A Dying Bird
An Old Dog
North of Waseca, Minnesota
Recovered Sort Of
The God of Dogs
The Picture I Did Not Take
Old Woman on the Bus
Boca de Tomatlan (Sandbox)
Releasing A Turtle (Nuevo Vallarta)
Light as Air, Heavy as Family
For Andy On His Birthday
What To Wear To A Funeral
I’d failed to realize that when the fury wanes it takes the passion with it. The absence of passion was worse than anger but I couldn’t fall back in love no matter how hard I tried to.
Reunited we sat with inches and yards between us, careful not to touch though have I known every piece of you. Even after all this time it’s still the same.
We are meticulous to watch our breathing, that it doesn’t grow hard or sync up. We avoid each other’s eyes, turning instead to the wine. We have loyalties to address and children so we’re careful.
It’s not like he noticed it until it came back and now every time he looks at her – sideways, avoiding eyes and careful not to touch – he thinks to himself that letting her get away was the greatest mistake he ever made.
Having some sense of this, she appreciates his wisdom. Staring at his knees she sees all the ways this might have gone, meticulous not to remember exactly where they’ve been.
The wine is fifty-eight years old. It is the blood of fruit from the year your father was born. It is the weather that year in place we’ve never been yet here we hold it. We consume it.
The wine has been waiting for more than fifty years but you, you couldn’t wait three weeks for me. Now just look at us, living lives we never pictured with turns we could not have imagined, especially growing old.
She fared better than he did. She isn’t lonely the way he is and lacks his regret. Having given him her all, her wounds were deep but healed more or less completely. He on the other hand carries the burden of the wounder, the shrapnel of poor decisions lodged in his sternum and his skull.
There should be another word for waiting when it has no possibility of ever ending. Grief isn’t right. Lament isn’t either. Nor wistfulness though there are elements of each in the act.
I waited until desire just wore off, or was worn away by your unkindness.
He is doomed to wait forever.
It was the way she said it: “I’d do anything to trade places with her.”
I’d been a regular customer but hadn’t been there in nearly a year.
It was the way she said it: “Why can’t we just trade places?” The way she asked it: As if it were a genuine question; as if there were a genuine answer.
I was customer. There was a counter in between us.
I asked her how she’d been.
She said, “My daughter died.
A Dying Bird
I thought it was dead. I chased the dog away then I noticed it breathing: A little bird on its back, orange wedge beak, legs outstretched and twitching. I thought about putting it in a plastic bag - I've heard oxygen depletion is euphoric. I wished to provide it a gentle death, but I am weak that way. I am weak with hope that any life is greater than its absence, weak with my own aversion to taking a life. I am weak with hope that death isn't, in this circumstance, inevitable. So I left it.
An hour later it still there, still breathing. Flies land on it and this infuriates me - I shoo them away. Inside the house I find a small box. I line it with tissue paper, then clover. I think about a pretty death, and what that might mean to me versus the bird. Mostly I want to keep the flies away. I scoop the bird up with a trowel because I am afraid to touch it. I realize it is a juvenile. Juvenile, bald thighs and crown and I hear the chirping that's been there all along but that I'd written off as a general sound of summer. I see her, the mother bird, a cardinal looking as stressed and tattered as her child. She hasn't left it.
I put the bird in the box in the center of a crabapple tree. This is hard to do because the tree is dense - it tugs at my hair and scratches my cheek with fine gnarly branches. This serves to affirm my decision to put the box there. It’s a safe place.
I try to imagine the mother bird picking up the child up in her talons and flying it home, but I don't think that's realistic, and the child is nearly as large as the mother despite its immature state. I try to imagine her lighting on the box, turning the child over from its back, helping it to roll over, then rest. Then fly. I don't know birds well enough to know what's possible. My ignorance protects me as any ignorance might from truths I don't wish to know.
Later when I have the courage to look inside the box again there's one outcome that can leave me stupid and happy and another that will leave me wiser and sad.
I picture avian rescue, clover as comfort, the trials of learning to fly surmounted. Then I picture: Mother and child flying.
There is an alternative version that includes celebratory flies and a trash can.
I try to find joy in the flies' pleasure, but cannot.
An Old Dog
I don’t think it is about denial at all. I mean, I can see the future, I acknowledge that future. I know full well that what I don’t want to happen is going to happen anyway. I’m not pretending it won’t. I’m not pretending I’m prepared and it won’t hurt – it’s going to hurt like hell, I know that. Look, the miserable outcome is clear as day.
It’s the present I get all messed up about. It’s confusing. Living with an old dog is like Wylie Coyote walking on clouds: Are the clouds actually holding him up for awhile? Or is that just how long it takes to fall?
She still moves like liquid mercury. She is fluid and sparkles in the sun. She loves the sun, baking her old bones. She doesn’t see well or maybe she doesn’t see much but I’m pretty sure she still sees a little. She doesn’t hear so well either. Or maybe she doesn’t hear much. The line between what’s sensory and cognitive may seem blurry but she’s still beside me most of the time and still follows me everywhere, even if I have to wake her up to do it.
Just the other night she put herself to bed early. She was sleeping between the bed pillows when I woke up her up to go outside. She was like a little mole that had found its way to daylight unexpectedly, blinking and stirring, her pointed little nose bobbing once or twice just to be doubly certain it was me. I gathered her in my arms – even though she is perfectly capable of getting her own self down from the bed still – and I kissed her a dozen times before I realized it was the first time I’d ever found her like that. As adorable as she was in that moment, she’d never been away from my side when I was working like I am right now. She’s always been there, always, and she is right now again. She is a wise little dog and I can’t help but wonder if she’s consciously and gently getting me used to the idea of separation.
