Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Rubies from Rubble

September 2, 2011

Scenarios and Sweet Nothing(s)

Yoga begins with listening...Did you hear that?

 After living in New York on and off for almost thirty-two years, I see my first baby pigeon learning to walk this week.  Its mom was all: “The best garbage is over this way…”

Since the expedition to (the) Holy Land, events of my life waxed shy, wall-flower-ish, introverted—even a little dark.  Then the spirit rumbled again, a tiny earthquake gave the Muse an upper, and here we are, back at square one, tea in hand, trembling at the goodness of renewal.  I already have a bad track record at my local public library, so I don’t use that word lightly.

Time happened in chunks in those months; like a nose dislodging from an archaic statue, the cartilage loosening, the part falling from the whole and getting lost in the general rubble of old stuff.

Tryst with Quiet

Words weren’t there as a net to hold the sacred pieces in reasonable position.  I found this quote: “A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God” (by prolific author Sidney Sheldon, whose work I am not endorsing).  I shared it with my students, teenage males trying to find words for the core emotions, as they struggled through drafting their personal essays.  “Damn,” I heard all around.  “Damn! I feel like God today!”  God-like, they pilfered hot chocolate and handfuls of stirrers from the off-limits coffee room.

I don’t think the baby pigeon had, as of yet, experienced instant cacao.

 Damn, I feel like God today.

With a goddess’-eye view, I peer back into the rubble.

Compilation Cherry

Caps

The basics are still the basics.  The smell of oolong is brewing past perfection in my “civil dialogue” mug; it “wafts” (a verb to which farts long ago laid primary claim) across the screen.  Civil dialogue: when people are nice to each other while they disagree. Not as easy as it sounds.  A breeze roughs up the bay outside; my mother is counting white-caps.  One! She calls.  From the loft, I can see the sandbars in receding stripes.  Tomorrow, the full moon.

Today, the ornery and hell-bent seagull, who flies so low over the waterline while we swim that it seems he’s mistaking (or just taking) our skull for a perch, or a Perch: footrest or fine dining.

Graybreak

Sub Par

A homeless man weaves through the subway car.  He holds out a small plastic sac.  Hey, I don’t beg, he begins, with accidental situational irony.  I don’t ask for anything, he says, bag agape, letting the shopping bag, like a puppet or an imaginary friend, ask for him.  I’d just like some food if you have any extra food.  Anything you have. 

He weaves around passenger’s knees.  A woman holds out a peach: Here. It’s a fine yellow-orange color, huge, like a birth announcement for August. Likely just purchased at a premium from the farmer’s market.

He looks at it, Nah, he says, I already have a peach.

He didn’t take rhetoric.  He didn’t take ripe fruit.  Beggars can be choosers.

Yes

R gets married under a tent with a field of wildflowers turned towards her.  In their metal pails, fat sunflowers crane their necks this way and that, the Indian flute, piercing and knitting at the same time, a wind in the hair.  Once you say something you cannot unsay it, our teacher reminds us, as he joins R and E inside their yes.  He urges caution with words.  The flowers shake their heads as the rain, too, fills the ceremony; God so excited at the prospect of a wedding she has begun to weep.

Assent

On the long tables a dakini, sitting in careful meditation and consideration of the earth, is bound up in a globe of ice.  When the ice melts, she will touch the fresh air with her perfect bronze fingers.  The ice is already heading towards its next incarnation, as A’s little girl turns to me: Why do you not have a boyfriend, she says, as my once-boyfriend stands beside us.  The directness of little people is unsurpassed.  It’s like when you need a time-out, I explain.  What will a five year old understand of the movements of love?  She nods sympathetically.  O.K., she says in a tone that borders on patronizing.  And shuffles off for another cup of lemonade.

Fire and Ice

With

J says, eventually and fully, what would it be like to be totally and completely present with one another?

Pond-Sum

M and J and I pull off our clothes on the dock, overheated from sweeping and feasting and witnessing, and jump into the shape-shifting pond.  There is just enough pond scum marinating in the still water and marring its perfection that you know this pond is—sorta—a thing of nature.  It seems to respond to our bodies as we paddle around, waiting for the sea monster (every body of water, however infantile, has one).  This Sea Monster is prepubescent, preferring the training wheel scenario of a pond, wherein to rear its head and roar all the dragonflies away.  The insects that alight are a purple-blue, and skim over the surface of the water in oddly connected pairs, dangling from one another in lopsided but totally unperturbed flight.  Maybe this is the way we are too, in the speck of our planet in the black vastness.

