BIRTHDAY

BIRTHDAY

I wasn’t born yesterday.

~The Way of Mrs. Cosmopolite, T. Pratchett

 

I was born years ago in a snowstorm,

butt first, which explains my perspectives:

right is left, north is south, and so on.

There’s something, too, about winter,

blowing snow that blew itself

into my bones. There are things

you won’t understand

until you are so old

that no one alive calls you children.

The patterns, strangeness of passages,

the way the long corridor winds,

edged with fewer doors.

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“Leisure”

What is this life if busy as hell

We have no time to sit and smell?

No time to sit beside the bogs

And smell as long as cats or dogs,

No time to scent when fields we pass

Where some one stopped to drag his ass,

No time to find, as though alone,

Where someone chucked a chicken bone,

No time to ponder every track

Of each deer passing onward, back,

To use your nose to best avail

To search the neighbor’s garbage pail,

No time to sit and contemplate

What each and every neighbor ate.

A poor life this, if busy as hell

We have no time to sit and smell.

 

 

I wrote this somewhat iffy poem ages ago—a parody of one of my favorite old poems, “Leisure,” by William Henry Davies— when we had an airedale. We have another dog now, and it still applies.

ON LEAVING FACEBOOK: part II

 

ON LEAVING FACEBOOK:  part II

I went there

when I was lonely or bored.

There.

As if it were a place

like the back porch of my house

where I sit with the dog

or The Bakery where people I know

go to drink their coffee

or the yarn shop full of color and light.

 

I liked

things there so casually,

not the way I like

a cat on my lap

or a walk in the field with the dog

or sitting beside my husband on the sofa,

each with a book and a mug of tea.

 

I could share

things there mindlessly,

not the way I share

worries and joys with Meg

when go for our morning walk

or the way I share with my Real Godmother

Eleanor when we email every morning,

or the way I share recipes and rants about the news

with my old friend Kathy

or the way I share time on the phone

with my sister or my son or my grandson

or lunch with Linda or Megaera or Carol

or pie with Jean and Mel

or energy with the Tai Chi class

or books with the Heretics

or life with the Spring St. Poets

or music with Encanto.

 

They said it was always free

but not as free as making music

or knitting socks or reading Proust

or weeding the garden.

Not free

like the smell of bread or apples,

like sunset across the meadow

and sunrise through the branches of the gingko tree.

THE FEAST OF ST. FRANCIS: leaving facebook, part I

It is right that on this day–

remembering his nakedness, his simplicity,

his begging bowl, the broken church,

the wolf and the birds, the peach–

I should separate my worldly self

from so much busyness, should turn

away from a virtual world.

The real one compels.

The last crickets.

Coyotes in the dark.

The moon rising as the sun sets.

A STITCH IN TIME

A STITCH IN TIME

. . .saves nine.

Can you stitch time? Catch

the threads and pull it together?

Mend the little tears that happen—

the morning you killed

irritated by a broken gizmo,

the hour lost cursing at traffic,

that meeting—all those meetings,

those obligatory parties—

great rips in sense and grace?

Is there a patch or stitch or weave

that can redeem those moments

that might have been salvaged

but because you didn’t even notice,

leave you with tattered scraps

not whole enough for rags?

 

 

May 2017

WHAT I DID AFTER YOU LEFT HOME

WHAT I DID AFTER YOU LEFT HOME

Went to New Orleans,

walked alone in the early morning.

They were opening windows,

washing down the streets.

Are you ready, M’am?

An old man stood on the cobblestones,

beaming in the steaming light.

He held reins in one crinkled hand,

extended the other to me.

His brown horse shook its head, bells rang.

Ready?  For what?

 

Are you ready for a buggy ride?

I had not planned to act like a tourist,

but how could I do otherwise

in this unexpected land, this place I’ve never seen?

The people sitting above the tall red wheels

were talking and laughing together

like people in a painting, or a play.

The driver cocked his head, waiting for my answer.

I asked the cost.

There was no reason to refuse.

 

I placed my damp white hand in his,

my hand with the split lifeline,

the single crack foretelling a single child.

Twenty years ago a sibyl read my palm:

You’ll live long, but two lives, different.

You’re a musician.  And try not to be so stingy.

Yes of course I’m ready, I told him.

Boost me up.

 

You, I’m afraid, would have been

disdainful, cool.  You would not

have approved of me,

sweating in my purple dress,

gawking, singing along,

leaning out behind the horse’s bobbing feathered head

above the spinning wheels

in that impressionistic light.

 

I felt a city dawn that day,

saw men in stiletto heels and black stockings 

prancing down the shining sidewalks,

artists reaching for long moist shadows,

women like statues, painted gold.

The city smelled like fresh coffee,

sour beer, things frying in lard.

On every bright wet corner

were little children, dancing.

 

 

I wrote this a long time ago, in response to the Empty Nest. It ended up being a performance piece.

 

March 24–November 16, 1999;  Jan. 30–April 20, 2001

Quatrain Chapbook:   Sing in me, Muse, Feb. 2005

NOTES FOR MY 50TH  HIGH SCHOOL REUNION

NOTES FOR MY 50TH  HIGH SCHOOL REUNION

 

Once I read Latin, long phrases from Caesar and Virgil.

Now I practice Polish, but only after dark.

 

Once I played the piano: Mozart, Debussy, Bach.

Now I play simplified Gershwin songs when no one is around.

 

Once I had a small vegetable garden.

Now it is a jungle of vines and weeds.

 

Once I fell in love with a warrior.

Some things never change.

 

Once there was no space for anything.

Now time stretches before me like the sea.

DNA

DNA

I spat into the tube and sent it off

and now I know:  I descended from a

crabapple tree. A nettle by the river

was my grandfather, but the oak I call

Grandmother is not an ancestor at all.

The snapping turtle I moved from the road,

the wolf spider I met in the garden

scurrying away with her white egg ball,

are second cousins. I am part fox, stillness

on the edge of the meadow. I am part

owl, passing on silent wings. I am thrice

removed from an otter, four times from a deer.

Catbird is my brother—I knew it all along.

We sing the same cobbled-together song.

NOTES FROM A ROAD TRIP: found, mostly, in my notebook

NOTES FROM A ROAD TRIP, August 19-23, 2017

1.

Nomads: I’ve seen them in a movie,

taking down their ger.

Everything goes with them:

the stove, the rugs and beds,

the painted chests. Maybe

if we took it all, too,

like those people with bus-sized RVs do.

But home would still be home.

 

2.

The sun comes up later in the south

and it’s hotter. Every time we take

a long car trip we say,

“Next time, let’s stay home.”

(Is this a poem?)

 

The world’s worst coffee—is it

even coffee?—from the weird

machine in the hotel room.

Must constipation—or worse—

go with travel?

Why in the world did I sit

cross-legged for three hours

in the backseat of the car?

At least I got some knitting done.

 

3.

Crepe myrtle is in bloom, and cotton.

This is the farthest south I’ve been in a car.

Today is the eeclipse, 96 percent

here. The place we were headed

will be 100% clouds so here we stay.

I’m just as glad. Who needs

another six hours in the car?

 

4.

And now we’re home.

I lost two days of daily poems,

and gained a fearsome sciatica,

richly deserved. I reduced

the eeclipse to prose.

I’m still too close to write a poem.

Home is still here, with its overgrown

garden, and dog happy to see us

and cats as happy as cats ever are.

The moon, still dark,

still orbits us, and we still

turn around the sun,

and turn around again.

READING IN BED: a found poem

READING IN BED

Found in Longmans’ English Grammar, 1917

My name is Norval.

Learning to row is pleasant.

Every turf beneath their feet shall be a soldier’s sepulchre.

 

A little ship was on the sea.

The ship being strong withstood the storm.

Fearing the storm, we returned.

 

Peters the baker makes bread.

Robinson the tailor sells cloths.

The man to see is Robinson.

 

Tom’s father was Dick’s son.

The old man is tired.

Seeming learned is his one accomplishment.

 

The house on the hill is Mr. Bosworth’s.

To play the piano was his delight.

To be thought original was his chief aim.

 

The lady on horseback is Mrs. Bosworth.

Her being considered beautiful has been her pride

Her uncle is in India.

 

The woman being in great trouble was weeping.

Teaching lazy children is hard work.

The path of duty is the way to glory.

