Trigger Warning: I’m gonna talk today about grief, AGAIN. But also joy. So if that particular cocktail of the human condition is not what you need just now, come back another day! You have my blessing.
Today is a difficult anniversary. It’s one year since my older brother died, and the whirlwind of suffering that marked the last few years of his life spun out into the universe, leaving those who love him to make meaning of his passing, each in our way.
It’s oddly fitting that he died during Advent, my favorite liturgical season on the Anglican calendar: Advent is about hope. It celebrates the surety of light, with full acknowledgement that this moment is bone-achingly damp-cold and pitilessly dark, each day shorter, the sun shyer, more elusive. What else is faith but an unwavering, irrational assertion that hope lives and light shines even in the darkest circumstance? It’s the Hanukkah story, too— I’ve always loved the confluence of traditions, defying our immature, human insistence that our own narrative, Christian or Jew, Hindu, Muslim (or atheist), has an exclusive lock on truth. Because there is only one truth, and that is Love, and every tradition proclaims it. None of us owns it. It would be so productive if our species could stop bickering about whose version of Love is superior.
I asked my husband and kids to grant me some space today, because I wanted to mark this anniversary intentionally, although I couldn’t articulate quite how and had no concrete plan other than to begin the day in meditation and see where it flowed from there. Vaguely, I thought I would dance, I would listen to music, I would look at my journal from the last year and maybe pick a poem to edit, I’d spend some time outside in Nature, I would pray for my parents, my brothers and their wives, my nieces and nephews and their children, and other friends who adored my older brother. So when I remembered my friend Robyn’s Nia class at 10, just after slurping down my coffee and closing my browser from a last-minute bout of Christmas shopping, I scampered out of my jammies and into workout clothes.
As Robyn’s music began, a shiver of recognition: I, too, teach this playlist “Ocean Drive,” with music by a 90’s pop duo I’d been unfamiliar with, “Lighthouse Family.” The very first song is possibly the most perfect lyric imaginable for a fraught anniversary in this season calling us each to embrace our version of faith—in love, or justice, in creativity, or beauty, whatever is Divine for you—when darkness gathers round. So rather than spend all day wrestling with a blank page, I think I will let their music hold the space for me instead, for all of us, who KNOW there is light on even the blackest night, and soldier on, some joyfully, some doggedly, some out of habit, some out of a deep impulse we cannot name. Like the sun in the night, we burn bright, we choose joy, we love, we live.
How many times in your life have you ever had the feeling That the way you live is crazy and there must be something else When you look at the sky does it ever cross your mind There could be something you’ve forgotten that won’t ever go away
Like the sun in the night Like the sun in the night You’ll always be with me baby, be in my soul You’ll always be with me, wherever I go
“Sun in the Night” is followed by my favorite song in the playlist, one that always unlocks my heart. It’s called “Lifted,” and features a rousing chorus complete with Gospel back-up singers. I danced to this song countless times over the last year as I processed the weight of grief, the stress of lockdown, the weirdness of this political moment, and the most profound gratitude for the well-being of my family, for my home, my safety, my health, my friends, healthcare professionals, delivery people, grocery store workers, anyone who wears a mask for the good of others even though it’s a pain in the ass and none of us likes it, non-partisan election officials of any political party, the birds, the sky, the earth:
I’d really love to be alone without all the Ache and pain and the April showers But it ain’t long before I long for you, like a Ray of hope, coming through the blue moon
When it all gets dark again The whole thing falls apart I guess It doesn’t really matter ’bout the rain ‘Cause we’ll get through it anyway We’ll get up and start again
‘Cause we could be lifted, lifted, lifted We could be Lifted From the shadows, lifted Oh we could be, lifted up today Lifted all the way, you and I forever Baby, lifted, lifted, lifted, hey
Click play and dance! And may your spirits be lifted this holiday season.
I’m not in great shape this week. As Massachusetts has opened up and I’ve ventured into the waters—tentatively, just a toe here, a foot there—of life as we knew it, you’d think I’d feel relief. I have felt joy in the moment: It was fun, for example, gathering with six friends from my singing group, not singing, of course, as that’s a proven corona scourge. We arranged ourselves a good 8 to 10 feet apart around the edge of the pool, blinking almost uncomprehendingly at the marvelous light of other human beings. Thursday, I co-taught a live Nia class in a public park, pleased to join in with the obvious delight of students freed from their little Zoom boxes, reaching high and far into the welcoming air. Friday evening, we went to a friend’s socially-distanced, outdoor retirement party, three couples graciously spaced in elegant pairings across the vast patio, the retiree and his family seated together, flowers on tables, candles lit, the evening air sunny, warm, remarkably bugfree, all suffused with simple delight in long-held friendships
After these gatherings, I haven’t felt relief, but rather a bone-deep weariness that I recognize as grief’s calling card. I miss my life. I miss my friends. I miss the sense of safety I had in moving thoughtlessly through the world, not looking over my shoulder to see if you are six feet away in the grocery aisle, not tugging my mask quickly up as I see you running towards me on the trails in the woods, not dancing like an idiot to the winking eye of my laptop camera, hoping somehow you are having an experience of substance in your family room or on your porch. I worry about my adult son in Texas, where responsible self-restraint in the name of public health might earn you a fist in your masked-face. I miss the version of myself who was naturally cheerful and optimistic, who didn’t bristle at minor frustrations or tear up at imagined slights or feel sadness always sitting heavily in my gut like an undigested meal, gumming up the works and making me sleepy.
I am angry and I am tired BUT I am not giving up the fight. I try to commit to making each day count by creating something beautiful, a meal, a poem, a loaf of fresh bread, a refrigerator scrubbed into sparkling freshness, purged of months of congealed soy sauce spills and Beetlejuice-like shrunken vegetables fallen behind drawers. Somedays, it’s all I can do to muster an appreciative thought. Yesterday, it was gratitude for the silver, wolf-pelt bark of a grand white pine I noticed on the trail, perched on a streambank, its bulbous roots rounding pawlike into the slope. Walking across a field back to my car, I saw a red tail hawk on a red fence rail, which pleased me because it sounds like a line from a children’s picture book. Later, walking a different trail with Cordie, a great blue heron took flight from behind a massive stand of rhododendrons, the flash of a deer’s white tail bobbed over the ferns before disappearing around a granite outcropping. The simple act of noticing these fleeting gifts feels like something, anyway. I know that I am exceedingly blessed to live so close to Nature.
At the retirement party on Friday, one friend asked the group: so what new skills have you picked up during quarantine? I love that question, the making-lemonade of it. Bread-baking, I answered. And pickling. I’m not going to say I’ve become remotely skilled at poem-making, but I have developed an interest in writing poetry, and a fondness for the sense of murky-depths-plumbing combined with spirit-channeling it evokes in me. Here’s a skill I am definitely honing in quarantine/post-quarantine: noticing.
I’ll leave you with a couple of poems I’ve been working on in the last few weeks. I never quite know if I am done with them, or if they are done with me. But they are on their way. I hope I haven’t made you sad. I hope instead my words might help surface some slippery fish that’s been swimming below the surface of your awareness, so that it can splash up into the air and catch a little light before it flops, silvery, back into the water.
