Archive for the ‘Dying’ Category

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.


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.


Just End It Write Now

February 25, 2012

Writing After

Holy Surmounting

Writing after a long time of not doing so is like biking with a flat tire, uphill in a Chinook, loaded with too many groceries in the basket.   That much dread in the legs.  Some pyrotechnic, autogenic inspiration, or at least a mule-deer genie of the place, ought to help one surmount the landfill, crammed with non-expressive detritus of thoughts, between the last time you wrote, and this moment of articulation.

Instead, just a few curses now and then, which the wind handily tosses back in your face.  And then it starts to rain, as if Nature strives to impress Noah, one-upping his last watery debacle.  It rains so hard the foothills disappear.  You wonder about that elusive magic of the sentence, and why it has no refuge for you now.

I have been reading excessively beautiful material on grief, and it inspires me to return to the object of my own grief, a writing project I started and abandoned, because I couldn’t make it breathe.  I think of an herbalist I know, trying a third time to resuscitate a newborn, whose limpness is clear, because its mother is watching warily from the corner, the way she would watch a rabbit nearing the scarcity of her vegetable garden.

The project, now dormant, was a book I was to write on the life of my beloved friend Liz, who appeared in this blog as mortal and ghost alike and who died at 103 years-old, two Septembers past.   The time after someone dies is tracked like the time just after they are born: in months.

I send this missive up as a postmortem salutation, aiming for a respectful love as full as a full moon, which can’t get bigger, more itself, than it is at that moment– like the moon Liz died beneath, and like the being she was while she lived.

These missives are engineered by Imagination’s slight-of-hand: Undertakers loving the loads that they have undertaken. A rumination on the preposterousness of endings.

Your Terminal

Endings Perplex

Even though it can be hard to discern a person’s last true breath, the End that follows is usually impossible to miss—because, unlike all of the life that came before it, the End is unwavering itself.  Its status doesn’t change.  Facebook would cringe at the thought.

“THE END” is usually impossible to miss

When she was young, my little sister penned “THE END” on everything she created with MORBID FINALITY.  Even if her story was only two sentences in length, “THE END” took up the rest of the page—much like our END will supersede our existence in its infinite duration, compared with our brief presence.

Not only did she make clear where the end was, she sometimes pressed so hard with the pen that she ripped the paper—a penetrating finale.    The end could be like that, too, like a club smashed over whatever came before, the narrative adventure that led up to it.   As my sister wrote, her thick blonde hair spilled over the page like a magician’s curtain.  Her little girl fingers clutched the BIC pen (mightier-than-the-sword indeed) and spelled these two words more meticulously than any of the others, with the same kind of pen her Daddy used when he did things that looked Important.

Looking Important

And then she would hold out the story for someone to read.  “The End” hardly ever felt comfortable where it was, like a tundra overtaking the little word gardens above it.  No panning out with cinematographic flare, no red-ribbon’d sunsets, no rump of a horse riding off into the pastoral numb arms of nature, two riders atop:  just the short thread of a life—or lives—of mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, which, as soon as possible, wound up cut.  At this juncture in her orthography, my sister still wrote many of her letters backwards. The direction of  a “b” or “d” was negotiable.  But “The End” never suffered from any adulteration: “The Enb” just wouldn’t carry the same authority.  I’ll try some Hemingway-esque shorties, in her style:

All “The Ends” are False– Except Maybe This One

The undertaker, enamored, carried her out of the room.  The End.

Some are more False than Others

The undertaker, enamored, carried her out of the room.  She walked right back in. The End.

Or, mitigating the blow

The undertaker, enamored, carried Liz out of the room.  But she didn’t go along completely.

When he came into her bedroom where she had died, he looked at her like he recognized her—little old lady, truth is beauty, beauty truth sort of thing—as if she resonated with the heroine of a verse he’d read as a child, something death could be, but never actually was.  She looked fresh as a daisy, as the saying goes, like she had actually rejuvenated, rather than stiffened and dried, in the hours since she went from creature to corpse.  Only the corners of her mouth looked suspiciously caked.

