Tag Archives: family

Giant Redwoods, a poem

illustration muir woods 2

Giant Redwoods

(Statements in italics taken from Ethics, by Baruch de Spinoza)

Look farther and farther toward thin blue sky, until the green feathery tops of the trees are like the northern pole on some dream planet.  Put the anger back in its bottle. These trees are generous.  Hatred can never be good.

Your carsickness from the ride up the mountain begins to fade, leaving behind a breathless, weepy echo not unlike your first religious fervor.  Hatred is increased through return of hatred, but may be destroyed by love.

When have you not been afraid?  The random can be scrutinized for meaning, the puzzle solved, when surveyed long & carefully enough.  Anything may be accidentally the cause of either hope or fear.

These trees have plenty of time.  As a child, you stared at Jesus’ sad face for hours, wishing you could marry him  — wondering what it was that made him love you.  Could you sacrifice yourself for the sins of the world, if it was that simple & necessary? Cathedrals turn us small and vulnerable again, for reasons both blessed & cursed.  Devotion is love towards an object which astonishes us.

Vague, starry eyes like yours feel at home here; the air is weighty, burdensome & solemn. You’ve loved trees before; this is different.  These trees have plenty of time – more time than you.  If we love a thing which is like ourselves, we endeavor as much as possible to make it love us in return.

Your nerves are suddenly frozen, by the unaccustomed richness of perfect light.  Your guide is tall & slender, hesitant to speak.  Her mother has the tattooed forearm of a Polish Jew of a certain age.  The knowledge of good and evil is nothing but an idea of joy or sorrow.  Sorrow is [a hu]man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  She touches your wrist, and for a moment, you, too, want to grow taller, leaving the surface of the earth behind forever.  Shyly, she picks up a tiny pinecone, smaller than a toy.  You both laugh when she tells you this is their seed.  Joy is [a hu]man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection.

These trees have plenty of time.  And all around, their wise, fallen, hollow bodies litter the ground like the bones of saints.  Childlike, you understand a wish to die here, never to leave this hush.  They’re only trees – your neck bent back as far as it will go; only trees, yet wondering if the giants can hear your thoughts.  Love is joy, with the accompanying idea of an external cause.  Love and desire may be excessive.  When the mind imagines its own weakness, it necessarily sorrows.

Is there anything we have less power over than our own tongues?  These trees have plenty of time, growing wise as the Buddha, in their silence.

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Conjoined Twins, a poem

illustration-conjoined-twins

Conjoined Twins, a poem

Her entire pregnancy was uneventful until the second stage
of labor. Mother pushed and pushed, but we babies could not
budge. Surgeons came, made quick cuts necessary to disengage
us from the womb — found our joined skulls, an impudent topknot.

Mother wouldn’t let them separate us, she said the risk
outweighed the benefits. We learned to walk as best we
could; I, the taller, faced front in hopeful arabesque
while Sister followed. She didn’t mind, droll legatee

of my cranium, girl I never see. Despite our closeness,
we live in opposite ways; I view her face only in mirrors,
with my one good eye — our skin melts together, flawless,
pearly. A nice thing is, we never suffered night terrors.

We have never been alone. When they say, look, Siamese
twins, I want to scream. That is not the proper name for
our arrangement. Sister says, let them talk — I think she’s
crazy to let it pass, but I don’t say that. A big furor

won’t help at all. One trick we are good at is peace.
Negotiation has been our forte since that first incomplete
division; the moment each cell refused the other’s release.
We have minds of our own, thank god, and life is sweet

when you know where you’re bound. I go off to work,
Sister goes too. I sing while I type up my data, she reads
her mysteries, we break for lunch. My boss goes berserk
every once in a while; he’s got the same kinds of needs

for perfection we all possess. The one worry I have
not tamed is which of us will die first. I hope
it’s not me — how would she walk? I am the brave
one, the one who catches bugs. I would try to cope

without her. Once, in the night when she fell sick
with the flu, I held her until the shaking stopped,
until the fever broke. I wondered then, all dyadic
jokes aside, what if we had been cut apart, clipped

early into two separate forms? If it ever comes, will life
on my own be any easier? I’d save some of her long hair,
for sweet remembrance. She’d be a sharp phantom pain, a wolf-
gray stone with my birthday — my head a floating solitaire.

