Friends, Letting Go, Love, Relationships

Fragmentary

rocky shore onolan

In 2017, my workplace started offering us bereavement leave. Two days per year. I’ve barely noticed it in my benefit package, let alone taken it. With an active tween and a couple of fit and overscheduled parents, it didn’t cross my mind that I would need to use those two days.

Or that those two days wouldn’t come close to covering the need.

Continue reading “Fragmentary”

Children, Growing Up, Love

Overboard

Slow-Swinging Sea
He stirs as I tiptoe past. It was the quietest of midnight bathroom visits, but sensing proximity, he surfaces. The butterfly nightlight gilds the unfurling comma of his body. He mumbles and I bend down close. Is this just a ripple as he passes beneath or is it a call up to his divemaster in the waking world?

“I had a nightmare.” A moan chokes the almost-whisper, tears bubble under the almost-plea. He asks still sometimes. More frequently now, he turns into himself and finds uneasy comfort in his approaching PCS.

He reaches for me from the small bed we’ve tucked into a nook in my room. For one night, this night, he is here. I must remember what I so easily forget: Tonight is the only night.

The only guarantee is this.

When does it go? Does the wind change, do we get any warning at all? The story has its own arc and rarely does it show mercy to the players.

Our neighbor died last week. Every day, he walked his goofy dog named Mulligan. Every day, he beamed out a smile. So many of us here lock our gazes on the ground as we stride headlong across the face of the day, but he spared a moment for a hello.

We rode the bus together to the metro in the mornings. This summer, along with his tattooed son, intermittent daughter-in-law, and 5-year-old grandson, he went camping in Minnesota. We rode together then too, taking bus to metro, the clan lugging duffel bags and airline tickets. He came back with sunburned cheeks.

The tattooed son walks Mulligan now. He smiles and says hello just like his dad did. Mulligan wags and sniffs and strains at his leash, doing the same.

In the great green room, there was a telephone, and a red balloon.

When was the last time we read aloud the book we used to know by heart? Who can call up the final Sweet Baby James?

Tonight is the only night.

Tomorrow, my boy will sleep in another place. Behind a closed door, in a dorm room, alongside his troubled lover. He will rest on the shore of the cove he’s found following his own songlines. He’ll plunge into caves that crack open in his private sea floor. He’ll battle the Leviathan that has fed on his leaked blood and whispers.

I sit down on the carpet next to him. Our dog is curled into a ball on a tattered wool blanket on the other side of me. She is a soft pulse, a shuddering exhale. I stroke my son’s hair, its tangled gold, its damp heat. He sighs. Then he touches my arm and pulls it down across his middle. Turning, he tucks me in under him, extending my reach, strapping my slender weight across him like a harness. I lay may cheek against the warm place his head left on the pillow. His discarded breath is my oxygen. His scent, my surf.

Soon he is rhythm and release. When his grip relaxes, I plant a kiss his slack cheek then roll away.

It is deep night and I am so very tired.

I fall into the passing current of sleep, drafting in the slipstream of my son’s swift descent.

Image credit: Asleep in the Arms of the Slow-Swinging Sea by Ruby Levick

Divorce, Growing Up, Things I Can

63. Things I Can Recite: Alas, Poor Yorick

denmark-girl-at-kronborg-castle-garrisonsIt’s July 9th and raining again. My former father-in-law sends me photos of my son at the beach on an island in Lake Michigan. Bug is scrabbling on the shore near his two cousins. They are all turned away from each other, each bent over a single small universe of sand. The girls are 12 and 10 now. I held them when they were babies. They were my nieces before. Now they are just someone else’s children.

Sorrow again.

Or rather, sorrow as always.

In Pacific Heights, the 1990 thriller that put even the most liberal of us squarely on the side of monied landlords, a happy couple invites the dude to move in. He does, and proceeds to lay waste to an entire world one light fixture at a time.

This sorrow here with me? He is my tenant from hell. It is hard to believe he once so completely charmed me, but he must have.

Back when the pages of my 8th-grade diary needed an indigo flourish, he came oozing up from the spiral binding and began scoring my lines with crenelations. He had callouses and clean fingernails, serving up a Darcy-Heathcliff cocktail with a twist of Bond. It took a few years and a semester of college English Lit to peel back the pinstripes. He was the Danish prince all along and stopped bothering to claim otherwise. Now he’s as indelible as he is unmistakable, moping around the crumbling grounds in a state of masturbatory melancholy that borders on solipsism.