Which speck gave us this?

Board out of Mind

My almost-not-in-middle-school-anymore students look at me with their heads all cocked at identical angles.  Why are you the only teacher that doesn’t use the Smart-board?

The Smart Board, a new technology for when you do something Smart—plan your lesson on your computer—and then project it onto a screen, which shows everyone just how Smart you are.

I let the name of the device answer the question for them.

Orderly

I’m trying to make a point to my students about how the arrangement of Latin words in the line is as important as the morphology of the words themselves.  I pluck my analogy from out of my element: It’s like in Chemistry…if you switch the H2O to OH2, it’s not the same.  Even as I say it, I know I’m wrong.

Yes, it is, says my student, X, who is lethally smart (and his initially is really “X.”  Don’t you wish)—It’s exactly the same. 

O.K., or it is exactly the same…but this… isn’t.  I give him a big, generous, you’re-more-right-than-the-teacher smile.  Smartboard?  Who needs a Smartboard when you have a DumbCircle on top of your neck?

My point falls dead in the water but my kids all nod together appreciatively, as if a synchronized swimming team in a drought, a Greek chorus with laryngitis.  Because X is actually quite humble, he looks down at his hands, thinking, perhaps, about all the OH2 trapped therein.

And what about the double-bonds?  I ask Smarty-X, because the language of Chemistry makes me think of complex romantic entanglements.  I have always taken to that one phrase and just wish I knew how to use it accurately.  So maybe X can help me.

He shakes his head and redirects our focus.  I think the next word in the sentence is in the accusative case, isn’t it? 

You can nudge a horse towards water, but you can’t make him incurably thirsty.

A smarter board

Swerves

In the pre-hurricane buzz, everyone is a little disjointed, as if objects will up and start flying ahead of the weather’s schedule.  Ions are flaunting their jazz in the heavy air.

Running along 5th avenue, aromatic and bulky stacks of catering containers are set out in my path.  I swerve.  Another runner, approaching from the opposite side, swerves.  We come to an impasse, chest to chest.  He and I break out in laughter at exactly the same moment.  Our t-shirts are exactly the same color; our pants are the same color and length and we have the same sneakers on our feet.  Our befuddlement is twinned.  If this were a movie, we would very quickly fall in love, have two babies, and get a three-legged dog (it would be a low-budget Indie film, where real things happen).  But because it is merely Brooklyn, we move to the left and right of one another, still laughing in rhythm, and go off in opposite directions.

When there has not been enough laughter, sometimes it makes sure to ram into you.

Charon Sings, Irene Goodnight

Hurricane Irene does come through Brooklyn with her whiskbroom and whisks some things around.  A few tree branches are on the ground on 5th avenue as evidence that she touched us—unlike elsewhere, where she played the Great Destroyer.  All week long I had scoffed at her approach and at the manic shopping taking place all around me, an urban (but not urbane) response to impending disaster, the un-calm before the un-storm.

But on Saturday, I woke up in a panic that belonged as much to the collective as to my own drive to survive: When Mother Earth wants to tromp us, there is nothing we can do.  We can buy all the bottled water we like and still—

So, what did I do? I ran to the store—to multiple stores—and bought an excess of  perishables.  I accidentally paid five dollars for a purple cabbage, because I didn’t mind my price tags.  Abhinivesa: death fear and vise-grip on one’s individual life, here demonstrated by clinging unreasonably to cruciferous idols.

Survival 101: Green Clingy Thingy

That cabbage is still in my fridge days later, staring out at me when I open the door.  Its weight—almost four pounds—could fasten you to the earth in a strong wind.  Had Irene taken our house, my life, I could have used it in place of a coin, carrying it under my tongue as I crossed Styx (whatever may or may not be after death, I’m fairly convinced all former Latin teachers have a post-mortem honeymoon in Hades).

