagulls.  In the castle’s meditation room (what castle would be complete without one?), not so far from the weaponry, there is a lady slipper shell “side” table that inverts, for those in the know, to reveal stash of anti-pirate spray.  Phew.   We are rescued, again and again, before we even know we are in danger.

Some of those who believe ardently in God believe something like this and use it, when in argument with agnostics, as proof.

up in arms

K looks above the house, where the moon has appeared in the late afternoon sky, and then back at the yacht: what pirate would dare now, with K’s sentinel backed up by that marble eyeball?  He’s already informed us that sometimes the sun and the moon are out at the same time—they have joint custody of existence—what’s up with that?

In their pre-twilight staring contest, the moon wins.  The sun may glare, but the moon is cool and confident; the sun has a hissy fit in bold colors, and the moon just waits for the sun to exhaust itself being dazzling.  She can wait interminably—no awkward silence is too long to bear.  And the water in our bodies, like the bodies of water that monopolize most of our planet, push and pull in accord.  The sun rouses us, it’s true, but every living thing, Simon-Says-ing with the ocean, listens to the moon.

Co-Pirates

Esteemed yoga teacher Genny Kapuler said to me in an interview: Contingent upon our karma, fate, background, situations, we have to make different choices in order to keep our little ships afloat.

In the night, like the pirates, we too sneak out of our little ships, though we remember not, and into the black waters.  Flying things track us with their eyes, swimming things cross our paths.  Like the pirates, we have no lantern but our capacity for choosing beneficial or harmful action, and when we make it to the cavern, if we make it, it glitters with gold pilfered from consciousness’s Big Money.  We cannot take it back with us, and when we arrive again at our boat, rocking in the indecisions of the tide, we must hang our heads and say, as much as we reached for it, it would not stay in our hands! 

Can’t-take-it-with-you mudra

Pirates worth their salt don’t appreciate the absence of booty.  And so returning with nothing, we write over and over and over, on the green chalkboard in chalk-breaking, block letters:  I WILL NOT FORGET WHERE I CAME FROM I WILL NOT FORGET WHERE I CAME FROM.  But most apologies, as it stands, are lies.  The head honcho Pirate rolls the eye that is not covered by the black Patch; he is like an advertisement for adolescence, his peg leg looking particular peg-ish.   His ratty t-shirt, peeking out through his open red brocade jacket reads, ACQUIRE OR DIE.

Mind Medicine

Wheel of the mind

Imagination, we know, is curative.  Not just curative, but as mobile as sperm, wiggling around worldly obstacles, making whole what is hopelessly fractured.  It fills an open space faster than an open fire hydrant floods a sidewalk, and populates it with the stuff of the mind.  It allows for a seamlessness that perverts our accustomed separateness.  Why, when we look at miles of sand, do we call it “beach”?  This too is nothing but the mind.  We don’t relate to the grain of sand as an individual—we relate to billions of them at once.  Only then do they offer us somewhere to have a picnic, or macerate clear jellyfish (as I did as a kid), or bury our legs and nectarine pits and condom wrappers.

Delivering a healing that is not quite of this world, but relies on imagination for its medical impact, Q blasts us with his Staff of Nectar; its secret powers are so complex he can’t even put it into words, but one “Pkow!” from that thick-stemmed sunflower, as tall as Q himself, and you know you’re implicated in the magic that makes living things die and dying things, occasionally, live.

Imagination’s Citadel

Then there is imagination-as-interior-decorator: their crab castle has a dining room where you can—yum!—eat your meals naked (protected by shields, of course) and a superior bathroom suite—but you must enter it by hurdle; if one chooses, one can catapult onto the toilet from the master bedroom (I admittedly got carried away with them here).  Only the butt of a hermit crab could fit comfortably on the toilet seat, but that is fine, since we all ought to comport with the husks of our ancestors at the most reverent moments possible.  And the toilet, with all its requisite and functional letting go, is just that.