What is a dead person, really?  Traces of being alive and the suffering that is its hallmark remain on the body.  You want to see the bed-sore on her bottom?  It’s hard to move into stillness.  I want to know if the undertaker wills himself to forget that what is in front of him is a (former) person, or if he is content with matter as matter.

Flowering Conclusions

She’s got her last date with you: The End. That’s who waltzes her into the Grand Ballroom. We tucked the roses into the bed-sheet as he wrapped it around her.   She’d like the idea of two men taking her out; one tall, one short, it’s like the rhymes we had to memorize, the ditties.

When the pair comes to claim our dead—and I’ve only seen it happen twice– there is a tall one and a short one, evoking balance for those who say goodbye to the body.  See?  Some humans are big, some are small; some live on, some die and are done.

Liz didn’t think there was a God “upstairs”, but I had the feeling God’s Proxy was in the apartment on the floor above hers, tinkering, attaching her spirit to the Cosmic Pulley and hauling her up through the ether.  Even her spirit had heft, waited around the apartment like a drone of bees.  I heard the undertaker rattling out through the front doors, and suddenly the apartment was no place to be, like the monkey house at the zoo without any monkeys in it.  What is this strange smell? What once happened here?

What if the undertaker fell in love with her, like the rest of us had?  Maybe he would sing to her from the street, late September wind rustling about in the garbage, as he loaded her, wrapped up like a burrito, into the back of his dark car.  At that time, not one leaf had fallen, though Fall was just around the bend, hiding in the doorways, ready to surprise you with a temperature drop any morning now, any morning now.  Liz had been the first leaf on the Great Tree to go.  What is this pain so deep in my chest I feel some organ is trying to tie itself into a forget-me-knot?

The undertaker put her into the sleek trunk, meant for human equipage.  He crowed—just like the real crows, alighting on the benches, pinions flapping as poems do in the sky of grief, triumphing over the toppled ice cream cups in the dusty Champ De Mars.   Look at this bounty, fallen, mine.

Yes, she agreed, pragmatic more than romantic.  Very well. Get on with it.

He got on with it.



October 27, 2011

Emily gets the prelude

 We never know how high we are

Till we are called to rise;

And then, if we are true to plan

Our stature touch the skies—

 –#1776, reprinted without permission, but with much gladness–

view from the crown chakra


The baby slides out and I catch her.

I’m kneeling on the floor with a creature in my hands.

Her birth is slick, but her skin is clear of vernix, labor-grease, or wastes.  She looks like she has been sleeping in a fairy-tale, awakening to this one.

That is: I decide the baby is a her.

[For a sweet, short and informed read on the importance of vernix— not extraneous yuckie stuff to be washed off!]

In the dream, I am not ready, but I do my job anyway: protect birth and the birth mama, who is just as surprised as I am, at only four months gestation, to see the perfection of this newborn.

The hospital room tries hard to be bland and sterile.  But the infant doesn’t allow it:  She has so much life in her it leaks into her surroundings.

unlikely birth buds

Reality Has Windows

When I look out the window now, from my empty apartment, autumn is shaking in the trees, stately things that have grown up as innate wealth in the yards of the affordable housing complexes.  Their branches, behaving as if terrified, or as if attempting to terrify, move every which-way, like the gaze when one is first learning yoga.  These movements are pre-death choreography; the winds come through with purpose and everything that lives becomes simultaneously riled up—where will I bury my nuts?—and internal, looking for the bunker at the depths.

Unlike us, the seasons abide with their changes, not resisting themselves.   Are humans distinct in resisting who we innately are?  Hmmm.  I’m still waiting for the day a tree blogs about me.

buddhas abiding with drying

This time of year, when we put garbage in the cans on the avenue, the wind plucks it right back out.  Putting waste in a can is a temporary way to hide the tremendous amount of refuse we leave in our wake as we carry forth.  We may temporarily fool ourselves but the earth is not fooled.