And Charon, the mythological ferryman, carting the dead across the water with his precious stick, would be thrilled.  A description of C, courtesy of Vergil, via John Dryden, via Wiki-P: “A sordid god: down from his hairy chin/ A length of beard descends, uncombed, unclean;/ His eyes, like hollow furnaces on fire/ A girdle, foul with grease, binds his obscene attire.”  Just my kinda’ fellah.

I would point at my puffed cheeks, indicating fare for my passage.

C: Dang, awesome!  People usually give me old quarters!

Me: Mwwoffpph.

C: Five-dollar, organic cabbage, al-right!

Me:  HMMMPPPhhhfff.

C: I’m going to sell this on e-bay after I drop you off!  You know, when you’re the ferryman for the dead—first, you hardly ever get fresh veggies down here.

Me: Did you just say “veggies?”

C: Sure.

Me: Veggies?  That’s what my mother says.

C: As I was saying [slow, methodical paddling]—usually people just stick the first coin they find under the tongue of the deceased.  An after-thought, you know?  But this—this is premium.  This is purple!  Sister, I’m going to row, row, row your boat!

Baby, what I would have made you!

When Charon gets over his cabbage glee and reverts to his stately role, he’ll ask me whence I have come, whom I have left behind.  I will talk excitedly with my mouth full of cabbage: Nature asked for me back– who would have thought– after I treated her so badly for so many years, plastic-bagging her like there was no tomorrow, literally

And Charon, who is wise in his ways, will cut me off: Sweetheart, there-there: when you are eating, eat; when you are dying, die; and when the ferryman is ferrying you, please, shut up.

Cabbage, held in the mouth long enough, becomes sulphur-sweet, like the water upstate, before the rivers rose, before the trees pulled themselves from the earth that gave them form.  I stand on one leg, balancing in the boat, one last vrksasana in this incarnation.  Spirit wafts.

Charon ferries on.  Water, like water does, takes the shape of the story that contains it.

Do you know that story?

Mountain of Roses

April 15, 2011

Written with utmost gratitude to my family in Israel: You have such strong hearts. 

“Each life converges to some centre,

Expressed or still.”

–Emily Dickinson, LXI

expressed in stillness

Real Life Stranger than Figs

My rat-a-tat-tatty purple yoga mat, shredding its rubbery dandruff under my hands, stays behind in Israel, land of figs and honey, when I leave.  The mat is in every way unspecial but, like other ritual objects, it seems to have taken on a character and vivacity.  By proximity, it knows something about me that I don’t.

Coming and Going, coming and going, it clucks at me, while I squish my clothes into my travel backpack, forgetting which pocket holds my clean underwear and which my dirty.    The mat has more of my skin cells than I do.

All good yoga mats should be in Israel when they meet their end, I console it, in the distracted condition to which packing reduces me. You’re totally used up! 

 Lame, my mat says, in the tone your mother uses to get your attention. But like the trusty mat it has been, it leans against the wall with utter patience.  It doesn’t mind being clung to.  It doesn’t mind being let go.  That’s why it’s rubber.

 Israel has just rolled into its succulent time.  Benai Berak, the neighborhood where my Aunt and Uncle live with their ever-burgeoning family, is a tiny holy enclave outside Tel Aviv.  It is impoverished and disheveled; yet roses and citrus trees bloom recklessly on the perimeter of the limestone apartment buildings.   Certain kinds of beauty are unstoppable.

"Flowers in the Desert"

Dont try to stop this

I had only one fig while I was there—it was not quite their season.  The fig was a disappointment; it was dehydrated (like me), sulphured (not like me), sugary and squished in a plastic container with its figgy brethren.  It looked shellacked.  The fig tasted like righteous, processed seed.  The grocery store proprietor, a Sephardic with a potbelly like a classroom globe, grinned a proprietary grin:  foreigners had a knack for wanting the expensive shit, didn’t they.

I grinned back, being just that kind of Figgy foreigner.

Figs on the outskirts

In the figinning...

Israeli honey I glimpsed once: at the Duty Free shop by the Delta departure gate.  It promised to be pure.  But purity by the spoonful paled beside the prospect of not being able to fit my carry-on luggage into the overhead bin.  So I skipped the sweetness and joined the line of passengers impatiently waiting to board.  But I had honey on the mind, a long, gooey strand of thought that stretched thousands of miles.