ConVersions

I spent a good deal of the summer teaching adolescents about language’s pliability, coaxing them to be truth-speakers.  They did not need too much coaxing; only the assurance that their work would be respected.

In the process, they pulled their stories out of their back pockets like a magician, hand-over-hand, draws knotted handkerchiefs out of his throat.

I realized that life was not going to be kind to you, not one little bit.

The shells skinned the top of our heads as we ran through the forest and jumped over a puddle—well, some call it the Atlantic, but I call it a puddle…

Cold showers during the winter, broken walls, dripping ceilings, and hard beds that feel like gym mats…

The stories that surfaced when they were trusted to speak what was real for them, and in fact were authorized to do so, made even the overused coffee machine at the end of the hall—where corporate America revitalizes only to instantly devitalize in the life-squelching culture of the place—stand at attention.

Last summer, with the run of a conference room, they managed to break a desk-chair by trying to do a push-up on it.  Wouldn’t you?  And when the director of the program called them into circle to chastise and problem solve, and named the cost of the admittedly feeble chair at 750 dollars, wiry K said under his breath, Well they got that chair at the wrong damn store.  Same one at Walmart for 5 dollars—

These young men come from public schools and poorer neighborhoods where, for the most part, the destiny of each is not encouraged to be any bigger than what will fit easily into a Duane Reade plastic bag.  They were selected for this fellowship because someone believed their dreams could be backed by Big Money, and to bring upstanding men of color into the upper echelons of the work force.  To see what this will feel like, my boys make hot chocolate after hot chocolate at the coffee machine, loving its form and function like it is their sexy girlfriend; for a couple of them, Swiss Miss is the sole food group they will have that day.  They don’t talk about that.

With these same boys, for two years, I had practiced some of the magic particular to humans: learning the rules of language cold, manipulating them, and then breaking them (my favorite part) for art and expression’s sake with warmth, gusto and purpose. Their playfulness is like a bedbug at a mattress sale: everything is food for it.  During the school year, we worked late in the afternoon on Wednesdays, in a converted cubicle space in the financial district.

It was often like this: I’m conducting drills on the parts of speech.  The boys look like they wouldn’t mind drilling out one of their eyes.  We are experimenting with the useful conversion performed by poets and grammar students alike: transforming nouns into adjectives—without missing a beat.

Me: Joy?

R: Joyful.

Me: Care?

T: Careless.

Me: Cream?

Sh: Creamtastic!

Yeah, that.   It’s the word I want for my epitaph: She lived creamtastically.

Missing It

As summer moves towards fall, you start to miss the light before you realize it is diminishing.

no peeking

At five-thirty A.M., the water and the sky are the same color dark.  The dark slowly lifts as it grades towards the pupil of heaven’s bloodshot eye.  A few stars are hanging out.

I always wanted to swim naked at dawn, and now I bolt down from the house along the path Dad re-whacks each year.  J and his sons, K and Q, have already gone back to the city; my yearning for them makes my skin feel full.   Yearning seems less an emotional state than a blood-type.  As Basho haikus:

How reluctantly
the bee emerges from deep
within the peony

[Reprinted without permission.  The peony did not object].

Swimming in the dark seems like a gamble with everything, but to be naked like this is the best.  The blackened water touches my entire body as if checking for all the parts, as a mother elated to see her child after a prolonged absence or as an ape grooming another for insects and flakes of bark.   The Lord in her largess is an equal opportunity employer for me and for the gnat.

Nakedish

I think of JH, miscarrying in the middle states on her parched farmland, amid miles of prairie.  She called it labor, an agony, at under three months gestation; whatever was birthed, the mass of tissues and incipient human form, she and her partner S gave a burial place among the thirsty vegetables in the yard.  This is the kind of grief that must run through one like water.   I could not catch her grief.

They say: Naked as the day you were (n’t) born…

Water reckons our losses.  I don’t want to get out.