Juneteenth / Solstice
How do the chains feel? I mean that sincerely; I wouldn’t know. It is not your job to answer me, you who do.
I try to feel the metal bite Cut my ankles and affirm: Yes, this is human; I know it, too, but I don’t.
Your ancestors drank tears, tasted rage, Muscled, sang you into being, Patient, angry. You could seek revenge, but you don’t.
I only sing the grace you know That dance is joy and music life; Unshackled, we might move as one, if you want;
That love is all in all and all And you know better far than I How to steel oneself through dark: The soul shines.
A summer sun floats over dusk As creatures prick their ears; Great alchemy of planets spinning time Carbon falling like stars through air Into crickets and you and me— My dogs your mom those friends this tree that asshole an enemy— My love, we are one.
It scared the hell out of me When earth opened its hungry maw Swallowing stone, trees, turf, Little bees, soft moss, Gulped it down fresh-caught-fish whole Leaving a no-place of asphyxiated beauty. Weariness weighted my bones And so I raged.
Little girl, don’t you know how I fear for you? My fierce heart quakes that earth may shuck us, And yet you comfort me. One claw is longer than your tender throat. When did you learn that shambling hunt For glory in a dumpster, Mourning weft and weave of all-being shorn? You console with gentle pats, And so I bow.
I bow to you, my daughter. I will not bear my teeth at hope. I lay a salmon at your roots. Paws heavy with honey, I roar to the moonlight, And pirouette with motes at dawn. Cold river water soothes My ragged, wooly, ursine soul, And so I swim.
You have to know: I will not let you cross the wasteland With no talisman of ferocious, shaggy love To protect you. And so we go.
It’s been a challenging few weeks since Memorial Day. My dead brother’s birthday and the sombre occasion of the sixth month anniversary of his passing; our dad’s 85th birthday, celebrated in isolation, yet another bittersweet Zoom moment; the “reopening” of Massachusetts, tentatively, carefully orchestrated by our local leaders. I sense the thoroughbred in the gate, waiting to explode back into the race as increasingly, people cast aside the constraints of distancing and masks. And these emotional challenges in my small personal world collide with the unspeakable shock of the broader human family: so many images of violence in our society, so much hate and othering, a President not passing on a single opportunity to demonstrate pettiness, meanness, impulsivity, preening stubbornness, divisiveness and bombast. His ego’s more fragile than your great-grandmother’s wrist-bone; he’s soap-bubble tough. When the current moment calls for empathy, wisdom, calm, a thick skin, the guts to take potshots with humility and equanimity, a mind eager to listen and learn, and a spirit driven to knit together strands of difference with patchwork care, he gives us: Tweets. Baby-man, baby-bird morsels of me-ness. Our president is a pugilistic toddler, rude and tyrannical, the kind of pint-sized terrorist who makes life a living hell not only for his own parents, but for everyone else at the pizza parlor. If he were my kid, he’d spend the better part of his day in time-outs until he developed some manners and self-control.
I mean no disrespect, by the way, to his followers. I understand the attraction, although it seems like I wouldn’t. There’s a phrase in Samuel Beckett that I love; it was the title of my college undergraduate thesis: “Wailing for substance.” The president gives voice to it, a primal howl of insecurity that is profoundly human, a desperate wail against our essential irrelevance in a meaningless void. It resonates. Times will change. We will die. Some people can accept these inevitabilities with something approaching equanimity, or humor, or humility. Others rage. Who can say why we each react as we do? The President may tell more lies than a cheating husband in church, but he speaks to an important emotional truth— our fundamental terror of change, an existential fear that the only game is the zero-sum game, where another’s gain is by definition my loss. And let’s not forget, the President is a skilled showman, a highly successful TV programmer. Just like your favorite series that lasted a season or two past its natural expiration, he’s going to come up with increasingly outrageous plot twists to keep his audience’s attention. The storyteller in me is grudgingly impressed. As exasperated as more casual viewers may become by this continual amping up, for true fans, there is natural, earned loyalty to a beloved show. He delivers for them. They are entitled to like him.
And I’m entitled to wish he’d shut up and, oh, I dunno, maybe just go play some more golf.
Meanwhile, police armed like Star Wars storm troopers do battle with a citizenry that has been (at times) rowdy and (understandably) angry, but predominantly UNARMED. I don’t doubt cops are scared. Just to put on all that battle gear—I can see why they feel they are at war. Being a cop is a pretty thankless job, doing the work of social workers and doctors and teachers and parents and also law enforcement officers in a world that becomes ever more friable and tense. They must be frustrated as hell. But that’s no excuse for killing and harrassing Black people in their bedrooms, in their cars, on their porches, in their neighborhoods, and then denying that there’s any pattern of racial injustice. It’s not just the police who enforce systemic racism, white people like me do as well: We call the cops on Black birdwatchers in Central Park or Starbucks customers in Philadelphia or Harvard professors opening their own front door in Cambridge, MA. It’s infuriating that we are all still stuck in this centuries- old minuet that oppresses decent people who are just asking to be treated the same as I am. To those who deny there is such a thing as white privilege, I can only scratch my head, because I have lived, benefitted by, and perpetuated it. I am sorry. I am trying to learn and do better. This persistent racism holds us all back from becoming a fuller, more vibrant society.
As for the protests, the “combatants” look to be mostly kids to me: tattooed, impassioned twenty-and-thirty somethings, except for the occasional gentle septuagenarian and lifelong peacenik getting knocked down and out. A friend of my daughter’s went to an orderly protest in Cambridge last week and walked past a group of local cops leaning up against a TANK. Rubber bullets, body armor, batons and tear gas. Yes, looting is bad. Damaging property, also bad. But shouting and demanding change? That’s the American way. Where were the rubber bullets and tear gas at the “reopen” protests, with AK-47-toting protesters storming state capitals demanding that unarmed beaurocrats open barber shops and nail salons in the middle of a pandemic? The cops just let those protesters, mostly white, do their thing, and it went fine. Such inconsistencies are precisely why we need to intelligently, thoughtfully dismantle and re-envision a system that has so much injustice and flawed human instinct baked right into it. We do this all the time, replace dated technology, for example, upgrading to the lastest phone or trading in a car for a new model. Our economy prizes such innovation in the private sector. We should welcome it in our social fabric as well. It heartens me to think the protests of the last two weeks, as painful and concerning as they have felt, are the necessary birth pangs towards America 3.0, a society that more fully embodies the Constitutional promise that all we all are created equal and entitled to full equity in every aspect of our social, economic, political and judicial systems. Birth is messy and painful, as anyone who’s done it knows.
Throughout the mess, I feel increasingly drawn to poetry. I wish I were Mary Oliver, that I could saturate the page with so much meaning, so much TRUTH, in so few words. I want to listen more than I want to speak. (This is hard when there is so much yelling.) I have so many questions and my way to answer them is to read and listen and learn. I try, with varying results, to soften my views, rather than dig in. Certainty has become de rigeur in our country, with pundits excoriating nuance in every corner of media, as if merely to hold an opinion is proof of its accuracy and value. Our motto as a culture has become “if I’m this angry, I must be right.” (Last time I got insane angry was two weeks ago when I misread a UPS ticket about a missed pickup; I was 100% wrong.) It’s boorish and exhausting. What ever happened to curiosity?