 

The really good are few.

To be good is to be happy.

Reading in bed is bad for the eyes.

INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE HOUSESITTER

INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE HOUSESITTER

If the door has blown closed, open it.

You do not need a key.

Feed the birds.

There is seed in the blue jar.

 

Pick the apples, eat the cherries.

Make wine from the grapes.

Do not eat the yellow pears

for they are bitter.

 

The garden is full

of deep green weeds.

Cook them in oil.

They will make you strong.

 

When dew shines on the leaves

go out and wet your feet.

The copper basin holds rainwater

to wash your hair.

 

Milk the goats

at sunrise and sunset.

Drink what you like

and make the cheese.

 

The dogs will kiss

you awake.

The cats will sing

you to sleep.

 

They will tell you

what they wish to eat.

They will tell you

what to dream.

 

At midnight,

the owls will come.

The great gray owl

will speak. Listen.

TIME IS A STRANGE THING

TIME IS A STRANGE THING

At times I get up in the middle of the night and stop all the clocks, all of them.

~Hugo von Hofmannsthal, from Die Rosenkavalier

 

She stops the clocks

to hear the silence

defined by their tick and chime.

One must not fear the time.

 

She stops the needle,

and feels the space beyond

that only the compass knows.

That’s the place she goes.

 

May 17, 2017

THE DIARIES OF ELLA WARNER FISHER

Here is the last of the Sheldon Museum poems. This is a “found” poem made up of entries from the diary of Mrs. Fisher, a Vermont poet who lived from 1853-1937. I’ve been reading and blogging her diaries for years. Most of the diaries are in the archive at the Sheldon.

 

THE DIARIES OF ELLA WARNER FISHER

Mop, mend, make pies, bathe the children.

A burden to be unequally yoked.

Dig up a lily and plant it in the yard.

Every day subject to the same blight.

A beautiful day, long to be remembered.

Gertrude has mumps.  Mop and mend.

Henry cleans harness in the kitchen.

All attend service but Helen and Grace.

War bread, two meatless meals.

Anna & Henrietta go to the woods for flowers.

Tuttle takes down the stove.

Mend the stockings.  Make mince pies.

Henry carries Grace to her school.

Terrible fighting in France.

Gingham comes for Henrietta.

Ruth and I kill and dress two hens.

Dreaming among my poems.

Letters from Ashton and Helen.

Sick headache.  Go down street.

Anna receives a silver spoon.

A hateful wind blowing.

My boy, my poor boy!

They of the few, the tried and true.

Benjamin and Tuttle bring the body home.

Rain.  The white washing piled in chairs,

stark as so many ghosts.

PORTRAIT OF DAVID NICHOLS, ARTIST UNKNOWN

 

Here’s another of the Sheldon Museum poems, this one about a portrait of an extraordinarily handsome man that hangs upstairs in the Sheldon’s office space. There are a few letters of his in the archives, too.  He died fairly young, in Paris. One woman who viewed the portrait was heard to say, “He could only have been shot by a jealous husband.”  

PORTRAIT OF DAVID NICHOLS, ARTIST UNKNOWN

What is the use of a person’s living if he can’t enjoy himself? 

None! say I–and if one can’t enjoy themselves 

when they are in the bloom of life, 

when can they?

~D. N. in a letter to Dugald Stewart, Dec. 28, 1841

Did I meet your ghost in Paris–

slim shadow brushing by that night

on the street in Montmartre?

 

I like the way you look at me

after all these years.

 

That rose that fell

from the balcony in Pigalle

and landed at my feet–did it drop

from your long  fantomatique

fingers? Maybe it was your esprit

murmuring compliments

in terrible French as I sunned

in a green chair in the Tuileries.

Your breath on my neck while I lingered

in the café drinking red wine

and watching the moon . . .

 

I want to run my hands through your hair,

trace the shape of your long nose.

 

Was it your spectre I glimpsed, waving

an immaculate handkerchief

from the Arc de Triomphe?

I’m glad you died

in Paris.  Vermont was too small

for your élégance, exubérance,

“real Yankee” though you claimed to be.

It was “utterly impossible to raise a dance”

here in winter, and I cannot imagine

you in Vermont, in winter,  not dancing.

There’s something about the gleam

in your eye and–oh, I don’t know–

your Mona Lisa smile.

NOTES CONCERNING THE PETRIFIED INDIAN BOY

 

This is another of the poems that I wrote for an exhibit at the Henry Sheldon Museum. And here’s a link to an article about the exhibit.  

 

 

NOTES CONCERNING THE PETRIFIED INDIAN BOY

Henry’s Accession Book. . indicates Leland gave it to museum for safe keeping —

“It was left with him by Woodard. . .

who sold it to parties near here.”

~email from Liz Bless, Middlebury College

History is a cob-web,

a tangle of strands,

flakes and pigments, letters

and scraps stashed in

baskets and chests of drawers.

It’s a pellet of feathers and hair.

Pick it apart with a finger bone.

 

Here, in the file concerning

the Petrified Indian Boy, we find:

bird tracks at Turners Falls,

a rabbit hole, a dog name Boz,

George Parsons the carriage painter,

credulous crowds,

a great deal of money,

a hundred barrels of whisky,

a flight to Canada, the law,

and Mrs. Sarah Henry Cross of Brandon

who saw it at the fair.

 

Was it a broken-off toe, or a crack in the ankle

that revealed the truth?

Did Mr. Parsons know of the Cardiff Giant?

Why did Mr. Harwood visit Newfane?

What happened to the whiskey?

Who brought the Boy to which express office?

Who was Mr. Douglas, who

bought the image for an immense sum?

Did Mr. Brainerd, scientist and historian,

president of Middlebury College

know the local men who raised the money

and did he himself contribute?

Where did Mr. Leland get it?

Safekeeping from what?

How much did Henry Sheldon know?

 

In the meantime, the Boy

in his coffin in the Museum

has slept away the years,

keeping his secret silent as stone,

or plaster, or pigmented clay.

KEEPING–a Sheldon Museum Poem

Three years ago, the Spring St. Poets wrote poems about objects in the Henry Sheldon Museum in Middlebury, Vermont. The items were then exhibited, along with the poems, and we did a reading. I wrote this one about a chunk of woodwork that Henry Sheldon had rescued, presumably from some renovation done at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.   

 

KEEPING

~the carving from St. Stephens, found in a cupboard in the barn

One autumn day many years ago I stole

an antique book with a tan leather cover

embossed in gold. The thin pages smelt of mice.

It was in a pile of many heaped

in a corner in a muddled room

on the condemned third floor of a gothic

sandstone castle awaiting remodeling

including–and this is important–new wiring.

It was a building I loved.

When spring came, it all burned up.

Nothing remained but a stone shell and they

bulldozed that into the foundation hole

and built a garage on the spot. I wish

I had taken all the books.

Henry Sheldon would have–

and a juice glass from the dining room and

a candlestick and the pump organ and

a chunk of the chapel window woodwork

and the horsehair sofa from the library

and the doughnut jar from the kitchen and

the mantlepiece from the common room and

the shield that hung above it and the tower

bell that fell and no one ever found and

a railing from the front porch where we used

to sit in the moonlight and sing or kiss.

What is this about? —

to love places, to care about things, to care

what happens to them, to be wary of change,

to want to remember, to want everyone

to remember, to believe that history

matters, to want to keep something, keep many

things, the everyday bits:

shoes and razors and appleboxes and doorframes,

chairs and violins and cupboards and spinning wheels

and dishes and cannonballs and hacksaws and drums

and books that no one will ever read.

 

TO MY SISTER SUE

TO MY SISTER SUE

November 29, 1955—June 27, 1993

After you died, I determined to live

more worthy, left work I was not

sure about, took up my pen.

 

It’s been twenty-four years.

I’ve spiraled back toward something

maybe like god, but not

 

the one I thought I knew,

for how could that one

have let you die despite

 

our prayers. How could it

allow so damned much pain.

The pottery monk you gave me

 

stands with his folded hands,

beautific smile, next to a jade tree

in a green pot. Your photo hangs

 

on my study wall, your face

pensive, dark eyes gazing

toward something I cannot see.

 

June 27, 2017

MIDSUMMER DAY

MIDSUMMER DAY

The Feast of St. John the Baptist

 

Rain again. Again. Again.