I swim as hard as I can; my crawl is uneven and somewhat desperate, like my art-making.  There is an old, wrinkly man who lives on this beachfront who could be close to one hundred; he performs a methodical crawl near the shoreline every day, turning his head at exactly the same angle with each breath.  Even the pitiless black flies respect him.   I want that kind of rhythm in life—steady, perseverant, repelling insects with the clarity and consistency of my form.

The sky lightens, but only just enough that the rainclouds are evident.  I wonder if the end of life is like this, a darkness that depends on light for its dominion.

Either way, I’d like to die while swimming.

Homing Instincts

K and Q tell me that most humans don’t have homing instincts, but they do.  Plop them anywhere, and they’ll find their way home—or at very least know which way home is.

Some things, some people, seem to pull you towards them.  Once, when we were small, my sister put on goggles and patiently trolled back and forth, until, most improbably, she found at the bottom of the bay, nestled between rocks and shells, a Claddagh ring that had fallen from my finger while I swam.

And J tells me, quietly and in my ear, that I’m his Home.  Not just like he feels at home, but a categorical home.  Each night before we sleep, I invite him into my dreams.  When his body relaxes and begins to twitch, I think it is because he is running along the tracks of my mind with all his might, preparing to take a flying leap into the place where love begins, and where love will always rebegin.

Abandoned Art

colors schemes

B doesn’t know how lucky she is.   She’s a dog, so she never will.  My sister rises before it is light to drive her down to the beach for a walk.  The bossy full moon, with her blue face showing twice this month, means that the low tide has left a broad expanse of sand exposed.   The exposure feels personal.

We arrive just as the red hint is pushing up over the ocean’s flat proposal.   Pinks and blues, messily mixed, echo the cloudscape along the equally flat, compact sand—as if Monet, blind, has fumbled along here with his brush, making what nature has already rendered beautiful that much more compelling.

The sun comes up a striated and popping red ball, the way planets are depicted in books about the solar system.  It looks less like a sunrise proper than like a sunset on rewind– as if God, taking the pleasure of an artist in her work, reversed clock time with her cosmic remote.  After all, some things happen only once in a blue moon.

B, who is still being trained with devotion, has to look my sister in the eye to get her alpha-permission to do anything.   What B wants is obvious: to sniff at liberty, to run up to everything that moves, to cavort with the other, less well-behaved dogs that frequent Wells beach.   B expects—and gets—treats for everything she does right; we, perhaps, harbor this same expectation, that a compulsive God is keeping a meticulous tally, and will pet our head when we do right, and keep us safe from the bigger dogs, as my student says, who want to rip us to shreds and walk on.

B seems unimpressed by the sunrise, and by the cycles of things.  At the doggy daycare, while my sister was orchestrating behavior-based solutions for troubled family’s lives, B ate the entirety of another dog’s food supply, meant to last five days, and is feeling the raucous intestinal consequences. When my sister goes off to throw B’s huge poop in a bin (be glad that, unlike my adolescent students, I did not take a photo), B whines, as if she will never return to us.   In that, B and I are similar; I don’t like parting, I ache at it, because it reminds me of Parting.

By the time we walk back along the shore to the car, every pebble casts its significant shadow.  There are long tracks from the tide.  The sun is yellow now, the way a child would plop it into a drawing.   On the short drive home, we pass the marquee for the Pizza and Roast Beef Parlor with Soft Serve, as if a spoof of B’s distress.  The sun shines on it, too.

Flaming wheel of sun

On the beach in Long Island, K had made a “flaming wheel of sun”—each orange, pearly shell placed at an exact angle to catch the light from the sunset.   The catch was effective but necessarily temporary.  Soon they would be shells without jobs.

For a long time after we leave the beach, I imagine the art stays.  But sooner or later, it too, listens to the moon, and turns back to its origins.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 28 other followers