Not fooled at all.  Strong rains brought in the fall, and they have yielded to a chilly shroud.  The last weekend of “summer”, after chanting to a multiplicity of Gods upstate amidst the poo-poo-pauperism-cuz-we-‘ve-got-Lululemon aesthetic of Omega, I returned with my spirit posse on the winding Taconic through an all-night storm.  We rolled onto 4th Avenue, even the GPS tired, at 4AM.  From the car, we saw a disheveled man on the street corner smashing a vacuum cleaner apart with all his might.  He stooped over beside the public trashcan and had his way with the appliance.  The traffic light, despite the fact that no one pedestrians were about at this hour of the almost-morning, blinked its monition overhead: DON’T WALKDon’t worry, the vacuum cleaner assured it.  He’s raging against materiality right now.   Its nozzle flew off.


The closest tree, thin and staked into place in its patch of dirt so it would grow up right, like a good urban tree, not bothering the buildings, burst out laughing.  Its glee was louder than the hundreds of voices at the Kirtan calling to Ganesha to move the obstacles already, move those obstacles already, baby.

ganesh in a sultry mood

By Shook or By Crook

Other things shook this week.  An Ortho Jew in his determined glory walks towards me in the subway station—that weird birth canal between Wall and Williams Street, below Tiffany’s and the anti-establishment protests occupying something.  The Jew has the Big-Mitzvah look on his face: this blessing is going to positively tackle you.

Are you Jewish? He asks me.  (To quote my friend John: Yes, Jew-ish.)

I’ll give you two guesses, I say.

He whirls around, his psyche already tasting the virtue accruing in its spiritual piggy-bank.  His pranic tentacles register a high Jew-meter.  He dutifully holds out the accoutrements of miracles: the lulav and etrogTake this, he says.  Lulav is a beautiful word—the bound palm leaves, myrtle, willow.  The etrog, which sounds like a genetically engineered toad, is actually a citron, an Israeli species of lemon.

I hold out my hand—these are my people, the fruit and the branch.

lucky mimesis

Shake it, he says.  For some reason, I remember my first year of ballet class, as a three-year old.  I spent most of the class plucking free the massive wedgies my underwear created under my leotard and watching myself perform this delicate action in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

I’m doing the shaking wrong, which I can tell by the way his eyes try to take refuge in his septum, appalled by my violation of the ritual, but I don’t care.  YAAAAAY, I shout.  I shake my branch not just in four directions, but in every direction I can think of.

Repeat after me, he says, and begins the Prayer, stopping at prayer-novice intervals so I don’t mangle the Hebrew.  I’m so excited to be holding a lemon in the subway.  I feel like the Citrus superhero.   I want to cut it open and squeeze it and make the space smell like something fresh, invigorating, edgy.

Big Mitvah!  He crows, walking away hurriedly and with the natural elation that comes from accruing spiritual brownie points.

For you, that is, I call back.  But what do I know.  The lemon is not forthcoming.

Later that night, I catch the baby.

mitzvah dilating

Not Knowing That

I didn’t know birth could be like that, I exclaim.  The hospital room impassively witnesses the ordinary and impossible.  It’s all beige to me, it declares.

This baby, premature and yet fully developed, sits in my hands as if we are a sculpture of Rodin’s, cut from one stone and still connected in that elusive place where form yields to formlessness.  Our rough edges and poor chances at survival are smoothed by the generosity of the dream until these two disparate manifestations of life—the creature and I– are returned to a single continuous muscle, breathing.

The night before, I died.

Marie-Louise Von Franz, the heiress of Jung’s work on dreams, teaches: Pay attention to your dreams, for therein “a self-regulating tendency in the soul comes into play which counterbalances the one-sidedness of consciousness or completes it so that a kind of wholeness and a life’s optimum is achieved” (Dreams).  What about those somnievents wherein you’re taking old cream cheese–Philly, whiter than fake teeth– out of the refrigerator?  Whatever.   Cosmic consciousness is like a good vacuum cleaner: it can take in everything, no matter the size of the particle.