Delta Dogs

Know Where You Are

Orientation


 International travel is hopelessly funny.  It dredges up and makes defunct your best concept of normalcy.

 God, so busy abiding in His infinite and unfathomable perfection, has no time to fuss about airline safety.  He needs his minions to be thorough and vigilant.  As we prepare for take-off, a Chassid, his peyos flapping, flips open his cell phone, fires off text messages—regulations be damned.  When the attendant, a bleach-blond in a tart, fire-truck red Delta dress passes by, he covers his operation sloppily with a pillow.  My sister eyes him down the aisle, as if his intentions are truly seditious.  He’s gonna bring down this plane, her stare saysHer J had told her that to interfere with the traffic signals, everyone on the entire flight would have to receive a call at the same time.  But nonetheless.  The Chassid blows his nose on the red Delta blanket and then tucks it back into its original plastic packaging.  His phone is still blinking as we gain on the moon.  He pulls out a garbage bag full of sandwiches from beneath his seat, sniffs at each of them, and then chooses one over which to pray.  And the lord separated the wheat from the chaff and the Muenster from the Cheddar. 

Another religious Jew in his idiosyncratic garb piles his prayer books on his tray table until they are high enough that he can rest his head on them and sleep.  He asks my parents to switch seats so that he will not be sitting next to a woman—especially a number like my beautiful Mom. Heaven forbid their elbows touch and electrify the easily-tripped circuits of desire.  Elbow to elbow, the great chain of being goes on.  “Lest the pack should get lost in the dark.”

Many of the passengers throw their trash directly into the aisles.  When I go to the toilet in the back of the plane—the cleanest of the six—I see water suddenly begin to spurt, then rush, out of an upper cabinet in the rear deck.  A flight attendant, hands set brusquely on her hips, watches it with me, as if she were observing an orangutan alphabetize spices.  “No one is responsible except Murphy” her grimace seems to say as she picks up the intra-flight phone, and nonchalantly reports, “Yeah, the ice is going.  I’m just going to wait ‘til it’s done.”  “Do you want me to get my blankets for you?” I ask.  Or the booger blankets, I want to add. “No,” she says, entirely unconcerned.  The water spills out into the aisle and runs backward, with gravity, towards the bathrooms and the tail of the plane.  I step out of its way and watch an elderly man toss an empty plastic cup carelessly to the floor.  He doesn’t even look to see if anyone is looking—ignorance ignorant of itself.   I wonder how many things can go amiss in flight before it is unsustainable, and the plane plummets back where it came from like a kite in car wash.

Turn the Rosy Cheek

When I ask my Uncle if he ever has doubts about the choice to live this ultra-orthodox existence with its particular constraints, he refers me to a meaningful quotation from Torah.  A fence of roses, the Torah calls the many rules and laws by which the faithful abide.  Yes, we live inside a fence, but it’s not a bad fence!  I imagine how many roses it would take to weave an enclosure for even a single being’s life; thousands, millions, maybe even billions.  That fence would smell like the First Garden in June and require intensive treatments with manure.

Roses in the gardens

Hedging your bets

No Dead Time, my uncle says, twinkles in his eyes and exaltation in his voice, of how they pass their days in this community.  As far as I can tell, he’s had on the same blue-black cardigan for the last three decades.  The same slightly scuffed black sneakers, which lack the kind of support that would make them actually useful for exercise.  In this kind of religious life, you always know what to do—what to do with yourself– when you wake up in the morning.  If you want, every moment of your day is prescribed for you.  There is a prayer that frames even the tiniest gesture.  Think fast before you bite that pear.

At moments when I feel at a total loss for guidance, direction, this kind of structure seems almost sensible, at least consoling.  It is the fence, here, that enables and yields a beautiful life—that is, if one decides that what is within the fence is, in fact, beautiful.  Commentary on this Torah passage reads, “Ideals can prove more effective barriers than metal walls.” So if I see the Roses, conjoined into a boundary, and call them perfect, all the barbed wiring in the world couldn’t do a better job of keeping me exactly where I am.

