I’m pleased to announce the publication of my first poetry chapbook. I hope you’ll check it out on Amazon or (better yet) at the publisher’s website, to support small business! https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/the-invisible-suitcase-by-elaine-olund/
plump smell, like baby skin, blooming
so beautiful so smooth
(everyone says so)
and I think of daisies and lilies and youth,
smooth and slippery
the sweet smooth skin holding memories in,
pressed like petals between book covers
dried papery flat, crackly as a map of a lost world:
how to find our way back when
we are all falling apart,
cell by cell,
moment by moment
going, going, gone—
still springtime’s tap pours out, keeps pouring
children smooth-skinned happy laughing cranky cries rise
on the wind near the playground
little feet wiggle in strollers pushed by vacant fathers, mothers
eyes lost in thoughts, worries
little griefs trip us, cracks in the sidewalk
all we can feel sometimes is the hard fall, smooth
stripped away scraped bloody
while above the sidewalk, a canopy of tulip trees
unfurls hundreds—no thousands—of trembles
tiny flags alive in the breeze
when falling apart,
Prompt: Hold a flower. Examine the petals, smell it. Breathe in.
Now: close your eyes, and think of a time from memory or imagination, when there were flowers. Go: write for 11 minutes.
Waiting for the sunshine
You stood in the kitchen, waiting for the sunshine.
Oh, Mama. You waited.
You waited while the tickle in your throat rattled and rattled. Every phone call, eruptions of coughing. I listened, there was nothing else I could do—and sometimes I’d cut in, “hey, I’ll call you back, how about, when you’re feeling better.”
Now I see it through a backwards lens, time is funny like that, now I’m about how old YOU were then and my daughters are the ages I was then; I was your little last bird flown. Now I know the feeling of that emptiness, that new empty-nest, and how precious those calls become. Now I can feel, all these years later, how alone you must have sometimes felt, in your small kitchen, especially that last winter, coughing, insisting, talking, waiting, insisting that you were just fine.
You couldn’t really talk, but you didn’t want to hang up. It was a tickle, the end of a long lingering cold, a cold-on-top-of-a-cold, it was nothing.
Now I see you, frozen in the amber of that long-ago cold alone kitchen. Me not so far away in miles, but twenty-something me. So busy, busy, busy. A budding Bokonist, junior capitalist, believing that being an adult meant staying on the spinning hamster wheel. And also believing that you were going to be around for years and years, Mama. You were my mother. Life without you wasn’t comprehensible, and I didn’t imagine it, wouldn’t even try.
So I believed you, about the cough being nothing.
And still you coughed. I began to notice the unendingness of it. Worry crept in. I insisted you go to the doctor, but not soon enough. You locked my worries out and I let you. I locked them up, I guess. They were scary. Where did I learn to lock up so well? From you, Mama, you who waited in your small kitchen, vinyl-tiled, traces of avocado green barely visible in the corner, a little spot you missed when you carefully painted over with eggshell cream.
The wall phone is still avocado green in the mists of my memory. The round orb of the pendulum lamp casts a golden glow over the Formica table of the past, littered with bridge hands and newspapers and you, sitting there, smiling. So warm. I wish I could climb back into that kitchen, climb back to you.
I went to a movie with a friend the other day, an art film. Over ice cream afterwards he asked me, wonderingly, did I think the movie meant that all a man really wanted was a mother? I looked into his slate-gray eyes, and I thought of you, Mama.
No, I thought. It’s not just men who want that.
I thought of that horrible Psychology textbook photo, of the poor little monkey in the experiment who could choose, while starving, between a wire-framed “mother” equipped with milk and a nipple, or a fur-covered “mother” to cling to.
The little monkey always chose gnawing hunger and the fuzzy mama.
My friend’s sad eyes after the movie made me slide backwards through all the years. His eyes made me want to find you again, find you and fold you in my arms, to mother you, Mama. Because that is what you must’ve most wanted.