It’s too late to eject him.

I’m too mortgaged to try.

What came before? I see a picture of myself at 10 or 12 on a beach in New Jersey. The snapshot catches me mid-leap in the surf, a dragonfly in amber. Water arcs from the bucket in my hand and my friend shrieks. Her note twinges the air, humming across years like wings. We are neon streaks, brown limbs, airborne, foam.

I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

The faithful prince catches me again and twines my feet in those calligraphic lines. He promises me Elsinore and all her ghosts, as if such an offer holds any appeal. I climb the stone steps still trailing silver thread, making my way to the keep. A trap door opens in the floor and I follow the stairs as they spiral down and away. Back to apotheca. To kitchen. To dungeon. I trace the walls again, again, walls unbroken by portculis or bridge.

I remember windows when he lets me.

Sorrow. My voice. My lodger.

My common-law spouse.

The shape of the skull on my shoulders, the heft of it in my hand.

 

Photo credit: Sisse Brimberg & Cotton Coulson, Keenpress for National Geographic

Change, Poetry

Dead Ringer

The ting a single note was key
against coin, a passing
pocket, the handyman pausing to light
the corridor after a week
of burnt filament
and shadow. It was not
the dog turning
a corner. Of course
I look up anyway
because it is easier to recall
than to forget
her and easier still to forget
that recollection
is all I have left.
The last time tag tinged collar
was the last time.
I will get used to this
too soon. I will fail to catch
the first moment
that note chimes
and I don’t look up
anymore.
 

Uncategorized

Who Never Grew Up

Memory is a cruel mistress
Who comes bearing the old bones
You buried in a corner of the yard.
She demands proper rites, a recognition
Of the sacred refuse.
She makes a reliquary of your shame,
Polishes it to catch the light.
 
Memory is a puppeteer
Twining her limbs around the skeleton
And shrouding it in flesh as if
New before returning the departed one to
Your embrace
Where you can feel the mass
Pressing again
And again
Against your living heart.
She pulls the string
At its back to play a phrase you know,
As if vibrations from a throat to your ears
As if real
(Was that his voice in the corridor?)
 
Is it any wonder we believe in ghosts?
 
Nimble is the hand of memory,
Steering the doll’s feathered fingers
To trace the arch of your lips,
Willing you to hunger
Then feeding you on what’s left
When the thread frays:
Colored light
And air,
The feast of lost boys.

Friends, Poetry

Good People: An Elegy for Chris

He did not grow out of the cultivated earth of a literary tradition. He was Texas dirt, sunburnt and scarred. He banged into poetry sometime in his twenties and instead of slinking back and skittering away, he grafted it onto his body and sprouted there, all new.
 
He was not a particularly good writer when I met him. It did not matter. He drove his pen into the page, hammered those rough words out on a stage, and decided to be a poet. Bukowski and Ginsberg and Ferlighetti elbowed out the last of the complacency. He wrote of dark stink and revolution. He riffed off the speeches of great leaders with only a vague notion about how to organize a movement. Something more, something growling, pulsed through him, throbbing, feeding his voice.
 
He was so young.
 
We wrote together. In Dallas, on the cracked vinyl of diner booths, we wrote and wrote and wrote. One of us would suggest a prompt. We would write frantically for 10 minutes, read aloud without commenting, then write for 12, read aloud, write for 20. We could pass hours this way, whole lifetimes, galaxies dying off and starting again, no sense anymore of where one story birthed the next, one theme then the next, the rhythm of impulse moving in synchronicity over lukewarm Dr. Pepper and tattered pages.
 
For three months, maybe four, we were this toothed pair, fighting about everything and nothing. On Friday nights well past bedtime, we drove down I-75 to the slam in Deep Ellum at the Blind Lemon next to the auto glass dealer. We competed against our own team-mates and our own demon for the coveted perfect 30. He would get up there and hiss and hum his fury for that cash prize, barely enough to pay for two drinks. On Tuesdays, we went to Insomnia and took the mic just for the hell of it. On Sunday afternoons, we holed up in a windowless bar and team-wrote with a scruffy menagerie of rockers and poets and screenplay writers under a low shroud of smoke.
 