Not the gentle pitter-patter rain, but

the tropical kind, the pounding kind

that washes out roads and birds’ nests,

that splatters mud on the lettuce,

soaks gray squirrels to brown,

gives mosquitoes everything

they need but blood. I can’t

sleep in this rain. It’s something

primeval, some anxiety

about the river rising, roots

rotting, everything I know

being washed away.

EQUANIMITY

Something happened back when I wasn’t

looking, or maybe I was looking and didn’t care.

Maybe it happens to everyone by a certain age,

or it doesn’t matter. Or it’s what is meant

by equanimity and it’s something to strive for

only I didn’t, or at least I don’t think I did,

and yet, maybe it’s the fruit of all that prayer,

the hours on the front step with my cup,

watching the sun come up, or set.

 

 

~Solstice 2017

ONCE UPON A TIME, THE STORIES TOLD

ONCE UPON A TIME, THE STORIES TOLD

 

about the path in the forest

and what you’d find if you strayed.

How manners matter,

respect for elders, kindness

to strangers, even giving them

your last crumb. When it comes

to the point, respect, too, for animals,

because you never know.

About how careful you must be

when you make promises and

what happens if you don’t keep them.

How dangerous it is to offend old women.

(Never, ever, offend old women.)

They told what happened

if you lied, stole from the poor.

They told what always happened

to people who wanted to be like god.

WHAT IS TRUTH?

WHAT IS TRUTH?
 
Truth has a tranquility to it,
a kind of ease that no artifice
can equal. There is nothing frantic
about truth, nothing bombastic.
Complex now and then, but not
so hard to untangle, not so hard
to recollect. It doesn’t make
itself up for preservation.
As comprehension grows,
there is a duty to correct.
It listens for clarity.
It can look you in the eye.

NOMINATIVE CASE: a found poem

 

Longmans’ English Grammar, now 100 years old, is fabulous, especially the examples. Here are a few:

 

NOMINATIVE CASE

found in Longmans’ English Grammar, 1917

Exult, ye proud patricians.

Tom’s brother will come tomorrow.

Highest queen of state, great Juno comes.

Was the garden gate closed just now?

 

The Hudson is a beautiful river.

Put on they strength, O Zion!

Have those new houses been let already?

Pretty flowers grow in my garden.

 

The tall trees are shaking in the wind.

The golden corn was waving in the sun.

The great bell is tolling slowly.

Art thou he that should come?

 

Is the little child sleeping?

Have you been waiting long?

It was the lark, the herald of the morn.

O night and darkness, ye are wondrous strong.

 

Old King Cole was a merry old soul.

The hunters killed Bruin, the bear.

Art thou that traitor angel?

We have been friends for many years.

 

The careless girl was looking off her book.

I hope that I shall be a scholar some day.

I am going to Chicago next week.

I’m to be queen of the May.

THE GREEDY FISHERMAN

THE GREEDY FISHERMAN

~after the Brothers Grimm

Once upon a time, there was a fisherman who lived in a vinegar jug by the seaside. Every day he went out fishing. Some days he caught enough fish to sell, some days he caught only enough to eat, some days he caught nothing.

But one beautiful morning, when the sea was calm and the sun was shining brightly, he caught a little golden fish, the likes of which he had never seen. “Ah,” he thought to himself, “I can sell this fish for a pretty penny.”

But as he pulled the hook from the fish’s mouth, the fish spoke. “Fisherman! If you let me go, I will grant you a wish. Anything you desire.”

Of course the fisherman had never heard a fish speak. “Why should I let you go?” he said.  “I can sell you and get rich! A golden fish that talks!”

“But you can wish for all the riches you like,” said the fish, “if you let me go.”

“Well, all right,” said the fisherman, who still did not quite trust the fish. “I would like a nice cottage instead of a vinegar jug.”

“Go home then,” said the fish. “It is as you wished.”

So the fisherman rowed his little boat home, and there, just as the fish had said, was a little cottage where the vinegar jug had been. There were two rooms, the kitchen with a good stove and a neat table, all complete, and a bedroom with a neat cot covered with a featherbed. Outside was a bit of garden, with cabbages and onions planted in rows. The fisherman was well pleased, and for many days he lived contented in his cottage.

But one day he began to think, “Why did I not ask for a mansion? Surely the fish could have granted me that. I’ll go back and see.”

He rowed his little boat back out into sea. There were clouds over the sun, and ripples in the water, but the fisherman was used to bad weather. He rowed out to where he had first caught the fish, and he called, “Fish! Fish! I have another wish!”

The fish immediately poked its head from the water, and the fisherman thought it looked a bit larger than it had at first.  “Yes? What is it?” asked the fish.

“I would like a mansion. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes,” said the fish, “I can. Go back home and you will have a mansion.”

The fisherman rowed home, and there where the cottage had been was a big stone mansion with beautiful gardens and a barn and a stable full of horses and carriages. The mansion had a hundred rooms and a great hall and a gallery and servants to look after it all. The fisherman was very pleased. He liked the beautiful things in the mansion, and he liked telling the servants what to do. And he stopped going down to the sea to fish.

And one day, after he had ordered his servants to prepare a bath and a picnic lunch for him, and had watched them busy themselves with his orders, he thought, “I could be king. If I were king, I would have more servants, and the lords and ladies all around would have to obey me, too. I will order my yacht to take me back to the fish, and I will tell it that I want to be king.”

So he ordered his yachtsman to make ready, and down to the sea he went. The sky was covered in cloud then, and there were whitecaps on the water, but the fisherman was not worried at all. He knew about all kinds of weather. “Fish! Fish!” he called. “I have another wish!”

The fish appeared then, poking her head out of the water. Yes, she was definitely larger than before, thought the fisherman, but the fisherman did not worry. As he grew more powerful, he thought, of course the fish would grow, too.  “What do you want? the fish asked.

“I want to be king,” said the fish.

“Of course you do,” said the fish. “Go back now. You are king.”

The fisherman had the yacht bring him back to the shore, and sure enough, the mansion was gone and in its place was a castle. It had a moat, and towers and flags flying in the brisk wind. The fisherman was greeted at the shore by a herald blowing a trumpet, and by a golden coach pulled by eight white horses, and the people lining the road waved and cheered as he passed on his way.

The castle was as magnificent as he could have imagined, and he was attended by lords and ladies who were happy to do his bidding. He had fine food to eat and fine clothes to wear, and wanted for nothing. But one day. . . “If I were emperor,” thought the fisherman, I would have kings and queens to attend me instead of mere lords and ladies. I will go back to the fish and tell it that I want to be emperor.

So he ordered his royal fleet to escort him to the spot where he had first met the fish. The wind was high and the rain had started to fall when they reached the spot, so the fisherman had his herald blow a trumpet to summon the fish.

She reared out of the water before him, half the size of his royal ship. “What is it now?” she asked.

“I want to be emperor,” said the fisherman. “Make me emperor.”

“Go,” said the fish. “You are emperor.”

This time when the fisherman disembarked, he was met by six golden coaches, each with a king or queen inside. His own coach was three times larger than their coaches, and was pulled by twenty black horses. As the kings and queens escorted him back to the palace that had taken the place of his castle, the people again lined the road and waved and cheered. It was raining and the wind was howling, and it pleased the fisherman that the people were standing in the rain to greet him.

And so his life went on. Kings and queens waited on him, and did his bidding. Anything he wished to have, he had, anything he wished to do, he did, and no one could stop him, or even stand in his way. But one morning as he looked out the window of his private chamber, he saw the sun shining over his lands, and he said, “I would like to make the sun come up when I want it to. I want to make it set at my pleasure. I want to be god.” The kings and queens attending him were horrified, but they said nothing. The fisherman ordered his coach and attendants to take him to the sea, and his imperial fleet went with his imperial flagship out into the water. The clouds were towering, and the rain falling in great sheets, and the wind was blowing a gale. Two of the ships in his fleet were capsized and the sailors drowned, but the fisherman did not mind. He himself stood at the bow of the ship and called the fish. “I command you!” he shouted. “Come forth!”

The fish emerged from the water, her great golden form looming above the ship. Everyone but the fisherman fell to their knees. “What do you want?” said the fish.

“I want to be god!” said the fisherman.