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She Hates Numbers

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Pretzels & Chocolate, a poem

jim-valvis

PRETZELS & CHOCOLATE

(rented room, cigarettes)

I am eating pretzels
and they are hard
but splinter into salty crumbs

with the merest bite
they only satisfy
part of my tongue

(rented room, cigarettes)

so I pick up the chocolate
greedy for it to melt
against my palate

sucking the firm square
feeling it mold to me
the way I imagine

my body molds to yours

(rented room, cigarettes)

retaining the character of sweetness
to complement the salt
to balance my mouth

I am eating chocolate
thinking of us
together

(rented room, cigarettes)

illustration mockingbird mimus polyglottos

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Dear Mary M. E., Class of 2016, a letter to my youngest daughter

boo and ab upside down nyc

Dear Mary M. E., Class of 2016:

How do I affirm who you are and tell you why I love you? What do I want to say to you as you go off to college next year? Why am I proud of you? What are my hopes, dreams, and prayers for you? What are my favorite memories?

Darling BooBoo, you came to me as a gift. A child I never expected to have, never even dreamed I would have — a gift from God. You helped me become a “real” mother, along with your big sister, just like the little boy helped his velveteen rabbit become “real”… you helped me become who I am today just as much as I nurtured you from birth till now. Your patience, your sociability, your love of other people, you enjoyed being the youngest in a big mob! You helped me learn, really learn the value of a strong will and a compassionate heart. The value of having a silly, infectious laugh, and a serious, contemplative side. You are a sensitive, delicate soul who deeply appreciates the joyous things in life yet is nonetheless strong enough to survive the tough times with grace.

Memories:

You were born pretty fast, and were tinted blue (now your favorite color) when you came out, because your umbilical cord had been wrapped around your neck, but the second the nurses got that untangled and rubbed you down, you turned pink and opened your eyes. You didn’t cry… just looked at everything with your eyes wide open, for an unusually long time, the nurses said.   And when your big sister, Abigail, came in to see you and reached out to touch you, you grabbed one of her fingers with your tiny hand, tightly, and you didn’t let go!

You didn’t want a pacifier, or a bottle, or to sleep anywhere but on my chest. So we slept like that for a while, barricaded with pillows so you couldn’t roll off the bed. Then you slept in the middle between your father and me for months. Eventually you were okay with the crib.

You wanted to hold your head up so much you insisted on being in a walker when you could barely manage it. You’d push yourself around, looking at everything. The minute you could crawl, you were done with the walker. You didn’t talk much, at first, but when you started it was in full sentences, and you talked a lot, about a lot of things, very curious and with a very big vocabulary… people would hear you talking and take me aside and whisper, “she’s very smart!”

You had the tiniest, cutest little feet! Your toes were like little pink peas. You were a bit of a mischievous rascal, playing peekaboo, hide and seek, chase, you name the game, you were ready. You even put on your big brother’s boxing gloves one time and wanted to play that game!

Something I wrote about you a long, long time ago:

November 5, 2001

What BooBoo said today, at Abigail’s school, where we were to drop off a bag of dressy clothes for A’s French presentation: the sky was gray & overcast, yet there was no rain, it was borderline gloomy but also very pretty in a way — she said “It’s a beautiful day today.” I agreed with her.

Later, I realized that just because the sun was behind a layer of gray, you could still tell it was there, you could still see the disc behind the gray, it still had light, and though you couldn’t see, exactly, the brightness, you knew it was there. As did my three-year-old. Faith is the key to all of this. Trust in this life, trust and god will bring you what you need.

I love you, my darling Mary M. E., and I am honored to be your mother.

Love,

Mommy

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Night-Blooming Jasmine, a poem

illustration night blooming jasmine

Night Blooming Jasmine, a poem

After dark, anything could happen – each

moment was disconnected from the last.

There was no logical progression to our lives:

most events had the dramatic essence of a car

accident. One evening, my mother decided

to sneak out my bedroom window when my

stepfather cut her off. He was drunk himself,

but for some reason decided she shouldn’t have

more Scotch. I remember her butt, in white

nylon undies, decorating the center of my open

window. I both fretted and hoped that she might

fall and hurt herself. Another night, my stepfather

decided it was time to throw all the pillows away,

including mine, because to him they smelled like

“horse piss.” My mother followed, protesting

loudly, wrestling him for the pillows. She lost:

the pillows went into the garbage cart. This

happened in our front yard, on a warm night scented

with night-blooming jasmine. I watched the two

drunken grown-ups, distancing myself from the scene.

I watched it like a T.V. show or a movie. When

I try to tell people about these things now, I can’t

keep a straight face. The laughter chokes me,

renders me unable to speak. I am silenced.

They’re both long dead now… but I’m still here.

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The First Time I Met My Father, a very, very short story

illustration the first time i met my father

The First Time I Met My Father, a very, very short story.