An old dog will do this to you, just wait. If you’re lucky, you’ll see. Is your dog just tired and delighting in your feather bed, or are they hinting at leaving you? Does she sleep through storms that used to scare her because she’s gotten used to them, because she’s deaf, or because she’s surrendered? Did it used to be hotter than this before she started panting? Is that sneeze something more than a sneeze?
But here’s the thing: Those clouds maybe actually can you hold you up, at least for a little while. She moves like mercury. She eats with gusto. She feels exactly the same in your arms, your soft, sweet little baby girl.
Like many little girls, I loved horses. I pretended my first bicycle was a horse. My bicycle, with its big plastic tires and pointless metal bars where the training wheels used to be – I was a cautious child and refused to let my father remove them even after the training wheels fell apart and came off. I thought the metal bars that once held the training wheels would save me from falling over. In practice, they never so much as skimmed the ground, but did bloody a shin more than once when I unwittingly bumped into them..
My bicycle, my horse: I named it Kelso after a race horse I never saw and wasn’t exactly familiar with but which I decided was my favorite. I’d stand up on the pedals and I’d whip the back fender, pretending. I lived in the city and watched horses on television. I loved Westerns best, and still do.
One day very early my father took me to Belmont Park. Children weren’t allowed at the race track but in the early morning the horses would work out and jockeys and trainers would sip coffee and watch them run. Jockeys and trainers; my dad and me. This is the first time I remember doing anything with just with my father. The memory is so rich that I still recall exactly what I was wearing, and my own physical smallness as my dad wrapped his hands around my waist and held me up high to see.
The next time it was just me and my father, my mother was institutionalized. My dad took me to a minor league baseball game – Pompano Beach, Florida, home of the Pompano Mets. Some years later, it was me and him at my first big league game, Tom Seaver pitching for the Reds in Cincinnati.
These memories do not play back as if I experienced them; they play back as if I’m watching a movie. The camera sweeps. I might see my profile or the back of my head. Here I am now, watching myself in my mind’s eye, some special affinity for the little girl I see and the way she is more quiet with just her father than she is otherwise: Not because she is lonely or afraid, but specifically because she isn’t.
I love the smell of lily of the valley. It reminds me of my father who loved it too and it reminds me of the house he grew up in with it shady, overgrown yard that to me as a child was as exotic as a jungle. But that’s not why I love that smell. I love it because it smells so new, like green life just starting, as far from its ending as a growing thing can be; closer somehow to the smell of snow than the strangled scent of August. I do suppose it lives closer to snow than it does the point of summer when the rotting starts, now that I think about it.
I used to have a perfume that smelled like lily of the valley. But I soon realized I didn’t want to smell like lily of the valley, I wanted lily of the valley to smell like lily of the valley. And while I can enjoy lily of valley without the need to look at it, it is as if there is something essential to the experience in the leaves and stems, and especially the little bell blossoms.
So for a couple of weeks in the spring I will smell my favorite smell, outside the house and in it. I will think of my father. I will think of my father’s childhood back yard. I will think of my father’s father that I only knew briefly and the notion that, from the little my father ever said about it, that the overgrown backyard I recall as a jungle was likely tyrannically neat and orderly when my grandfather was still alive and mobile. My father used to say I only knew his father after he was old and had softened, and that’s true. He is both old and soft in my memory.
Surely I’d been to my father’s family house at various times of the year but in my recollection it is always springtime. My grandfather is always alive, always gentle and there is always the aura of lily of the valley and me being new to the world.
I don’t remember puking strawberry milkshake all over the cloth seats of my parents’ un-air-conditioned ‘64 Chevy Bel Air on an especially long drive on an especially hot day when I was, what, two years old? But I was told about it often enough – sometimes in jest, sometimes in disgust – during my youth that I’d fabricated something like memory of it, complete with details of a pre-made shake-in-a-can (that may or may not have needed refrigeration, and that may or may not have been refrigerated) and a particular shade of pink associated with both artificial strawberry flavor and little girls. My subsequent aversion – shamed-based as it was – to both that shade of pink and all things strawberry might have been what set me on the path of, if not unconventionalism specifically, then tomboyism at very least. Or maybe not, but as a little girl, then as a big girl, then a teen, then an adult, I hated both the color pink and strawberry in any form, natural or otherwise.
Then one day, for no good reason, I was overwhelmed by an urge for Strawberry Quick. Strawberry Quick? Maybe it wasn’t a canned shake I’d ruined my parents’ car with after all, maybe it was Strawberry Quick. It very well could have been. Strawberry Quick, I should have been disgusted. I should have been disgusted logically, personal history aside. I mean, Strawberry Quick! It’s nearly fluorescent, and primarily sugar. I don’t like sweets; I’m a salty. I’d once tried strawberry ice cream and it made me gag, as did the strawberry Lipsmackers that were so popular in junior high. I’d never tried strawberry yogurt; just the thought gave me shivers. But here I was, making a special trip to the grocery store for milk and Strawberry Quick.
I brought it home, mixed myself up a glass. The color was actually quite pretty. It didn’t taste bad, just...childish. It wasn’t exactly that I liked it, but I liked not hating it. I mixed up a second glass and drank it down.
I never mixed up a third glass, but I kept that can of Quick in my cupboard for years.
It wasn’t really my fault. I was only two years old.
Dad drove that Chevy until it died. It smelled like brakes and nicotine.