So it was.  A brief, nocturnal trip back to Thailand– which cost me no air-miles or jet-lag whatsoever.  I entered a white-walled room in the big, empty house where my old friend, Dha, sat, grinning and chewing on unfurled and twice-brewed sinesia dipped in salt.  Life is the Leaf, he said, noddingHe caught my eyes as the ground rumbled, a terribly hungry stomach.  Get outside, something is wrong.  The jasmine rice, soaking in huge plastic vats, wobbled.  It had the nonchalant equanimity of a thing that has survived many such quakes.

but nothing looks wrong

In the unreasonable logic of dreams, I copied the example of my befuddled boss—also inexplicably there–who was trying to protect herself by climbing into a kiddie-swing, the kind that looks like a stiff, plastic diaper and feels about as comfortable.  As we waited suspended in the black diapers, a tidal wave of earth swung up over its own rim.  My end came at me like my premature birth: I was prepared and yet unprepared in every way.

This dark wave of earth blacked out everything except its own presence, which bore down over my body.  I fell backwards into my death thinking—that’s all this is?  A plunge?  Really?  But I only just was born!

with catcher's mitts unto the sky falling

Birth and death are like that– BFF.

I woke up disturbed, feeling clods of dirt in my hair that weren’t there.  But the strange miracles runneth over, the fish eyes of Unconscious blinking in the shallow pool of daylight.  The creak of the toilet seat, the drip of the showerhead, the bubbling of the water as it boiled. The lemon wedge, the triphala pill broken open and covered in warm liquid.  As if God turned on the lights too quickly in the theater of being and everyone ran for the candy stand for a sugar refill.  I had to growl through my morning practice—prostrating myself before the dust mites in my carpet—because there are dawns when one must bow before something, anything, everything.  And you?  For what miracle will you fall to your knees shaking, if not the one you are made of?

things that keep me here


March 1, 2011

Calla Calling

jasmine shuggie and l's violets practice nondually

The guy who works at the fancy flower shop on the Friday afternoon shift is so bored he bites his fingernails and tries to spit them from the desk into the pots on display.  I spot him doing this through the glass door of the shop; he seems to be three for three.

I want to bring a Calla Lily home for M, who is visiting.  Between fingernails, the flower shop guy tells me how to manage the single blossom: the Calla Lily needs to be placed in only two inches of water.  So the stem, incapable of absorption, won’t rot.  Outside, February is brightening, and the little buds suggest what’s next.


The Calla lily is a fire red that fades to orange, then white, and then green, where it becomes stem.

AO dies lying on the couch with her feet up. This has surprised everybody in the poetry community.  Even the couch, I suspect, was surprised to have someone pass on it like that.

Death: some deranged punctuation?  And a fingernail looks just like a comma.

Rosy Corpse

One death, however removed, invites back all the other deaths.

In my dream, L’s corpse is lying in savasana on our parlor floor.  Every day, I get down on my knees and embrace her.  Her body has begun to crumble.  Her feet are reabsorbed into her tibia, leaving two clean stumps.  Despite these changes, which I note carefully, I don’t stop the daily practice of embrace.

Decay and bloom play rock, paper, scissors

I get up from hugging her.  Her body twitches.  In a moment of convoluted dream-logic, I have to pause: Can a corpse do this?  No: a corpse cannot do. Her body twitches and flops again, as if to defy category.  I think about the phenomenon of Chickens after their heads get cut off.  A certain amount of time postmortem and the body can still…well, do the chicken.

I retreat to the den.  Dad is sitting at his desk.  L rises and follows me in.  She is benign but she wants something.  I gesticulate at Dad—Hello? Help!

L extends her arms to me, for me.

What do you want? I ask.

I want to be loved, she says, as clear as anything.  I think of her on Radio New Zealand, at 102 years old, the last year of her life, archly regaling the host: Well, if all those people that come to read to me stopped coming, I wouldn’t DIE.

Pshaw, I want to say.  But who could say that?  And because all I want is to love her again, we are as good a match as peanut butter and jelly.

