Archive for December, 2014
I lie on my belly on the asphalt sidewalk. It feels cold, even through my down jacket, but the pond has frozen overnight into such beautiful swirls and filigrees of ice, and the morning sun is skimming the frosty patterns in a way I cannot resist. And so I lie down to get a good look. This is a benefit to being older. When I was younger, I was stupidly self-conscious. I’d have worried about what a passerby might have thought, how dumb I’d look. But now I’m at that wonderful age, an age I am trying (when not terrified) to appreciate. Middle age.
I don’t care anymore what people think when I’m taking my daily photos. I contort to get the right angle, I twirl to get motion effects, I regularly lie down on sidewalks if the shot requires it. Luckily, I’m not old enough yet that getting up again is hard. Though I’ll admit my knees groaned in the cold today, and hey—who am I kidding? Odds are good that I’m past the middle, maybe well past.
The clock that runs like a crazy squirrel in my head sometimes runs away with me. I count down backwards. It’s less than 10 months until I hit the age my father was when he died. Or, more hopefully, in thirteen years and eleven months, I’ll hit the age my mother was, when she succumbed. Or it could be tomorrow.
I count the other way, too, to counteract the gloomy final ball-drop thoughts.
Lying on the freezing cold sidewalk, studying the tamarack frond suspended near the icy edge of Burnet Pond, I think of how life’s edges are always so sweet, and how maybe instead of thinking of being in the middle, it’s better to live at the edge, in a place of wonder and appreciation. I’ve been to the edge. If I focus that direction, it all comes into sharp focus. Every new season, every morning’s perfect slant of light, every shared smile, every ached-for kiss — fills me with light.
Two years and eight months ago, my light nearly went out for good, and just a stone’s throw from this pond.
I rise up from the sidewalk and stretch my cold legs, remembering. As I take one last shot, my iPhone dies in my hand. Right then, the light in the treetops across the pond flashes, catches fire—the morning sun is reflecting off the top-floor windows in the tower at Good Samaritan, just over the hill. I know from memory that the light is streaming through the wall of plate glass at the end of the hallway on the Cardiac Telemetry unit, where I stood not so long ago, wired up and monitored, gazing down at the greening canopy of Burnet Woods.
The day I didn’t die, but might have. Every sunrise since has been a bonus. Even so, frozen within me are ancient worries, hard-wired worries about death. But I’m alive. I try to stay right here on the edge, feeling this sliver of now.
Now. Here, and alive.
On Christmas, I give Annalee flowers, and she tells me how
her friend’s husband shot himself, how she found his body—
she tells me how it looked, but I won’t say
At the nursing home, Jo Marie tells me her son doesn’t visit anymore
her eyes shine like marbles when she says
he plays piano, he sings, like a bird—but he won’t come to see her
Later I’m walking home alone, singing, and the sky swallows me
like I’m a lost bird, like I’m Jo Marie’s son, singing but no one can hear
I fly away into dark blue
deeper and wetter than Lake Michigan on a summer Sunday;
I’m sucked up into blue, lost in blue, blue is rippling in the wind
silky blue sky like a scarf in the breeze, tight around my neck
I can’t sing anymore, it’s so tight, but I keep flying, can’t stop,
wondering how high, until I escape the world—escape myself?
How high until I become something else
become an arrow flying straight, flying true, into blue—
graceful, locked on a path, at last—a path, at last—
a point, a target, an aim, a place to rest
I’m flailing, trying to fly through this wobbly altitude
the flowers and the bread, delivered; but me? I feel weightless, unheld—
Even gravity has slipped away
Feel the golden light, he said
and I felt it, spilling over me
golden as sunlight through the honeybear
on the kitchen windowsill on a bright
You are held, he said. Let yourself go.