The first time I saw him, I was not dazzled. He was too tall and wiry, and he had too much red hair, flying off his head like an unmown hayfield. His eyes were too chilly, a piercing blue that made me feel like an insect on a pin. He was brimful of himself, but at the same time tried to project a false humility. When he found out I was trying out for cheerleading, he tried to talk me out of it. He’d only met me for the first time and hadn’t even met my friends, but somehow he’d already found them incomplete, just because they weren’t political radicals. “Why do you want to be a cheerleader?” he asked, chewing on the straw of his soda while he squinted.

“Because it’s fun,” I said. I shook my head, throwing my bangs back out of my eyes to glare at him. “Because it’s good exercise.”

“Do you know that the players will feel like it’s their right to sleep with you?” he asked.

“I’m not sleeping with anybody,” I said.

“I hope not.”

“You think anybody’s going to be able to talk me into something I don’t want to do?”

“Maybe.”

The arrogance he displayed made me want to slap him, punch him, kick him, or at least knock a couple teeth out.

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Inside A Red Heart, a short story

illustration inside a red heart

Inside A Red Heart, a short story

Ella’s life hadn’t always been like this. It was hurricane season, always the worst part of the year, but especially so this time. The cheap, post-divorce apartment Ella had moved to had flimsy sprayed-Styrofoam interior walls so thin she felt she could easily stick a pencil through them. The doors felt like balsa-wood, so hollow and weightless she couldn’t even slam them when she got mad, only sweep air currents through the frames. The rooms were carpeted wall-to-wall in a sticky celery-green shag which she could not bring herself to walk on barefoot. Hurricane preparations were meaningless in such a place, like diamond jewelry on a dying prostitute.

But today, Hurricane Naomi was 52 miles offshore, moving steadily along a stubborn, eerily direct path toward Ella’s apartment, when her father decided they’d better start getting ready, taping the windows. “They say this doesn’t help in the slightest,” she told him after finishing the first window, her arms already trembling and aching from reaching high over her head. She wanted to be an eagle, aloft without moving. “Even in a solidly built building,” she added spitefully.

“I don’t care what they say,” he said. “At least it’ll keep the broken glass from taking our eyes out.”

They finished taping over the second set of windows. She looked up at the sky; the brittle palm-fronds rattled and shook like frantic spiders. The bamboo rustled, probably full of rats. Tiny ants raced back and forth over the side of the house in some sort of military maneuver. Dropping hibiscus blossoms had stained the sidewalk red. A crushed bug was what captivated her attention. A sudden gust of cool air rushed over her neck, then after a moment everything stilled and the sun came out from behind the clouds. Against the dirty gray sky it looked abnormally bright.

“You look good in sleeveless tops,” her father said. “You should wear them more often.”

“Since when do you care how I look?” she asked.

“Is that how you usually take a compliment? No wonder you’re single. Forget I said anything,” he said. “Go inside and get the rest of the tape, please.”

 

Ella was mad about everything. Men especially, all the men she’d tried to get along with to no avail. Now, even strange men spitting on the sidewalk made her gag and retch. The phone rang — it was another man trying to sell her something. Listening to his voice on the machine, she decided she didn’t want any more goods or services, ever. She was fully capable of ignoring the outside world for weeks at a time. Finally, when her mailbox was stuffed so full nothing else would fit inside, she’d empty it and burn the contents.

After her divorce, she had refused to bring any of the old furniture from the house, not a stick. Granted, none of it was in such great shape, but she certainly couldn’t afford to buy new. Instead, she slept on a clammy air mattress for months, kept her clothes in cardboard boxes. Friends told her she was an idiot for not taking everything she could get from that tiresome lying hypocrite she’d married, but she just glared and shook her head, pressing her stubborn mouth against her teeth so hard her lips bleached white. Nobody knew how she managed to pay the rent or bring home groceries on what she made. Flying bullets couldn’t have been any more stressful than this, she thought.

There was a vague analogy between Ella and the rest of the world, that was all. She tried to understand men, but couldn’t quite manage it: they spoke, their lips moved, and sound issued forth, untranslatable. How was it they rose out of bed every morning so chipper? She was missing something they had. She navigated through her day like a ballerina dancing on broken glass.

When they’d finished taping the windows, her father poured a second cup of coffee for both of them. Breakfast consisted of coffee with plenty of cream. There was the long day to get through, then they were going fishing that night off the pier. They would stop at the bait shop for a bucket of shrimp and they would get ice cream cones — mint chocolate chip — and they would sit with their poles and wait for a nibble. Every now and then, without intending to, they’d sideswipe the truth.