Because sometimes, life is scary, and you just want your mother.
But life is a funny circle, too. Scary and funny. In seeing how I failed you, I found you once again.
You’re here, waiting in the sunshine. Sometimes the darkness covers your shine, like a cloud. But you’re always there.
(Fastwrite from a prompt on regret).
In this one, you are standing by the old canal at Holcolm Gardens. The sun has made your hair catch fire, the sun is coating your tanned legs and long arms with a honeyed light, and for some silly reason lost to me now, you are holding up a big red box of Cheetos, holding it proudly, as if you are Carol Merrill and the box of snacks is a glistening prize that a nervous contestant is pondering.
In this one, you’ve driven back east to visit me, with a loaded Magnum 357 tucked under the front seat for company. It was the last time I would ever see you, but I didn’t know that then.
I guess you never really do know?
In this one, you are as I imagine you still are — slender and strong, tough and flexible as a zip tie. I was sure, in the way only a young person can hope to be, that somehow we’d stay best friends forever. That some how the trauma-bond of our shared childhoods and barbed wire moments of our teen years would bridge the miles, bridge the chasm growing between us, already as deep as a Colorado ravine.
In this one, I was laughing and my boyfriend was squirting lighter fluid on the grill and you were smiling, that sharp sickle-shaped smile of yours. Behind your mirrored aviators, your sky-blue eyes must have been smiling too.
In this one, I already missed you, even though your were still right there, holding the Cheetos.
(This was a fastwrite from a prompt: imagine a photograph that you have in an album or on your phone; get a picture of it in your mind, and begin with “In this one, you’re…” Write for 10 minutes.)
Another day, another prompt. Today I let my worry stone do the writing. Find something or choose someone, and let them write to you. See what happens.
Finally. I get to tell you my worries. About damn time. Our relationship, up until now, has been entirely one way.
From that moment on the chilly October morning when you stooped down and plucked me from my place in Mississauga, on the shore of mighty Lake Ontario, and tucked me into the tight pocket of your skinny jearns — I have been your captive. I have worried, too, even though I know it’s futile. Worried I’ll never see the sky again.
I long for another sight of that last sky, low clouds backlit by the sun, turning it and the shining water to silver. Silver sky, silver lake, and that smudge of Toronto on the horizon. You think I don’t know about the things of man? (or in your case, woman?) — Oh, E, I’ve been soaking you up for months now. I know everything and now you’ve let me speak. I may never stop.
You picked me, palmed me, smiling. I do fit perfectly in your hand, and your happiness that morning filled me with excitement. So at first I was swept up, pleased to be going somewhere new. You were in love, blushing love, your core worries blotted out in the gush of that. It was a little dull, absorbing your petty insecurities. Mostly I sat on your dresser, alone. You only held me when you felt lonely, and how tiresome that was.
I fell in love with you a little, though. The way you do when someone trusts you to hear their deepest fears. Still, after nearly two years, I miss sprawling in all weathers with the others who were born with me from the crumbling bluffs when winter ice thawed one spring and we all slid free to the lake shore.
Sometimes you worry about the ice melting, which makes me recall the cold years I spent, inching along, swept up in the belly of that glacier, like Jonah in the belly of a great fish.
Your pocket, though warmer, reminded me of that time.
I guess it is my fate, being swallowed and carried. I have stories of my own to tell, beyond your worries of — oh, what don’t you find to worry about? As you hold me in your left hand I soak up your troubles like the earth soaks up rain.
Yesterday, you thought back to the windy morning we met, to your spinning thoughts, to the way you couldn’t believe how beautiful the world was, the water, you thought, looked like a great silver tray polished by the cloudy sun, and the geese flew low over the calm surface. You remembered that feeling, and wondered if you could ever feel just that way again.
And I try to emit an answer into your palm. I try to tell you, no. You will never feel that way again. The woman of that day, elated, heart bursting with love and hand sweaty with worry over losing love, she is gone now.