So I read: Ibram Kendi, Claudia Rankine, Austin Channing Brown. I try to learn. I turn to the quiet of the woods. I turn on music and dance, curious to stir up the murky sediment of feelings that settles at the bottom of my heart.
So much makes me sad. So much makes me hopeful.
Happy Hour (On Wednesday)
I am walking my grief In June-green woods Where living vines twine Over fallen logs feeding Roots of towering trees and starry hawthorne winking As birds chatter-call — Robin, redwing, mourning dove; Across tufted fields of wildflowers, White, purple, teal, Past stone walls built by shadow people Long dead constructing their dreams One weighty rock atop another Swatting mosquitos at the ears Waterbugs dancing on streams pollen-thick Time folding, in, over, down Until I am with my children again Singing on these trails At this abandoned foundation telling Its charred story of olden days When other families lit fires here As we also are huddling. A new era of viral yearning Unspools from our hearts like wisteria, Or that meandering wall tumbling Broken through trees.
Today would have been my brother Randy’s 62nd birthday. He’s come into my mind a lot over the last few weeks, but particularly these last few days. It truly sucks that he’s gone. The manner of his death (suicide, after a two-year battle with a degenerative auto-immune disorder causing incessant pain and loss of function, and a whomping case of anxiety and depression) continues to be a heavy truth to carry. There are days when I call out to the whispering trees “goddamn you, Randy” and others when I feel the absence of his humor and shaman-like flashes of insight like a deep, internal bruise. He would have suffered unspeakably in this time. The pandemic would have scared the crap out of him. Even if he didn’t get infected, he probably would either have a.) been convinced he was or b.) lived in terror of it or c.) wanted to.
But the insanity of these last few weeks of stupefying police brutality would have cut him to the core. Randy hated the Man. He’d had a few runs-ins with cops in his day, nice, white-kid dust-ups, the kinds my son had, issues having to do with cars or booze or drugs, coming-of-age “crimes”: The sort of encounters where, in the suburban white America where I live, you get a stern look and a wrist slap, or maybe a written warning. Elsewhere, Black young men are killed for less. At worst, in my world, your affluent parents hire a fancy lawyer to make whatever you did—sold a few joints or passed out drunk on someone’s private property—go away. In an extreme case, you’d maybe get handcuffed to a Kansas state trooper’s kitchen stove for “a night on the county’s hospitality,” as Randy did in his late teens when clocking 100 mph on I-70 returning from a summer job as a roustabout in Oklahoma, one of many gigs our resourceful dad produced in the hopes of protecting his wild son from himself, of containing him in a more compliant, predictable life than the boy was ever going to tolerate.
Devoted to 60’s and 70’s rock music, Randy was ten years too young for Woodstock, but at 14, he defied our parents and hitchhiked upstate to its successor, the Summer Jam of ‘73 at Wadkins Glen, where The Allman Brothers, The Band, and The Grateful Dead headlined the bill. These bands obsessed Randy. A drummer himself, he studied Butch Trucks like a treasure map, listening over and over to “Eat a Peach,” brushing the easy rhythms of “Blue Sky” and “Jessica” on his drum kit for hours. I remember when I first encountered T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” in high school English class my senior year: Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? / I shall wear white flannel trousers and walk upon the beach. / I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me. Dang. Duane Allman, citing T.S. Eliot. Randy was at BU at that time, shoplifting steaks under his parka from the Star Market in Kenmore Square with his roommate. Those words, “Eat a Peach” wafted into my gothic prep-school classroom like bong smoke from his bedroom at the far side of our rambling childhood home. We were different: I was compliant where Randy rebelled—the expected gendered response for a girl, but also a survival move on my part. Yet I loved him without reserve, if with a little fear (well, a lot of fear, sometimes). Although he missed the hippie generation by a few years, Randy was an iconoclast, an idealist, a truth-teller of sorts, and the shadows of Woodstock, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and Watergate were formative for him. His deep mistrust of authority was both innate to his temperament and earned by dint of that time. To him, police were unimaginative bullies legitimized only by badges, entrusted with enforcing a system that was, in a word, stupid.
We had a beachside memorial for Randy the week after he died, on December 21, the winter solstice. His five kids and their respective spouses/fiancé(e)s, his wife and her younger brother, our brother Welles and his wife Liz, John and I, huddled together in a tight circle on Crane’s Beach, just a mile from the rambling hilltop house that had been his home until a year before. We were all still in shock that after suffering for over two years, trying desperately to stay with us, to keep living for his kids, who he loved more than breathing, and his wife, who although they became estranged during his illness, he never stopped feeling was the love of his life, Randy decided one late afternoon (Friday the 13th it happens) that he just couldn’t do it anymore. He felt too broken for repair; the promise of relief for his autoimmune condition too slim; his path forward too shambling, frantic and, he felt, burdensome to his family. As we shivered and looked out at the tranquil, wintery ocean that he’d loved so profoundly, a beach ranger drove up and parked fifty yards away. He climbed out of his SUV and headed towards us purposefully. Welles started laughing, shaking his head incredulously; Randy’s older son Tristan joined in. We were all thinking the same thing: Of course, the “pigs” would show up to investigate this perfectly innocent gathering. If we couldn’t actually hear Randy’s signature cackling laugh, we could well imagine it. He would have spun an effortless comic riff on the absurdity of the moment, his eagle-talons for irony pouncing on the idiocy of a beach cop striding with Rambo-like swagger to break up our sweet, sad memorial service. Randy’s brother-in-law—a brilliant, empathetic chap who’d come to support his sister through the surreal awkwardness of this death of the husband who she no longer wanted to live with, but nonetheless had loved passionately for decades, and certainly never wished dead—jogged off for a few words with the trooper. He’s a Brit (the brother-in-law, not the ranger), a tenured professor at UC Berkeley, so after only a few seconds of no doubt impeccably gracious persuasion, Officer Krupke threw us an apologetic wave and headed back to his SUV, curling a donut in the sand and leaving us again to the late afternoon quiet. The minister spoke a few words. His brother, it turns out, had killed himself years ago, so he knew something of the particular grief that families face when you’ve lost your loved one to suicide; the guilt you needn’t feel, but inevitably do; the what-ifs that serve no one and could never have changed this outcome no matter how hard anyone had tried, yet still they wake you at night and you can’t help but wonder; the anger; the love struck down midsentence; the heart-cracking empathy at suffering; the ambivalent surge of relief that it’s over. We went around the circle, sharing memories. My brother and Randy’s two sons stripped to their boxers and ran into the sea with handfuls of ashes, whooping in the cold, hugging, crying. Afterwards, we went up the hill to the house for Randy’s favorite: a seafood dinner cooked by the guys, too much wine, an after-dinner dance party. Everyone had brought their dogs, two of whom got into a fight and locked on hard. Blood spilled. The fiancé(e)s, both nurses, triaged. John and I left to drive the injured dog, along with his owners, my panicked niece and her soothing husband, to the local 24-hour veterinary hospital. It was chaos, the kind that often followed in Randy’s wake. He appreciated the creative power of chaos, there was life in it and possibility, and this was another reason why he distrusted police: any attempt at suppression was anathema to him. He thrived on the unconventional disruptions that make people like me feel queasy.