He was visiting Ella for a week. He lived down in the Keys now, where he had always wanted to live; he loved to fish. Her mother had died three years ago, totally unexpected. No cancer for her, just a heart attack, plain and simple. Her parents had been happily married, but as soon as her mother died her father sold the house and went as far away from his past as he could get. Illness, for Ella, was something she would not allow time for, in that way she was exactly like her mother — though Ella wanted a good, solid tomb as a memorial when her time came to be one of the dead.

Her dog growled at her father as he moved his feet under the table. Ella’s crazy dog — he growled at everybody but he didn’t mean anything by it. He had long white whiskers and a moth-eaten coat.

“That damn dog,” her father said.

“I know, Pop,” she said.

“I don’t know why you put up with that,” he said.

“He’s harmless,” she said.

“I suppose he’s a good watchdog,” her father said.

“Not really,” she said. “He only growls when it’s someone he knows.”

“You mean he doesn’t growl at strangers?”

“No.” She laughed. Was he going to find a moral in this somewhere?

“Should I be flattered that he growls at me, then?”

“Sometimes he even growls at me.”

“I wouldn’t keep a dog like that.”

 

Since childhood, she’d loved to watch her father bait fishhooks. His long hands were careful and slow and the deliberateness of his touch delighted her. Not like her — she’d been falling over herself since puberty. Invariably she felt like a nuisance underfoot. She missed the neat quick grace of childhood. Whatever synthesis produced her from her mother’s and her father’s body, she couldn’t now imagine. Her father’s laughter was musical — her mother’s and her own like the braying of an ass. She secretly decided her mother had been cheating on him with someone else when she was conceived.

Until adolescence she’d been a precious little thing — then a hostile barrage of hormones turned her into somebody she didn’t even recognize: braces, knobby knees, confused skin, rebellious hair. To call her a girl was a misnomer of the highest magnitude. Something dark had entered the world along with her own blood the first time she got her period.

Once, in high school, her father had walked in her room without knocking and caught her masturbating; what a shame, he said, if you didn’t have so many pimples you might be able to get a boy to do that for you. His mind, like his body — like his heart — was angular; without softness; without love — he wouldn’t give her a second chance. The walls had zoomed in and out like they were breathing. She remembered the dress she wore, white with red and blue sailboats. Just like a ship being launched, only she kept running aground.

To this day, she wore only plain pearls, believing her skin too pasty to carry color. The only exotic thing about her was the color of her hair. Her hair was the color of rust; decaying iron. Growing up, her father never told her how pretty she was. But one night after a bad dream he took her back to her bed and rubbed her back.

Woken in the middle of the night like that, he was a different person, wordless and gentle. He’d held her so tight she couldn’t inhale. His silent, bulky warmth radiated through her and she wasn’t scared of anything. Everything in her room was painted either blue or green — how was painting any different than telling a story? He started rubbing her arm below the elbow; she was his. She wanted him to touch her underneath her nightgown but he didn’t. It made her feel awful to remember that now.

 

The TV was on with the volume turned down, and she was tracking Naomi on a grocery bag chart. She perched stiff on the couch, uncomfortable in her ragged cutoff shorts. Her father took a chair from the dining table and sat on it turned backwards, leaning toward her, his big perfect hands hanging over the chair’s back, his legs spread out like a cowboy’s. The dog growled from under the table.

“If you died right now,” he said, “you would go straight to Hell because you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” Pop loved his simple theories. He loved his cut-and-dried formulas. From the time her mother had died, her father had become born again and worried far too much about the condition of Ella’s immortal soul.

“How do you know?” she asked. “Isn’t God the only one who can judge a person?”

“It’s very simple,” he said. “Right now you’re a Nonbeliever. Nonbelievers go straight to Hell.”

“Says you,” she said.

“Says God,” he said.

“So according to you I could break every single one of the Ten Commandments, but as long as I accepted Jesus one second before I died, I wouldn’t go to Hell?”

“God’s grace,” he said. “His gift to us. Ask, and you shall be forgiven.”

Her father was telling her to ask for forgiveness! Selling all the gifts he’d ever given her and frittering the money away with nothing to show for it appealed to her. The flowers he sent for her birthday always wilted immediately, anyway.

“So God will forgive me for whatever I’ve done,” she said. “But will you?”

“First, you have to ask,” he said.