She had to get swallowed into the darkness, like the glacier, like the belly of the whale, to discover that no matter how dark, you must stay and let the darkness be your home, accept it, know it. And trust that in three days, three months, three years, three eons — sometime, somehow, the silvery light will return. Because it never really leaves.
So you can go back, looking. You can even retrace your steps on the shore of Lake Ontario. If you do, please put me back near the crook of that inlet, the place the geese gather at dawn and sunset. Take me back, even though I cannot revisit that day, either. It is gone. All my old loves will have sunk down or washed out into the lake. But it would feel so good, to tell new friends old tales. To laugh together about worrying over flesh and blood and human failings.
Perhaps I will lie under the sky, let your many worries loose in the breeze. Do not fret, E, about growing old. Let that one go. Only worry about not growing. Your fear of infirmity is comical to a stone like me, dependent on nature to move me at all. And still — I have, over millions of years, seen much of the world. Seen beauty you cannot even imagine. Do you understand?
The world will hold you, if you just let go.
Surrender. Let go of me, of controlling things, of fearfulness. I think you are figuring it out, just a little. From the darkness, you will emerge, you already are — to find the next world you are meant to explore.
anxiety field notes, entry 1.
What you resist, persists
so, if you RESIST anxiety,
it will PERSIST?
What you resist, you bury.
What you bury gets stuck.
Some things cannot be buried.
(Most things, actually.)
Seeds can, and should be.
Flowers should not be buried, if you want to watch them bloom.
If you bury flowers they die, they rot.
Bury anger deep in a trash can like a lit butt
cover anger with an placid lid, a smooth smile, it will smolder
poison the air
you will breathe it in
it will permeate every single cell in your body.
Unburied, anger dissipates, harmless as a whiff of stinky stinky cheese
but buried—it kills love.
Speaking of love:
Love cannot be buried, kept like a secret journal in a sock drawer.
at first, confined love smells like lavender, like a sachet,
love has to grow in the light.
Love has to see the sky in the morning
see your smile in the night.
Speaking of your smile:
Longing, what of longing, my specialty?
What you resist, persists—
does this mean I should not resist the fear
of you, so warm, fading from my mind?
Or does it mean I should resist this fear,
so your smile persists forever in my heart?
Speaking of hearts:
some questions are best buried,
dark-eyed as apple seeds
planted deep in my heart
to grow as they will,
wild upstarts, bearing sweet fruit, in time.
wild and green
On my wedding day, I was filled with anxiety, mine and my mother’s.
I was wild and green in the ways of the world, though I thought a ceremony in Butler’s green garden would transform me into a more peaceful creature. I stood with my mother, waiting for my intended to arrive. I was there and not there: I firmly remember the carillons that sang and the placid old canal that drifted by, the buzzing droopy-headed zinnias and black-eyed Susans, the old-world rose bushes—all beautiful, contained, tranquil.
Carefree, not wild.
That day I’d turn into a wife, half of a unit, domestic, safe and saved.
On the outside I was transformed already, placid as the canal, sure of myself as the bees were sure of their buzzing industry. Yet I was wild inside, standing there next to my mama, a roiling mass of ancient fears.
Wild like a frightened doe, tired from running, running. Heart beating hard, danger clanging so constantly that mostly I was not even aware of it. Danger simply ran in my veins, and had for as long as I could remember.
Danger was wild in the rivers of my blood. Danger splashed in the waterfall of my heart.
I had no business getting married, but to be wild is, after all, dangerous. Plus, I was tired of being hunted. Somewhere inside I thought being caught would save me.
– – –
Deer were always an obsession for me. As a very small child, I drew deer after deer. I painted pictures of deer, read books about deer. I loved deer and wanted to be a ballerina so I could gracefully move like a deer. And disappear, like a deer.
But deer are wild things. Peaceful, except when under attack. Always wary, though. If a deer is cornered, and cannot run away, if a deer is outmatched and at the mercy of a terrible predator, she cannot hope to win by fighting. In cases like that, she will freeze.
