Letting Go, Purpose, spirit

You Carry Your Best Song


“You’re doing your best,” they say. You nod, you shrug. Okay, sure.

Inside, you sneer.

“Your best” belongs to brighter days. Not so far off, those days, but somehow also remote. Like they belong to someone else.

Best You learned things. Made decisions snap-snap. Took on the project. Invited people into your home. Best You learned a new language, the names of trees, how to roll sushi, and the most exhilarating route through Manhattan by bike.

Continue reading “You Carry Your Best Song”

body, Choices, Learning, Poetry, spirit

Holding Pattern

Nyberg Mess of Blues

Silence a welcome respite
as the world’s tragedies carry on
without you.
It does not last, of course, this quiet as thin as the skin
of a drum.
You consider desertion
on its plastic hanger, how quick the fix.
But you ache for the succor of absolution
in its supple cloak, to have it fold around you,
ceding the demands of atonement.

Continue reading “Holding Pattern”

Home, Mindfulness, Things I Can

94. Things I Can Whisper: Become, Surrender

I do my work. I do my best to make the small decisions well, and I try not to hunger for the great things, for the deeper explanations. For I am sentenced to keep watch over this small patch of earth, to judge its miseries and tell its stories. That’s who I am.

– From The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich


Change, Letting Go

Receive the Blow

I wanted to believe in cards. Like the woven bag around my neck containing seven polished stones — one to ground each chakra — her cards might be the missing talisman. Maybe they could wash clean the deep cut of skepticism inveterate in the daughter of a biologist.

The friend I don’t remember handed me an overlarge deck and had me shuffle. We drew and placed them in the required configuration. Three down, three across, four afield. Celtic Cross. Magic needs its portal. Design is combination, a code that lets the tumblers fall.

She didn’t ask me the question I was to ask myself. A sentence of silence. Imperative. Interrogative.

Intention presses open the door.

I turned them face up.

It’s been 25 years. I recall only one card. The one in the center, the one that made the novice medium suck in her breath.

The cloaked skull, the languid bones.

From the pattern of masks and wands, my friend began to shape my story. It was a transition. An earnest wish. An unreachable other. It was the poison secret. My story was as stunning a truth as a Chinese paper fortune. As dead on as the morning’s horoscope.

When you peel back your bark and feel for gods’ whispering, when the wind breathes through your naked reed, surely you hear music.

Clairvoyance is the prerogative of the young.

Before you snap yourself clean, claim yourself free, before time’s tireless blade whittles you into fixed form, you can still be idol or masterpiece, veined with myth rather than function. You are rooted in an origin both sturdy and sweeping, that origin itself so rooted. You can still feed on light. You are held.

And so you are more free than you will ever be. More so, certainly, than later when you venture to free yourself. You are still free to choose to believe whatever you wish, even what the wise and powerful dismiss as bunk or sacrilege. You don’t have to decide wisdom. You don’t have to delineate power.

You can’t yet calculate the true cost of dissonance.

My friend came back to the bones.

In words picked from among the most tempered, she said death is not death.

Winter is the transformation that happens in stillness. She told me a version of this I can only make out through memory’s scuffed lens. I see a blanket of ice. Compulsory paralysis. Pain as insurance against motion.

She said it is necessary.

(I say, beware of the jealous wind.)

On every branch, the last leaf shivers. Clings. Each gust demands it surrender for a greater good. Death feeds the next beginning.

If you can see down, see that all you were and all you’d ever considered yourself to be blowing away, would you let go?

Or would you hold on with all your might?

You know the source needs you free. This is how cycles works. Death is not a one-way slice. The thing has to shed to live, just as you have to give over if you hope to do the same.

This is the cost of names: leaf, branch, tree, earth. We bring taxonomy. Without language and its arsenal of nets, there is only everything: Cell, thread, ember, night. Tomorrow is the light after the dark, but always yesterday exists alongside next year. Sun warms somewhere always just like sun explodes to nothing somewhere always. Hands sweep the clock face and I come to mistake the measure for the phenomenon.

I am trapped inside my name.

I resist the iced bones.

If I tip towards that death, what promise? What warmth? Only the grinding jaws of blind mealworms. Their hunger erasing history. Everything I was becomes digestion’s stink and sleep. No guarantee that mine — me, this decadent conception — will be the embryo that splits to sky come spring.