 

Hurricane Naomi wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow or the next day. Though at first Ella had looked forward to fishing off the pier, dusk arrived too soon; the coming darkness was like a funeral shroud. Her father drove his old rattletrap pickup truck towards the beach like it was a priceless antique. At the bait shop, they stood in line behind a girl, about 10 or 11, and her mother, also buying bait. The girl got into a silly argument with her mother about what they should buy, what sort of bait. “Shut up,” the girl said to her mother. Ella recoiled. Was there ever a place to be, truly, anonymous?

She remembered a time she’d told her own mother to shut up. Upon hearing, her father had slapped her across the face and broken her glasses. Her skull buzzed for a long time afterward, her jaw aching where the heel of his hand connected. She didn’t believe she’d been the same person at all back then.

She almost never cried in front of him, and especially not then, not about being slapped: she flat-out refused her tear ducts the indulgence. Nothing physical he did could get her crying — he had to use his voice, his drawling sarcasm, to knock her senseless enough for tears. She’d be so ashamed to cry in front of him like a big, blubbering idiot.

But then, getting her fishing pole ready over on the pier, a hook jabbed her finger. She’d been stabbed with hooks before; she didn’t remember it hurting so much. Was the air pressure from the coming hurricane making her stupid? She sucked blood out of the puncture. Her eyes started to sting, her throat to burn. She froze, her body paralyzed by embarrassment. She couldn’t help it, she started to cry, the convulsions shaking her.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Is your finger that bad? Let me see.”

“It’s not my finger,” she said, still in the grip of the horrible tears. He took her hand and held it close to his face, peering.

“Doesn’t look that deep,” he said.

“It’s not,” she said. Her nerves were strung out, yes, aptly put — as if her spine had been stretched, her entire body hanging off it in tiny sections which at any moment might start whirling away in terror.

She grabbed his shoulders and stood on tiptoe, leaning into him with all her weight. She kissed him full on the lips, pressing the whole length of her body against him the way she had when she was still too young to know any better, and for once he actually let her. She kissed him as though her life depended on being kissed back. And it did. And he did.

 

He had never told her she was pretty until after her mother died. Family tradition was for the parents to wait, remote icebergs, for warm currents of love to reach them from their children. She didn’t see the harm in that. The truth was, she had always wanted him as much as he wanted her. Tall and silvery-blond, his pool-water blue eyes fringed with gold lashes, he was still handsome for his age. He only smoked those awful cigars when he fished. Since her mother died, he hadn’t so much as looked at another woman, romantically speaking.

Even her ex-husband had been jealous of her father. He, her husband, was smaller than her father in every way measurable, emotionally as well as physically. Her ex-husband was such a small man. He had mewled incessantly about his boundaries, his boundaries — which didn’t keep him from stalking her and her post-marital lovers whenever his feelings were hurt. But if she read his journal, she was guilty of a great crime. What were boundaries, anyway? Even her ex-husband’s new wife was commiserating with Ella now about his smallness.

Too late, Ella had figured out she only got excited by what was forbidden, by a body’s unfamiliarity to her. Anybody like her who chose to marry was making a mistake. Once a thing became familiar, that took all the life out of her desire. She and her string of relative-stranger lovers ate Chinese takeout in bed, soy sauce dripping on their skin, which added another flavor to their mouth play. Fried rice, hot and greasy.

What neither Ella nor her father talked about that night on the fishing pier or any other night was how, way back when, she had left the back door unlocked one day and the baby, Ella’s little brother, had gotten into the backyard unsupervised and drowned in the canal. The water had seemed too shallow for anyone to die in. She was eleven — the next day she bled on her underpants for the first time. She wondered which was the bigger reason her father never looked at her the same way again.

Just now her father’s lips had tasted like his cigars, sour and sweet all at once, when she kissed him. Ella removed herself from his arms only after her skin against his grew slick with perspiration. The two of them finished up their bucket of shrimp after that, but they spoke little and caught nothing worth keeping. Back at her apartment with its ridiculous taped windows, her father began packing his small suitcase. The bellicose dog lay on the armchair across the room, for once not growling. “Damn hurricane,” he said. “Maybe I can get all the way home before they evacuate the island.”

“Are you crazy?” she asked. “You’ll have to leave again as soon as you get there.”

“I don’t think I can stay here tonight,” he said.

“You’re blaming me, aren’t you?” she asked. “Like you always do.”

“It’s not that, Ella,” he answered. “It’s got nothing to do with that.”

She touched his arm, and he flinched, then caught himself. “It was all my fault,” she said.

“No, it wasn’t,” he said. “If you’re asking, I’m answering.” He looked up from his suitcase, and for the first time all day his eyes looked old and tired. “Please don’t ask me to stay,” he said.