Since I am slowly being cornered, I reach out and hold her. It is the least we can do for the dead, when they entangle themselves in the deep strands of our imagination. She dashes out of the house.

I wake up before dawn.  The photo of L lying in state in her nightgown is propped against the wall on her monogrammed clipboard.  I recall that night, five long months ago, when the full moon hollered over Times Square and L hollered right back, dressed up and ready for a date with the Great Nothing.

True to form, when the undertaker entered her apartment the next day and saw her corpse lying there, surrounded by the fat, unembarrassed red and white roses, he exclaimed: For lack of a better word, she looks so…alive!

Only L could get a compliment from an undertaker.

the last word is no word at all

Lily Loot

My mother likes to have flowers around the house in the winter. It’s like forcing the hand of spring.  I go into the Apple Deli to buy her a bunch of tiger lilies—the flowers that throw the biggest pollen tantrum as they die.  She finds their smell tantalizing.

As I am paying, declining to have them wrapped in even more decorative paper, a woman storms into the store, heading straight for the open refrigeration cases, and looks accusingly at the Stoneyfield products, her hands on her hips.

Your yogurt selection is TERRIBLE! She fumes at the top of her lungs.

The tiger lilies blush a sickly orange.  The cashier, a stout Korean, makes change for me with one eyebrow raised.

You have to get SOME NORMAL YOGURT! She says.  This is pathetic. Where is all the REAL yogurt?

She storms out again.

Lilies, as flowers that grace many funerals, are used to being around unseemly and unpredictable shows of emotion.

Then the cashier laughs.  Her laugh sounds like coins jangling.  That lady comes in everyday and shouts at the yogurt, she says. There are so many stores, why doesn’t she just go to another store?

Her pudgy grandson is standing beside her.  As she looks out over the display of mushy avocados, unseasonal fruits, neat cases of packaged vegetables, he keeps taking ginger candies, unwrapping them, and placing them inside his mouth.  I have yet to see him chew, or even slightly move his jaw.

Did you ever ask her what yogurt she is looking for? I suggest.

The proprietor shakes her head.  No, she says.  No, no.

The lilies bow their perfumed heads in tandem.  Yes, yes, yes. It’s the only word they know

I think of Joseph Campbell in tweed Jacket, the tattered copy of Ulysses a fixture under his arm, traveling in India.  His mystical impulse lit up like a beeper.  When he encountered the holy Swami, his question came up of its own accord, as if acid reflux from an indigestible world: How do we bear a world in which there is so much suffering?

And the Swami: People like you and I, we must say yes to all of it.

if yes were a direction


Sometimes, I cannot figure out what stops us from calling a spade a spade.  As if I should pretend you don’t suffer, and you should pretend I don’t suffer.  As if we should pretend we don’t look into the same dark, when night falls, or the same brightness, when day returns.

twisted sister has eyes in the back of her head

At the shoreline in Prospect Park, the big swans, icons of winter, are badgering whoever dares to visit the lake.  They have learned to want bread and it makes them aggressive.  The ducks congregate where the freeze is incomplete, a slice of liquid as aberrant on the stiff turf as a rosebush in February.  Together, the birds honk irritably for the crappy sandwich bread, puffy and synthetic as shoulder pads from the eighties.  The long reeds and cattails stand straight up when the wind is still.

even reality has roots

For weeks, the trees have looked to be inverted icicles, and the park is coated in white.  It is as if a great sheet has been thrown over the merry corpse of the earth.  You can see far, when the expressive parts of plants are dormant. The eye, says John O’Donohue, is the mother of distance.

You need a spade to plant a flower.  You need a spade to dig one up.

To obtain understanding, the Buddha exposed himself recklessly to the elements.  This made him, for us, a translator of the elemental.  He’d be sitting here right now, if it were still his era, transfixed by the parade of life in front of him.  And with his butt firmly committed to the ground beneath him, he’d surely feel the trembling of the bulbs and blades, as they discern the time to move towards the light.

time to