“Go then,” said the fish. “Go.” And the fish slid back into the water. The sea was suddenly dreadfully calm, and the ships vanished, and the fisherman found himself on the shore where there was no palace, or castle, or mansion or cottage. There was nothing but a vinegar jug, and there the fisherman lived alone for the rest of his days.

THE PLEASANTEST THING

THE PLEASANTEST THING

He can sing the last word of every line—

the swing song I sang to his father,

that my mother sang to me.

 

In his small world, the garden

is still green and the wideness

he sees is safe. “Turn up your toes,”

 

I tell him. And I push him

on the orange soles of his shoes

and he laughs. Later, we’ll have

 

lunch, and maybe he’ll take a nap.

I can protect him from bees,

from sunburn, from sharp knives,

 

from tumbling down the cellar stairs.

Not from overturning boats,

from hunger and guns. Pushing

 

the swing, singing away,

I think about grandmothers

lifting children above the waves,

 

breaking the last bread,

huddling behind the last wall.

Their strength, their tears.

 

What can they do

but hold tight and die too.

There is no fiercer love.

CRANKY

CRANKY

 

The old women are cranky.

They turn, squeaking, resistant.

They like their routines:

coffee, silence, good bread.

What’s the point

of bad weather?

Of more books about childcare and food?

Those people in Washington—

well, what do you expect

if people stare at a screen all day?

Somebody has to make the bread

and wash the quilts

and feed the kids

and walk the dog.

Somebody has to remember

the reasons,

tell the stories,

sing the songs

everybody used to know.

FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, CONSIDERING THE LILIES

FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER, CONSIDERING THE LILIES

The white plaster image

of crucified Jesus hangs

above the altar.  Its feet

are deep in potted Easter lilies.

 

I’ve always prefered Christus Victor

to dead Jesus, and I do not care

for potted lilies, sitting there

in their green-foil pots, trying

 

to represent Resurrection and Spring.

They smell like overheated rooms

full of unnecessary things. It’s odd—

the white lily is one symbol of Mary

 

who had no idea what she was getting into

when she said yes to the improbable task.

Look at those Renaissance paintings—

the poor girl looking up from her prayers

 

at that angel with its lily.

When I am an old lady

confined to my house or some other place,

I pray that no young minister will come

 

calling on the fifth Monday of Easter,

bearing a potted lily.

When I was a young minister,

I bore far too many,

 

though I suppose I meant well.

The old ladies, who knew a thing

or two about prayer, were,

for the most part, gracious.

ABSTRACTING

Found in Longman’s English Grammar, 1917

This paper is smooth and white;

in other words it has the qualities

of smoothness and whiteness.

The smoothness and whiteness 

cannot be separted from the paper,

but in our own minds we can think of them

as something apart.

 

Again, running

is an action, but the running cannot be

separated from the runner. It is only

in our minds that we can think of it as

something apart.

So slavery

is a state or condition that cannot

be separated from the slave, but that can

be thought of as something apart.

This drawing away

with our minds the quality from the thing

which has it, the action from the thing

which does it, or the condition from the thing

which is in it, is called abstracting. 

Now,

Pick out the abstract nouns.  

The room is twenty feet in length.

Lazy people take most trouble.

The driver behaved with cruelty.

The beauty of the scene gave us much pleasure.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

A little weeping would ease my heart.

The quality of mercy is not strained.

There was darkness over all.

Honesty is the best policy.

The sun gives warmth.

Virtue is its own reward.

Charity covers a multitude of sins.

Wisdom is better than strength.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.

MEMERE–prompt #75

MEMERE

Prompt #75: Invent a Grandparent

 

Once she stopped a runaway horse before

the horse ran over a little boy. The boy’s

father was so grateful, he got her pregnant.

He set her up in a shack on the edge

of town and paid her every month, enough

to get groceries for herself and my dad.

That grandfather died before I was born,

and I am just as glad.

 

Memere always had dogs, stray ones she tamed.

She could tell fortunes by watching crows.

I liked visiting her. Dad didn’t mind,

but Mother worried every time.

I used to sleep in her loft

on a feather bed she made.

She taught me how to kill chickens,

how to bait a hook,

how to build a fire with wet wood.

 

Memere had different names for the stars.

She had three books:

The Oxford Book of English Verse,  

My Antonia, and

Moby Dick, which she knew by heart.

She never did believe in God, she said.

What went on in the woods and sky

gave her enough religion to get by.

PAGE 56, 2017

With thanks to contributors. You know who you are:

 

The temperature was dropping

and a light snow was falling.

Even the sky above the City

had a green tint,

and the rays of the sun were green.

It had, however, but a bare

and uninteresting church,

built in the latest and worst

period of Perpendicular,

with a slate spire and no bells to speak of.

 

The Manichee, therefore, was entirely

embedded in the visible world.

To the new generations of country

and village boys now pouring into

the university in such large numbers,

she had become, in a curious way,

an instructor in manners,–what is called

an ‘influence.’ A lady doctor dressed

in silks was an oddity, and Oscar

Maroney’s curiosity, once engaged,

had to be satisfied.

 

They asked her where she was

making for, and she answered: “You are come

to the very edge of the Wild, as some

of you may know. ….Because it is not ‘engaged’,

the Faith becomes vacuous. In the strict sense,

however, the term historical

criticism refers to the ways in which

a historian might use the New Testament

to learn about history.”

 

Italics signify the couple of little tweaks I made.

ALWAYS AWARE OF SOMETHING–a page 56 poem

This is the poem composed of lines found on page 56 by various facebook friends back in 2011.

 

ALWAYS AWARE OF SOME THING

(found on the fifth line of page 56 in various texts

during National Book Week, 2011)

Almighty God, who after the creation of the world didst rest from all thy works 

and sanctify a day of rest for all thy creatures: 

Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, 

may be duly prepared for the service of thy sanctuary, 

and that our rest here upon earth may be 

a preparation for the eternal rest promised to thy people in heaven; 

through Jesus Christ our Lord

The vision of God’s peace,

spread over all God’s creation,

opened the door to a glorious vision of history–

men stumbling and falling–

it’s been going since forever.

Their pottery and their extraordinary

anthropomorphic clay coffins,

found in the Gaza strip,

also reveal influences from Egyptian art.

 

I had been born again

only about two years and was, as now,

searching always for truth.

The relevant history suggests

that fourteenth-century theology

is too heterogeneous and eclectic

to allow such homogenizing assumptions

to shape any study.

But no matter the occasion

or person being introduced,

the gesture itself is a powerful

sign of respect. . .

 

From the meadow came a dozen satyrs,

who reminded me painfully of Grover.

“I’m going to say a word about him,” Grace said.

“He was uncertain

about the direction of the story,

explaining that he did not ‘know

how to go on.’

I could barely recognize

his drawn face.”

 

She asked the maitre d’hotel

to set up a table near the water

in a spot of his choice,

then ordered a portable stereo tank

placed by the table.”

 

He knew about the nightmares

that haunted her after a series

of particularly brutal murders

by a killer named the Surgeon:

how he’d gotten drunk senior year

and kissed her and then

squeezed her hand so hard

it should’ve hurt but it didn’t,

it felt wonderful the way

he was holding her

and looking into her eyes.

 

She had never done any teaching before,

except Sunday-school teaching,

and she had no idea how much

she ought to be paid for it,

so Grandfather was able to pay her too much

without her knowing.

 

Spread the meat

into two uncooked pie shells

and top with pie dough.

Food that isn’t nutritious

but appears to be

thus becomes an . . INcomplete meal

day after day.

 

When the mantis had crunched up

the last shred of its victim,

it cleaned its smooth green face like a cat.

Research suggests that a reduction

in mechanoreceptor afferent input

can result in the development

of symptoms

that can be identified in the clinical setting.

The therapist said

she would probably always eat that way.

 

Baby had also begun to imitate

the playful sounds of adults –

coughing, smacking lips,

making ‘the raspberries,’ and the like.

I’ve never seen anything like it before.

from paying guests.

We’ll find the money

somehow, signor.

 

The next time you observe a horse

in action or standing still,

whether a real horse

or a visual depiction,

try looking at him through new eyes,

such as the eyes of the Hindu poet

of the Upanishads

who saw his entire world

echoed in the horse’s body.

 

We always expect

to be aware of some thing.

(When I “find” a poem, I allow myself to tweak grammar a bit.  I can also remove words, but I can’t add anything significant.  The italics in this piece indicate a change I made.  I think I got them all!)