 

At midnight she sat awake, wondering what would happen next. Nothing good, she imagined. She didn’t know how she’d become such a curiosity. She was looking for what had gone wrong with a vengeance. Rooting through out-of-date phone books, through cards and letters she’d kept packed away since college. Excavating her past life, like an archeologist, was a great haven of sanity; as soon as she opened the first box, she felt safe from the present, it was suspended from happening, nothing more would ever happen to her until she straightened out all the previous mistakes. A pale blue chiffon scarf of her mother’s was folded underneath a stack of them. She was perennially accused of wanting to rehash the past. But it hadn’t been properly hashed over the first time, couldn’t any of these dolts see that?

A spider laid in the bottom of the box, its legs curled tightly. Though clearly dead, she worried lest it should somehow jump on her. A handmade Valentine’s Day card stuck out of the jumble like a sore thumb. The card was unsigned, but she recognized the handwriting. It was hers. She’d drawn a picture of a naked man inside a red heart. Her first boyfriend, a creative type, had insisted they make each other cards. How had she ended up with all this stuff? Ella flung herself back onto the bed so hard her teeth snapped together and she bit her tongue. Her bones ached. Her desire was killing her; she didn’t even know what it was she desired. She had to get out of the house for a bit, hurricane or no hurricane, or she’d go nuts.

She dragged her quivering dog — not so crazy after all — out to the car and drove over to her parent’s old house through Naomi’s outer fringes. Thunder rolled above her along with heavy sheets of rain like pronouncements from God. The dog cowered in her lap. She turned the car engine off and got out, the dog in her arms, hiding his head in her armpit. She stood searching the horizon, letting the rain wash over her face. It was the same whenever she made love to a man, she made sure to shower afterward.

Behind the house she’d grown up in, behind the canal her baby brother had drowned in, sat the northern edge of the Everglades. A flat, wet landscape — one she never tired looking at. Dun-colored saw grass, rippling under the steady currents of wind, stretched as far as she could see. Her mother’s chiffon scarf, monogrammed with her maiden initials, was her new good-luck charm. There was, as usual, no witness to her actions.

At least I’m brave enough to come back here, she thought. Her hair blew into her eyes and she held the dog tighter. She was startled when from behind her headlights moved over the undulating saw grass; she turned to see who it was. Squinting against the light, she saw her father’s tall figure get out and stand next to the car, calling and waving — she couldn’t hear much of what he was saying over the wind but she could tell he was crying. Like a flag on a pole, her mother’s scarf whipped in the wind around her neck, causing her to lift her chin and stand taller and straighter than she had for a long time. She could feel it. Her life was going to change.

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Catalyst to a Potato, a poem

illustration catalyst to a potato 3

Catalyst to a Potato, a poem

 

Can I perform the miracles of earth, sun, water?

Can I be the warmth that gently pries open

eyes, that coaxes forth pale shoots, that causes

 

hardness to soften to green? If I throw the potato

against the wall again and again, will I ever cause

the potato to change? For so long, I tried to form

 

myself in the potato’s image. I tried to become

round, dense and heavy with stability, I tried

to protect myself. It did not work, it failed.

 

Now all there is left is her, one small girl alone

in the world. Her lips are redder than mine ever

were. Her shoulders are strong, she is not fragile.

 

You were the potato, the one I could never change.

Lobbing you again and again brought no result,

no visible difference. Yet in your eyes I am

 

the one who remained indifferent. I am not

ashamed, yet I am the one who needs to change.

You want only to rebuild. Take stock of your

 

small garden, not everything there is sound.

There is no such thing as healing. There is only

covering over, sweeping under, tamping down.

 

You know we will never love each other again,

yet you do not weep. This time I will not do it

for you. I am finished with praying for miracles.

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Have You Ever Met the Love of Your Life?, a short story

illustration have you ever met the love of your life

Have You Ever Met the Love of Your Life?, a short story

Nasreen, Marion’s dance teacher, was short, dark and wide. She wore black leotards under her frothy, voluminous gold-threaded saris, and glowing silver rings on her largest and smallest toes, which were connected to ankle bracelets by delicate jeweled chains. When she moved, and the big belt of coins around her hips started to sing, Marion often thought of a curtain of water emerging from an alabaster frog’s curving mouth. Nasreen’s lips and toenails were always painted fiery orange, and the air near her smelled of cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves. Nasreen had been famous in her youth — she treated all her students with exaggerated courtesy but for some reason, took a special interest in Marion.