No question that he was with us that evening.
And I have felt my connection to him these last few days, as more and more instances of police brutality come to light in the US, and protests bloom like algae in August. In his adult life, Randy was a voracious student of world politics, reading into esoteric, left-leaning corners of the internet that I neither understood nor trusted. We’d meet for lunch at the Wagamama in Lynnfield, halfway between us on Route 128. Over steaming bowls of gluten free ramen, he’d describe articles he was reading about CIA plots in places I’d never heard of. I’d feel naïve and conventional countering with The Economist. His distrust of established authority and his disdain for the cynicism of the powerful never left him. He wasn’t particularly “woke” in the sense of having lived extensively in relationship with people of color (not that I am); his life played out in whiter spaces. Yet he was deeply empathetic, with radar keenly attuned to oppression and injustice. I can hear his voice in my mind almost as if he is sitting in the easy chair near my desk off the kitchen as I write, the one he liked best while he was living with us last fall, his computer on his lap, suddenly-ubiquitous walking cane fallen to the floor and a cup of tea at his elbow, holding court with an audience of three (me and the dogs) while I try to ignore him so I can work. “Fuckin’ cops,” I imagine he’d say. Then he’d launch into a free-wheeling impersonation of a power-crazy Minneapolis beat cop losing his shit over a black kid jay-walking, or taking the wrong Starbucks cup by accident. It’d be wildly inappropriate and funny, brilliantly perceptive and painfully true. He was a gifted mimic and his Minnesota accent would be spot-on; he went to hockey camp in Bemidji as a teen and was an avid NHL fan his whole life long. But underneath the humor would be real sadness at the world’s cruelty, a wounded-ness that was the insistent background music in an otherwise pretty joyful adulthood.
One more memory of Randy and the Law is this: I had a graduate fellowship in Ireland after graduating from Princeton, and I left my beloved Honda Civic in our mom’s garage on Long Island. Randy was newly wed and living in Washington D.C. at the time, working at a job he detested writing marketing copy for the RNC, if you can believe that. I guess I must have said he could take my car to D.C. since I wasn’t using it. Looking back, I can’t fathom what I was thinking, given his known history of moving violations, collisions, and generally treating cars like rolling garbage bins. The summer I returned, I got a job in Washington, where my college boyfriend was a summer associate at a law firm. Randy and his new wife Binni were there, too, so it was a win-win to go down there. I stopped by their apartment in Glover Park to pick up my car, but he told me it was parked down the hill in Georgetown, on a little side street off Wisconsin Avenue, about a 15-minute walk away. I arrived to find the Civic booted, the windshield papered over in parking tickets. When I’d paid off the tickets and asked Randy to reimburse me, he was flabbergasted: “You shouldn’t pay them! It’s bullshit. Parking regulations are just a made-up revenue stream for the city. You shouldn’t condone that.” He was perpetually broke but also profoundly non-materialistic. Somehow he could get away with infuriating shit like that and still manage to be incredibly lovable, I think because his spirit was so kind.
I am not suggesting here that parking scofflaws are analogous to protesters resisting police brutality of African-American citizens. Randy and I would agree the current protests are a primal yell that surely now may make the centuries of oppression experienced by Black people visible to those of us who were looking away, who didn’t understand how broken our justice system has become. My brother, if he were alive today to celebrate his birthday, would have understood the crescendo that arises from a deceptively soft brush on the cymbals, that natural temptation police would feel to abuse their power, how quickly a situation gets out of hand when the system is stacked so heavily towards institutional authority. Randy sometimes struggled with impulse control himself (obviously), and he’d have known what a razor’s edge that can be for a person in a stressful situation. He would have easily found the words to express these bizarre times, the tragic unfairness of disease and rising unemployment hitting disenfranchised people with the blunt force of a one-two punch to the face. And much as he hated the Man, he’d also probably have been quicker than many to acknowledge the individual humanity of a cop trying to do the right thing in a system that allows corruption and brutality to fester. All this, he would have conveyed with such quirky humor and heart that I’d laugh until I cried.
Today is my daughter Lucy’s “golden” birthday. She explained at dinner the other night that this is the once-in-a-lifetime occasion when the date of your birthday and your age coincide; she turns 26 on the twenty-sixth. I’ve had in mind to write something to honor her for a few weeks now, but I haven’t found the chutzpah to face the keyboard. I am feeling boggy and flaccid in lockdown. But since it’s a golden birthday, I’m digging deep. I’m going to attempt to write something true.
“True” in my book is rarely about “facts,” and certainly never about politics. What it always concerns itself with is: love, vulnerability, connection, Nature, service, humility. “True” wants our own particular oddity to sing out over the hiss of purse-lipped norms and deep-pocketed narratives telling us we should shut up and conform. I believe young people like Lucy in this moment are aghast: they look out at a world of “adults” steeped in falsehood, wondering WTF is wrong here and why no one seems to name the insanity. Like Jo-jo in “Horton Hears a Who,” we each have our own insistent, potentially world-changing ‘Yopp!’ But can we hope to be heard?
My answer is emphatically: yes.
So here’s a post in honor of my gorgeous, amazing, funny, talented, fierce and bewitchingly unconventional daughter on her golden birthday. I intend a celebration of dignity, vulnerability, intelligence, humor, perseverance and LOVE, panning for gold in these corrosive times. I may not get the words exactly right, and Lucy may be less than appreciative at being singled out for a birthday post. But this act of trying, this attempt at creation, not its product, is my present. “Yopp!”
Here are some snapshots of Lucy over the past 26 years. As a baby, we nicknamed her “the barnacle.” Girl wanted to be held. She’d come to us for an “uppy”, and when we went to put her down because it was time to cook dinner or mow the lawn or do something that required free hands, we had to pry her little fingers off our arms, while she cinched her legs ever more tightly around our waists. She was like one of those clamp-on koala toys you used to see hugging schoolchildren’s pencils–adorable and ferociously attached. When she was about three years old, we decided we should take away her pacifier because it interfered with her speech, the family dentist muttering ominously about the cost of future orthodontia and speech therapy. I will never forget the dark look Lucy gave us as we packed away the “boppies,” telling her some bullshit we’d read in a parenting book about how they were just “going away on a little boppy trip,” and she was brave and strong and didn’t need them anymore, so didn’t she want them to go off and have fun? She regarded us furiously, her bittersweet-chocolate eyes seeing right through us to the quivering, insecure core of our parent-selves. We were doing this to her because we could, because we believed some book we’d read, or pediatric waiting room nurse, more than we could acknowledge the extraordinary depth of her attachment. We had the power, and we were exercising it. Her look said: “Make no mistake. You will pay for this.” I was 37 and she was just three, but I knew I had come up against a force. This regal presence of the pure self in a child is precious. I believe Lucy might say she has lost touch with that presence, its essence siphoned off by the effort of growing up female in a profoundly sexist culture, the trauma of incarnation in your own unique body, or maybe by being so damned imaginative and intelligent that you anticipate disaster at every turn. Perhaps, it’s just simple forgetting. But I saw it in her. I know who she really is: A goddess, filled with love and power and righteous wrath.