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

~Prompt–for a book you haven’t written

 

 

First of all, I must thank my parents.

Without them, I would be normal,

and this book would not

have been possible.

 

My husband did not

comment on it, or even read it.

In fact, for the past eight months,

he has been living

in a tent in the woods.

I love you, sweetie.

Words cannot express

my gratitude.

 

My children are grown

so I thank them for not

getting in my way

(except for two hysterical

phone calls which only

kept me awake nights

for a week or so).

 

I am grateful to my agent,

despite her claim that

I was the direct cause

of her most recent breakdown.

I am not responsible for everything,

but she is responsible

for finding a home for my work.

 

All my editors—every single

one of them—have been

marvelous.

 

The Spring St. Poets

have provided occasionally helpful

feedback and comic relief for years.

Thanks, guys!

 

It takes a village

to produce a book, so I owe

a great deal to my neighbors

who put up with my midnight

hurdy-gurdy/bagpipe fests

and afternoon target practices,

and only called the police three times.

 

These poems

are for them.

 

 

MP   March 1, 2017

‘QASIDA

‘QASIDA

November. I drove through the woods alone.

The chapel had not changed—yellow stone,

pine benches, carven altar, the wide, worn

boards of the floor, pale ceilings adorned

with stenciled flowers. I watched the sun

mark the walls with pattern as it shone

through the western window, low.

Once this was a shelter from the storm

around us.  Once, with you, I won

what my heart desired. But you are gone.

On the forest paths, in shadow, once we roamed,

no need for touch or speech. Some

nights we sang by the lake while moon-

light and starlight from heaven’s dome

brushed us with silver. My voice, a golden horn,

blessed the stones with song. Oh, none

but I can praise our music well, or write this poem!

Free and wise and fair were we, born

between the mountains and the sea, who turned

the wild wood into home.

 

The Qasida is an elaborate form. This is a feeble attempt.

A NAME

A NAME

. . . Surprise is a  name of God.

~Brother David Steindl-Rast

 

Who else would bring a pair of owls

to circle my head on New Year’s night?

Or a fox to the front step

just at sunset yesterday? Who

could have handed us a little child

with round cheeks, his mother’s mouth,

his daddy’s smiling eyes?

In the gray and icy drizzle of winter,

who else would have sent a foot of snow,

north wind to slice through our dismay?

Or gathered us together

and crowned us with roses,

taught us how to sing?

SOMETHING I HAD TO WRITE DOWN

This is not a poem. It’s personal, but so is everything. What else could it be? If we don’t try to tell the truth, what good are we?

 

I need to write this down. I’m frightened. I’ve had trouble with anxiety all my life, and it has been set off big time by the election of this madman. Several people have commented about how those of us who have had troubled childhoods in which truth was hard to find may be having a very hard time with this. Yes indeed. A flat-out conservative president, like Reagan or G.W. Bush was easier to deal with because they were more or less straight-forward. I know, I know—they weren’t really, but the quality of their lying was different than trump’s. His is personal in a way that theirs wasn’t. It’s crazy-making in a way that theirs wasn’t.  Iran/Contra was dreadful. The Iraq War was/is dreadful. And yet, it didn’t feel like those presidents were in fact out to make me scared. Will Daddy be drunk on my birthday this year? Can I bring a friend over on Saturday? Of course my father wasn’t out to scare me, he was just doing what he had to do to get by, to deal with his dreadful childhood and his PTSD. I know that now.  But the feeling of impending doom—I never, ever knew what was going to happen—is familiar (“familiar” having to do with family).

I want the Republicans in Congress to take charge of the monster they have created, just the way I wanted Mother to take charge of Dad, to make it all better, to fix things. When I was older, I thought Mother should have done something, at least she could have been honest about Dad’s drinking, and reassured us that it was not our fault—and that even if we were “good” we wouldn’t be able to stop it. But now I know that she didn’t know any better because she didn’t have any help herself. She thought she was alone. And now, the trick is—nobody is going to take care of us. We are the ones. We are the grown-ups. We’re all adult children of alcoholics now, or adult children of something or other, but we are adults. And naming our fear, instead of pretending we’re fine, thanks, or it will be all better soon, or we’re just overreacting, is exactly what we need to do. This is scary, yes. We’re not “overreacting.” We’re not fine.

The march in Montpelier on the day after the inauguration was heartening. It is always the best thing to know that I am not alone. Maybe it’s the only thing that matters.

Yes, it makes a great deal of sense for those of us who had difficult childhoods to be desperately anxious now. And maybe those of us who know the roots of that kind of anxiety can be of service to others for whom anxiety is new, or only occasional. It’s only anxiety. And even if it is rooted in reality—yes, there are real things to be frightened about—it needn’t cripple us.

Here’s Audre Lorde:

“and when we speak we are afraid

our words will not be heard

nor welcomed

but when we are silent

we are still afraid

So it is better to speak

remembering

we were never meant to survive”

from “A Litany for Survival”

Audre Lorde, The Black Unicorn: Poems

Read the whole poem.

I WHO HAVE DIED

I WHO HAVE DIED

I who have died am alive again today.

~e. e. cummings

I have surrendered to the darkness

of loneliness, of foreign spaces.

 

Where did you go when you were afraid?

I sat on the kitchen floor and wept

 

for my golden house, the porch,

the rock in the meadow.

 

Broken butterflies predicted loss,

so many losses. And today

 

I live again. On New Year’s Night,

two owls flew over my head

 

in the dark garden. This morning,

there is snow. Again I live, again.

 

This was inspired by a lecture by Br. David Steindl-Rast  about the practice of gratitude.

NOT ON ROCK: a poem for the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter

NOT ON ROCK

On this sand I build my church,

grit of barrier and beach,

shift and shape, tumbling jag

tossed in my whimsical wind.

 

On this clay, sticky with itself,

plow-breaker, seed-wrecker,

slip and slick, firing hard

to slice and slab and cup.

 

 

Out of flesh I build it,

bones, heart, blood, decay.

Out of bread I build it,

risen, broken, given away.

CLEVELAND, 1930: ON THE STREETCAR

CLEVELAND, 1930:  ON THE STREETCAR

Look at his hands and tell me what is his job.

Yes, rough like your pa’s hands, so hard work.

That lady has been crying, has red eyes.

See— gold ring on her thumb.

I think her husband is maybe dead.

 

There is accent behind; no, don’t look.

You know is not German, not Russian.

Czech. Is enough like Polish to make me laugh.

Someday you teach your children

always there is something new to see.

 

Why is that man wearing slippers?

Is he stupid, or did he forget?

Oh maybe no shoes,

but look at his clothes.

He is not poor.

 

Remember story:  I thought my papa

did not miss one pear. Foolish girl! Papa said

God looked down from heaven and saw me

like God saw Adam. Remember:

everything God sees.

 

Is that lady sister or girlfriend?

Yes, girlfriend. Look at their shining eyes.

Here is hospital so we get off. Your papa

will be happy. You make him smile.

Big step down. Hold my hand.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM–part 6

31. She works in a Day Care Center in a dying city. She is tiny, and too old for this work. She has bad knees and a smoker’s cough. And she loves the children. She sings to them, embraces them, wipes their noses, listens to them, talks to them as if they were equals since she knows they are. She recognizes their fatigue and anxiety and takes it very seriously. When she cannot reassure them—and many times she cannot—she comforts them with her kindness. When she was five years old, her own parents died in a boat fleeing a country at war, and her older brother saved her and raised her. When she was too young, she married the wrong man. He tried to kill her, and he killed her baby, and killed himself.  Every night she sits before her cardboard altar and lights candles for the baby, and her brother, and her parents. And she lights one, too, for her husband.

32. She is a librarian in a middle-sized mid-western town. When she was in college, she had a great deal of trouble deciding on a major, so she has a background in English, History, Latin, and Philosophy. Later on, a library degree made a great deal of sense to her. She likes to catalogue. She likes things that fit together, and she likes incongruities. When she prays for the library patrons as they come and go, she imagines them in their proper settings: this matron working tapestries in a castle tower, that high school student taming eagles in Mongolia. Sometimes she recommends books that fit her visions of them, and she is always right.