Shadow on Roses

My fence has a lot of gaps

Exactly Where I Am

My cousin, B, fourteen years old, his yarmulke tilted from Purim pleasures, brings my dad the salt-shaker as soon as we arrive from the airport.  Melach! He says, handing it to my dad as we are shuttled to the table, where we will spend most of the ten days that follow.  They remember everything about us from last time, four years ago: our strange tastes and predilections, our excess use of salt, my twisted relationship to tea, my mother’s jogging routines.  There is a rumor that I only eat vegetables.  B hovers over my dad, watching him salt everything on his plate, amused.  When my dad puts down the shaker, he hands it right back to him, gestures at the food, as if one should be able to see the salt like a film of snow.  Then B beckons for his drunken brother-in-law to pass the wine, turns the bottle of Ultra-Kosher Cabernet upside-down, draining it into a plastic cup so flimsy it is almost saran wrap.  Two drops fall out: “L’Chaim” he says,  “You must drink it all at once, and get drunk.”  He looks in his dictionary, whose pages have been well-thumbed.  The word he is looking for is “necessary.”

Where the action happens

Clean Pate and Clean Plate

In the mornings, my cousins, fairly self-sufficient from a young age, crack eggs into a plastic cup and fry them in the black, worn skillet.  Eggs and sesame challah and the immediacy of God: a breakfast for Moses’ champions.  Everyone in that house functions on a different time zone.  My Aunt, who bore ten babies and miscarried one, has been an insomniac for over twenty-five years—first because I was always nursing someone, and then because I’m just crazy, she explains with a smile. And then I had to learn how to walk again after each baby. She loves the house and being at home.  Moreso, she loves the concept and practice of a simple home that is as infinitely elastic as the human gene pool.  Each baby was a new rose. Everything she describes she transforms into a miracle.

Generating the generations

Baby and baby of baby

We all have to pick, build and tear down our own fences.  The absence of fence is not necessarily freedom.  Some fences are invisible, agreed to by the subtle mind and therefore unchallenged.  Some fences are half-falling down and poorly maintained—staked sloppily enough that one trips over them from time to time, and so knows they are there.  How powerless any one being truly is, my Uncle says, with a hand-gesture that indicates in this predicament only the creator has our water-wings.  But this is where we differ; I think a person—any person– is the most powerful thing there is.

A Weepy Wall

The buckets in the holy square

Washing is no secret


At the Kotel ha-Ma-aravi, the Wailing Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, prayers are scrawled on pieces of scrap paper and stuffed into the cracks in the stone.  Passing notes to God: Pssssssst!  It was a wet and cold day when we visited, which made crying superfluous.  I had to wrap my scarf around my head and wear two jackets, but still the damp weather got into my bones like a ghost new at haunting and overexcited to do so.

Prayers at the frontline

Read my mind

Jews from all over the world converge upon this remnant, where Shekinah has lodged itself, like a piece of popcorn in a molar, since the destruction of the 2nd temple.  The wall is unremarkable—actually an outer wall of the temple proper.  Poor King Solomon, who tried to build G-d a suitable house, not realizing that G-d is more of a couch-surfer, later got distracted by his squadron of foreign wives.  Desire concretized into its own inner idol, which no Nebuchadnezzar could conflagrate.   (It may be the good luck endemic in this architecture that made me spell “Nebuchadnezzar” correctly on the first try. O.K.—the second try).

How many times a day or week did the groundskeepers clear out those crumpled requests?  Some of the papers were wedged deeply into the gaps in the masonry; something thin and sharp, like a dentist’s tool, would be needed to retrieve them.  Perhaps whoever maintained the wall also read the prayers personally, purveyors of secrets—that or threw them in the trash. It was a job I wanted, unionized or not.   Somewhere, there must be a garbage bin allocated specifically for expired pleas.  Or, worse: a recycling truck. This purse is made entirely from re-used scraps of prayer; proceeds from this purse go to help those whose prayers were not answered because they were never read. 