From here, the moon looks larger than a star.
Everything is relative. I was raised to believe that things will always get worse, it’s just a matter of time. So were I to confess I were having a bad day – or week, or year – I’d fear doing so would be the equivalent of asking a vampire in; a downright invitation for the proverbial other shoe to drop, likely right onto my head. So really what I mean to say is it’s been a strange year: Near misses, direct hits; rain, rainbows. What I mean to say is it’s been a strange week: Bee stings, mockery, car trouble. I’m allergic, it wasn’t funny, not again; I’m okay, it was worth it, it’s fixed.
If my mother was right, if one’s happiness will inevitably be counterbalanced by that other shoe…mine won’t be the moon, it will be a star. My good fortune is supernova-sized; my happiness is huge.
To all those who wronged me and forced me down a different path: Thank you. To all those I loved who didn’t love me back or whose love for me waned so that my life would turn out exactly as it is: Thank you. To all those who disappeared, or reappeared, or stayed: I thank you.
There was a time when I worked at the car races – Indy Cars, Champ Cars, CART. Back then this was the major leagues. Inevitably, there would be some driver – one you knew, someone’s hero – that didn’t have a gig. He’d wander the track, wondering how to get a ride again without someone else getting fired or hurt; hating himself for having to work so hard not to wish for that. See, if you wonder how a race car driver does it – or rather why – the answer is that they love it. They love driving faster than anyone else in the world and they love working with a team that can make that happen for them. The greatest tragedy for a race car driver is not the manifest danger even if it’s lethal; the greatest tragedy is that they are absolutely unable to do their favorite thing in the world without someone else giving them the chance do it. Their absolute favorite thing in the world is something they simply and absolutely cannot do alone.
Maybe that’s true for all of us; I’m not sure. But I do know that it is true for me. My favorite things, the things that make me feel most joyful or purposeful, I simply and absolutely cannot do alone. And yet, here I am, about to do them. This more than anything else I can think of makes me feel connected, even loved.
To those who know hard it is for me to ask and so don’t make me: Thank you. To those who know I ask too much but give anyway: Thank you. To those who collectively become everyone in this beautiful world: I thank you.
North of Waseca, Minnesota
It was a big lake and we'd had no idea it was there, or was going to be there. It's natural to want to explore. The south side had a bait shop and a sign with an arrow – RESORT - so that's the way we headed. There wasn't much along that road, some set back lake cabins over a ridge, couldn't even see the lake from there.
The road turned to gravel. We followed it uphill. There was second sign for the resort, barely legible for all the weathering. You couldn't help but find it because that's where the road ended. The once-resort was now a trailer park. The trailers were small, rusted, crooked, stopped their traveling long ago. Tall weeds grew through cinder block steps, saplings through the footings. Leathery men opened their doors to watch us.
The camp formed a ring around a building in the middle, ramshackle, slanted, the size of a garage. A faded marquee on the building said BAR. The gravel road weakened to a something like a path and looped back around which we were grateful for since the idea of backing out or around made us feel vulnerable. We drove that gravel loop slowly, politely, kicking up no dust at all because old men can still be looking for a fight, especially after being so clearly beaten.
Recovered Sort Of
I shouldn't have loved it. I didn't want to love it. I didn't want to love it until I felt it fleeting. Then I clung.
Today I fell completely out of love. In the way that relief from pain feels sweeter than never having suffered pain at all, the absence of this love is sweeter than the love was.
Today I lost it. I lost it and it wasn't like keys or a ring. It was like weight. It was like fat. Now I'm lighter.
I know you'll ask if it was really love at all, since love is said to be such a beautiful thing. I can only tell you what I called it.
I can only tell you that I love its being gone.
A boy I liked took me to a New Years Eve party. This was in college. Most of the students were gone for the holiday break so there wasn’t a lot going on. I was underage, so a bar was not an option. And this boy asked me; this boy I liked.
The house was outside of town and pretty dumpy. The party was smoky and strange, people playing poker and generally sitting around drinking beer. We arrived around 10pm. This boy I liked took a seat at a table – there were several tables in the room – and I stood around behind him. I didn’t know anyone else there. I didn’t even see anyone who looked like someone I might know – it was a different circles situation.
I drank beer. I didn’t smoke. I was waiting for midnight, an excuse to kiss the boy I liked. But it seemed he forgot about me as soon as we arrived. Maybe he was on something, I don’t know. Other guys started to hit on me and I looked toward the boy I liked, gauging his response and hoping he’d interrupt, that he’d rescue me. But his eyes never migrated my way.
I think it was after 11:30pm when I realized I was the only female there. I felt abandoned by the boy I liked and wanted to leave but he’d driven and I wasn’t even sure where I was; wasn’t sure where I was except to know that I didn’t want to be there anymore.
I told myself it was just a feeling. I told myself I was being paranoid. I mean, this handsome, popular boy had brought me – asked me – to this party. It was New Years Eve. He chose me.
The latest guy hitting on me was more aggressive than the ones before. I went to the bathroom, locked the door.
Five minutes to midnight. I heard a chant beginning in the next room:
“Where’s the girl? Where’s the girl? Where’s the girl?”
For five or ten seconds I thought they were talking about someone else. I was relieved. I thought I wasn’t the only girl there anymore. Five or ten seconds.
I could hear commotion. The chant got louder. Someone tried the bathroom door. I had already opened up the window and kicked out the screen. It was a high half window that slid left to right, maybe five feet up the wall. I am still overwhelmed by the sensation of fear when I was half in and half out, my waist across the window frame, my ass in the air.
