Family, Home, neighborhood, Outdoors

Settle In

Durrie Winter Scene

The first flakes are dusting the sidewalk. My son and his little buddy are engaged in a take-no-prisoners Pokemon battle in the living room. They munch on microwave popcorn and negotiate rules while I re-pot the frozen rosemary rescued from the balcony. Beans for soup are soaking on the kitchen counter. Next to them, a bowl of sourdough rises under a cloth.  Continue reading “Settle In”

Learning, Poetry

Preparing for Bed

FERGUSON February Snow Compton Downs _1

This is the prying open
This is the aeration
Who said sleep would be painless?
Down here something like earthworms
turn open
settled places
that would
given the choice
compress
to stone.

The merciless law
of this dark place
withholds that choice.
The next seeds
will have their chance
after all.
The soil beneath will churn
like water
like everything else
up there.

But this is winter, you say.
Hibernation? Rest time?
You have been awake
in your dreams
so you know
better. The turning goes on
and on. The surface arcs
in spectral color,
splits along seams
invisible in the dazzle
of daylight.
Detail falls away.
The blind, blunt nose of the soul
comes drilling through
to open a story
in the dense fabric, to force
breath between threads
and tease loose
what holds you
to you.

 

Image Credit: Andrew Ferguson, “February Snow, Compton Downs from the Ridgeway,” Woodcut.

Creativity, Dogs, Family, Things I Can

15. Things I Can Hazard: Deep Fat Frying

The dog’s anxiety has escalated to self-harm. She’s not burning herself with cigarettes, although once her toes can work the lighter, all bets are off. For now, her injuries are of the indirect variety. Her daylong bouts of howling shred her throat, leaving her hoarse and coughing through the evening. Between yelps, she thrusts her head repeatedly against her crate, bending the bars and tearing strips of flesh off her snout and cheeks. We come home to bleeding gashes and hysteria.

The vet is tapering her off one prescription and starting her on another. We have the number of an animal behaviorist who specializes in unique temperaments. New approaches could take several weeks to sort out, and new behavior far longer to establish.

At the beginning of the highest pressure work month I’ve faced in five years, I’m now the proud owner of a dog that can’t be left alone. Continue reading “15. Things I Can Hazard: Deep Fat Frying”

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.
 

Divorce, Parenting

Cause and Effect

Waking up is relief even if it is to the dull edge of January dawn.

He is there, a red T-shirt and splash of white stripe, resting at the bottom of the swimming pool. It is too late. I know this but I dive in anyway and haul him to the concrete. Pressing air through tiny lips. The taste of chlorine. The taste of silence. Over and over and over. No tears. Breath. Press. Breath. No pleas. Just this single determination. Pushing out water, pushing in oxygen. He stirs but it is only me, my desire, my exhalations inflating the sodden puppet.

Then he turns. Just a little. Eyes crack, lips part. What are you doing, Mommy? Concern bends his brow. Wariness, too. Before he can resist, I tuck him into my arms. Gather him like fallen limbs. He is only three and still so very light.

Just taking you home, baby.

I stand with my son bundled and dripping against my chest. Warming him. Warming us. I step away. Up the passageway, past the closed doors and towards ours which must be somewhere that way. Somewhere else.

I stand knowing this is me leaving me. Me walking away from the woman on her knees bent over her drowned son. Me choosing madness over truth. Myth over pain.

The unutterable facts:

He is gone and I am the one who lost him. I turned my back. Let him leave the car at night while I hefted grocery bags and backpacks. Forgot to give him the key. Me. I am the one who saw the door was still locked and he was not in the corridor waiting. I felt the fear rising; I did not run for him then and there. I took 30 seconds too long dumping the grocery bags and backpacks. Another 30 seconds trying to find a warm coat to put on him because he hadn’t brought his home. I was the one who wasted those fateful, final 30 final looking with widening eyes down the dim hallway and up the shadowed stairwell of our complex instead of hollering his name at the top of my lungs because of. . . Decorum? Pride?