Prayers answered

My tribe sees the sun

You cannot turn your back on the wall as you depart the square—or you can, but that’s like letting your toddler oversee the stir-frying.  You keep the wall in your line of sight as you slowly back up.  Something like this is also the protocol for departing a temple in Asia without breaking gaze with the Buddha, and for encountering a wild animal.  Of all the ways to die, being eaten alive might be the most primordial.  The wall, however, does not harm you, should you turn away; but it notes your half-heartedness and, as is done for a student caught cheating on an exam, lops off some points on your celestial report card.  Best to keep your intent fixed—to maintain your prayer in your line of sight until it blends with the bricks and mortar and is indistinguishable from the structure itself.  Nothing special.

One does not need to visit such a real wall with great frequency; the wall(s) of the mind, of things longed for but not obtained, usually suffices.   I have wedged so many notes in the cracks of this mental edifice—notes from me to myself.  Some of them sit there still.  Some of them fall out when I breathe deeply.  Some of them have gone through (!) to the little Guru, a diminished God with a stenographer’s pad sitting inside my pituitary gland beneath a parasol, to protect her from the occasional monsoon of hormones.

Once or twice in a lifetime, if you’re lucky, God decides to check betweens two rocks and, good-humored, perhaps because the Magnolias are in bloom, and the wild spray of pink abounds, answers exactly.

Candles in the Holy Sepulchre

But do you speak the language of fire?

Masada

We watch an extraordinary moon rise over the Dead Sea, from the Balcony of a hostel, where a fellow traveler tells me about excursions on his family bicycle as a teen.  He would take his bike and go as far as he could go in any direction, wait, and then, long after school hours, return home.  He drinks an Israeli beer and looks at the commanding Moon as it crosses and then takes over the horizon.   In his mind, I think, he’s riding his bicycle towards outer space, and there is no reason to ever turn around.  Behind us, Mt. Masada—a hiccup of a mountain— looms, topped off with the remains of a BC-style Jewish fortress community. Everyone at the hostel is staying there with the intention of summiting it, either on foot or by tram.

Morning unbroken over dead sea

Taster

My mother, father, sister and I hike the mountain in at the edge of morning, after all four of us lie in our narrow, mildewed bunk beds in the hostel dormitory, sleeplessly blinking into the night air, the mosquitoes playing eenie-meenie-miney-moe.  You know something is going to dawn.  There is a certain ambition involved in hiking a holy site—the expectation that it will be hard, that you will work to summit, that you will understand that the reward, for the faithful, was to be that much closer to the hemline of God’s fancy-shmancy white shmata.  As we hike, to our left, the moon creeps down behind the plateau while the Sun comes out over Jordan and the Dead Sea begins to blue.  The Dead Sea is the lowest point in the world.  God’s hole-in-one: where concentration of salt in the water separating Israel and Jordan keeps the great ball of fire from sinking.

Laying down the law

Even though we begin before five a.m., there are two busloads of Teenagers ahead of us on the trail: Birthright Israel trips in which a participant not only must ride a chartered vehicle all over the nation, but undergo physical challenges with The Tribe.  One asthmatic teenager, checking to see if her iPhone gets reception on the ascent, sits down on one of the steps cut into the mountain.  Je-sus!  She says dramatically to her friend.  I’m not going to make it, this is sooooooooo hard.  Her friend is chewing gum vigorously.  She sits down too, chews even harder, like she’s storing mastication power for some later use.  They smooth their hair, then one another’s, religiously.  A bus ride is rough on the coif.

At the top of Masada, where a well-preserved fort community still has enough of its foundation in tact that the imagination can play architect with the raw matter, the Sun blasts over the buttes and cliffs and the breeze picks up.  One can imagine the Jews hording water and wheat and whatever else was needed for survival.  The tour guides begin to orient their students to the facts; one guide, who tells his bunch from the outset they are going to do and learn everything faster than all the other groups declares as a lone black bird cuts through the open air; “the Romans are just like F-in McDonalds…they do the same thing everywhere.”

Everywhere.  The trails marking the Roman siege efforts are still imprinted in the rolling desert.  You can practically feel the Latin profanity, uttered by soldiers decades ago, wafting up from the rubble, where they waited under the swash-buckling Orion for enough morning light to see the way to empire.