I fell to ground and rolled. Ft. Collins, Colorado. It was unusually, frigidly cold. I hid in the woods behind the house for what felt like a long time, but probably wasn’t. I heard shouting, but no one came out after me. Someone closed the window; it was cold.
I started walking. I trudged along the ditch-side of the high piles the plow had made. There weren’t many cars. When I heard one, I’d crouch down in the ditch beside the road until it passed. Eventually I wound up in a part of town that was familiar. I headed toward home.
It was now about 3am. I was still maybe thirty minutes away if I walked at a good clip. There was no one around, no cars, no signs of life. The world was frozen solid.
I could see the tracks from a ways away and the train in the distance. I jogged a little to thaw my feet. I was maybe six feet away when the engine roared by. I couldn’t fucking believe it. I’d been walking for hours only to arrive precisely here at the precise moment this never-ending train was going by. I didn’t arrive when half or even a quarter of the train had already passed and I didn’t arrive in time to get by it; I arrived exactly for the start of it. I’d never stood so close to a moving train. The ground shook and the wind was bitter. The metal wheels screamed and so did I.
It’s my father’s birthday. He’s gone so we don’t celebrate but we didn’t celebrate much when he was alive, either. Some people love their birthdays. My dad kept his to himself.
One year we all surprised him. My brother had a theme, planned a dinner. I flew home unannounced.
There are many ways my father and I are alike but our response to an unexpected knock on the door wasn’t one of them. I’d ignore such a knock; I wouldn’t open up. But my father did, and seeing me standing there so unexpectedly he grabbed his chest and I literally thought I’d killed him.
He recovered quickly – he always recovered quickly – and embraced me in a way I will never forget. No one has ever been so happy to see me. My dad wasn’t a cryer, but there were tears in his eyes.
There was a dinner, a family reunion of sorts with a wonderful cake. My memory is blurry and mostly pointless: The color of the dining room; the specific blue of the frosting.
But that hug remains vivid. My father’s strength, a bit of dampness on my shoulder: I still feel it in my bones.
Minneapolis #134 (Spring Snow)
Hiding out like a pariah, avoiding crossfire glances and keeping to myself. A pariah, holding my tongue, contradicting no one, dodging the sort of contact meant to wipe that smile right off my face.
I am a pariah for my happiness, guilty of crimes against a grim-witted syndicate, hiding out in the hygge underground. I could be arrested for loving this weather, charged with replying "It won't last long" or "I think it's beautiful.”
Late Winter hatred unites the masses. But when conformity demands condemnation, I just say no. I say, "It's beautiful" and "It won't last long." I dance to the music of falling snow - albeit where there are no witnesses.
I consider that these frail, tiny flakes can create something bigger, deeper, more significant - and thus, so can I.
This snow, she is strong and brilliant and generous and clever. My true offense is being so distracted by her superficial beauty that I neglect her strength, or behave like it's novel.
Were I blind would I know better to thank her for filling the lakes - at great personal expense to herself mind you - and for the fragrant garden she is tending to today?
Were I sightless or if the night were a specific moonless black, could I possibly cherish the sound of heavy flakes collapsing on themselves any more than I do?
The God of Dogs
I want all the dogs. I want every single one of them. I would share some, but only with certain people.
I want to be the God of Dogs. I want to know every one of them. I want to watch their dreams like movies. I want to choose their fates – all happy – and I want for fewer to be born.
I will sit on my liver throne and weep, trying to decide whether to extend their lifespan or leave it seemingly too short. The temptation to make them live forever is great, yet the idea of all the dogs that might be unloved or simply unknown by those who would otherwise be destined to know them is its own burden. You look at me on my liver throne and say, Well, you can make my dog live as long as I do, and you can make fewer born, too.
But I will refrain from saving your dog. I will force you to love another. And at the end of your life I will come to you and I will ask: Which of your dogs would be the one you would have had me save? Which of them would you have deemed your lifelong companion?
Only then will you understand. Only then will you be grateful that you are not the God of Dogs.
Only then will you comprehend the terrible gift that loss is.
You know, it’s against all odds that you are here, on this earth, alive, as you. Your very existence is proof that you are a survivor; that you were selected by fate and nature and all the of the bad decisions or experiences that might have killed didn’t it. In fact, they made you stronger. Smarter. Kinder, probably. So remember: You’re strong. You’re smart. You’re kind. You are made up of stardust, compassion and close calls.
You are fucking miraculous.
There was a time when I could not speak, or walk. There was a time when I was three feet tall. There was a time when my body was especially fluid and I had no fear of dying. There was a time when I had a mother and father. There was a time when I had only a father. There was a time when I painted and a time when I studied and more when I refused to. There was a time I was poor. There was a time I was reckless.
There was a time before I knew him, however impossible that seems now.
Then there was the era of unrequited love, which may or may not have ended. How many of my young love affairs were merely scripts I’d written, the star of each utterly unaware? How many arcing sparks or magnetic brushes against were mine alone?
All those loves, it seemed impossible they might not be returned since love is inherently mutual, and because love itself is so attractive. I wasn’t old enough to know that while love is inherently mutual, various states of being can be mistaken for it, and that attraction in the absence of love is okay. All you dear boys who broke my heart, with or without knowing it; all the hearts I must have broken in the days I felt like nothing and couldn’t imagine being your star.
Back then, Valentine’s Day was my script’s cinematic climax: The day I could confess, or be confessed to. I always expected something to happen that never did.