He was up for anything. He jumped at the chance to walk through the Dallas Museum of Art. He would pull over at a techno club well past midnight to dance among the goth teens. When his car was towed, we passed two hours in line at the flickering mausoleum of the impound lot, coming up with characters and laughing with our whole bellies. He discovered German barbecue places off the interstate, tried alligator tail at the cajun place, and introduced me to a proper Texas cheeseburger. We drove to Austin and crashed on a friend’s couch. He meandered wide-eyed through the State House, a place he had never visited in the lost years. He tracked down his state representative to ask her about road projects in poor communities.
 
I loved him a little and he loved me wild. His run-down pad off Walnut Hill had posters of Limp Bizkit on the wall and a full Nintendo game system he could barely afford. He had a twin bed. A sour couch. No savings. No degree. No plan. No pedigree.
 
But on that day my grandmother had the ladies over for bridge and he swung by to pick me up, he tapped some source of sugared light I had only just begun to sense.  Never has a group of octogenarians so quickly puddled into fits of giggles.
 
He was complete already, and I didn’t know it. Neither did he.
 
He wanted to plan Big Things. Community-wide bilingual free poetry shows. Demonstrations in the park for funding for arts in the schools. He was firing on all cylinders with no direction of travel.
 
Except for one: Poetry.
 
He dreamed writing. He woke writing. When I urged him to slow down, to read, the practice the craft, I could see his jaw tense with the effort. He did not want to measure his pace. He did, though, because all suggestions were fair game.  Then he would return to just writing writing writing. He got better and better.
 
He treated every other uncertain artist exactly as he treated his own self. “Get up there. You’ve got something to say.” He never let anyone sit in the back and play it safe. He did not wait for perfection or an invitation. He crashed the party. He grabbed everyone within reach and carried them with him.
 
“I believe the world is beautiful,” wrote Roque Dalton. “And that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” Christopher Ya’ir Lane lived this.
 
Alas, no journey unfolds without flat tires and black smoke. Back then, a dozen years ago in the Dallas night, there were lies and drugs and there was another woman. I was leaving anyway to head back to Vermont to help a friend with a baby. So, the heat burned to embers and then ash. Sometime later, I heard that he had stumbled down the rabbit hole. The details were vague. He moved to Arizona. His siblings were involved. Who knows? I failed to reach out. Bruises, even if only to the ego, can make a heart cold.
 
I found him again virtually, years later after I was gone and back and gone again a few times around. He had his own beautiful family. A wife, a baby in his arms, then another. In the intervening decade, he had not stopped writing.
 
What did I say? He was not a good writer?
 
Now I have to admit that I didn’t understand the first thing about good writing. Chris had something to teach me I am only just now starting to wrap my mind around. Good is only this:
 
Doing it.
 
Just doing it, over and over, then doing it some more. He did not stop, from what I can tell, for longer than half a breath during that time. He had become a great poet. And what’s more, he had let that fire and fury carry him into projects that would make the Espada and Angeolou and even Roque Dalton proud. He put together youth slams. He became an organizer for the Alzheimer’s poetry project. He bridged the gap between rural and urban artists. He wrote and wrote, but he did not just do it from the back of the cave. He was a people’s poet. He shared, learned to make things happen, turned that charm into currency that could open the door to the ones for whom a closed door, or no door, is standard fare.
 
Christopher Ya’ir Lane was a far better writer and man than I gave him credit for. He never stopped. I wish I had known him later, that I had gotten over the small peevishness of our parting and welcomed him as a friend and as the gifted teacher he became. That is my great regret. But I am thankful that he inhabits a small moment in time and a living corner of my heart.
 
It is hard to know how to honor someone when the loss is so fresh. I can only say that this man’s life work is both humbling and inspiring. He did not wait around for the world to tell him he was good enough. He simply decided to love something, to make it multiply, and to cast the seeds of it far and wide.
 
So, for Chris, who shared that burning moment with me, I make this commitment:
 
I aim to crack open my rigid perceptions about what makes a piece, a project, or a person worth consideration. I aim to be impatient, to open my throat, to have the courage to believe in ink and voice to carry the art to life even if my doubt would surely sink it. I am to urge everyone I meet to follow their own bright pulse, blow past the doubts and the critics, and burn big, and burn loud.
 
Christopher Ya’ir was the best writing companion a girl could have during a fit of Dallas fever. I am grateful he unfurled his passion in my presence and showed me how it’s done. I ache for a world without him, and my heart goes out to his two beautiful little ones and to the wife who carried him over.
 
Goodbye, Chris. Your voice is with me, splitting open now in this turned soil, reaching for my own roots and feeding me the heat I did not even know I lacked. You live forever.