Twenty-five years in coming. The cards did not survive the passage. Neither did cookie fortunes or tiger eyes.

My hands reach for something. Anything.

I open them.

It’s the only way to fall.

Love, Relationships


What they don’t know is his wings come out at night. The leathered edge splits free of the scar zippered white across the burrow where it stays tucked in daylight hours into weeks into years. For longer than he can remember the damp fur has housed germinal flight. Something rests like brood XIX down there where the subtlest shift could mean the difference between incubation and asphyxiation.
For some, burial is only dormancy.
His need to unfurl is as pressing as that of a coiled spring wound wrong-way past its tensile capacity. The stretch never quiets and the threads never fuse even when forced immobile. They hammered beams criss-cross over hasp and hinge. They forgot what was in there.
Just because the creak of need is not discernable to the naked ear does not mean it has been stilled. Bend close enough
(I do)
and you hear it. The groan is not bone. It is not age. The creases by his eyes cloak hoods over the range. A low flame hisses at the furrowed firebreak delimiting the mouth, his cave. Stalactite teeth. Whiskers of plated beard thrum in the follicle and wait to split the skin from within. At the source the tunnel forks. A tongue thirsty for heat is pressed back waiting helical beneath his flushed neck. Up from the other corridor, fume and the hint of ignition. Somewhere, a fusebox. The plunger is cocked in a shadowed channel of his body where old leaf and stone have hidden it so well.
My fingers seek
what they claimed fell away like an umbilical stump. Perhaps they had to believe pubescent eruptions would fade into soft craters. Time alone would scour away roughness. Walking upright among the diurnal would grate off any remnant of scale. They imagined him inhabiting the rippled dune just as it poured into him and filled every crevasse. They pictured him, finally, submitting to the inevitability of that boundless desert terrain.
Except his fissures were already occupied.
Except everything has a boundary and every boundary has another everything it is holding back.
This chimera with the vocabulary of inventors (though I suspect he knows only a streak of what he is) finds no relief in sleep. Mind on fire. Minding the fire? Mining? The other half half-wakes. He cannot find comfort stretched on his back, lips falling open. The rumble deep in his lungs and lower still is too much like the first roil of contraction.
He knew what to expect. He knew their intent. He was fully two wholes when only one could live. He saw the glint of the knife before they had even divined their own actions, before they had even closed hands around hilt. They would. He prepared.
Second sight is not just the blessing of an intuitive but the birthright of a pterosaur. Like echolocation, that sister faculty of his mammal kin, it is not magic at all. It is not even a marvel, not to anyone who can conceive of the hum of momentum when its source never shows itself to sight.
Here now.
The slender strip of stars skulking at the edges of the blinds is enough for distance but not intent. I know by feel he has turned on his side. Breath and hunger. I reach. The webbing noses out against the sheet at his back. An inch then two. He lets his guard down though I would never tell him and he’d deny it if I did. The teeth of his scars unclench. As hungry as they are to tap the marrow of whatever they’ve been gripping all this time, their appetite for night’s promise is greater. He stays awake, or perhaps returns again and again to wakefulness. He watches. He keeps watch. Not with eyes and maybe not with any sense I can name though I surely recognize the tattoo of its clang against the etched walls of my own forgotten cave.
What they don’t know is that it is never too soon to knit the tears nor too late to tear back the stitches.
The creak of wing, the scratch of pteroid against the base of my skull draws my head to his shoulder and I am creeping finally into the hollows of my own eyes at the moment his tongue pushes free. Longer than any, a thickly sown field of buds seeking heat now whets itself against my jaw, my throat. Its length alone bespeaks a palate for furred flesh. It is a nocturnal thing hinting at blood and strike but this close I can tell it is as translucent as the membrane between the digits pulsing now from the trench beneath his scapulae. They hold me but reach past. At any moment, he will sense the expanse beyond the ceiling and vault up and out. Will I have a place in that ascent?
This right here is the entirety of what is promised. And even this is not guaranteed.
I release the damper and let in whole the chord of his appetite so tuned like the lost lower fifth of mine. Glossa streaks of ink and string, he sculpts the notes of a long dead language into the spells that bind my breastbone to his rib. The current he strains to catch with the first beat of his awakened reach is the one we trace onto our shared night.
It might slip. It might lift.
We fuse halves to fractions and produce a vibration to fit this tilted air.
Surfing into my own thawing dawn, I search for the stiffness in my neck, the ache, the thud of resistance I have carried for decades. It has become as familiar as the shape of my voice. Yet it is nowhere here. It has blurred into memory and even the electric pulse of recollection has skipped from its gutter and seeks a new route. All that remains of the body I suddenly inhabit is just softness upon softness. Feathers of ash rise free. The rest is burned clean.
Maybe the scars on tears on years were never there at all. The shape of those wounds was just the last generation’s abandoned husk. All this time they have been thinning. They have been giving way. They have been waiting to let me through as raw as newborn tissue unmarred and falling like water into him.