By my later teens I was prone to referring to Valentine’s Day in terms of a massacre. In 1929, nine gangsters in Chicago were gunned down in the street.
Before and since, so many on this day quietly wounded.
Many young men I did not know have died on Memorial Day. But one of these young men who died on Memorial Day impacted my life profoundly, and in some senses even created it.
He was my mother’s first husband and my sibling’s first father. I was not alive for the loss, but was there for the scars that grief caused. Freddy was always with us. I knew his name like I knew my own father’s name. I suffered his demise in my mother’s stupors, most reliably each Memorial Day weekend when she’d stay in bed wailing or blubbering to me - her youngest child - the physical details of his death. I can play it back in my head like a movie: Their youth, the barbecue, their argument; his storming away in the car and the police knocking on the door thereafter. It was only one policeman: He took my mother to accident site, prepping her as best he could for the state her husband was in. He was still alive. She could say good-bye. Then the cop would drive her home again.
There’s a part of the story that’s missing: What was said between the couple, if anything. Was she too late? Was the scene itself too much for her? Was this the one thing she could not vividly remember or the one thing she kept to herself?
I like to think he absolved her. I like to think he said their petty fight had nothing at all to do with this circumstance. I like to think he told her he loved her, and begged her to love again.
I rarely saw my mother with a drink, only at parties or restaurants. She tended to get sloppy. At home the booze was straight and hidden, juice glasses of clear or amber liquid in the back of every cupboard and closet. I wasn’t allowed in her dresser drawers. She wanted to keep her disease private, and in her way she did.
My siblings were older, social, off to faraway colleges. When I was 8 we moved away, a financial decision. I was alone then, and so was my mother. I thought every child’s mother was asleep when they got home from school, so deeply they couldn’t be wakened. I thought every child’s mother cut themselves cooking dinner and bled all over the food.
Was my mother’s grief born on Memorial Day? Was it born some years before when her sister died? Or earlier, when her own mother would tell her the story of a 72 hour labor and the attempt to throw herself from the hospital window bringing her into this world?
My mother was brave and strong. She continued on as best she could despite what chance had dealt her. I understand that, given the circumstances, it was hard for her to find life’s beauty.
My mother was fierce and wicked and protective. Above all else, above anything and everything, she wanted a better life for her children. And her children all got one.
I am not fully certain the precise date of my mother’s death, or my father’s. For this, I am grateful.
Sometimes I wonder if someone - generally someone close to me, and sometimes almost everyone, close to me or less so - is mad at me about something, but I don't know what that something is or might be. So I spend some time taking a sort of inventory, wondering what I might have done that could be construed as rude or awful, and I worry myself by not quite finding what it is I might have done and thinking about how rude and awful I must be that I can upset someone - especially someone close to me, but even someone less so - without even realizing I've done it, which itself is rude and awful.
And I'm like, Bingo, there's your answer: You can't even tell when you're being rude and awful, and that is rude and awful, just like you are.
But for better or worse I don't stop there. I keep going. Like, Hey! My rude awfulness was accidental, and while casual rude awfulness is still rude awfulness, isn't there some kind of system that takes into account intent? Like grading on a curve or something? And the right lobe pipes in: Yes there is, forgive yourself. And from the left lobe comes, Now you're discussing recklessness, which is only excusable once. So is this the first time this has happened?
And here I am, as confused as you are by all this at this point, and I'm like, Since what happened?
And then I'm just back to where I started, only now I'm more angry (or defensive, it's hard to tell) about it (whatever it is) than kind of sad like I was before. So I'm all like, What the fuck happened? and I'm pissed that if I did do something wrong that I wasn't told, or given a chance to explain, or apologize for as the case may be - or not - well what the hell? And I'm all like, What kind of person just thinks the worst of you like that? Who thinks I'd do something so rude or awful - especially intentionally - and why do I want to hang around or think about someone who thinks such
And the left lobe is all like, Yeah, fuck 'em, good riddance! and the right lobe is all like, Well, a peace created by distance is still peace.
Then I realize I'm okay. I was okay before I started I worrying about what someone else was thinking and I'm okay now whatever they're thinking anyway.
And it occurs to me that maybe they're not mad anyway; maybe they're just distracted, or busy, like I can be. Or maybe I'm not just top-of-mind for them - now, or sometimes - which is also just fine. Frankly, I don't enjoy being top-of-mind; for me, it's a kind of burden. Or maybe they're not busy or distracted and maybe it's not a matter of being top-of-mind or not; maybe I'm just misreading things. It's possible I'm misreading things, partially or entirely.
And with that I realize that everything is and has been, well, perfect. Okay, well, not perfect, but just fine. And if not just fine, then okay, or okay enough, or at very least okay enough for now.
And at this point I typically realize I forgot what lead me to think that this someone - anyone, or even almost everyone sometimes - was mad at me in the first place, if they were, and that they, being more like me than unlike me, are just as likely to forget what I did or didn't do that did or didn't make them angry (if they were; they probably weren’t in a case) as I am. Patience has always served me well.
And so my day continues, as if nothing like this ever happened. Because truth is, it may not have.
The Picture I Did Not Take
My mother died when I was
young, but not so young
that I wouldn’t have
taken her picture.
Even on her deathbed
she was beautiful, but
I don’t regret not
taking her photo then.
