Two Sonnets About the Sucky Side of Resurrection

Lazarus 

From the cave I walked into the darkness
I once called day, and gagged upon the smells.
My sisters wore the ashes of distress;
I loosened my shroud and poor Martha fell.
I despaired to find myself back in hell,
some error had returned me to the world
of dull-eyed beasts, of shit and dust and filth.
I had not missed them once, those wailing girls.
And then I saw the one they call The Pearl,
saw in his eyes he knew what he had done.
He unbound me—our single grief unfurled—
But offered me no succor; there was none.
I cried out for the starlit place I’d been.
This is your cross, he said. To live again.

Talitha
Like a cooling pot returned to the hearth,
My bones began once more to simmer.
I felt the pain again, though now less sharp
And kept my eyes shut, to not lose the glimmer
Of where I’d just been, its whirl and shimmer.
But it melted like the moon into dawn,
Replaced by a voice that I remembered
As the one I’d followed back here. I yawned;
My mother gasped. My spirit fought the one
Who held the kite-string of my soul and pulled.
He said a bit of broth would hold me down.
I tried to say I was already full.
Now Mother sews and says I’ll marry
And forget, in time, that place I tarried.

by E. D. Watson

Two Sonnets About Adam and Eve

So, I’ve been experimenting with sonnets, just to see how hard it might be. The verdict: Sonnets are very hard. It makes me appreciate Shakespeare on a different level. Here are two of my attempts.

Adam

Back then I could pronounce their names, the ones

They called themselves, each one different.

We walked together ‘neath a single sun;

I had nothing for to be repentant.

This loss, of all things, most grieves my conscience:

With my first taste of flesh, I was transformed.

My ears closed up, and I lost the nuance

Of animal speech and the voice inside storms.

Now, the high-lonesome wind just sounds forlorn

And I’ve forgotten the words to the birds’ songs.

My woman mostly looks at me in scorn,

between us a distance many words long.

Sometimes I think I almost understand

The ragged sparrow who still finds my hand.

 


Eve

My husband was obsessed with gods and names—

“An oak,” he’d say, pointing. He called me Eve.

From him I learned to sniff for rain

Which was god, he said, as was breeze.

We did in those days just as we pleased,

And met the gods for supper once a week.

Adam milked the goats, I made the cheese;

In time our eyes grew bright, our bellies sleek.

But as the days unspooled I came to think

That there was something crucial we yet lacked

And also lacked the name for such a thing.

Restless, tetchy, I stepped out back

And—Oh!—the sweetness of that forbidden fruit!

To know the thing I was. To learn the truth.

The Day I Married New Orleans

Thirteen years ago today, I married the city of New Orleans.

I’d moved there the day before, with nothing but some boxes full of books, and a white Mexican-style dress embroidered with red flowers, purchased for this particular occasion. I didn’t know a soul in town, but I knew the soul of New Orleans—or thought I did—well enough to pledge my eternal and undying love.

cathedraleditI stood on the wooden steps leading down into the Mississippi River, the candy-colored French Quarter at my back, overcome by all it had taken to get here: extricating myself from some bullshit in Phoenix, driving across the sunblasted southwest in a beater car without AC. Explaining to my parents that no, I was not home to stay; I was on my way to New Orleans. No, I didn’t have a place to live or a job—I’d figure it out when I arrived.

A handful of other people lounged on the dock: a lanky man drinking a tallboy, a couple of tourists photographing the St. Louis Cathedral behind us—these were the unwitting witnesses of my wedding. I could feel them giving me side-eye as I removed the battered silver ring I’d been wearing as an engagement ring, purchased in New Orleans the year before. I threw the ring into the river, and whispering my vows, replaced it with another ring purchased earlier that afternoon.

It was an unorthodox ceremony to be sure, peculiar and solemn as the girl I was then. I loved New Orleans the way you love a person: passionately, even obsessively. I wanted to gather New Orleans into my arms and kiss her. I wanted to whisper sweet-nothings in her ear. Obviously, this presented some complications. The best I could do was to devour a plate of etoufee, which is what I did next. I asked the waiter to seat me next to a window, so I could gaze at my city.

As with any marriage, the first months were a roller coaster. Delirious highs followed abysmal lows. I was the poorest I’d ever been—at one point things were so bad that I shared a can of potted meat with my cat. But I was also rich: I had my own apartment, an odd conjunction of small rooms that had probably once been servants’ quarters. And I had my own life, at last. I came and went as I pleased; I slept and woke accordingly. I bought a set of plastic plates shaped like flowers, and a coffee mug painted like a flamingo. For the first time in my life, I was free to be myself, free to discover who that was.