I froze once, like a deer
I froze, like a river
I thawed and ran fast again,
like a deer
Like a rushing stream, like snowmelt
down a mountain
even when perhaps I should have paused to think
I was wild and green all my young self seemed to know
was freezing and rushing.
– – –
On my wedding day, I was young.
Younger even than my 23 years. Being frozen keeps you from growing up. So does running.
I was green. The lushness of the garden, the safe feeling I had next to my intended—gave me a sense that I was on a path. A path that might lead me out of my wildness. My scary, uncontainable wildness.
The path would rescue me from myself.
This was a sweet green notion, a kiwi of a belief, juicy and promising and bursting with seeds of hope.
What I did not know, in my greenness, was that you cannot shed your wildness like a snake sheds her skin. The wildness is inside, part of you.
I was right about the path, though.
It did lead me out, and then, decades later, landed me back in the thicket of myself, heart beating wildly, learning at last to savor the moments of life that stretch across the bones of time like supple muscles. Stretching, tightening, strengthening, and finally, letting go.
I’m still wild and green.
Older now, I have learned to listen to the wind, smell danger, believe the things my own heart tells me, and to love the wild frozen little girl-deer I carry inside. I learned that love does not rescue. Love merely holds your hand, then pushes you to grow. Self-love and every other kind of deep love pushes you to the edges of your self.
And when you grow, you risk.
One person’s sunshine is another person’s scorch.
One person’s neat-cornered bed is another person’s prison.
Sometimes you have to grow alone, in the wildness, where the deer appear and disappear to keep you company, silently.
(I wrote this from a prompt by Natalie Goldberg, “Write about when you were wild and green.”)
Broken or not?
At snack time or lunch, that was a favorite game of my daughters. One would hold up an apple slice or a Ritz cracker or shiny orange Clementine and demand of the other, “Broken or not?”
They were both pretty masterful at holding a broken cracker or piece of fruit in such a way as to camouflage its fault lines. They loved to trick each other, and trick me, too. It was so hard to tell.
Because you cannot always tell if something—or someone—is whole by merely looking, can you?
I remember in the weeks after my father died suddenly, back when I was eighteen. I’d put on lots of mascara every morning, so that I wouldn’t cry, because if I did, it would give me raccoon eyes. I didn’t want any one to know how badly I was hurting. I didn’t know what to do with it, the pain. If I started crying, I might never stop; how embarrassing that would be. No one ever taught me anything but to pretend to be okay, to deny my real feelings. It ran in the family. Schooled from birth, like Tiger Woods was with golf, I was an ace.
My dad pretended he was okay right up until he died from it. Oh, it was a heart attack that killed him, but my personal theory is that sometimes illnesses spring from—or are worsened by— the grinding stress of hiding feelings. And we are trained to hide them, for fear of being labeled ‘broken.’ Our culture demands us to be perfect parents, perfect children, perfect wives, perfect workers. To be magically ‘perfectly adjusted’ without working through grief and trauma.
I used to sometimes reflexively use the phrase, “practice makes perfect,” with my girls, mostly right about when they were supposed to do math homework or play piano or violin. They would always shoot back, “But Mom, you always say that nobody’s perfect!” And I would smile and say, of course, that’s true.
Because I’d say that, too, all the time—like when I’d drop an egg on newly mopped floor, or especially if one of them did.
Of the two old sayings, only “nobody’s perfect” rings true.
The most together-looking people can be the most broken inside. You never really know, unless you get to know someone, unless you earn their trust and confidence, and even then—they have to be open enough or broken enough to expose their hidden wounds.
Which for some people is painfully hard, or even maybe impossible without help and work.
I think the true answer to the broken or not question—as it applies to humans, not fruit or crackers— is that we’re all broken at some point, and not all breaks heal completely. Some wounds ache forever. Being gentle with each other is always a good practice. Because more of us are broken, than not.
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