33. He is a jack-of-all-trades in a hardscrabble rural town, doing his best to support his family.  His wife has a bad back and is not able to work. They have three children, two in high school and one in fifth grade. He plows driveways and mows lawns, does some brush-hogging and ditch-witching and logging and roofing, and in the winter sometimes he makes snow at a small ski area. He has a backhoe left him by his father, and he recently bought a small elderly dump truck so he can haul gravel and crushed stone. He will, his wife says, “give the shirt off his back” to anyone in trouble, and she smiles fondly as she says it. They’ve housed neighbors whose house burned down, they’ve taken in runaway teens and stray cats and abused horses. And there’s always enough. “The Lord provides,” he says, and his wife laughs and rolls her eyes.

34.  Her early marriage ended in divorce, and now she lives with her elderly mother, three fat ginger cats and an obnoxious Yorkie. She used to be an office manager for an electronics firm, but after she recovered from breast cancer, she decided that she needed to spend more time outdoors. Now she has two jobs:  in the winter she teaches skiing at a Mom-and-Pop ski area, and in the summer she is a flagger for a traffic control company.  Her favorite of the two jobs is flagging, something that her friends find very surprising. “It isn’t at all boring,” she says. In the evenings, she enjoys making small books from nice papers, and she writes happy things in them and hands them to the people waiting in the first car in the line. She has dog biscuits in her pockets, too, for their dogs.

35.  He is a widower in charge of programs at an adult day care center. There is never enough money, but he always manages. His salary is ridiculously low, but he remembers the birthdays of all the staff members and all the clients with corsages or boutonniers. In season, they are made from flowers from his garden. He knows hundreds of popular songs and sings them while he plays his banjo. He invites people from all over the community to come offer programs at the center, and he rewards them with bouquets.  A cartoonist comes regularly to give free lessons. Every spring a woman who does bird calls comes with slides of the birds she imitates. A group of junior high students come to sing a capella music. A retired history professor leads a current events discussion group. The only problem he has is scheduling: so many people want to come that he has trouble fitting them all in. He likes eating at the center because he is a terrible cook. Left on his own, he eats cold cereal and microwaved baked potatoes.

36.  She is the Lunch Lady at an elementary school in the town where she grew up. Five years ago, she graduated from a prestigious culinary institute, and after some consideration decided she’d rather work in a school than a restaurant. The breakfasts and lunches she prepares are beautiful and good. There is almost no wasted food in the school now. She has convinced many community members to grow extra vegetables and fruits for the school, and she freezes the surplus for winter meals. With her own money, she bought a grow light system so she can make fresh salads all year. Children are always welcome in the kitchen, and sometimes teachers send restless or troublesome children there to help her. She always has something for children to do:  washing vegetables, arranging things on trays, making decorations for the cafeteria tables. She is engaged to a young orchardist who also drives a school bus. They hope to marry as soon as they finish building a little house on the edge of the orchard. She meets regularly with a women’s circle for meditation and earth-honoring ritual.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM– part 5

25.

She is a clerk in a city bookshop, and since she has an MFA, she specializes in books about music and art. Customers always ask for her when they want to find the perfect recording to give to an aunt who loves opera, or the perfect coffee-table book about the pre-Raphaelites.  She lives alone in a one bedroom apartment two blocks away from the bookshop, over a stationery store, and she has a tiny, elderly dog whom she rescued from a high-kill shelter five years ago. She lives very modestly, without a car or television or computer, though she has an excellent, though compact, sound system. Once a week, she takes the night shift at a shelter for homeless teenagers, and she gives a third of her income to support the shelter and the local food pantry. She also attends AlAnon meetings twice each week, in the basement of the synagogue on the corner.

26.

He’s a high school senior in a small-town union high school. He’s not an athlete, nor especially gifted academically, though he is a solid B student. He isn’t part of the crowd of “popular” students, although he has a good circle of friends who, like him, are creative and funny.  He lives with his parents and twelve-year- old sister in a double-wide on the edge of town. Both his parents work odd hours, so he does most of the cooking for his sister and himself, and he keeps an eye on her after school.   During his junior year, he came upon a group of people teasing one of the special education students who attend his school, and he put an end to the teasing, and defused the situation. He also has a knack for stopping fights before they become violent. This has been noted by one of his teachers, who is encouraging him to go on to work with troubled teens. He likes that idea, and has decided that if he can’t get a scholarship to college, he will work for a couple of years on his uncle’s farm, and then become a classroom aide. He plays the ukelele.

27.

She is the music director in a large church, responsible for two choirs, music for all the services, and a concert series. She is also in demand as an organ soloist and a teacher, and has several advanced students, although her favorite students are the beginners. She loves music, especially Bach and Fauré, and she loves her work. God, she believes, is best known through music, and she once told her husband that if she had to choose between music and God, she would choose music. Her choristers respect her and always give her their best because, as one soprano says, “She cares so much—not just about the music, but about us.”  Her husband is the principal cellist in the city symphony orchestra, and they have one daughter who is in junior high school and plays the clarinet. She has a dry sense of humor, and privately considers the disbanding of the church’s handbell choir one of her greatest accomplishments.

28.

He was born again two years ago when he attended a revival meeting at a Baptist church in the suburban neighborhood where he lives in a duplex with his girlfriend. The early glow has worn off, but he still feels the love of Jesus in his heart. His girlfriend, a massage therapist and yoga teacher, calls herself a secular Jew, and is bemused by his religious fervor, although she loves him dearly and does not make fun of him. He attends a community college, hoping to get a degree in management. To pay the bills now, he is a picker in the warehouse of a large catalogue company. But in the back of his mind, he is always singing hymns and saying prayers for the world, especially for the people whose orders he is filling. His co-workers are very fond of him. He does not proselytize, but they know that he’ll pray for them if they ask him. He likes to bake, and often brings homemade cookies to share at breaks.

29. When he retired from IBM, he started volunteering. He drives elderly and low income people to medical appointments now, in all kinds of weather. Nearly all the staff at the small-town hospital and in the various doctors’ offices know him and greet him when he walks in with a patient. In order to do the job, he had to learn CPR, but he has never mastered the blood pressure machine. The people he transports are often anxious, and he listens to them but does not offer advice. Usually he gives each of them a small white stone from a supply he keeps in a paper bag in the glove compartment. “Put it in your pocket,” he says. “And remember that I’m remembering you.” He gathers the stones on a beach in Rhode Island where he goes every year to visit his wife’s sister, who is alcoholic and diabetic, and does not follow her doctor’s orders.   Her religious and political views are extreme, so the visit is always difficult, and he finds great comfort in his daily walk on the beach, looking for perfect white stones and praying over them.

30.  He worked all his long life as an editor, working his way up from jobs at small-town newspapers. By the time he retired, he was editor-in-chief of a major publishing company. He shepherded uncounted authors through the publishing process, and discovered several major writers. He cared passionately about language and thoroughly enjoyed the changes, including the evolution of slang words, which he defended vigorously against what he called “English-murdering snots.”  After he retired, he and his wife moved from New York to a small town in Vermont, where he occupied himself by writing letters to the editors of every newspaper he subscribed to. He became a warden in the church there, and developed a reputation in town as a curmudgeon, which delighted him. When he was in the hospital undergoing a fiercesome chemotherapy for lymphoma, the parish priest visited him and asked him how he was, and he said,  “Let’s just say I’ve had better days.”  Since his recovery, he has been recording books-on-tape for people who are unable to read.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM, part 4

19.

He is a professional stage hand, on the road all summer and into the fall, mostly on the west coast. His co-workers say that they always feel safe when he’s around. He is deliberate and thoughtful and does his work with great care. Though he is only in his forties, he has become a mentor to many younger people. Since by its nature, the profession involves difficult schedules, he impresses upon his young colleagues the importance of eating well and taking catnaps. He sets a good example. No one in the trade knows more shaggy dog stories. Sometimes he is lonely. He has a twelve-year-old daughter who lives with her mother in Boston, and he calls her once a week, and sends half his salary to her mother for support.  When he has time, he likes to fish.

20.