I let go—
sink into the waiting arms
of my mother, who sinks into warm earth
pulling me close, pulling me in
I go, go, go — into an opening
that yawns wide until I am twelve,
and I smell the honeysuckle air
tickling goosebumps along my
freckled arms out behind the white barn
weedy lawn and cemetery patch
Queen Anne’s lacy heads nodding in the wind,
corn stalks sighing in unison, I am there now
stretched across red plaid, watching the terns
high above me, on their way to the sea
Howler monkeys howl
sing lonesome songs in the rain—
carry me away
Now it’s time to let go of anything that
does not serve you, she says
I sink into the stretch
Breathe in peace
Breathe out pain
Harp music: a lullaby melody
Hush a bye, don’t you cry…
I hear my long-ago self crooning,
round baby latched to my breast
Blacks and bays, dapples and grays
All the pretty little horses
When you wake, we’ll have cake…
Oh, I feel such an ache
Joy and despair, inseparable twins
Brightness paired with brackish dark
Time to curl up, like a fetus
a reminder, she says, that we can always
Anew floods me. It’s high tide in Ohio
deep-etched patterns melt as awareness swells,
crests—suddenly, I taste salt
It is the last day of Autumn, a cold, thick-oatmeal gray day, and finally: I put on my rubber boots, and I’m raking leaves. It’s the first time since mid-October that the sleeping leaves have been disturbed, and I quickly realize it’s a bigger job than I thought it would be.
I live on a beautiful street in a center-ring suburb, one of my city’s first suburbs, with century homes and century trees—both the houses and the trees are big and sturdy. Maples, oaks, sycamores, beeches, mulberries, pears—their leaves fell all fall, layering up, narrowing the front walk until suddenly it was just a forest footpath. The decaying leaves built up along the edges of the walk, damply clinging and narrowing it like plaque in an old artery.
So I rake, scrape, pile and gather leaves up on an old blue tarp. Pile, lift, carry down the drive way and across the backyard, heave-ho up over the fence, letting the leaves cascade into the ravine. The heaviest clumps of wet leaf mold settle in the folds of the tarp, reforming into a mass with heft, like a body. I know now how it feels to lift and dump a body.
Over and over, I rake and repeat, dumping body after body into the grave of the old stream that used to run through here. All the while, I play a Patty Griffin song in my head. The song is “Making Pies,” but I have reworked it to suit my task.
You could cry or die
Or just rake leaves all day.
I’m raking leaves
This song makes me smile, on this, the nearly darkest day of the year. I can’t carry a tune, but I’m singing aloud because it feels good. (And also because no one else is outdoors! The neighbors all use lawn services, and I’m sure they will be thrilled to see I’ve finally decided to reclaim my yard from the wild woodland drifts.)
It strikes me, on this shadow-less day that is soft-lit and diffused, that there have been brighter days when I’ve been unable to see the very sharp shadows right in front of me. The shadows that are part of me, and of all of us. I was afraid of my own shadows, my long, looming shadow side that I now know is there to help me understand the light.
What joy there is in sharing darkness, in holding it up instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. I tried that—‘thinking positive thoughts’— and while I’m all for gratitude journals and happiness projects, I now see that you can’t dump the shadows like bodies. You need to hold their hands and embrace them and honor their existence. And then be grateful for their lessons.
I am so grateful for every beloved fellow traveler, my dear friends, both new and old, who showed me their shadows, and gently helped me see that mine are just part of me, and nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to run from. I thought pain was something I could or should try to skirt. Your shared darkness brought such bright light.
Darkness is as beautiful in its way as light. It is a sharp thing, brittle and bitter and raw and rough and dark and painful as wet bark scraping your skin when you are running from things and you fall into arms waiting to catch you, and you feel held, and warm.
That’s when you see the light in its brightest form: when you are so cold your teeth are chattering and tears are freezing on your cheeks and you are enfolded in a hug that feels warm, like a blanket straight from the dryer, wrapped around you, and you take a breath, and know you will be okay.
Even when the arms that hold you are your own scraped-up arms, and even on the second-darkest day of the year.
A new poem of mine is up over at everywritersresource.com.
I am grateful to my amazing friends who patiently listen and give me a safe place to begin to find my voice. I appreciate everyone who takes the time to stop here on my blog now and then. It is such a gift to be heard. Without your encouragement I would be lost, or at least a little more lost than I generally am!