I regret not taking it
Old Woman on the Bus (Boca Chinos)
She was old, but only in some physical ways. She shined, fresh and pink and lovely, through the humidity of the crowded Boca Chinos bus. I didn't meet her, didn't speak to her, but had I been closer I would have. She was gracious, and when her eyes met anyone's she smiled warmly. Her brows raised when she listened, and settled toward her temples when she spoke. She touched strangers' shoulders lightly as she exited the bus, holding the rail tight as she took the steps one by one. She waved goodbye to the driver from the side of the road.
A photograph exists, but only to spark a memory.
Boca de Tomatlan (Sandbox)
Children play in the sand. Are they kind to each other? Will they stay that way? Who is thirsty, who feels unloved?
Do they know yet that no one else is them, that every breath they take and the way they see color and the shape of their fingernails and everything they capture or set free by choice, mistake or reflex is absolutely unique to them? And do they know that this is what binds us, this very isolation, and that love is the word we use when we believe it has been broken? That true love is that which lets us pretend it’s at bay?
And do they know yet that we are all so tightly bound by our uniqueness, that it is what's exactly the same about us all?
There is a bond between children that moves through water. Those on the shore are not yet included; they must dive or wade in. Once in the water, the children become one living thing, moving along the beach like a giant amoeba. They climb on small boats that aren't theirs and jump back into the sea. Boys throw sand; girls stand in the wave break and squeal. It is impossible to tell how many families are here, or how many languages are spoken. The teenagers forget themselves. Their parents’ faces soften to see them so young again.
Why are the fish not afraid of me? The water is clear; they can see who I am. They gather around my feet, my ankles, my thighs. They tolerate my floundering. They stay when the waves knock me about and I struggle with my footing in the sand. I am afraid I could crush them but they are themselves liquid, uncrushable.
I imagine bringing them home with me. I imagine their glass prison. I hold salty tears, keep this world inside me.
They offered us a ride. We didn't take it; the bus from this remote beach is part of the adventure. We sacrificed this: Riding in their truck, windows open, perhaps with a child on each of our laps - it would have been necessary to make room; scenery passing quietly because the only language we have in common is one of nods, eyes and gestures, which may or may not have included a light embrace when they dropped us on the side of the main road before turning north.
Releasing a Turtle (Nuevo Vallarta)
This tiny sea turtle is new. It hatched shortly before I held it. I was told they smell like algae, but this one smells like dust. Its odds of survival are very slim but given a full life span in excess of my own I'm not really sure what that means. The help I offer on its way to the ocean may or may not make a difference to any living thing but me.
His name is Hector, and he helped me when I needed some help.
You have to understand, typically I’m notably self-contained, so maybe what I needed help with most was managing a particular vulnerability, or a small collection of them, as it were. It wasn’t a real problem, at least not for anybody but me, and even those who know me and love me might have had to dig a bit for words of comfort in the face of a problem seemingly so trivial, though those very closest to me would understand, and would understand were I to take such a thing so hard.
So it wasn’t the kind of problem that causes peril, or leaves or puts anyone in peril, not even me. It wasn’t a perilous problem. It was another kind, the kind where a small, seemingly unimportant thing (or sometimes, a series of them) can become a profound one in the way it just makes you...lose faith - in things, in people, or, at its most acute, in the whole entire world. So I needed help, and this specific incident became, in its way, a crisis of faith, and here I was, publicly on the brink of tears, and though of course I was managing I wasn’t managing very well. I woke up sad that morning anyway for no good reason and not even for a bad one that I could put my finger on. And here, this...obstacle, this petty little obstacle became an emblem of anything that was or could possibly be bothering me - right then, and maybe even for the few months leading up to that moment, since I had been a little...melancholy lately, and that may or may not have anything to do with this matter here.
So anyhow, I was on the brink of crying publicly, well, I actually was crying publicly, but not sobbing or anything like that, and even I don’t know if the tears were about what was happening right then – frustration, maybe even a little esoteric fear (though nothing major) - or if the tears were about recent months (though I had met frustration and even obstacles in those months before, and certainly didn’t cry over them). Or if the tears were about something else entirely: News of the demise of a close friend’s marriage; feeling a bit tired; noticing my “stomach” reflected in a window I’d walked passed earlier that day. But in any case, point is, I had a problem. And either that problem made me sad, or I was sad before it and this problem was, so to speak, a...tipping point. And this may all sound rather tongue-and-cheek or even playful now in recollecting it, but in the moment, honestly, I felt like hell. And I felt lost, and I even felt ashamed - of what I considered to be my own stupidity relative to the specific needs and circumstances that created the problem and, as I said before, my present vulnerability - and even a little afraid (though not of my well-being or life or anything like that; more like of my life’s work, if you want to put it that way). And did I mention I was far away from home? I was far away from home, so I also felt alien, and lonely.
And the infrastructure for solving this problem was not helping me. In fact, it’s putting me on edge. It’s putting me on the verge of tears (okay, well, so I was actually crying, but “on the verge of tears” is a far better description of how I felt), and I was turned away, turned out. Call it what you will.
So next I’m walking down a hallway in an airport (did I mention it was an airport?) in a foreign country, and I’m crying (now more plainly sad than on the verge of tears), feeling defeated, and feeling like an asshole too because I know firsthand there are many real, significant, life-and-death reasons one might be crying - most particularly in, of all places, an airport - and I am not experiencing any of them. And I’m walking down this hallway, sad and defeated and more than a little ashamed - now for my stupidity, my priorities, and the selfishness that lets me think that this is anything worth crying over, really - and I am about to ask for help. And I do. I ask for help, already convinced of the uselessness of doing so, which only adds to the on the verge of tears feeling I’m back to now, since I’d let some futile tears trickle out walking alone down that endless hallway (had I mentioned I was alone? - though probably you’d already assumed that by now anyway of course; consider your assumption here verified) and now was plugged back up, corked, tearless, or trying to be...tearless outside my eyelids in any
case; I could feel tears (if that’s what they’re called at this point, before they are leaked or wept), tears thickening over my eyeballs. But I pretty much refuse to blink. And I ask this guy for help.