Change, Friends, Poetry

Rock Candy

Seven months pregnant at least, she drags
me to a shrieking arena jeweled in
lip gloss and taffy, stripped
lights dazzling up black panels four stories high.
He is only a doll down there,
Adonis in skinny jeans
strutting on a flash strobe stage jutting out
into the reaching damp arms of ruby-throated
pubescent hunger, baby birds one and all
wide for whatever might fall
from his ambrosial smirk

She in bubble gum pink, dizzy eyes tearing
up as they do for anything
moving even one cilia of her porous borders,
she presses over the balcony, weight
of son threatening to topple her
over to the much more merciful
end of this story

But she manages to stay
tethered to gravity and bounces in place
for omigod
whatever spoonful of sugar
she can get
which is all any of us
can hope for

From the mass of chirps and squeals
he lifts one stunned, nameless nestling
to his bridge and twines a purr around her
heart, blouse spitting buttons almost
from the impact
before he straight up kisses
the anyone who could be
me or omigod omigod
my friend in pink

She fans hot air over hotter face
with a hand not yet weighed
down by the rock
that will eventually take her
almost completely
under to a place that air has long since
vacated and left only a plundered
locker where the bones are kept

But for one glass bauble
floating somewhere up near the skin
of night
and its faithless promise,
a little curl of the child
she is
herself and to whom she is
now bound, she must reach
towards surface
no matter how tempting
the song,
that lustrous snaking siren
of surrender

Growing Up, Love

Cast Out

At the end of the first really, truly single week of my life since 2002 (that’s 11 years of men, my friends), lessons blow in gales. I can barely hear a thing. My eyes sting.
Somehow, I am still upright.
Honestly? It’s a little bit thrilling.

Anxiety is love’s greatest killer. It creates the failures. It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him but you know he will strangle you with his panic.

– Anais Nin, February 1947



Physical Education

The affliction is a sack of gravel without a strap.
It demands to be moved.
They bear it together.

He plucks the handkerchief
from his pocket and wipes his brow.
This address here is barely a footstep from where they began.

You did not give it your all.

The accusation is not spoken
aloud. It does not need to be.

He is right. She has made no headway
in urging the burden towards its destination
(where was that again?)
He says she has done nothing, that those inches
gained were his. That she has ridden free.

Her exertions are lost on him. It is all press
and no progress. She has frayed
her back, torn connective tissue, bruised bone.
Sweat is easily mistaken for tears.

Force against force.
The problem is one of physics.
She suddenly understands this.

A single choice:
air accepts her invitation. A rending
sets free the clutch of gravity.

She splits open. He loses his grip. The sack sags
and 359 other directions
of travel appear. They both tumble out to sky.

Off she drifts, loose from the pod that held the seed.
Fluff and dust. It catches a gust.
Weight is barely a memory.