From the start, Eleanor, Marion’s sister, thought Marion was crazy, and the whole Oriental-dance notion (she couldn’t bring herself to say the word “belly” out loud) ridiculous. “Why on earth do you want to get up on stage and wiggle back and forth like a cat in heat?” she had asked.

“I’ve always thought it looked so graceful,” said Marion. “It sort of mesmerizes you, it’s so soothing to watch.”

“Soothing? Graceful?” Eleanor rolled her eyes and tossed her head. Her neat French twist bobbled, and a wisp of hair fell to tickle her cheek. She shuddered and tucked it behind her ear. “Grotesque is more like it. I’ve always thought those women looked like they were trying to eliminate peach pits from their digestive tract.”

The two sisters lived together — they had always lived together — in an apartment across the street from the house they’d grown up in, a gaunt, three-story Victorian. After Mother died, as soon as could be considered decent, they had sold the big place and gotten rid of the ponderous mahogany furniture. They kept only Eleanor’s player piano, some threadbare Persian rugs, and their mother’s elderly miniature pinscher. Marion filled the apartment with pickled-pine French country and delicate ruffled draperies in red toile.

Soft-hearted Marion said the rosary thrice daily and didn’t care much if her clothes matched; Eleanor, the younger, was a late-blooming atheist, but knew how to dress. Eleanor had been engaged once years ago but they had never managed to decide on a wedding date — the hopeful young man had insisted she keep the ring anyway, a flawless one-carat diamond set in platinum. She looked at it every night, sitting in her jewelry box, but never wore it.

***

Marion’s first formal belly-dancing costume was to be hand-tailored by her teacher Nasreen’s younger brother, Ahmet. He was known all over the world belly-dancing community for his brilliant costume designs; the only reason she was able to afford him at all was Nasreen’s incessant wheedling on her behalf — as one of his sister’s most deserving pupils, Ahmet finally agreed to let Marion have the outfit at cost.

“I see you in red,” said Nasreen.

“I was thinking of pink. Maybe powder blue?” said Marion.

“Red, it must be red,” said Nasreen. “Ahmet, what do you suggest?”

He leaned back, folded his arms across his chest, and squinted first at his feet, then at Marion, then at the stacked bolts of silk gauze rising to the ceiling, and then at his sister. “Yes, red for the trousers and the outer sari,” he said with a faint smile. “And the front of the bustier heavily sewn with pierced and gilded centimes.”

“Perfect!” said Nasreen, and she and Ahmet gave each other conspiratorial smiles. “Remember the one you made for me so many years ago?” she asked.

“Of course!” said Ahmet. “Now get up on the stool. I need to get your measurements,” he said to Marion, his smooth, warm fingertips galvanizing her arm as he prodded her into compliance with the tape measure.

When Marion described Ahmet’s fitting and design process, Eleanor was incredulous. “You’re going to wear red see-through pants and a bra made of nothing but gold spangles and call yourself Ayita?” she asked.

“It’s my stage name,” said Marion. “It means dancer.”

“Well, isn’t that cute!” said Eleanor, slapping the kitchen table with a rolled-up newspaper she’d been using to pursue a small green fly. “I suppose next you’ll be getting your nose pierced and wearing a veil.”

“Good Lord, no,” said Marion.

“I hope you won’t ever expect me to come see you make an idiot out of yourself,” said Eleanor.

“No way,” said Marion. “You’d make me a nervous wreck. I’d never be able to concentrate on performing.”

“Ah, yes — the great artiste needs her concentration! What a load of manure!” said Eleanor.

“I just want to have some fun. I need a change.” asked Marion. “Why are you making such a big deal?”

“Because I think a woman your age parading around dressed like a harem girl is absurd,” said Eleanor. “Because every Arab I’ve ever met treated women like second-class citizens. Because I know you’re doing this just to irritate me. Hobby, my eye. Why couldn’t it have been needlepoint, or gardening?” Eleanor glared, but Marion just shrugged and continued eating her toast.

Marion’s finished dance outfit was a huge success. As a precautionary measure, she danced privately in Ahmet’s workroom for Nasreen. Nasreen stood with her arms folded across her chest. As the music started and Marion began to dance, Nasreen’s eyes narrowed and her lips grew thin. She tilted her head and stared. Marion felt awkward, but after the first few seconds, the music and soothing movements overwhelmed everything else. The glittering red costume transformed Marion; she lost herself to something bigger, her hands were two white birds flying, twirling, graceful on the fluid stalks of her arms. Her smile was steady, effortless. The glittery silk billowed around her legs like cool wind. For the first time, her body moved on its own, strong and agile. “That’s it, you’re ready,” said Nasreen.