The unbearable facts:

I lost my son. The blow of awareness is sudden and blinding. My negligence is the cause, I am the cause of his death and so the blame for my suffering falls on me alone. This knowledge is itself a source of staggering shame. It seems I care more about my role in the loss than the loss itself. Me, me, me. It’s always about me.

Then, back around around again.

The impossible knowing:

A life without this boy in it.

Too much.

So I gather him up. Forever now three, complete. Just his light boyhood, his lift, his easy willingness to be carried without protest. I carry him close and walk in great strides away

from sincerity. From courage. Poised at my moment of choice,

I abandon my moment of truth.

The one closest to me wonders if he should fear my break with reality. I do not say out loud yes you should. That it is not a possibility but a certainty, but in any event, it is far from a clean split. It is a spiderweb. A slow shatter.

I wake in the dark but it is close enough to light. The house is quiet but for dog on her pallet by the sliding glass door. Cracks at the seams expand as temperatures contract, peeling back the illusion of solidity. Out there in the space between, my son, like my sanity, straddles dimensions. We are Schrodinger’s cat. Both of us are completely intact. Neither of us is entirely home. We cannot touch

and I caused this.
 

Divorce, Poetry

Called Into Friend

You’re getting stronger every day
I write to her
name on a faceless band
of light. We are far
from separate selves, warp and weft of crossing
need, proximity, and cut from the same
tongue. Language mediates thought
they say
(and also must think)
language makes real
whatever we choose together
is enough
for truth. We discern
and determine
in the very same breath. So thankful
for you
she writes back. It could have been
never this. I could have picked
another answer in the classroom
where she came with the cracked
arc of her story. I could have picked
up the phone tonight and heard her
make me real
which I am not
certain is the case. The haze
at the fringes of iced dark
cuts like blades. It is winter
but only if we choose to call
together these waves and absences,
the frayed seams of our orbit,
and bind them into a word
like season. She and I are one
and the same
in a single blink, single
mothers now
there’s a term that weaves truth
right into its opposite. She calls me
love. I say she is a gift. We spin
the woolen clouds
of our yearning into letters and tie
the ends into sailor’s knots, good
nights, we make good
on promises we’ve finally begun
to warm and turn
into us.
 

Children, Parenting

Turning Rite

A rattling on metal. Something like gravel on the roof of a train. It echoes down four stories and then back again through the flue reaching above mine and the one above that, all the way out to night. The fire is a mere whisper of its former self, a glow in a carpet of gray. I reach in with the hook end of the poker and creak down the damper. Rain gushes down outside, washing away the remains of dozens of exploded snowballs, our frantic footprints, the tiny snowman with the stick features we built in the first dusting on the basketball court. It will melt away the ice that has already canceled school for tomorrow, carrying it down curbs, into sewers, away to the Chesapeake bay.
 
At dinner tonight, we slurped soup and talked of rituals. Tea ceremonies and such. “What’s a ritual?” Bug asked. Our guest and I tried our best to puzzle out a definition. Like a habit that you do over and over, but with more meaning. Sort of. And like a tradition, sort of. “Like brushing your teeth every night?” Bug asked. We pulled out the Oxford dictionary. We looked up both “ritual” and “habit.” The former is marked by its regularity and invariability, and it often has a religious and ceremonial quality to it. We tried to come up with our rituals. Are the three books and three songs every night a routine or a ritual? Where do our prayers and passages reside? Do we have a sacred fixation?
 
My boy sleeps now. Out through a reflection of green-pink-everycolor lights, the street below is a river. Ice-tipped peaks and silvered trenches first soften to hills then flatten to black.
 
Our last book at bedtime was a new one from the library: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. It is the true story of the feat of one Philippe Petit who, in 1974, snuck a cable between the two buildings of the World Trade Center as they were still under construction. He walked it, danced it, and even lay upon it as the sun rose over New York City. The book tipped me vertiginously too high and too far behind all at once. Dizzy, I had to catch my breath. Those towers are gone and Bug wanted to know why.
 