When his wife and three children died in a boating accident, he changed his life. He sold the boat, and his business, his city apartment, his summer home in Vermont, his winter home in Santa Fe, his Lear 60, and his three cars. He liquidated all his other “assets,” and returned to the shabby city where he grew up. He found ways to give away all the money, always anonymously. Among other things, he bought a number of tidy little houses and gave them to Habitat for Humanity; he gave full college scholarships to four high school students from low-income families and endowed a fund to continue that practice; he bought a musical instrument for every promising child in the city schools who could not afford one, and paid for lessons. He rented a one-room apartment over a hardware store and got a job as custodian in the neighborhood junior high school.  The income just meets his needs. He takes pride in his work. The students like him, and find it easy to tell him their troubles. The teachers and guidance counselors know this, and often send students to him. He listens to them while he is mopping or sweeping or cleaning a bathroom. Although he misses his wife and children and always will, he has never been happier.

21

She makes jewelry from silver wire and semi-precious stones:  birds’ nests and flowers, intricate weavings, tiny children on swings. If she went to a high-end city or had a classy website, she’d make a great deal of money, but she sells her things at craft fairs and local markets. She determines the price of each item by the way she feels about the person who wants to buy it. She once sold a pendant— a silver rabbit under a garnet-studded tree attached to a chain of hand-made links—for five dollars, to a teenaged boy who wanted something nice for his mother.  And once, she sold a pair of hammered hoop earrings—that took half an hour to make—for one hundred twenty dollars, just because she saw the woman who wanted them slapping a little dog.  Her studio is in the old bungalow where she lives with her own little dog. She doesn’t consider herself “religious,” and indeed, she doesn’t think she knows what that word means, but she puts a blessing on everything that she makes, hoping that the people who wear them, or even touch them, will find peace. And somehow, people do, even the woman who slapped the little dog.

22.

She is the pastor of a small church in a small town. Because the church cannot afford to pay a full-time salary, she is also a substitute teacher in the elementary school. Because the rectory is large and she is single, she takes in overflow from the homeless shelter. When her brother asks her if she is afraid to do that, she laughs and says she’d be afraid not to. “Angels unawares,” she says. “Whatever you do unto the least.” Her parishioners worry about her. They think she doesn’t eat right, and they bring her casseroles. She has three cats, Patience, Prudence and Mephistopheles. She does not talk about her past.

23.

He lives with his family in an old farmstead on a back road. He grows vegetables and raises chickens and pigs. The pigs till the ground for the broccoli and tomatoes; the chickens fertilize the soil and pick out the seeds and bugs. He kills the animals quickly, with thanks. He picks the vegetables the same way. Although he could command high prices at specialty shops, he sells his eggs and produce and meat from a shop that was once the creamery connected to his old barn. People come from miles around and often stay to chat because, as one regular customer says, they always “feel better, knowing there is such a good man in the world.”  His wife has MS and can no longer help in the field, but his teenaged daughter and son work after school and all summer, and a retired farmer nearby always comes by to help during the time of the pig slaughter. “We’re lucky,” he says. “We have so much to be grateful for.”

24.

He takes photos for a local weekly newspaper and regularly exhibits photos in local art galleries. His portraits are especially arresting, and he has won journalism awards for several. One reviewer of his work wrote, “His ability to capture the feelings of his subjects is almost uncanny.” He does not talk much about how he works, and when asked, he smiles and says, “I guess it’s just intuition.” Always respectful, never intrusive, his presence at community events—even tragedies—seems to have a calming effect on the people around him. One woman whom he photographed as her house was burning down, said, “It’s like I knew if he was here, everything would be okay.” His wife is Methodist, but he is a member of a Quaker meeting, and he practices walking meditation regularly.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM, part 3

13.

He studies birds. He knows where wood ducks winter. He builds houses for bluebirds and gathers roadkill to feed the crows. He can imitate cardinals and robins, six species of sparrow and ten of warbler. Chickadees, titmouses, nuthatches, goldfinches all eat out of his hand. There are no luxuries in his small house. He has no companion, not even a cat. When he was young, he was a professor of zoology. Now, he says, he professes nothing but ignorance and love.

14.

She is a potter. She lives on a dead-end street in a northern town. Her studio is a shed attached to her bungalow. She was once married to a man who left her for another. Every morning, after her breakfast, she goes into the studio to work. She sings blessings into the clay so that the people who use the cups and bowls will feel happier and stronger. After lunch, she walks into town for a cup of coffee, which she drinks at a table outdoors if the weather is nice. People stop and talk to her, and she listens. In the afternoons, she walks and reads and in the summer, she tends her small garden. She sells her pottery at a local craft guild and online, and because her cups and bowls are beautiful and useful, she makes enough money to get by. She has two rescued rabbits who have the run of the house.

15.

He is a chaplain in a large institutional nursing home. Most of the patients live in double rooms with very few of their own possessions. Many have dementia, and many have no visitors. He makes the rounds six days a week, visiting each resident in rotation, and responding to emergencies and requests as they arise. Because there are not quite enough staff members, he knows how to change clothing and bedding and manage wheelchairs. He has a pleasant singing voice, and several of the residents enjoy singing hymns with him. On Sunday mornings, he conducts a simple worship service with music led by volunteers from local churches. Nearly every week, he conducts a funeral. He lives with his wife, who works in a yarn shop, in a modest house near the nursing home. They have two children: a daughter who is a pre-med student at the state university, and a son in high school who hopes to be a professional guitarist. Both of the children are easy-going, and they often attend the Sunday worship at the nursing home and talk with the residents there.

16.

She stays at home with her two young children and also cares for two neighbor children whose mothers work part-time. Her husband is trying to establish a car-detailing business, and she also does his bookkeeping.  She has been a social worker, and because she wants to stay in touch with the profession, she is on the board of directors of a local service agency. She also volunteers at their food pantry on Saturday mornings, when she can leave the children with one of the neighbors. Food pantry clients like her very much because she is fair and clear, and “treats them like real people.” Sometimes her fellow board members are annoyed with her for the same reasons.

17.

When she was a little girl, she always wore snow pants under her dress. The other children at school laughed at her because her shoes had cardboard soles and because she smelled bad. Now she is a buyer for a big New York department store. At work, she dresses like an ad in the New York Times, but at home she doesn’t. She lives in a one-bedroom walk-up in Turtle Bay instead of Uptown. Wherever she goes—Paris, Rome, London—she carries a pocketful of the local cash, which she gives to any beggar who asks. She has established a shoe and clothing fund back in the town where she came from, so that all the children can have decent shoes and something nice to wear. She also serves as a mentor for children who have been abused.

18.

She has a severe brain disorder and takes medicine, but she still suffers. She lives in a small apartment in the city, and many people in the neighborhood know her and greet her when they see her on the street. For many years, she has cared passionately about endangered chimpanzees, and she sends letters to local newspapers encouraging people to drink only shade grown coffee and to eat less beef. She has four godchildren, and out of her disability income, she buys them books for their birthdays. She sits in meditation for several hours each day, and keeps a prayer list of more than one hundred names.

TZADIKIM NISTARIM, part 2

These people are all made up, but of course they are made up of bits and pieces of reality, since that’s all any writer has to work with.

 

 

7.

She is a rural mail carrier. She carries dog biscuits and knows all the dogs on her route by name. When she must get out of her truck to deliver a package, every dog is happy to see her–even the ones with reputations. Although nothing “keeps her from her appointed rounds,” if she meets someone by the mailbox, she always has time to chat. Two of the people on her route are disabled, and cannot shovel around their mailboxes on snowy days, so she keeps a shovel in her jeep and does it for them. She has quietly replaced the mailboxes of several people with very low incomes when their boxes were smashed by vandals. She bakes bread on Sunday afternoons. When she found out that an elderly farmer on her route used to love the homemade bread made by his late wife, she began making extra loaves and every Monday she brings one to him. She and her husband have three children. Their oldest son, who is seventeen years old,  is a drug addict, so she and her husband are part of a parents‘ group at a counseling center. Their thirteen year old daughter is already an accomplished gymnast, and their ten year old son likes to read. She sings alto in a community chorus and in her church’s choir, and in both, she is known for her good humor as well as her pleasant voice.

8.

He is an actor who teaches at a small community college and directs a community theater. When he is not on stage, he is insignificant and goes unnoticed on the streets. When he is on stage, he is unforgettable. Without being sentimental, he can make people cry. Without showing off, he can make people laugh. Once his wife told him that as she left the theater after a perfomance, she overheard someone say, “I don’t know what happened there, but it opened all the windows and doors in my heart.” He considers that the justification for his life.

9.