“For what?” asked Marion, wiping her damp forehead with a jingly forearm.

“A trip. To Paris. A month from Saturday. I’m putting an international dance exhibition together. I want you to go with me, to dance.”

Marion protested. “I couldn’t. I’m not that good.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you are.” Nasreen pulled a passport application out of her cavernous black purse. She shook Marion’s shoulder. “Why did you want to learn to dance in the first place? What are you waiting for?”

            ***

Eleanor wouldn’t let Marion travel to Paris with only Nasreen and Ahmet for company. Eleanor put her foot down; Marion hadn’t been able to say “no” loud enough. It was Marion’s first overseas journey: she’d underestimated jet lag. She awoke abruptly at 2 a.m., trembling through her arms and legs as if on amphetamines. Eleanor – she’d been to Ireland and Spain, she knew better, she’d taken four different pills to zonk herself out — was sound asleep, mouth open, a tiny puddle of saliva glistening on her pillow. Nasreen also slept, lying curled on her side, hands tucked under her chin, emitting the most genteel and melodious of snores. Marion didn’t want to turn on the lamp and produce chaos, there was enough of that within her; instead she went downstairs to seek light and order in the lobby.

The desk clerk on duty — a tall, thin Algerian graduate student — was very eager to demonstrate his grasp of English. His dissertation was going to be about the evolution of American street slang, curse words or something. He announced himself to be Muslim; this formality alarmed her briefly, but he seemed to possess abundant humor, lightness, reason. His name was Badr, which meant “full moon.” The image suited him. His smiling face was boyish, benign; his moustache highlighted the fact his skin was silken as a girl’s. Dark chestnut hair lay in soft curls against his cheeks. His clothes were rumpled and mismatched, like an absentminded schoolboy’s.

The small lounge area was arranged with delicate birch wood cafe tables and slippery turquoise-upholstered armchairs. She noticed Ahmet sitting over in the farthest dark corner, wearing a long yellow silk tunic over his rumpled jeans, pretending to read the newspaper. Marion raised her hand in greeting; Ahmet nodded. Badr served her mineral water and orange juice. She tried to read the French newspaper lying open in front of her, understanding only every third or fourth word. Every time Marion glanced over to see if Ahmet was still there, his eyes were upon her. He folded, inspected, and re-folded his own paper for several odd minutes, then picked up his drink and wandered over to the bar.

“May I sit here?” he asked, pointing to the stool next to her. He seemed embarrassed, or shy, or ill.

“Sure,” she said, shrugging.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked.

“Not a chance. They’re both sound asleep, though.” She adjusted herself on the stool, crossed her legs at the ankle, then at the knee, and then rested her elbows atop the bar. Her hands clung to each other like nervous gerbils.

***

“You’re jealous,” said Marion four hours later, when she finally got back to the room she shared with her sister and found Eleanor livid with rage. “For once I’m having a good time, and you just can’t stand it. It’s not my fault you’re so lonely.”

“I’m not lonely,” said Eleanor, glaring at Marion with laser beam eyes of death.

“Yes, you are,” said Marion. “We both are.” She thought then of the way Ahmet’s lips had tasted when she kissed him goodbye before opening the door to the brightly lit hallway. She thought of the way his hands felt, stroking the small of her back, running down her hips past the hipbones down to the upper thigh. She thought of the way he held her when he came, murmuring her name into her ear like a tiny puff of wind, carrying a sound she couldn’t quite recognize at first. Her name. The man knew how to say her name.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion asked Eleanor.

“Oh my god! You’re in la-la land,” said Eleanor.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion asked again.

Eleanor stared at her, her lips moving, but no sound coming forth. Her hand struck out quick as a venomous snake and slapped Marion’s forearm viciously, which hurt like the devil — but Marion was so amused she laughed, which only made Eleanor slap her arm again and again, harder and harder. The harder Eleanor slapped her, the harder Marion laughed. Suddenly Marion grabbed both Eleanor’s wrists and twisted them so hard Eleanor shrieked.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion whispered. A full minute ticked by in silence. Marion waited. She felt Eleanor’s arms relax and go limp.

“I’ve never even thought of asking that question,” said Eleanor.

When both sisters shocked themselves by starting to cry, they pulled each other close, each of them bear-hugging the other — grouchy/beatific, horrified/overjoyed — as though both their lives depended on it – which they suddenly realized was now, always had been, and would always be, the truth. Marion and Eleanor had finally let each other in, all the way in.

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