When she was a little girl, Lucy had this great gravelly voice, throaty and deep. I could listen to it all day, and often did, the little crumbles tumbling forth unexpectedly, her hoots of enthusiasm crackling into sudden silence, as if the thing, whatever it was, joy or outrage, just couldn’t be communicated. It wasn’t only her speaking voice: She sang and sang and SANG, raspy, but unerringly on-pitch. Songs bubbled out of her like a natural spring, songs she knew, ones she made up, sometimes just tones erupting into the air for the sheer, physical delight of making sound. So much of her core self has to do with expression.
She was also fearful, her brow knitting anxiously at the sound of a mourning dove, or the tall, “scary trees” on the trails we walked daily. As a new reader, she read the warning on the toothpaste tube about potentially toxic ingestion, and thereafter had to be coaxed nightly to brush her teeth. Lucy clung to me anxiously at first grade pickup, tearfully complaining that it scared her when I was late. By late, she meant, “not first.” I’m neurotically reliable, so I always arrived ahead of time. But other parents were earlier than me. I explained to her the difference between “late” and “not first.” She thought about it, then said emphatically, “so be first.” I loved that directness in speaking her needs. I’m sorry if life, and social mores for women, plus probably a few choice parenting deficits, has occasionally tempered that candor in her. But make no mistake, she has a voice, a fierce one. I don’t simply mean the one in her larynx, although nothing caused her to rear up in defiance like the surgical specialist who told her in high school that nerve damage had caused a node on her vocal cords which might prevent from her ever singing again. In fact, he said, she should probably rule out a career that required a lot of speaking, specifically performing and teaching. This was like suggesting a dolphin avoid any bodies of water that entail swimming. She took a year off between high school and college for the express purpose of healing her vocal injury. Although the specialist recommended surgery, she worked instead with a voice coach to intensively retrain her speaking voice and singing technique, and at her one year checkup, the node was history. I was wowed. She earned that recovery, and she deserved every lead role and new note in her vocal range that came to her throughout college, which was a lot, because she sang her face off from freshman week straight through commencement. She is currently in graduate school getting her teaching degree in theater education. Take that, world-renowned Dr. Know-it-all at Mass Eye & Ear. You don’t tell Lucy what she can or cannot do.
She is both the most competent and the most creative person imaginable. I can relate. I don’t want to speak for her experience, but I have found it tricky, navigating the dialogue between loose-limbed, starry-eyed Creativity and her bow-tied, box-checking cousin, Effectiveness. That bitch Perfectionism tends to step in, undermining, nitpicking. But Lucy has always painted in the most intense colors, the boldest strokes, and this is her strength. It usually makes a glorious mess, and because society prizes accomplishment over expression, she second-guesses her instincts. Why roar, when you can so easily rack up another achievement? Such self-editing happens to artists all the time. And women. And yet: We know what is true for us. If we hesitate to speak, well, that’s because it’s hard. Words are imprecise and we have been taught to express ourselves tidily, politely, taking care of your feelings lest our ferocity rip your head off with grizzly-bear viciousness. Because she is an artist, I hope my girl will shout, scream, BELLOW her truth. Lucy, I hope you will dare to take up space with your wildest imaginings, to be damned odd, or adversarial, or (god forbid, in a world where female beauty is everything and the President refers to women as “dogs”) unkempt, unfeminine, unreasonable, if it serves your purpose. Go ahead, get a few more tattoos. Really, I’m over it. Don’t compare yourself to others, and certainly not to me. You are the artist of you. No one else can dictate your story, so don’t even let them try.
Although it was Memorial Day yesterday, I taught my usual Monday morning Nia class. Teaching on Zoom, like everything on Zoom, is a mixed bag, but the challenges are different: getting the music and instructor’s mic at the right levels, making sure students are muted, dealing with inevitable chat messages: “Why are you so small?,” “My screen is freezing,” “What is that beeping in the background?” It’s draining, running my own technical production while also trying to craft a meaningful body-mind-spirit fitness experience for students whose undulating thumbnails on my desktop look like ultrasound embryos. The usual rewards of teaching a live class—connection, shared energy, eye contact, sounding—these are at best, muted, at worst, absent. The fact that I teach from our family room carries additional obstacles: dogs bark, the phone rings, one time I kicked over a coffee cup on the rug that someone left there the day before. With no commute, I don’t have the same transitional time between “life” and “teaching,” which at times makes me feel unprepared and disoriented.
But yesterday morning was golden. Our Memorial Day focus was “honor,” whether ourselves, someone we loved and lost, someone we admire, or those whose service we appreciate: military and veterans, doctors and nurses, prophets and truth-tellers and daughters. Just fifteen minutes before teaching, I impulsively added two songs to the playlist, one which I have never taught before (Sara Bareilles’ “Satellite Call”); the other a Memorial Day staple (Bliss’ “A Hundred Thousand Angels”—it’s haunting, check it out). I can’t tell you what the students experienced, but here’s how I felt: hopeful, heartbroken, bursting with gratitude and grief and joy. I can’t believe this is a thing I do: teach movement classes. I don’t know that at 26 I had enough imagination or respect for my inner wildness to believe such evolutions were possible in a life. I missed my brother, who died in December, sick, suffering, broken. I missed the America I thought I grew up in, where we valued honor, decency and service, where Martin Luther King could bring a dream into reality. My heart cracked for the 100,000 new angels, souls passed away to COVID-19 in the last two months in our country, for the family and friends who mourn them. No matter what their political beliefs are or who they voted for, I grieve for their losses. And I seethe that while so many suffer, economically, spiritually, physically, the President plays golf and tweets mean-spirited drivel that demeans human dignity.
As the song “Satellite Call” played, the students and I spread our fingers wide and sent our signals out into the universe. This is so you know the sound/Of someone who loves you from the ground/Tonight you’re not alone at all/This is me sending out my satellite call. I felt overwhelming appreciation for that image, for Sara Bareilles’ lyrical musicality. She will forever be the voice of Lucy’s youth, the artist who defines my daughter’s coming of age. Her cheerfully defiant, artist’s declaration of independence “Not Gonna Write You a Love Song” was Lucy’s middle school ringtone; the bluesy “Many the Miles” opened Lucy’s senior speech in high school. Lucy performed Bareilles’ yearning ballad “Bluebird” at her high school baccalaureate, when she was still rehabilitating her vocal injury, and five years later belted out the power anthem “She Used to be Mine” at her senior voice recital at Tufts. In her memoir, “Sounds Like Me,” Bareilles wrote about the insistent, gnawing anxiety that accompanies creativity; dancing to her music, I remembered this, and gratitude cut me with the gentle sweetness of a knife through softened butter. How exquisitely generous and loving the Goddess is to cradle us through our doubts and allow her titanic beauty to be born through us.