New Orleans was all around me all the time. She was there when I got out of bed in the morning, sun shining through the dirty windows. She sat on my balcony with me, sharing a cup of milky coffee and a cigarette. She sent me evening love notes on the breeze as bits of song, tootled forlornly by a clarinetist somewhere on my block. For supper, we ate boiled corn and potatoes, $1.50 for a whole sack. We drank Dixie beer. We walked shoeless through dirty puddles after a rainstorm. And when I got held up at gunpoint, she saved my life.

I thought I would live with her forever, but Hurricane Katrina, that conniving bitch, had other plans. Like so many, I was too poor to go back when there were no places to live and no jobs to go back to. By the time the city was on her feet again, I’d married a real person.

But once loved, a thing can never be un-loved, not completely. I don’t have that kind of heart. Just like my flower-shaped plates and my flamingo mug, I left part of myself there when I evacuated. And every time I go back, my heart thumps dangerously in my chest. To be back with her! Her hot breath putting a shine on my face, smelling her smells: beignets and beer and dumpsters and river water and magnolia blossoms big as pie tins. Hearts love what they love, no matter how little sense it makes.

Happy anniversary, New Orleans. I’ll always love you. Maybe one day I’ll come home for good.

2010 New Orleans 047

Parties are Lame and So am I

A conspiracy exists and it goes like this: Parties are Fun! I keep falling for it. And then I go to a party, and I remember: Parties suck. I tell myself this is because other people do not know how to throw a good party. In my mind, a good party looks like Holly Golightly’s party in BATBreakfast at Tiffany’s. There are interesting guests wearing fabulous outfits, and someone’s hair catches on fire but it’s no big deal.

Alternatively, I picture some kind of hippie-fairytale-lovefest where people dance barefoot under string lights and pass the peace pipe while a woman with waist-length chestnut hair plays guitar.

But I can’t blame other hosts; none of my parties look like this either. My parties are like everyone else’s: people sit on the couch and talk about stuff. Usually boring stuff. There are chips and mediocre wine. No one smokes anymore so no one’s hair catches on fire.

couch
Is this fun? Sure, if you’re by yourself. Not if you’re at a party.

The best party I ever threw was a Mardi Gras party. Someone broke a chair by sitting in it. I considered this a great triumph. Later, the party even devolved into people playing folk songs on a guitar. Where had the guitar come from? It was a minor party miracle. I should have also considered this a great triumph, but by then it was two o’clock in the morning and I wanted everyone to go home.

At a recent Christmas party (hosted by someone else), I was loitering awkwardly by he chips until I saw another woman tucked into the corner of the sofa, actively avoiding the goings-on by looking at her phone. Aha! I thought. A kindred spirit! I sat down beside her.

“Hi,” I said. I was really going out on a limb here, trying to have a good time.

“Hi,” she said. She did not look up from her phone.

Feeling that forthrightness and even a bit of vulnerability were in order, I summoned my inner Brené Brown and said, “Do you feel awkward at these things?”

“No.” She did not look up. “I’ve been to enough of them to know what to expect.”

Clearly, the woman was some kind of party Zen-master. She’d relinquished all her illusions about the inherent nature of parties. I was out of my league.

“Um,” I said, floundering. A long time passed. Maybe four or five years. Finally the woman remembered I was there and that she should be polite. “Why do you feel awkward?” she asked.

“I dunno,” I mumbled, trying to remember why I’d started talking. “I guess I just do?” The woman was silent, still scrolling. “Okay,” I announced (unnecessarily). “I’m going to get a refill.”

I did not need a refill.

Everyone else seemed to be having a good time. They were talking to each other. Some of them were even laughing. I thought: What the fuck is wrong with me?

Perhaps it’s simply an issue of expectation. So many things in life have turned out lame that I thought would be unbelievably awesome. Grad school. Driving a car. Having my own mailbox.

Accepting that parties inherently suck once you exceed ten years of age is one of the hardest truths of adulthood. I still struggle with it. That’s why, at your next party, I will be the weirdo huddled in your laundry room with the cat and a creepy smile on my face. Don’t be scared—I’m only trying to make my face look fun. Have mercy on me, refill my wine, and shut the door.

