Poetry: A Whisper for You

Here’s a new poem. You can scroll down to listen.

A Whisper for You

Last night I dreamed
my boys were fighting.
That was long ago, and yet
they are 10 or 11 again,
and one of them has hit or twisted
some part of the other’s body
so that he is curved into the wall.

A blade sudden as a ray of light
cuts heart-deep, and my own voice
rushes at me from across the room:
“I can’t do this anymore!”

They disappear, the boys—
it’s the alone that tells you
no one is coming—
walls and ceiling receding fast.

What is it you can’t do anymore—
stand by watching, hands dangling
or cupped and asking to be filled?

I reach across the rocking floor
seeking what it is that holds me here—
my dog’s soft ears,
her warm scent of a cared for animal,
the sweat that leaves
gray trails behind my child’s child’s knees—
yes, these are the things I’ll miss.

And you? What will you miss?
Tell me. I’m in no hurry
and am learning to listen underneath
when someone says
it doesn’t matter and all is well.


Compulsion to Share: on Poetry (and other things)

Since I seem to have it, this compulsion to share, I’ve been thinking about times when we humans are more likely to put it out there, what’s on our minds. I’m not sure that “compulsion” is the right word, since that suggests an urge that wells up and propels us forward. We can push it down, but like a 2-liter bottle of soda released, it will eventually spew. Even if we refuse to voice whatever it is, it will leak out. Anger may leak as a twitch, shame as a red stain across our face, emptiness as an eating disorder, fear as irrational control over minutia. But since I’m not a psychiatrist, just a student of myself, it’s quite possible I’ve got it all wrong.

If we think about times when we share, it’s impossible not to recognize that all this is quite thoroughly culturally constructed. How often does the condemnation “inappropriate” appear when the “leak” occurs outside of the socially approved and legislated expression of what’s inside. A man can cry when someone he loves dies, but not at the movies. A woman, conversely, can cry all the time, but raise her voice in contradiction to “the man” and she is “out of line.” Children of tyrants are never, never to share their pain, and teachers, bosses, and ceo’s must always “be in control.” In fact, things get pretty interesting when someone breaks one of these rules. There’s something liberating about that. Often heroic.

And yet . . . there are those tmi moments when someone seems not to have learned the boundaries that keep some things in that we’d just as soon not know about. So, when to let the dog out!?

In counseling. Finally, someone has to listen. Paying them takes a load off, in a way, and if they’re very good therapists, they can help you see things a little differently, which may be all you need, a chance to finally see the forest and not all those individual trees. Talking your way to the “aha” moment can help you leave, if you must, or change your part in whatever dance you’re stuck in. At the bar. I’ve heard that bartenders hear more secrets than anyone else. You can go into a strange bar, and loosened, anonymous, tell it like it is (or for that matter, how it isn’t), get back on the plane in the morning. No one knows you, and that bartender will never see you again, never tell on you, except as another story of what happened at work today. With a friend, especially when there’s that magical connection of trust. After you’ve been caught–nothing else to do but tell the truth.

But there are other ways–like poetry, like art, like music, where we mold an idea, an experience, a feeling, a conviction, into a container, create a shape for it . . . externalizing the thing that wants out as something it isn’t but also is. In the end, nothing we say or create is ever identical to the living. It’s an expression of, but it is not the thing itself. But perhaps that’s close enough–I can’t be you, can’t live in your head, but I can, through empathy, walk beside you.

The other day in a meeting about faculty awards, someone said something about the unfair advantage that English professors have in articulating why they’re deserving. I jokingly said I wasn’t so sure about the writing abilities of some English professors, and a geography professor said, “too poetic.” I would like to have said, “Don’t blame poetry,” but didn’t think of it at the time. It was only later, when the comment kept coming back to me, that I wished I had come to poetry’s defense. Again, we’ve been taught that there’s a way to share in academia, and poetry ain’t it. By implication, we must extract the metaphor, the symbol, the compression of language, the heart of experience, we must never say “I” and instead, if need be, refer to ourselves as “the author.” Hogwash. I’m also pretty sure that what “too poetic” really means is “too flowery.” Don’t blame the flowers, they didn’t ruin that passage.

Audre Lorde wrote, in particular to Black women, “Poetry Is Not a Luxury,” but her words speak for all of us under someone else’s boot heal. We need more poetry, more expression, more listening. One good place that we don’t usually think of as poetry is music. Everyone knows that joy of busting loose in song–perhaps at that moment, singing (in the shower or alone in the car or dancing on the dance floor) at the top of our lungs, we are embracing the poet within. Maybe (if you want to survive) you’ve got to “lose yourself in the music / don’t ever let it go-go-go” (Eminem).