Happy birthday, all you golden girls, but especially to Lucy, whose very name is light. Shine on.
A HUNDRED THOUSAND ANGELS by Bliss
Do you Hear me calling you The voice of a mother, a father and a child Would you recognize the truth Do you feel a love that’s falling from my eyes Take just a minute Come and rest you by my side Let me tell you your own story Let me walk you through your lives Only a second That’s all it takes to realize There’s a hundred thousand angels by your side.
Do you Hear me talk to you I whisper through the doorways And pathways of your mind Clear like the morning dew And fresh from my journey Cross an ocean of blue Take just a minute Come and rest you by my side Let me tell you your own story Let me walk you through your lives Only a second That’s all it takes to realize There’s a hundred thousand angels by your side There’s a hundred thousand angels by your side
I don’t know about your yard, or park, or patch of sky, but there is a bird convention going on in ours. A mating pair of cardinals have nested across the lawn in the rhododendrens for a few years now, and our feeders have typically drawn their share of tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees dapper and fussy, or unpretentious sparrows. But the New England grays of mourning doves or nuthatches are giving way to party colors: We newly enjoy yellow visitors—whether grosbeak, warbler or goldfinch, I’m not sure, but most likely goldfinch. I’m too delighted by the splash of warmth at the kitchen window to grab my phone and snap a picture of the fleeting yellow belly for later identification. I’d rather just look, and sip my morning coffee. Bluejays may be backyard bullies, but I do appreciate their flashy cobalt markings. Is it my imagination, or are the robin’s fat bellies a deeper, rustier hue of sunset rose this spring? I feel I haven’t seen this many red-winged blackbirds out on the trails before, and I’m sure I have never before made eye contact with a red-billed woodpecker taking a break from excavating the decaying sugar maple outside our bedroom window on the third floor. He turns his black eye on me and blinks as if to say, “What? I’m a woodpecker. This is what we do.” Redtail hawks are everywhere, although the family of owls that hoo-hoos noisily in the woods just beyond the lawn in the still pre-dawn is voiceless these past few weeks.
So here’s the question: are there actually more birds hanging around my neck of the woods than there have been in past Mays, lured out by the bluer skies and quieter streets? Or is it just the quality of my attention that’s changed?
I’m blue this Mother’s Day. I can barely muster the energy to write a haiku; every time I sit down at the keyboard, words tumble from me, disjointed and angsty. They roll around the page like marbles on a grade, glassily untethered, gaining speed towards a sure, meaningless collision. My tolerance for the uncertainty of the writing process is frayed; my weedlike intuition for finding joy in life’s crevices grown flaccid. I stare at the monitor, switching screens from my Word document to Firefox, wearily loading up the Instacart order with, yet again, bananas, milk, cold cuts for five. I miss my friends. I am sad most of the time, even though I still sing and dance, exercise and cook up a storm for my marvelous children and husband (the latter of whom I too often upbraid for insignificant transgressions at provocations entirely of my own making. I appreciate his patience with this.) Writing, I use too many words, or have none. I am filled with shame at my wussy complaints, lobbed as they are from a leafy suburban home whilst the homeless in New York City sleep on Metro buses, or elderly citizens huddle in fear, isolated from their families, and bone-tired nurses rally for another shift. I thought I was made of sterner stuff than this, that some prairie-bred stiff spine from a past life would take hold. So I bake and garden, I’ve cleaned closets and tightened screws all over the house, I work out and clean up, fold and fetch. But I am just phoning it in. I know I’m not alone in my weariness, although it’s possible the particular stresses of the last few years unique to me are finally taking their toll. Whatever the reason, my usual habits of self-care— dog walks and meditation sessions, strength training, hydration, flossing, aromatherapy, free-dancing, guided imagery or liberal pours of sauvignon blanc—just aren’t cutting it, in much the same way yours, whatever they are, fall short in the present moment.
I feel terrible. What can I say?
So my Mother’s Day weltschmerz coalesces around a sudden feeling that the world I prepared my children for is quite possibly a fiction. The one they may actually spend their adult lives inhabiting seems hostile to the beliefs I tried to model for them: Compassion, reflection, intelligence, respect for the rules, self-discipline, curiosity, playfulness and humor. I taught them that there is inherent value in beauty and creativity (by which I intended: art, music, literature, the incandescent moment that takes your breath away with sudden knowing — yes, this is true); that taking care of others matters, that hard work pays off, that the Great One is real, so you’d better figure out how to stay in relationship with her/him/them. I believed—still believe—in kindness and sacrifice. I wasn’t prepared for these virtues to be as thankless as they turn out to be in our culture. I wasn’t prepared for our leadership and its apparent social ethic to be so breathtakingly self-centered, self-serving, small-minded.
And yet, here I sit, whining at my keyboard, poor me. The irony is not lost on me. It irks me not to rise to the occasion, to lack can-do spirit in the face of this lockdown. My fragility takes me by surprise. I’ve always ploughed ahead through crises, the one who keeps a cool head and makes sure everyone else gets to the lifeboats in orderly fashion. I am discomfited to find myself a babbling matron clinging to the captain, desperate for rescue. Perhaps I am growing.
As I meditated this Mother’s Day in our backyard, the late afternoon sun warming my shoulders, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for the joy we have known in this yard, under these same trees, nourished by the same sun, nearly 30 years of security in this same home. That was my American dream, to provide stability and solid ground after my chaotic early life. I recalled my kids as tykes, running around in the sunshine in their floppy, bold-print sunhats, nature all around us. I could almost feel the exquisite privilege of their sturdy little bodies climbing into my lap for a hug, a squeeze, asking me to fasten a loose shoelace or hair tie, before squirming away again, singing, or yelling, or narrating their own adventures. What a charmed existence that was, and I am lucky to have had it. I was blessed beyond measure to have spent so many years with the job title “love-giver-in-chief,” along with all the crappola, of course, that goes with motherhood. I hope all that loving fortifies them for whatever the future holds, whether we are hurtling towards some mean-spirited, dystopian pand-America, or can miraculously hove to and take on the deep challenges of addressing our brokenness as a society.
It came to me, as the wind swirled my hair, overdue for a cut, in arrhythmic gusts, bird song rising and falling in the woods beyond the fence, that if all I can manage is one snippet of gratitude a day, then that’s something. Hopefully, a pinch of uplift will be enough to inoculate me from the creeping despair and exhaustion I sense sniffing curiously around my edges, looking for a way in. So if it’s all I can manage, I’m gonna show up, with one little scrap. I still believe that if you can create a single thing of beauty in a day, well, that’s something. So I will drag myself here tomorrow, clapping for Tinkerbell, and we’ll see.