Buttes off Masada

Eyecandy for the Romans

Bending

It’s still the quiet part of the morning; only my Uncle is up, studying.  I slide the glass door to the front room closed, unroll my mat, and practice.  The floor is linoleum and often scattered with crumbs.  I’m doing idol-worship for sure as I bow down to the enigmatic shapes of the breath, but my Uncle, asking with a vocal wink if I’ve learned to levitate yet, lets me go for it, even in his house where sacrilege is no small potato.  The clock on the wall is a half-unrolled, gilded Torah Scroll and ticks as if trying to prove a point: time, time, time.  Long breath holds, in which I can feel my heartbeat making a racket against my ribs.   My cousin, M, sticks her head in the door when she returns from her night job in the girls’ dormitory—Yoga, or exercise?  She asks.  I shake my head.  Something. Nothing. 

Coming and Going, coming and going, my mat whispers.

She ducks out again, slides the door shut.  Conversation and prayer begin audibly in the kitchen.

I love you, I say.  I don’t know who I am talking to; my mat, is doing the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” thing, familiar from the elementary school yard.

I love you, I say again.  I’m talking to the room.  I’m talking to my family.  I’m talking to all the people that cannot hear me, to the wall, to the presence behind the Wall, to the eggshells, to the waning moon, to the air, to what’s here and what’s hereafter.

Sand, Salt, Sea, Sky

But can you find the line?

Birthiness

January 19, 2011

Birthiness

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” –MLK Jr.

inescapability

I’m more often than not in a stupefied silence on the Monday dedicated to MLK Jr.: a man who knew how to use his words, to pack them with an indomitable spirit.

That “single garment” he speaks of is our true—albeit metaphysical—receiving blanket when we come into this befuddled world.  His accuracy squeezes out of me a tiny, Monday prayer: may we have the ability to recognize what surrounds and connects us.

Speaking of.  At the crowded Food Co-op, where no one is, in fact, cooperating, I spend most of the afternoon making up a missed shift.  This involves wearing an unsexy green smock and unloading other people’s shopping baskets.   It means I get to touch a lot of vegetables.

like these european counterparts

A kid with wind-burned cheeks and messy hair holds up her would-be dinosaur and roars at the check-out worker, who pays no attention.  She digs the creature’s mouth into her dad’s butt, through his coat. RRRRRRRRRRRRRR, she exclaims, emoting for the glutivore.

Yikes, I say, you brought your dinosaur!  That thing is scary and it looks hungry!

Excuse me, says the little one.  It is not a dinosaur.  Someone left it at my door this morning.

Well, what is it then? I ask, always ready for a new fact from a young person.

Not a dinosaur, she insists.  So don’t call it a dinosaur!

Ah: to call a thing what it is is a delicate art.  She lets out a great roar, while the co-op members mostly keep their own inclination to roar quieter than persimmons.

Being Fruitful

Keats said:  I feel more and more, every day as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds.

Do you too sense the thousand realms nested inside this one or inside which this one is nested?  Winter shakes its fists, holding its mood-rings up to the dim light, and the realms knock into one another like Matryoshka dolls.

In the center of the dolls, in the center of the realms, is the tiniest, carved from a single piece of wood, which cannot be opened further: an amaranthine infant, eternally fresh.

It Ends with a P

My goddaughter, M, sneaks into the guestroom just before dawn.  I have a candle lit, as I have already done a little practice in the throaty dark, and awaited the interruption of her bare feet and four-year old pajama’d squint.

M stands in the doorway with one hand on the knob.  She’s all business:

Can we do what we do when I get in bed with my Mommy and my Daddy in the morning? She’s at the age and height where her eyes are level with most doorknobs, and so everything is an opening.

Of course, I say.  What’s that? I pull her into the room.

Pretend that I’m being born. M is precise, as if tracking a blueprint for play in her mental toy box. I’m in Mommy’s tummy and then I come out.

from the cover of BIRTHING FROM WITHIN. a ladder i long to climb.

We climb onto the futon agreeably to embark on the adventure of birth.

Why do you have a candle? She asks.

To prepare for your birth, I tell her.  And because it is so nice and cozy.

O, she gives an appreciative nod.

She doesn’t know that I’m a parturition junkie, always, somewhere, in a fetal state of mind.  Is it the bursting forth? So, do you want to get under the covers in a little ball and we can pretend you’re in Mommy’s belly?

Yes, she say, as royally as Marie Antoinette accepting Louis’ giddy, misguided proposal.