I wrote poems like a mad woman in the two or three years after Casey was killed–less now, though I have you, O Blog. I know lots of people grew up without a mother, or a father, or any idea whatsoever that they could fulfill themselves according to their own heartbeat and not be rejected. And many of them climb out of that dark place to re-create themselves, to heal. I truly believe we need someone external of ourselves to help us believe in our own worth and beauty. For many years we’ve had a poster hanging on our son’s bedroom wall, with a picture of the bunny-bird hovering in the sky and the mother rabbit morphed into a green leafy tree, reaching her arms toward her bunny. It’s a profoundly beautiful story for children, telling them no matter what they do or become, their mother will be steadfast–she will re-create herself for them. It could easily be a papa bunny, since the point is to show how powerful that unconditional love is. Here is a poem, then, based on the famous children’s story, Margaret Wise Brown’s Runaway Bunny.


A little thing, a poem, a cross

It’s a little thing, this cross on a chain that I have worn now for almost four years. A friend of mine said once that of all the people to wear a cross on a chain, I am the last one people who know me would expect. She said this, I think, because she knows I’m not a christian and am suspicious of easy symbols that aren’t grounded in a heartfelt, sincere, “authentic” reality. It’s not that I don’t respect the importance of symbols hanging from rear view mirrors–mine sports a butterfly–or that cheap, store-bought trinkets can’t be beautiful in the context of someone’s personal sacred space–I appreciate and honor anyone’s private use of symbols. I also recognize the beauty and spirituality of public symbols in holy and sacred spaces. A Guadalupe candle, a little Buddha, a rose. (Please no hearts, though, especially ones that are broken.)

This cross on my silver chain does not mean what most crosses on silver chains mean.

My cousin wears a white dove on a silver chain. She’s worn it since her mother died of cancer many years ago, in her loyal care. She says she hasn’t taken it off since. I only take mine off when I’m preparing for a massage, or the doctor says so. For my cousin, the dove is a spiritual symbol, a sign of her belief in the possibility of communication between this physical world and the world beyond. Her mother’s presence always there, against her breastbone.

My cross is more of a medium, like the dove, since it belonged to my son, who wore it for its more expected reasons. He was a spiritually searching person, who was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, became a Muslim for a short time, then returned to Christianity. At eighteen he was reading Edith Stein’s Science of the Cross, underlining passages in the Bible, writing poem-prayers.

On retreat at Gethsemani Abbey, age 18

On retreat at Gethsemani Abbey, age 18

I’m reminded of the good-luck pebble that the Lieutenant Cross carried under his tongue, in Tim O’Brien’s great story “The Things They Carried.” It’s a beautiful symbol for his loneliness, I think, which he mistakes as longing for Martha, who has written him though they don’t know each other well. The pebble, carried in that warm place, is both a distraction from the dangers of war and a kind of reminder of their humanity, perhaps even their wish just to be happy.

Some few days or weeks after Casey was shot, we found his cross on the floor of the sun room, where it had come off during the night. I placed it on a red string that had been blessed by the Dalai Lama, and put it around my neck.

Blessed by the Dalai Lama

The cross is cool this morning
as I lean forward and it falls
against my left breast.
I will warm it there
the pretty silver T on a red string
blessed by the Dalai Lama.

We found it where you slept one night
when you must have turned and pulled
the silver chain until it snapped.

I try to see you as you must have looked
the night we lost you,
the moments it took for the bullet to enter
your shoulder and ricochet off your rib
and pierce your lung and heart and lodge against your rib.

Such a great spiritual leader—surely
his blessed string could have entered you,
could have retraced the path of anger
could have threaded its way
back, back, back
and closed the unnecessary hole
could have pulled the metallic smell of absence out.

At the time, the surreal nature of reality led to my imagining the impossible–ways that something so final could perhaps be undone. Now it seems, from the vantage point of nearly four years, that retracing to heal, closing the wound, pulling out some lingering “smell” is still what I think the Dalai Lama or someone like him could do if only . . . Or maybe all this threading is what we’re doing ourselves on this long road towards . . . recovery and recovering our beloved.

What is the smell of absence? Usually it’s more a sound, a booming silence. A smell, they say, is the most lasting of senses, the one tied most closely to memory. What is the smell of this absence, and is it still metallic, the smell of a heated bullet?

Journal Keeping

I’m a certified terrible journal-keeper. I know several great journalers, people who have been writing and reflecting their way through life–some of them “writers” and some of them writers. Recently I was exchanging emails with the fabulous journaler and writer Kathleen Dean Moore (I’m not dropping names, honest–I had contacted her about possibly coming to speak at WKU). I mentioned that I was going to the Peruvian Amazon and she said something to the effect, “Oh, that must be such a wonderful opportunity for journaling.” It rather took my breath because a) she’s right and b) it’s another missed opportunity, which I immediately added to my very large collection. (By the way, I store these in an Earth-friendly shopping bag in my trunk underneath jumper cables, leaves, old sweatshirts, some crumpled concert programs, several plastic bottles waiting to be recycled, and an array of brown and white bags with who knows what additional decaying opportunities. I rarely look in the bag and for that matter don’t know if it’s still there.)