This question was going to come. Even with this certainty, I knew I would never be prepared. Shutting the book and setting it aside, I scooted down close to him. “There were some people who wanted to hurt America,” I explained. “They hijacked airplanes and flew them into the buildings. The buildings fell down. People died.”
 
True to his engineering mind, he actually wanted the how, not the why. I filled in the gaps easily. Too easily. It is all as fresh as if I am watching it now on that giant screen, the same silence choking us — bound as I am to the anonymous, forever Us of that moment — in a university lounge just a few miles from the Pentagon. Bug asked one straightforward question after another. “Did they fly into one building then out and into the other?”
 
“No, baby, there were two different planes. And a couple of others.” I kept it simple. In the spots where he plunged the shovel of his curiosity, I elaborated. We meandered around that day, finally making our way to the moment the passengers on board the last plane stopped the bad guys by crashing into a field. After Bug found where to place his period at the end of the story, he leaned his shovel against a tree, slid down into the bed and asked me to sing.
 
It is legend to him. Ancient history. No frisson shivers through a spectator with quite the intensity it does for a player. These are lines on maps and pages in books. When you are here and now instead of there and then, you trace them with your finger. You maybe imagine visiting. Normandy. Vietnam. Manassas. In other places, too, shadows of what was human made and human razed streak the land. The ones who remember delineate the shade. Those who don the mantle of memory after the last survivors are gone then call those phantoms back again and again until ghosts knit to earth like a skin under the now. Library of Alexandria. Berlin Wall. Twin Towers.
 
It should come as no surprise that Bug is not frightened by the story I tell. It is no different from any other history lesson. People work. Build things. Invent and discover. Go to war. Lead and follow. Make art and families and cities and revolution. Hurt each other. He’s learned already that villains are real. That heroes help. That people can come together to change what is into what could be.
 
That danger lurks and courage grows.
 
My boy’s classroom doors have little black accordions of paper clipped up high in the windows. He tells me these are for when the bad guys come in. While the kids hide, a teacher can unclip the little curtains to block anyone from seeing in. Bug told me this on the way to the car and then asked if I’d brought a snack.
 
My son sleeps. Rain rattles against the damper then dulls to a hum before finally falling silent.
 
He asked for extra songs tonight. Tiny lights glinted from tree branches in the living room. A velveteen Santa sat on a side table with a key silent in its back, having earlier tinkled down its wordless version of what we’ve all learned to know without even trying. I curled into my boy and called from memory the first few verses of the old standbys. Silent night, holy night. . . My voice slowed and and thinned as his eyes drooped. Christ is born in Bethlehem. . . Planted in the furrows of my brain, these hymns. As Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas day in the morn. . . I settle my child to sleep with the lyrical story of a God we do not worship in an ancient land that is not ours. Born is the king of Israel. . .
 
The evergreen outside the window sheds its silver husk. Boughs that protected a soft patch of snow from the freezing rain earlier now dip and shudder in the downpour. Inside, an ember pops. The scaled lip of the last log glows for one fulgent moment before turning to ash.
 

Poetry

Seasonal Effect

From the curtain rod it dips
low and rises again, as air-laced
as a playground swing brushing
branches and kicking down
showers of petals brighter even
than months ago.

They call this kind of floating
delicacy Georgette, the scarf an ornament
carried in folds
of rolled summer shirts, a gift
from Australia.

At first it draped like jewels
around my neck. Now it serves
a higher purpose, casting its nameless
coral-drunk flowers, its sapphire reef
across the threshold of autumn’s breach.
It jars the white blinds
into dimensionality, pulling them from wall,
carpet, ceiling, from the insistence
of a morning that hasn’t even bothered to bring the sun
along for reveille.

My eyes wish for nothing now. They fall on absence
and do not complain.

I know the danger.
Fortification is imperative.