“Sandra Stringer, 1930 – 2017” or, the wretched life of an old sourpuss

Since April, I’ve been hard at work on a collection of poetry based on the imagined lives of people buried in the cemetery next door to my house. Many of the people about whom I’ve written died luminous deaths, or deaths full of regret and sorrow, or suddenly: death descended like a pack of dogs.

But earlier this week, after a particularly unpleasant interaction at the library where I work, with a bitter old woman who simply could not be pleased no matter how hard I tried, I realized that some people go to their graves angry, unhappy, and utterly closed off to all possible goodness in their lives. Sandra Stringer was not the woman’s name; this poem was born of a composite of the many people like her, some of whom are lying at rest or will lie at rest (hopefully at rest) in the cemetery where I walk almost daily.

 

The Church Inside Myself (That I Didn’t Know Was There)

Earlier this year I made a big declaration about how this was going to be my year of pilgrimage. I envisioned myself going to all these different houses of worship—mosques and tabernacles and gospel Baptist churches where the choir claps and sways and sweats. But other than visiting a Hindu temple on New Year’s Day, it hasn’t been like that.

The thing about journeys is that they surprise me. I think I know where I’m going, but if I follow the map too closely, I’m usually bored. In this case, there was probably never any map anyway. This kind of journey can’t be described or predicted; it has to be followed the way rain drips from leaves and flows down trunks, seeping between roots and stones. The passages to underground rivers are narrow, known only to worms and jinn.

In other words, the journey has been inward. There has been less to write about because there have been fewer words.

For about eight months now, I’ve been experimenting with meditation. I have no idea what I’m doing. Meditation is one of those things that has always been for other people. Patchouli-toothpaste white people with rustic-but-pricey cedar furniture and mandala wall hangings. People who “study” Japanese cooking. People with gurus and lots of time on their hands. People who gesture casually to framed snapshots of themselves with the Dalai Lama.

In other words, not people like me. I have a sushi mat (somewhere) and sometimes think about getting one of those mandala coloring books (but never do). I live on frozen pizza and keep telling myself that one day I’ll get up early enough to do the Tai Chi video I’ve had checked out from the library for three weeks.

But let’s get back to meditation.

I initially started doing it to support my husband, who was beginning to use meditation to help with anxiety and cyclical thinking. I found that I kind of liked it. On days when we weren’t able to meditate together, I tried to maintain some kind of practice, even if it was only for fifteen minutes.

I’ll be honest. A lot of the time I was just sitting there thinking about my grocery list (more frozen pizza), which is the opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing.

Fortunately, I’ve reached a place in my life where being good at something isn’t especially important. Maybe it’s just getting older and giving less of a shit about impressing people. Whatever the reason, I can now quite happily do things I rather suck at. This has served me well in my journey with meditation.

But along the way, something wonderful started to happen. I started meditating for real.

By which I mean that, little by little, I made space inside myself. Or became a space? It was sort of like clearing out a garage, but I guess it’s different for everyone. Friends who meditate talk about listening to their bodies, tuning into what their cells are doing. Others use mantras. I guess I’m not that advanced. What’s most useful to me is to find a mental image—a blade of river grass, say, or a pavilion on a hill—and to “become” that image.

If that makes any sense.

For me, sound helps. I like to sit outside when I meditate. When I do, I hear birds singing and children playing, my wind chimes and the wind itself. I hear the cries of the rogue peacock who lives in the cemetery behind my house, mixed with the moans of nearby freight trains. I like to let these sounds blow through me, as though I were a structure without walls.

When this happens, sometimes for blessed whole minutes at a time, I stop thinking thoughts with words in them. And then I stop thinking thoughts. Which is hard for anyone but especially challenging for a writer. (The inside of my head is like one long .doc file.)

Of course, I’m probably doing it all wrong.

Even so, I’ve noticed more space inside myself. An opening up. I feel less inclined to judge or condemn, less bound by the binary systems in which we operate (e.g. Democrat and Republican, male and female, right and wrong, good and evil). There is more room inside of me, for everything. There is more possibility. Things don’t make me as mad, or as scared. But that’s all very cerebral and abstract and hard to articulate. It’s hard to write about, and Thich Naht Hanh does it better anyway.

More immediately: One of the best things that I’ve noticed is that, all of a sudden, everything is more beautiful.

I used to have to use certain substances to make the world glow the way it does now. To have that heart-piercing clarity. You know when you’re outside and the sun is falling through leaves like stained glass? And it kind of hurts because it’s so pretty? And the sky is an impossible shade of blue. And the breeze moves so tenderly over the grass, making ripples in the lawn behind the library as though it were a great, green pond?  And the inside of an iris is fringed and striped and perfect, a tiny amethyst cathedral more lovely than anything any man could have imagined? And all of it, all of it, is actually God—God everywhere, quietly all the time, perfect and available.