And the first thing he does, long before I finish telling him my issue, my story, so to speak...long before the end – well, pretty much when I’d first started in, and I’m trying to stay calm, and to be articulate, and convicted, and I’m trying to hold back tears though I can feel them swelling against my eyeballs, but won’t blink – before I finishing telling him the problem and in fact pretty much when I’d just started, when I’d barely started in...pretty much right away he reaches out his arm and kind of puts it around me, or rather across me, across my shoulders, just lightly. This is even before I started telling him my story, after which, having once learned how trivial my problem really was, he may never have offered it all. But then he again he certainly would have - I’ll tell you about that later - but right when I get there, when I first walk up to him and I’m about to tell him my problem, he puts an arm around me. And it’s so neutral in its kindness that you could think it was, well, professional, a professional gesture. But clearly, in any land, it is not a professional gesture to put your arm around a strange patron, at least not in this sort of circumstance. So the gesture, in this context, is purely personal, purely...human. Purely kind. And as if that’s not enough - cause it was, it is, enough...just that - as if that’s not enough, the guy goes and solves my problem. In fact, he goes out of his way to solve my problem, above and beyond some might say, especially given that my so-called problem was, in truth, fairly trivial, and mattered to no one in the world but me (though a select few who know and love me best might be able to empathize). But, and maybe this is too obvious to state, but I state it just the same, first because maybe it’s not that obvious after all, and second, in a spirit of recognition and gratitude – absolute gratitude to this guy at the airport – since it may not be obvious and even if it is, in the spirit of recognition and gratitude, the sadness I felt was real, and this stranger, this man at the airport, he knew this.
And even though he had already solved the bigger problem I was having the moment he reached his arm out toward me, he went ahead and solved the “littler” one too (though, conceptually speaking, an impetus is never little, is it?)
I see him once more as I’m about to board the plane. When I notice him I’m on the verge of tears again but now (obviously) for a completely different reason. And you might think that, by now, he’d be more than a little sick of me, having gone out of his way to solve a really - in the scope of things - minor problem for me, only for me; having offered himself up to me the way he did - him perhaps thinking that something really awful had happened, something terrible was happening to me or for me, when, in fact, it wasn’t. In the end, all it was was that I’d had a little problem, a minor problem. But then, it wasn’t even that. It was just that I...was sad. And maybe I never even would have had the problem in the first place if I hadn’t first been sad; maybe I’d have handled things differently, or thought about them differently, or just would have thought ahead in a different way. But in the way that wet hair might make one vulnerable to a cold, my sadness had made me vulnerable to this problem, or rather, to having a problem, any problem, in the first place - and certainly more vulnerable to taking it hard, handling it poorly. So you might think that this guy, this guy who literally put himself out to solve my minor little problem, might be sick of me by now, might even, actually, dislike me. And if he did, even I would think he’d certainly have reason to.
But when I see him again, me about to board the plane and once again on the verge of tears though clearly this time for a different reason – or at least I hope “clearly”, but given no one but me can ever really know how I feel, and given that even I don’t know how I feel half the time (as example, myself that very morning), who knows what he thinks when he sees my glassy eyes? I am more effective at holding back my tears this time, and in any case, I feel tired, and undoubtedly look tired, so the reason for my glassy eyes is, in fact, probably not obvious. But then again, it never was about tears or “how things look” or the things you can see or the seeming reasons for them anyway, was it?
And the guy this time gives me a little hug, a friendly little hug because we are now apparently old friends, him an angel from some past life of mine or me from some past life of his, one where I saved him maybe and now he’s just...returning the favor; we are apparently old friends, and he gives me a little hug, the lightest, kindest little hug, and he’s smiling, he’s not melancholy himself or sad or worried for me at all, and clearly, thankfully, he’s not annoyed with me either. It’s probably just a natural thing for him, in fact I can tell – most certainly – that it is...that he’s just kind, and that alone lets me believe that the world is - kind I mean, as in, capable of kindness. The guy’s just kind, and he loves being kind, loves it even if he doesn’t even notice he’s doing it, like the way a dog can make you smile when you’re bluest or forget yourself when you need to – though with more dignity of course. I’m not comparing the guy to a dog. Though I do like, no rather, adore dogs, and think of them as inherently kind – yes, kind. Anyway, the guy smiles, and hugs me, just very natural and kind, and he doesn’t realize (at least probably not) that he, in that moment, is, for me, the entire world...something natural, and concrete, and kind. But I realize it.
It’s only then that I ask him his name.
Death is a terrible guest.
It makes messes,
takes more than you can offer,
comes in even though the door was locked,
even though you weren’t there when it arrived,
or were pretending not to be.
It doesn’t care how you feel.
It doesn’t care about you at all.
Death is poorly timed.
It’s too early.
It’s too late,
it let things go on too long.
Death is seldom welcome and even when it is,
it leaves holes.
It creates holes,
holes that seem impossible to you but never are.
Death only exists to the dead.
We live with a permanent reminder of things we want, sometimes more than anything,
but can never, ever have.
Then death fleets in its way.
We might forget it even happened then shudder in pain when we remember,
awed that we could have missed it even for a moment.