After the scarf is hung soft
enough there, I position a lamp
bought just today, just for this
corner. Knock-off Tiffany,
it is too big and the wrong shape
but needful nonetheless:
pressed-leaf glass shade, the sweep
of flora, celadon and indigo twining
between amber-veined isinglass panes.

Who could wither in this glow
of meadow, monarch,
day?

Color is a collusion
between evolution and light
to help us survive
the winter.

I tie a purple ribbon around the cord to pull
the switch near and call
my eyes like the face of a flower
back
to lift,
to thirst.
 

Poetry

Lunar Equinox

It is frost now, still
faltering between
chill blue knife and furred limb.

Moon meets sun in a garden of stars,
all visible in half-night. A red-tailed fox
skies across gunmetal dawn
feet never touching
the ground. Babies begin
in groaning belly
of robin, raccoon. A squirrel
squatting on the wrist of a high vine
scratches at the shell of last year’s seed. The bare end
of provisions before the next harvest means lean times
for a merciless brood.

The yield may suffice.
It may not.
The way to survive is to live as if both are true
at all times.

Remember: the equinox lasts
a single night. Each of us is on one side or the other
even if the lifting foot is only just clearing the line
even if the bottomless blue still saps any recollection
of fertility. By a hair each day, darkness falls away.
The crack in the ellipse
narrows, the coin tilts on its axis and slips
through. The first moon

of spring is a fat dubloon winging
across the frosted miles, casting off
as it turns the full gleam from the sun. It is only when you stand
just so and gaze just there that you can gauge its trajectory
and lift out your shirt
to collect what spills
over, such riches
only last through twilight and by dawn
you will be blind
again.

Friends, Happy Days

Happy 100 Days: 11

“We had a birthday party for Winter today,” Bug tells me, pulling the last of the Oreos out of the crumpled blue wrapper he found in his backpack.
 
“Winter the dolphin?” We are leaving after-school care on the way to drop the pooch off with a friend for the Christmas break.
 
“No,” Bug says, black cookie dust drifting down his chin. Winter is a dolphin with a prosthetic tail that lives down at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida. Bug has been dying to go down to visit ever since seeing a movie about the rescue. “Not that one. How old is Winter anyway?”
 
“If it is someone in your class, I assume she’s six.”
 
Bug gives me a blank look. “Is there someone named Winter in my class?”
 
I stop and bend down. “What are we talking about?”
 
Winter,” Bug says, as if I haven’t heard him properly. “It’s the short day, and then it starts all over again.”
 
“Oh! The solstice!” I say.
 
“Right! We had a party for Winter’s birthday. We had cookies and juice.”
 
We get in the car and drive through the night past all the houses decked out in twinkling lights. We arrive at the friend’s place with the dog in tow. Bug sits on our friend’s living room floor and digs through a box of old toys belonging to boys who are men now, off exploring unmapped corners of the world. The pooch snuffles around and makes herself at home in a nook behind the dining room table.
 
After a little while, we go over to the common house where a small group of folks has been cobbling together army-sized vats of vegetable stew and cornbread. Candles are waiting to be lit, wine is opened, and slips of paper with bits of blessing are passed from hand to hand. Soon, a group of friends and neighbors is standing in a circle sending wishes to the four directions. Each of us holds a candle. Bug finds a glass bauble shaped like a star to hold his. When we reach our part of the recitation, I bend and Bug holds his light up to the slip of paper.
 
“Can you read that word?” I ask.
 
“West,” he says.
 
“That’s right. West. And that?”
 
He looks a moment longer. “North,” he says.
 
“You got it.” I read the rest of our share of the blessing. After a few laughs and shared breaths, we eat. Bug finds older kids and joins them at their table. He is a perpetual narrative-in-motion machine. He asks me not to watch him so I only do through sideways eyes. My friend stays near Bug and me, making sure we have enough to eat and that we have met the folks who are sharing this moment with us.The room is alive with the scent of cinnamon, smiling faces, stories of trapeze classes and the lament of kids growing up too fast.
 
It is dark so early now. I barely noticed, what with all the light.
 
We had a birthday party for Winter today.