That’s how I’m seeing things lately. I don’t know what it has to do with meditation, but there seems to be some connection.

Aside from all that, I think it makes me a better person. Or I hope it does. By which I mean, I hope I am kinder. I hope I am more forgiving. I hope I regret less and accept more.

About others.

About myself.

Frozen pizza and all.

iris

The Ho-Hum Christmas Blues

When I was a kid, I loved Christmas. LOVED it. Most kids do, I guess — all the twinkling lights, the extra cookies, the break from school. The presents.

Especially the presents.

But I loved Christmas music, too. When I was ten, I embarrassed myself by belting out Christmas carols in the shower at summer camp. The acoustics, as I remember, were spectacular. I didn’t realize that singing O Holy Night in mid-July was odd at best, and annoying at worst. To me, it was a beautiful song, about a beautiful event, and it moved me. The feeling I got from singing that song couldn’t be constrained by seasons…could it?

When I finished my shower concert, I realized the whole dormitory was laughing. Somebody called me an elf. In the cafeteria, at the pool, I was singled out as the Girl Who Sings Christmas Carols in the Shower. I was pretty jazzed about this new identity, and  continued to treat my fellow campers to my vocal stylings, for the remainder of my stay.

I mean, who doesn’t like Christmas?

A lot of people, actually. I wouldn’t have understood it at ten, that particular December malaise that falls like a musty blanket over the hearts of otherwise-content people. I hardly understand it now, decades later.

Perhaps it’s the idea of spending as much on Christmas presents as I spend on my mortgage.

Or maybe it’s the expectation of extreme good cheer, the notion that now, more than any other time, we’re supposed to feel all snuggly about mankind. It’s a lot of pressure, after all. Not to mention the fact that mankind has been particularly unattractive lately.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Every year I put up a Christmas tree and string my house with lights. I make cookies (or buy them from the supermarket), I send out Christmas cards and donate to charities and purchase gifts for the people I love. But this is my dirty little secret: I’m just going through the motions, waiting for the magical Christmas feeling that never comes. I’d like to be all starry-eyed and full of wonder like I was at ten. But something’s missing and it has been for a long time. It’s not exactly bah-humbug territory, this land where I’m living, but it shares a border.

At this time of year especially, I miss belonging to a church community. I miss the sense of shared ritual, of a meaning that runs deeper than the slot in a credit-card machine. From time to time, I consider going to a service. But then I remember a certain scorn cherished by the never-miss-a-Sunday adults of my childhood, a scorn reserved for people who attended only at Christmas and Easter. Bi-annual Christians, that’s what such people were called, and they were to be pitied for their poverty of spirit.

The thing is, I like not going to church. I like waking up on Sunday morning and sharing an endless pot of coffee with my husband. I like lying around in my pajamas until noon. I like to spend hours curled in a chair with my nose in a book, to go for a walk or dig in my garden. Church, to me, has always been antithetical to the whole day-of-rest concept. There’s nothing — NOTHING — relaxing about pantyhose.

Nevertheless, I miss church this time of year. I don’t want to feel blasé about Christmas.

With all the distractions — the things we know Christmas isn’t, but easily forget  — I want to have my focus realigned with a sense of mystery and wonder. I want to marvel that I am here at all, that I’m not hungry or cold or sick, that every day is filled with opportunities for kindness. I want to feel my blessings more keenly. Most of all, I long to return to a sacred space inside myself — a chapel of the soul, where awe unfolds as naturally as a blossom.

This is what I want for Christmas — this thing that money cannot and never could buy. I want to sing again, to lift my voice for the pure pleasure of doing it — now, and in July.

In Which I Meditate Upon Trees and Grasp at Hopefulness in Spite of the Impending Election and My Own Personal Problems

Yesterday my husband and I planted a tree. It seemed like a hopeful thing to do in these uncertain and disheartening times.

I felt all spiritual about it, I won’t lie. I am a person who hugs trees. I’ve hugged them on hiking trails and in my own backyard. As a human, there’s little else I can do to express my fondness for them. But I also hug them for my own sake. There’s something reassuring about pressing your soft body against a tree’s rough, unyielding trunk. You can feel the life simmering beneath its bark. You can feel the life of all the insects and birds and mammals that call a tree their home. A tree is a kind of world.Continue reading “In Which I Meditate Upon Trees and Grasp at Hopefulness in Spite of the Impending Election and My Own Personal Problems”

Finding God on the Courthouse Lawn

Before I even learned what had happened in Orlando, I learned about the candlelight vigil that would be held on my city’s courthouse lawn. I’d been to church that morning, but no one even mentioned what had happened at the Pulse nightclub.