Another great journaler is my friend and colleague Trish, who has been keeping (and keeping) journals since she was a child. She too is a terrific writer, so I am sure that the connection between keeping journals and enhancing the craft of writing is profound. No end of books on “how to” would seem to affirm that. Other reasons for journaling, according to what I hear, include

1. healing
2. finding out who we are, at this time, in this place
3. creating a record for our progeny (who may write term papers using our 20-something drama rambles as primary texts)
4. understanding what’s going on–without writing it down, it may just mish-mash in our minds, knocking into other things, bruising and rising to the surface distorted and betrayed
5. feeling the joy of letters and words flowing from the nib of a pen, magic
6. exercising our creative spirit so it doesn’t languish

I suppose there are more, but that’s what I can think of right now, without consulting google or my bookshelves.

I have a few journals from now and then and I suppose I’ll keep them, but I don’t know why. I’ll never be famous and no tenure-track professor will ever discover them, giddy with excitement, in a box in the archives at Duke.

What I do rather like, at least today, is putting a few pictures and thoughts on this blog. I don’t think I’ll reflect much on the great events of the day–others do that so much better. Like my friend Mike Rivage-Seul http://mikerivageseul.wordpress.com/. What seems somehow worth my effort (in Mike’s words, “things that matter”), much more than sitting in contentious (or even congenial ones, which is actually more accurate for the good place I work) committee meetings where we are dividing scarce resources among projects we care about or trying to figure out how to make “it” work, this project called Education . . . is the noticing of little things going on around me. (and that’s what you call a long-ass sentence)

I think recognizing small features of the day, the place, the mind, and giving them a little nod to show we love them might just be what being 60 means to me.

Me on the Oroso, a tributary of the Amazon, journaling just once

Me on the Oroso, a tributary of the Amazon, journaling just once

Friends, 27 years and counting

When you are 60 years old or so, it’s not surprising that you might have friendships going back 27 years or more. Not surprising but no less remarkable, especially given how we come and go these days, following this job, that opportunity (for love, for adventure), wandering far from our childhood stomping ground, many of us . . . and probably most of us.

Last night I went up to Berea, where we lived from 1986-1991, to see my good friends Keila, Barbara, and Peggy. Dorothy joined us for dinner, but the over-night was just the four of us. It was in Berea that I found my first real job–real in the sense that it and I fit each other, grew and evolved into each other–it’s the job that taught me that teaching in a college or university was the best place for me to do whatever worthwhile thing I might be able to do, and that the doctorate was my ticket. It’s the place where our two oldest boys grew from 2 and 3 to the ripe old age of 7 and 8 (don’t worry about the math) and our youngest boy Casey was born, in 1987.

I found my best friends there, a new consciousness, community, love. I wrote a couple of poems that I’m still rather fond of, and one of which is about these boys and this growing, shedding old skin and learning to move in the new body. So I’ll share a part of “Cicada” here:


This transformation takes seven years, they say.
Right now my oldest heads down the homestretch
to his seventh birthday
and I wonder what’s in store for him,
what growing pains first grade will bring.
Seven years ago I began a marriage,
took it upon myself to offer the world two lives,
ended the marriage began another,
ended a job and began anew,
offered the world another life,
said, “Here, I trust you to care for these
they are mine I would not have them destroyed.”

Already I feel an itching at my shoulder blades
where I can’t quite reach the scaly skin
though I can just make out the v-shape through the steam
where my rubbing in the bathroom mirror
has left a filmy reflection.
Any day now I shall lay myself down
pull my body into its tightening shell,
trusting the stillness to remain free
from inquisitive hands
so I can let these wings unfold and dry
before I leap into that startling void.

I hope I will soar. I hope I will sing.
I hope I will meet up with other cicadas,
our wings a crackling testament to our joy.

But that’s not what I started this post about, though there may be a connection. I wanted to say something about friendship, the deep knowing we four friends share—about our frailties, our strengths, our histories. How the four of us want to grasp this thing we’ve got and honor it until we can no more. All of us professors, world travelers, authors, activists, one a Fullbright Scholar, 3 of us mothers and grandmothers, one an Episcopal priest now, two of us survivors of dead sons and a hundred other heartbreaks. Two still live in that town where we met and found each other (one lives in the country outside of town), the third lives now about 30 minutes away, and me, the furthest off, but still here in Kentucky, just a couple of hours down the Cumberland Parkway–I’ve contemplated chewing my fingers off in committee meetings as long as it took me to drive from here to there, a ride that gives you a series of hills touched by green and flowering trees and enough time to listen to a CD or two. On the way there, your mind rehashes the business of work till you shake it off finally. But on the way back you think how you are going to make your home a little better, having shared 15 hours with your friends and seeing, remembering them, yourself, listening, laughing. All the angst and frustration of work are just tempests in cracked teapots compared to what that kind of friendship means.

So here they are, my beautiful friends…..Keila, Barbara, Peggy . . .

Keila Thomas listening to Peggy

Keila Thomas listening to Peggy

Barbara, listening to Peggy (she's interesting)

Barbara, listening to Peggy (she’s interesting)

Peggybest Peggy, listening to Barbara (she’s interesting too)[/caption]

And the four of us . . . Sweet!

Peggy, me, Barbara, Keila

Peggy, me, Barbara, Keila