If you are up late like me, here’s a quote from a lovely song to send you off to bed this Mother’s Day. It’s by composer Stephen Sondheim, from his revelatory musical “Sunday in the Park with George”:
You would have liked him Mama, you would Mama, he makes things Mama, they’re good Just as you said from the start: Children and art Children and art
Mama said, “Honey, mustn’t be blue It’s not so much do what you like As it is that you like what you do.” Mama said, “Darling, don’t make such a drama A little less thinking, a little more feeling” I’m just quoting Mama! The child is so sweet And the girls are so rapturous Isn’t it lovely how artists can capture us?
Perhaps we should call it “Pandememe-ium.” My group texts explode with evidence of the humor and creativity of humanity’s resistance to confinement: The bald guy whose head masquerades as an egg in a row of egg cups on his kitchen counter, until he leaps up lip-syncing “I Wanna Break Free.” The corkscrew doing jumping jacks as it follows along to a chipper TV fitness video. The Italian dad whose quarantine video diary shows him a.) “swimming” down an apartment hallway on a rolling platform b.) “cycling” the same hall in full Tour-de-France lycra splendor on a child’s tricycle c.) Dressed in DJ couture and dialin’ up the heat to Italian club tunes at his cooktop and c.) hiding from his inquisitive young daughter behind an enlarged photo of couch pillows, perfectly framed to blend in to their living room decor. Let’s not forget those delightfully overachieving families: the Les Mis medley from the Marsh family of Kent, England; or New Zealand actor Jack Buchanan’s “Family Lockdown Boogie,” with his wonderfully deadpan and game mom, dad and sister, the unseen hand of a clever choreographer/videographer perfectly framing them in their suburban home.
I am so appreciative of these efforts. And yet, does anyone else feel kinda bad about their lack of participation in the meme-fest? A few people have asked me when my family plans to launch our contribution, steeped in humor and performance as we are, with trained vocalists, theater enthusiasts/veterans, a digital designer and no dearth of big personalities/hams currently in residence. I would love to tell you that this lockdown experience has ignited in us a shared goal of crafting our hilarious and hopeful statement for the world. But it hasn’t. We are united in the following more modest goals: sharing the cooking, negotiating over the best spots for getting work done, whether sewing masks, designing, writing, online college and grad school classes, Zoom-meetings, voice lessons, data management, or generally trying not to devolve into continual hostility and/or weeping. Even the dogs and cat slink off to new hidey-holes in an effort to get a little breathing room from the togetherness. Typically a Gidget-like font of cheerful can-do, I am irritable and desperate for space, a twitchy loose wire of reactivity. On Tuesday, I LOST IT with John for interrupting an attempt at meditation because the effing sprinkler guy was in the driveway, texting us to turn on the water from inside the house and John wasn’t sure which handle in the basement utility cabinet was the right one. (Sorry, honey.) I teared up when I went to wash the napkins after dinner the other night and found a load of (not my) wet laundry in the washer; and yet another (not my) pile in the dryer. Before stay-at-home struck, walking in the woods with our eager, beloved dogs was soul-food, rain or shine, but now, they look at me with their big brown, beseeching eyes, tails wagging hopefully, and I resent them for their cloying need in all weathers. Friends, too, have reported uncharacteristic breakdowns over misplaced Seder plates, malfunctioning computers, broken dishwashers, innocent comments misconstrued, forgotten passwords, burned (or simply imperfect) dinners, spilled milk.
I acknowledge these are problems of privilege. Although two of us are freelancers/independent contractors whose earning opportunities are currently disappearing quicker than brownies in a college common room, and two others are a barely employed grad student and a soon-to-graduate college senior, we are nonetheless fortunate: We live in a comfortable, 3,000 square foot, four story house with tons of outdoor space and conservation trails fanning out around us in every direction; we have savings; we are healthy and we have health insurance; we have each other. Our weekend games of “Settlers of Catan” are a shining beacon of fun amidst the slog of enforced bonding and resultant avoidance. I hesitate to share our whiny struggles.
To be fair, the “kids” (27, 25 and 22 this past Thursday) are coming through like champs. They each have a cooking night and their dinners have been fantastic: curries, pizzas, chili, pasta with an artichoke and caper tapenade that Nate invented based on pantry contents . They adhere (basically, last night excepted) to the laundry schedule and on Saturday we all divvy up the housecleaning—everyone takes one or two shared spaces, plus their own room. Nate has done yeoman’s work in the yard, a bittersweet vine we’ve been eyeing resentfully for years, 30′ tall in some places and ranging greedily across two planting beds, was no match for his pent-up energy. Lucy sews face-masks of increasing sophistication and is heartwarmingly cheerful and emotionally supportive; I hope the toll on her is not too great. Mia remotely manages the schedules of her college’s admissions student volunteers and hosts Instagram Live Chats for admitted students. Her glorious bel canto soprano fills the house during remote voice lessons. I overheard one of Nate’s colleagues on a Zoom meeting the other day asking, “where’s the singing today?” Mostly, the siblings stay out of each other’s way as much as possible. They are adults with needs of their own, social and work lives rudely interrupted, thrust back into childhood bedrooms with too little closet space and too many idyllic and/or frustrating memories under the roof of parents who they thought were perhaps younger and more energetic than we have become. We are all trying not to play out old scripts, with intermittent success.
To my lovely and much appreciated friends and colleagues who so sweetly invite me to join prayer chains, trade inspirational quotes or exchange recipes, I gratefully but firmly defer. I am overwhelmed keeping up with the press conferences of Andrew Cuomo and my new crush, Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern. It takes a lot of time to explore real estate online in New Zealand or perpetually reload my Instacart and Peapod account pages in the hopes I will win a slot in new-delivery-date roulette. And all the emotional work I have to do on a daily basis under normal conditions—grieving my brother’s death four months ago; recovering from the stress of my mom’s hospitalizations last fall; fretting about my 85 year-old parents who live alone in Manhattan and on Long Island respectively; worrying about my empty work pipeline whilst the grocery bill swells under the demands of five full grown adults eating 21 meals a week; fantasizing about potential clients who refreshingly realize that now more than ever is the time to invest in that website they’ve been putting off, and who better to do that for them but me?; and let’s not forget this one: adjusting to the new reality that I just turned 60 and I am plunged into a new profile of vulnerability that my inner identity struggles to integrate—all this work must be done quietly if at all in snatches of space and time too confined for patient self-reflection. I am often exhausted from the effort of going nowhere.