The vigil was scheduled for half an hour from when I learned about it. I already had my evening planned out. I was going to practice my cello, drink some wine. Do some laundry. I felt compelled to attend the vigil but also rooted in the familiarity of my typical Sunday evening activities. I could pray and send positive energy from the privacy of my own home, I reasoned.

But something told me to go.

Maybe it’s because I was raised to believe that not standing up for something or failing to speak out against injustice is the same thing as consent. Or maybe it was the part of me that found my usual activities (e.g. attending church) to be unsatisfying. Maybe it was the part of me that craves new experiences and deeper understanding. Whatever it was, the little voice urging me to go could not be ignored. You are a person of faith, the voice said, You need to be there.

The news story I’d read about the Orlando shooting said there was blood everywhere.  People were screaming in pain and fear. All I could think about was Jesus. He knew what it was to suffer abuse, to be despised. He was also brutally murdered for being who he was. I don’t know how to explain it but I felt very deeply that Jesus had suffered alongside the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

When I showed up for the vigil, only a handful of people were there. Most conspicuous were a couple of lady clerics with rainbow pins and a girl with blue hair and black lipstick. But as the sun began to set, the crowd grew. Dozens became fifty, and then one hundred.

Then I saw her.

A petite, kind-faced woman in glasses and hijab, walked with her husband among the mourners. Her husband made a point of going around and introducing them to the others. I thought it was a beautiful gesture, but also a brave one. While my city is relatively diverse and accepting for a small city in the south, it isn’t exactly brimming with Muslims. There are still plenty of good ol’ boys with rebel flags pasted onto the windows of their pickup trucks. I hoped nobody would be unkind.

I watched people shake her hand politely and go back to their conversations. The lady clerics actually looked away from her, then changed their minds and offered a smile.

“We are from the local mosque,” her husband explained. “We are here to grieve with you, and also to speak out against what has happened.”

I didn’t know there was a mosque in my city, and I told her as much.

She went on to explain that it was Ramadan right now, and that in a few minutes she and her husband would slip away to discreetly break their fast. They hadn’t had anything to eat or drink all day. When the time came to break the fast, she invited me to join her.

There’s always a part of me that wants not to impose, not to be awkward. But I also felt honored that she asked me. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I decided to acknowledge this gift for the simple kindness that it was, and joined her on the courthouse steps for some dates.

She told me about her country, Morocco. She told me about her husband. She told me about Ramadan. And, she talked about the tragedy in Orlando. “ISIS isn’t Islam,” she said sadly. “They hate Muslims. They have killed so many of us. And the things they do are in opposition to our scriptures. We don’t hate gay people. It is forbidden to spy on your neighbor. It is for each person to work out their private life with God.”

“People misuse Christianity in similar ways,” I told her. “Anyone who thinks he knows the mind of God is a fool.” She nodded and offered me another date. Some distance away, the vigil began. Flames were passed from candle to candle, illuminating the faces of those who’d assembled, now well over a hundred. I offered to let my new friend use my candle, a votive in a blue glass jar, so that she wouldn’t get wax on her clothes. She accepted, and we moved to join the group.

I thought I’d come to make some kind of a point, about who I was and what I stood for, but God had other ideas. I wasn’t there to send a message; I was there to receive one. I was there for the sermon I hadn’t gotten at church that morning.

A young man stood in the center of the group and said with a shaky voice, “When I first told my family I was gay, they rejected me. The club here became like a home. The people there looked after me and let me cry on their shoulders, they offered me advice, we laughed together. I just keep thinking that’s what Pulse must have been for so many people in Orlando. And it just reminds me how important we are to one another. Take care of one another. Be someone’s home, every day.”

Amen.

Over the next hour, people took turns encouraging one another, sharing stories of fear and heartache and hope. The evening was breezy, and candles kept going out. But invariably, someone whose candle was still lit would re-light the extinguished candle of the person next to him. It happened time and time again.

It was a beautiful example of the best of what we can be: unified, present for one another. Bearing witness to one another’s experiences without judgment. Offering light to a neighbor whose candle has gone dark. Carrying within our hearts a home that is open to strangers.