Children, Love, Parenting

Happy 100 Days: 26

In the two and a half years since my husband and I split, sleep has eluded me. A night or two of peace might pop by for a brief visit before fractured restlessness moves in for an extended stay. It is relentless. Anyone who suffers from insomnia knows the agony of half-functioning (if even half) for days on end. Usually the affliction doesn’t strike someone whose life is straightforward, so the difficulty of everyday tasks is compounded by the strained cognitive and physical function of sleep deprivation.
In the past year, I can remember one deep, delicious night where slumber was down in the lowest cave, safe and silent, exactly as it should be. I still remember the stunned feeling of waking the next morning, fogged and groggy and perfectly thrilled that the sun was halfway up in the sky. A single June night over six months ago. It was that good.
The night came to me as a surprise gift on a Pennsylvania hillside after a long day on the road. Bug, Giovanni and I had packed up the Jeep and headed out in the direction of Lake Erie. We tried to make our way into Baltimore to see the ships and found ourselves foiled by crowds. To quiet Bug’s disappointed sobs, we stopped at a McDonalds instead. He was still young enough that two Happy Meals were a fair trade for tall ships.
We found a state park with a lake and a playground and a gazillion kids. It was summer. We swam and warmed in the sun, Giovanni and I taking turns keeping an eye on Bug in the brown water teeming with humans with no lifeguard on duty. It was like vacationing on the Ganges. Bug loved every second of it. We drove on, following the map to another state park with the small triangular icon. We called ahead, found out sites were available, and pulled in a little before dark.
Bug was tired and testy, I was ready to stretch, and Giovanni was focused with laser precision on putting the tent up before dark. We all tripped and sniped over each other. Bug and I fussed and eventually made our way to the bath house as much to give Giovanni room to finish as for us to clean up. When we stumbled back, the tent was up, the fire was blazing, and the camp chairs were warming in the amber glow. Giovanni’s fingers were already striking the steel strings. Wagon Wheel lifted up to the topmost branches.
Somewhere in that deepening dusk, I hear the first whipporwill of my life. We all stopped together and listened to the call, another, back again. Whip-POOR-will. The cry was as unique as my son’s sigh.
Bug and I crawled into the tent first. We read and sang by lantern light and he fell asleep pushed up against me. Giovanni came in soon after and tucked himself around me from the back. We three, a row of spoons cast on a rocky Pennsylvania hilltop, died out long before the embers from the fire.
Even though the clearing was on a slight incline covered in sharp stones, even though Giovanni and Bug both let their jaws fall open and their snores rattle the tent flaps, even though the whipporwill called well into the wee hours, sleep came and ferried me away. Nothing remained to be fixed. Nothing needed my attention. Finally, my weary mind could surrender to night.
Wrapped up between my two boys, I was home.
Tonight, I lay down next to my boy and sing him under as I do every night he is here. He is charging me for kisses, droopy-eyed and giggly. “Kiss me again, Mommy,” he says, pressing his soft cheek to my lips. I do as directed. “Now you own me $300,” he grins. Then he turns his lips to me and presses them on my temple, my head, wherever they land.
“How much do I get?” I ask as he breathes and snorts into my skin, drawing out the long moment.
“Nothing! It’s free! Now kiss me again!”
I plant one on his ear.
“Hah! Now you owe me $600!” And by 300s, we make it up to a debt of $1200 before he takes a last breath and drifts off. His mouth falls open against my neck as I sing the final verses of Big Rock Candy Mountain. His snores tickle the song as it rises from my throat.
I’m bound to stay where you sleep all day
I let myself drift off next to him for a few delicious moments. Oh, sweet surrender. What freedom it is to believe there is nothing left to do!  In this place right here, maybe it’s possible that everything is as it should be.
Now, it’s just Bug and me. My boy. No one slipping his arms around me from behind. The cocoon into which I can tuck my love and my wishes was just a husk, after all. As such things do, it fell away when it was time to hatch. Still. I remember that night. I remember when I slept because everything was in its place. My man, my boy, me.
Now, I get to learn to create that quiet place just for the two of us. On my own, I will tackle what is perhaps the third of my twelve labors. I kiss my sleeping boy (he can’t charge me for this one) and decide to believe I am capable of small miracles. I can make us a home. I can give us our sweet rest.

Love, Poetry

Happy 100 Days: 49

One day the thing you wished and wished for finally flits down from the clouds and comes close enough to grab. So you reach and you see it wasn’t Icarus after all or a shooting star or anything. It was just a gnat, and it really wasn’t so far off, it was just an inch away all along. And now it is your hand, and so what? You let it go. And then what? Maybe stop making shapes from the clouds. Maybe your savior is not going to emerge backwards through the vanishing point on the horizon. You do not need to squint to see what is coming. Let it settle around you like the way the November frost does whether you asked for it or not. Bundle up. Make your own warmth and notice the way your breath stays close for a beat or two before it leaves you forever.

Tear it Down
by Jack Gilbert

We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into the earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within the body.

The poet Jack Gilbert passed away earlier this week. Read more of his work here.