Shocked that relief is possible.
and we are left with life,
our own and theirs too, the dead one’s.
Their life continues on like waves across the ocean,
traveling through the water until there is no water.
The grieving are the water.
You are the water.
or you will be.
And one day you will be the wave.
So you can think of this as a reminder to love those you love,
to forgive those you need to,
and these are good things, yes.
But what I mean to say is your earthly death will only end your life for you.
The echoes, memories and ramifications of your once-presence will
travel on across seas of hearts and time.
Your life will continue on without you,
it doesn’t even need you.
So what I mean to say is: Be kind.
Big waves may be dramatic or beautiful but
inherently require distance, and break things.
Your life will outlive you.
Leave gentle waves,
like she did.
Light as Air, Heavy as Family
To know this Snow is to come to know Clouds.
See the resemblance as you stroke its cheek,
It reminds you so much of its Father.
To know this Snow tells the Lake who you are.
Snow describes to the Lake your delicate hands
You remind it so much of its Mother:
Light as Air.
Heavy as Family.
For Andy On His Birthday
My brother was in his early twenties when my parents sent me out to live with him the first time. I was thirteen. He helped me get a job at a dude ranch in town, fulfilling a dream and allaying my fears of a summer far away from home. He worked nights as a bartender but woke up every morning near dawn to drive me to work – not because I couldn’t have walked there, but because he wanted me safe. That was the summer of “My Aim is True” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” My brother forgave me when I’d play “Watching the Detectives” over and over, so stunned was I by music that described its lyric so perfectly.
It was maybe six months later my parents sent me back to him. He signed me up for school. I remember waiting with him to register, each of us squirming in a hard plastic chair as we overheard a conversation where the guidance counselor explained to parents how their son had lost an eye that day in shop class. This was a small town with a small town school. It’s the only small town I’ve ever lived in. So I don’t know if they all divide up into categories so plain as rulers and servants, but the counselor had determined the school itself was not at fault, and the two crushed parents exited his office with bowed heads, the mother weeping. A smiling counselor then led us in.
A new kid was something of a novelty there, so the principal sat in as I described the classes I had taken in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was late March. I was nearly two years through an accelerated program and scheduled to graduate a full year early. The principal said, “We can’t have you graduating early. We get $3,200.00 for every semester you’re here.” I can’t remember the precise language of the argument that ensued calling into question the school’s particular priorities, but my brother is gifted in discourse. The principal clearly wasn’t, and it nearly ended in a fistfight. This is the only time in my life I have ever seen my brother so angry, this in defense of me, his sister, and greater moral principles.
And that’s how it's always been – my brother standing up for me; my brother fighting for the best in all of us. My brother took care of me. He taught me about all the best things.
I have three siblings, Andy the oldest, my sister the second youngest and a brother in between the two of them. They are all very close in age, three years apart top to bottom. I came eight years after. Eight years – a lifetime to a child, with some literal lifetimes of place and parentage between us. Andy never made me feel separate, or different. He gave me culture – music, literature, philosophy. He gave me money when I was broke. He gave me a home when our parents couldn’t. He taught me to argue lovingly. He let me believe I was special, and loveable, and good at things that maybe I wasn’t even very good at, but his encouragement let me get better.
I wish everyone in the world could have a brother like I have. We’re older now, maybe old even, but my very belief in the possibility of things like love, loyalty and security springs from him. Anything you like about me, I probably learned from him. Anything you don’t like about me is probably something he tried to teach me that didn’t stick. To know me is to know Andy. To know Andy is to know the best parts of me.
Happy birthday to my big brother. Happy my big brother’s birthday to me.
My presence on this particular beach was somewhat accidental. I could see that high seas had broken up the cove, but I did not realize the channel cutting through it was a river – so cold and clear, born in the mountains. From the far end of the beach I’d wade through fresh water waist deep, my feet sinking into newly naked sand, the river pulling. I climbed its soft bank to reach a sandbar then continued into gentle waves, the ocean water salty and warm. Each trip back from the sea was cleansing in the one way that the sea itself is not.
Children were the first to let the river tow them, old folks were next, their laughter indistinguishable as the current took them exactly where they wished to be, effortless, weightless in an ocean that always sent them home.
You can say there are prettier beaches and I’ll tell you where to find them. But this is the best beach. No beach is better for swimming. No beach has so delicious a meal for you there, fish fresh from the ocean grilled over coals with love by a family of four. Four: They huddle, fanning the wood smoke tenderly.
No beach has a better bus ride taking to you to it, kind strangers making sure you choose the right stop and that you know where to catch the bus back home again; a driver pulling coins from your hand, then returning different coins to it.
This is the best beach. The locals know this too and do not hate you for going there. It is something they've always wanted you to know about them. As if you didn't love them enough before.
What To Wear To A Funeral
No one is going to save you.
No one is going to wake you up.
No one is going to call and tell you the funeral’s been cancelled. No one is going to tell you the best thing you can do to help is just stay home.
You are not so high up on the mourning hierarchy. No one cares how you feel. You are just high enough up that you are expected to be there. Your loss is not as great as theirs is. No one cares what you wear.
But still you stand in front of your closet for an hour wondering which article of clothing to doom forever with the legacy of having been worn on this day, a day you don’t want to remember even though it hasn’t happened yet. Each of your mundane rituals of the living have themselves been marked by doom.
You dress yourself. You try to eat a little something. You leave dirty things in the sink to convince yourself you’ll be back home. This is not your day, and this is not your day to die. But it is someone’s.
You grieve for them as if they were your own.