Do you want me to show you what we did when you were in Mommy’s belly?

What did you do? She says from under the covers.  To feign a time when you only half-existed is—apparently—instantly exhilarating.  She’s already drunk from spelunking in the womb.

We talked to you, I say, just like this. I put my mouth close to the curve of her back and call: Come on out, little baby, it’s the end of August, we’re ready to meet you, come see us out here in the world!

She giggles. I feel her belly shake through the connective tissue of the sheets and blankets.  O.K. M agrees, much more quickly than she did before labor, her voice muffled by the bedding. I’ll come out now!

Your Mommy pushed and pushed you out, I tell her.  Mommies work very, very hard to help babies come out.  And babies work really hard too.  Everyone is excited.

She nods as her head slips through the invisible cervix, as if this was all very obvious.

dilating post facto

We talk about her first hours in our company in the hospital room, while Ernesto the Hurricane spat rain all over the city and pawed at the trees. I run an APGAR test on her, which she passes with flying colors: but her grip is the grip of one who is already familiar with the world, and its sometimes-partings, and the slightest flavors of uncertainty.

M leaves no self-stone unturned, inquiring about what we did on her first night in the hospital (um, slept?), when had grandpa arrived, how babies know how to eat.  We make it all the way through her first months of life in about ten minutes, as dawn is showing some muscle between the slats of the lowered blinds.  Lots of diaper changes happen lickety-split, with no fuss and no mobiles offering their rotating solace.

When you were a baby, sometimes it was difficult for you to poo. I tell her. So we helped you by rubbing your belly just like this. I make gentle circles on her tummy with three fingers.  Her gaze rolls to the right, where memories of babyhood live behind her ear like a barrette, the deep temporal zone.

Her little eyes light up with digestive glee.  You squirmed a lot, I say.  But when you could finally poo, you felt better.

Can I ask you something? She wants to know, with all the openness of a tabula rasa.

I prepare myself for a whopper while she contemplates her budding question—Where do babies come from?  Why do people die?  Why is there a hair on your chin, are you turning into a man?

Instead, she asks: Why do you say ‘poo’ instead of ‘poop’?

O, I reply, caught off guard, sure we were about to veer into the realm of the kinks in the mortal coil.  Well, they are really the same thing.  Sometimes I forget the ‘p.’  It’s like a nickname.

A fecal one?

Well, can you just say ‘poop’? She requests, solemn eyes like synchronized full moons.

Of course, I say.  But if I forget, I need you to correct me.

O.K., she says.  POOP.

Since life must go on, we go on.

allies in continuance

Going On

Before this year, I’ve had an allergic hatred to this season, where you can feel extinction in your bones like a stone in congee: inarguable and hard.

windowscapes

If that picture isn’t proof then…

But now, I’m making it my business to practice absolute loving-kindness towards winter.  When I can do this successfully, a kind of meteorological metta, I notice that winter is not so bad at all.   And since weather, like other humans, is a complex thing ultimately out of your own control, to extend goodwill towards an unbearable season bears fruit.  Strange fruit.

Look: there is ample light behind the clouds.  Sure, it has to push through a bunch of gray to be counted in the census.  But.

I return from the Park, where I am gradually teaching myself to jog by asking, “What would Gandhi do if the End of Suffering were just one lamp-post further?”

Keep going.

Sweat beads roll beneath my layers.  The Buddha-fairies in the shrubs chuckle: Dude, End of what?  The Four Noble Truths pull on their cross-trainers with arch supports and their maroon, nylon track-suits.  They jog beside me with perfect form and their shoe-laces, unlike mine, never, ever come untied.  The park yawns.

Dusk.  Park Slope families are dragging sleds back to their houses for the dinner hour.  The sound of plastic over salted sidewalks. The kids, by and large, are trudging dramatically.

Approaching me on the street is a man in full snow gear, his head covered in double hoods.  On one side of his chest, a tiny baby is prone, protected from the weather by a tan onesie made of animal hide and pelt.  The man is stepping so softly along the sidewalk, as if each fat snow boot is asking the ground for permission before its tread touches down.  Not to wake the baby. The baby rests the way only a held creature can.

To be held like that.

a lap as big as a mind