She is the manager at a busy food coöp. Her desk is covered with piles of papers, and her telephone rings often. Staff members and board members are in and out of her office all day long. If she is on the telephone when someone comes into the office, she smiles and gestures them into a comfortable chair, and returns to the telephone call.  When she is listening to someone sitting in the chair and the telephone rings, she does not answer it. It rings twice, and the caller is directed to leave a message, which she will return as soon as her present conversation is completed. At home, she follows the same practice; her wife and their three children know that she will not interrupt, or be interrupted. She enjoys doing counted cross-stich embroidery, and grows dahlias that win prizes at the fair.

10.

She makes indexes for history text books. She lives alone in a small house on the bank of a river. Every day for twenty years, in sll weathers, she has walked the same path.  She keeps notes about what she sees: when the kingfishers return, when the alder buds open, tracks of raccoons and possums in the mud or snow.  Once each week she drives her old car into town to buy groceries and to have lunch at a diner that she likes. The people in town say she’s a “character,” and she knows that, but she doesn’t mind. She carries prayer beads in her pocket. Every day she prays for everyone in the town.

11.

He owns a laundromat on the corner of a busy street in a rundown neighborhood in a rundown city. His prices are low. He offers free coffee and bread and jam to his customers. Instead of tattered magazines, he keeps a shelf of books that he buys or gets for free at book sales:  books about birds and flowers, travel books, small volumes of poems by little-known poets. He doesn’t mind if people take the books home. The people who come in regularly sometimes talk about the books while they drink their coffee and wait for their clothes to dry.

12.

She cleans rooms and hallways in the big city hospital. She mops the floors and washes the windows and dusts the tables and cleans the sinks and showers and toilets. Sometimes she has to wear a mask. Usually she is working early in the morning, before the visitors come, and before the doctors make their rounds. Sometimes patients talk to her.  Sometimes they tell her that they’re afraid, or that they want to go home, or that their family doesn’t like to visit very much. She is quiet and listens carefully, and when she answers, she always says something that helps.  One of the doctors, a new resident, has noticed her and thinks that she is the best medicine in the hospital, but he hasn’t told her. If he did, he thinks she would be embarrassed, and that is true.

TZADIKIM NISTARIMv, part one

Tzadikim Nistarim

There is a tradition in mystical Judaism that there are 36 Hidden Righteous Ones on Earth. 

Because of them, God allows the world to continue. 

They do not know who they are, and according to tradition, if you think you are one, you most definitely are not.  

I have not written about anyone in, say, Ivory Coast, or Brazil, or Turkey,

only because the culture of the U.S. is the only one I know well.  

1.

She is a clerk in a store that sells pet toys, tropical fish, little coats and boots for dogs, kitty litter and litter pans of various kinds, bird cages and dogfood and catfood by the can or bag or case lot.  She spends most of her working day standing at a cash register adding up purchases and calculating exchanges and returns. People tell her about the problems they have getting their elderly dogs to eat and about how their cats regurgitate all but one special food that’s hard to find. She always listens carefully and with deep sympathy. When she goes home at night, if her husband is home (he is a truck driver), they make supper together and usually they watch sports or animal programs on television, though sometimes they play cards.  On Saturday evenings, they get together with neighbors:  sometimes for a potluck and a video, sometimes for pizza and a movie in a theater. Their daughter, who is a nurse in a hosptial in Haiti, calls every Wednesday. Their son died when he was a baby, so Hospice relies on her to sit with people whose young children are terminally ill.

2.

He is a retired farmer who enjoys training young horses to work in the woods. He takes long walks in the morning on the country road where he lives with his wife who works as a school secretary. He waves at every car that passes whether he knows the driver or not, and he speaks with everyone who is walking or bicycling on the road. He has leased his land and his big barn to a young couple who have a small herd of goats and who hope eventually to buy the property. He helps them, sometimes, when they ask for help. He still sings in the choir of the Reformed Church he has attended since he was a child. His own children, three girls and two boys, are not interested in farming or religion, and have moved away to nearby cities. He is very proud of them and when they come home to visit, he always enjoys his time with them.

3.

She has taught kindergarten for thirty-five years. Some of her current students are the children of some of her first students. She knits mittens and hats and keeps them in a box in her classroom for children who need them. In the winter, she has a basket of little tangerines on her desk for the children to take whenever they’d like. She lives alone in a small house near the school, and in the summer she enjoys seeing the children walking past to play in the school playground. In her yard are five bird feeders and three bird baths, one of which is heated in the winter. She also feeds a possum, five gray squirrels and, she thinks, a skunk, though she has never seen it. She grows flowers in a small patch of ground behind her house and brings bunches of them to the old people who live on her street. Although she was raised Catholic, she considers herself a pagan. When the moon is full, she stands in her backyard in her bare feet (in the summer; in winter she wears her boots) and whispers an old Irish prayer she learned when she was a girl.

4.

He is a barrista in a small-town coffee shop. He is large and tattooed and takes medicine for anxiety. He lives in a two room apartment over a bookshop. He does not sleep well. He remembers his customers and what they like to drink. He is not sure if he believes in a god, but he prays over the drinks as he makes them, one by one, with great care. People tell him he makes the best espresso in town. People tell him their troubles and he listens. He often gives coffee and muffins to homeless people and subtracts the cost from his salary.

5.

She is a retired English professor. Her husband has dementia and she is still able to care for him at home. Since she can’t often go out, people visit her, and she serves them homemade cookies and tea. A book group meets at her house once a month. There are six people in the group. They are rereading the classics. Three times each week, when the respite care-giver comes for two hours, she usually goes for a long walk and has coffee in a coffee shop she likes before she buys groceries or runs other errands.  Her two sons did not approve of this second marriage, and do not call, but she writes to them every week, simply describing the weather and the books she has read.  She has always had a green thumb, but now has no garden. Her houseplants are astonishingly beautiful, and she shares cuttings with everyone who asks.

6.

He is an artist. He paints single colors on large canvases because he loves colors. No one has ever bought one of his paintings, so he stacks them in a room in the large house where he lives with his husband and their six cats. He teaches art in a high school and two elementary schools. Three of his former students are now well known. Since his husband is a doctor who works long hours, he is also the primary house-keeper. He enjoys hosting dinners for the neighbors, all of them, even the ones who didn’t approve. Now they do.

THE NEXT DAY

THE NEXT DAY

The women awakened before it was light

and gathered together some things she’d need.

They found her there, curled on her makeshift bed,

clumsily nursing the child at her breast.

Her husband was still sound asleep.

 

Surely the men were crazy, all the commotion.

Angels and voices in the sky.

A warrior or a king, or somesuch

come to free them from their lot.

Well that was fine.

 

But here was the inexperienced mother.

They covered the straw with the cloth they had brought,

and settled the baby more comfortably.

They fed her the potion

to make the blood stop and the milk come down.

A few sparrows stirred awake in the rafters.

No sign of an angel anywhere.

MY IMAGINARY FRIEND: Prompt #39

MY IMAGINARY FRIEND

Prompt #39

The poor thing can’t sit still.

She cries a lot, wrings her hands.

 

I ask her to come outside with me

but she wants to sit under the table

 

in the dark. She wants to tell me

stories about the terrible things

 

that happened, or might happen.

She’s fussy about her fingernails,

 

the fit of her socks. She goes to bed

at the same time every night and rises

 

every morning at sunrise

or just before. She never has time

 

for anything important, and

she never does anything

 

trivial. I don’t take her anywhere

but she follows and precedes me

 

everywhere, asking, asking,

Who is to blame?

 

What do you want?
Who is imaginary? What is real?

IT IS A SEASON FOR STRANGE DREAMS

IT IS A SEASON FOR STRANGE DREAMS

It is a season for strange dreams:

The white elk who crashed through

the front window and stood staring

with pale blue eyes before dissolving

out the back door. The child

who offered to give me his tricycle

for my daily commute. The president-

elect as an audiologist who cleaned

the wax from my ears and loaned me

his denim coat because I said I was cold.

LEAVES

LEAVES

 

The tree is dropping her leaves to save

herself for winter. She has nothing

to do with me. What’s the point in saving

things? The trees don’t.

Everything they need now

is underground. I will not be defined by

souvenirs. Between the pages of books

I no longer read, old leaves crumble to brown.

Memory is sepia.

Turn the leaves to ground.