Oh, darkest secret, deepest fear:
I’m afraid I’ll never see the stars
Per aspera ad astra
A little prayer
Warm-breath whispered in my ear
By the blind innocent within
Who believes in light she cannot see
I don’t know how I stayed away from the water so long. A (very) minor surgery interrupted my habit of swimming 50 or so laps in an indoor pool, a half-hour meditation for me, where I immerse myself, literally, in a flow of stroking, kicking, turning, pushing off, all the while counting out the laps over and over.
I swim as hard as I can. I am not a particularly fast swimmer, but I swim steadfastly. Speed is not the point. I concentrate on feeling my body in the water, on form, on breathing, on the dreamy beauty of the watery blue beneath me, on the mosaic-tiled black stripe I follow back and forth, back and forth.
Even so, stray thoughts inevitably bubble up, little silvery bursts, like my underwater exhalations.
They say when you are drowning your life flashes before you. I’m not drowning, but life has had its flooding moments lately. Last night as I pushed hard off the wall of the pool, the things I once was certain of flashed through me, more like a current of feeling than a vision, beginning with the childhood certainty that my mother would always be there to love me.
Certainty is an illusion, yet we think sometimes—most times—that illusion is truth. These illusionary truths, these certainties we cling to, like life preservers on a choppy sea, are the very illusions that will one day have us gasping for air, trying not to drown.
The last lap brought it home. Certainty is an illusion; Illusion is truth—So nothing’s true? I buried this tired and hopeless thought. I slept hard, and woke feeling fragile.
Then this morning, I heard a line from one of Gregory Orr’s poems, and I dove into some of his poetry and these stanzas floated up:
Grief will come to you.
Grip and cling all you want,
It makes no difference.
Catastrophe? It’s just waiting to happen.
Loss? You can be certain of it.
Flow and swirl of the world.
Carried along as if by a dark current.
All you can do is keep swimming;
All you can do is keep singing.
And somehow these words comforted me, and so to my swimming-mind puzzle there is now a hopeful ending (thank you, Gregory Orr):
Certainty is an illusion; Illusion is truth.
All you can do is keep swimming; All you can do is keep singing.
I’m not certain of hope sometimes, but I’m also not certain of hopelessness. Maybe uncertainty is truly the gift, after all? With that thought I turn, push off, keep swimming. It is just enough to make my heart softly sing as I kick and breathe my way through this watery December afternoon.
“I don’t understand,” you commented, “how is it racist?
If those kids were raised right—they wouldn’t be shot.”
Raised right, commenting friend?
I choke on my anger
but I’ll try not to judge you
I used to believe in TV news and fairy tales, too, but now
I want you to imagine reality.
Imagine it, commenting friend,
you, who probably hunt ducks or deer with
your stocky white son, tramp the countryside
waving shotguns and rifles, never imagining:
your son executed for playing with a pellet gun
Imagine it, commenting friend,
imagine your son, gunned down, then framed for his own murder
imagine your daughter, trying to save her little brother
imagine some asshole, hundreds, thousands of assholes, saying
you raised him wrong
Promise me, commenting friend
you’ll imagine your son, wide-eyed with fear, as he bleeds
turns the snow beneath him pink, then red, while his sister
who ran to save him is tackled and bound
as the officers stand, hands on hips, not even pretending to help
Imagine later, commenting friend
when you, rightfully outraged, sick with grief
wait for justice
surely this time, this time—an indictment? It’s all on video!
He was just twelve, playing alone—surely this time, this time?
Tell me now, commenting friend
Do you still think it’s not a race thing?
I’d rather reach your heart and change your mind
than leave you untouched while children are shot and left to die.
I bleed out, listening to you who was “raised right.”
3/2/15: This is a second draft of a poem originally published 12/6/14. It is quite different from draft one, and I think it says what I want to say more accurately.
Tamir Rice was playing with a pellet gun on a Cleveland, Ohio playground when someone called the police. The caller told 911 that the gun was “probably fake.” Surveillance video released by the police shows the officers’ car pulling up right next to the boy, and shows an officer shooting Tamir in the stomach within seconds of pulling up. Tamir was 12.
Officer Loehmann, the shooter, was not indicted.