But today is Easter, a day for hope and resurrection. It’s a halcyon morning, sun pouring in through east-facing windows framing a powdery blue sky, soft with cirrus clouds. Nyx, Lucy’s cat, luxuriates in a pool of light on the study floor. Looking down to the flagstone patio from our third-story bedroom, I’m not sure when John planted those lavender pansies outside. It was last week sometime, probably when I was freaking out trying to get in our applications for CARES act relief, which it turns out our bank had closed for self-employed individuals and independent contractors before the window had even opened for such folks. The pansies’ periwinkle faces wink happily from their pots; it’s good to be alive. Over our breakfast coffee, Paul Simon’s “The Boxer” plays on Pandora, the first song I learned to play on guitar when I was thirteen. Tomorrow, my a cappella group will attempt multi-track video recordings tomorrow of a song Mia arranged for us, James Taylor’s tender “Only One,” as well as our signature song “How High the Moon.” I can still teach Nia, Monday mornings at 9:30 and some Saturdays, boogie-ing like a happy fool in my family room, learning to teach to the reptilian green eye of my MacBook Pro’s camera. My students undulate and bloom in their little Zoom thumbnails like underwater plants and it’s a joy to see them. The weeping cherry tree in the back yard used to slump in defeat under the weight of the ravenous bittersweet vine Nate extracted, but this morning its pink flowers sparkle lazily in the pleasure of a new lease on life. And everywhere, people are turning to poetry, quoting Rumi or Mary Oliver in their emails, taking solace from the exquisite moments of modest resurrection constantly surrounding us, but previously hovering at the edges of our awareness, because we were all so busy being en route to our lives, rather than having arrived in them.
My flour order was finally delivered Friday and I’ll bake a loaf of honey whole wheat bread today. The kitchen will smell yeasty-sweet and the dough will rise, fall and rise again. We’ll enjoy it hot from the oven with butter, celebrating the nourishing warmth with delight, fortified.
Earlier this winter, I signed up for a contemplative poetry writing workshop offered by a former web design client of mine, Bethany House of Prayer, a spiritual retreat center tucked between tidy single-family homes on a residential hillside in Arlington, Massachusetts. Julia, Bethany’s Executive Director and one of the loveliest, wisest, bravest people I’ve had the pleasure and good fortune to work with, liked some of the writing I did on the website, and we developed an easy working relationship as kindred spirits. She suggested I explore a few groups that Bethany offers to support writers— I have always yearned for a group of like-minded scribblers who also want to share the process and product of their work, but who aren’t (like some writers’ groups) snooty or viscious or only-for-the-published.
Full disclosure: I am not a poet. I do love reading poetry: William Butler Yeats was a subject of both my college thesis and my graduate study in Ireland; whether Billy Collins or Rumi, Mary Oliver or Shakespeare, I am enraptured by the stuff when it’s good. (And that includes you, Shel Silverstein.) As for me, I can occasionally write poetically if by that you mean, with the odd surprising flight of language or imagery. But the economy of poetic expression is not my natural voice. Nonetheless, I was drawn to a Bethany workshop titled “Making Poems from Images:” using collage as the entry point for generating poem content. This sounded like something I might reasonably manage. The workshop was scheduled for Saturday, March 28, and much as I’d like to believe nurturance of baby poets is an “essential business” in these pestilent days, I assumed it would be postponed, along with the other contemplative programs offered by Bethany House, community being one of their chief delights.
But then a week ago an email popped into my inbox from an address I didn’t recognize: “luckyfish.” The contemplative poetry workshop was on, at least virtually, if we were game for a Zoom version of a writing workshop. And so this past Saturday, armed with a grocery bag full of magazines to inspire my collage, my laptop tuned to Zoom, I met with twelve other writers and our instructor.
Within thirty minutes of our convening, I was on the study floor, surrounded by paper scraps and little piles of torn pages and images, glue-stick at the ready. We were instructed to work purely on intuition, quickly pulling images that somehow “caught” us, like silvery fish, and asked only to note what surprised us about the choices we made. No judgments, no editing, just tear, witness, move on. The only ground rules for the finished product were that our collage had to 1. create a locale and 2. include at least one figure. If you haven’t already figured out that the image with this post is the result of my collage-making, well, now you know. The example our teacher showed us, her own work, was haunting and beautifully composed: an elegant lady was inserted into a dreamscape, a single hummingbird hovering wistfully in the corner. The collage itself was a poem. Trying not to judge my profligacy, I felt myself massing up image after image–so many human figures, that surprised me. I was drawn to eyes, hands, people, crowns. “Well, this is what happens when you invite a wannabe-be novelist to a poetry party,” my inner critic noted with a cocked eyebrow. We had exactly one hour to make our collages: fifteen minutes to pull images, and forty-five minutes to compose. At the center of my collage is a photo of my brother I cut from a spare copy of the program for his memorial service this February, his arms outstretched in victory as he emerges from the wintry Atlantic on a Christmas morning some years ago. He died suddenly this past December, by his own choice. I guess I wasn’t so much surprised to find him asserting center stage in my collage as slightly pissed: he has a way of sneaking up on me, both before he died, and since. I miss him and I hate that he’s gone, but I don’t miss feeling ambushed by him. It’s complicated.
After cleaning up the detritus of our collage-making and breaking for lunch in our separate homes, our leader reconvened her fledgling poets on Zoom and we viewed each other’s collages. She asked us simple questions about our creations like “what do you find mysterious in your image?” or “where do you sense longing here?” It was fascinating and moving to see what we’d all created in that short time. My page felt over-populated compared to the leaner creations of my classmates, so says Miss Meanypants, Inner Critic LLC. I’ve suffered, mostly in youth but still on occasion as an adult, by being told I am too much: too talkative, too expressive, too dramatic, too quick. Here was another manifestation of that: too much shit on my collage. And yet, it made total sense to me. It was operatic.
Because so is this moment in our human story.
Our last assignment was to pick a figure in our collage and write a “persona poem” in that individual’s voice, whether human, animal, insect, or some other being. One fellow-student wrote from the perspective of an empty swing, which I thought was lovely. But I, with my gluttonous temperament and blockbuster collage cast, couldn’t limit myself to one. Four voices spoke out from the image. My brother, of course, gets the last laugh. He did have the best laugh.
Here’s my poem:
Listen, sweetheart: I dare you not to hear the music. The mezzanine may be empty, All retreated home, as one must. Fingers of light grope the empty stage Where mouse turds scatter unswept corners instead of sequins. How we danced through AIDS! And this? This is not some sad little dinner-theatre “Death of a Salesman,” watery martinis and local talent. This is the fucking opera, baby. Legions framed in a proscenium of glorious dread While the score drives forward: Andante! Waltz! Look in my eyes, am I not fabulous? Do I not dazzle? Does my artistry not awaken hope? I say: Fist pump the universe From your apartment, or closet, your ghetto or your gated estate. Because this is the one life you’ve got, And sister, the fat lady is still singing. Put on your golden crown and strut.
How many now? I need numbers. Are you listening? We are scrambling. You need to suit up, STAT. This is no time for Kombucha and Vitamin C. It’s life and death.
I sing, my body electric: Tarrah, tarrah, TARRAH! Light pours through panes, Strings crescendo inside my chest: Huzzah, huzzah, HUZZAH! So much joy, joy, joy I can’t help But grin, halo shining— Recitatives, arias, encores— My winged voice soars: Tra la, TRA LA, TRAAA LAAA! I am not naïve; no denial But my gift to the listening air, A prayer of thanks and dreadful rapture. I embrace your sadness With a flourish.
I had to go. I know, grief’s predatory eyes Follow you. Sorry about that. But: can you imagine me now, Here, plagued? No doctor, however sainted By mantle of unspeakable courage, Could steer us through; No guest room, or marriage, Or child’s devotion, home me. Listen: Where I am now Is golden.