a prairie dog made of paper *
Don't blame me for this slippery well my mind has fallen down.
Don't look for that old shopping list I used to take to town.
Don't criticize my driving or the detours in my wake.
I've lost the itch for quickness. I thirst for what I make.
Today, it was a prairie dog - a folded paper thing.
He rose out from the flatlands; I thought I heard him sing.
With scissors at my fingertips, I briefly broke the spell.
My own hands' certainty: the compass down that well.
The paper emptied of all words. He rose on tender feet,
then winked at me as if to say there's joy inside each crooked sheet.
* Yes, you can make one, too! Here's the link:
isn't the pineapple amazing?
We are miles from the source, and yet here we are, fork-deep
in a slice of pure gold, the drip of the tropics sliding down the tines.
Imagine: Someone reached into the folds of a tree and took the fruit down,
patting off the dregs of the last rain. There were a series of transports involving
various forms of wheels and engines. And after the tumble and travel, here
it is and here we are, face to face at the table. No matter what, let us not forget
there was an afternoon that peeled the wonder out of us and drew a draft
of Pacific air toward our kitchen, where we sat at the breakfast nook while March
still clung to the backyard lawn. Nothing was growing there, not yet,
but inside, where it matters, all we saw was summer.
paper, scissors, glue
Let's not forget to make things: bread, books, friends. Let's not dismiss
the tippy power of learning through error, of failing and falling
and finding ourselves, to our great and humble surprise, intact. Let's not
skip over the part of the story where a road is just a road, not a test between
two ambiguous choices or a moral or an aphorism, but an actual piece of land on which
our feet are simply...walking. Let's not sidestep presence or quit the muddy middle,
or bypass the stunning awkwardness of indecision and the inglorious rigor
of waiting. Let's not abandon the first small tools our teachers lay in our hands,
which were hardly small in our eyes. Look at what they gave us in a single afternoon -
the inklings of a new city spread out on a flat wood desk, reaching proudly into tomorrow.
what's in the water
There is a girl in Colorado who invented a better way to test for lead.
I'm picturing her the year before it happened, what platitudes of pre-adolescence
she ignored, what costume of girlhood she shrugged off in favor of the tubes and wires
and hypotheses of a science left, to date, to the professionals. What belief did she suspend
about the too-low bar of her gender and her age, and what kept her, laser-gazed,
on Flint, Michigan, a place - from the suburban sprawl of her own hometown -
she might have easily dismissed or forgotten as the news stations took their final clips.
It never left her, though, the image of a mother holding the hands of her tired, ill children,
the greyness of their skin against the early spring lawn in their backyard, their innocence
leaching from the taps, and the girl knew she couldn't stop until she brought it back.
You will know what to do, you tell a friend breathless at the ridge of trouble.
Be patient. The answer will come, you advise. Stay open to the truth. Try for actual
gentleness. Life will bring you back home, you continue, paraphrasing Rumi.
Don't judge yourself so harshly. You can love your way through this, or Sometimes,
the riskier step is no step. But first, Sweetheart, you've got to get a good night's sleep.
Later, of course, you will rub sand on your own tenderness, convince a grand error
from a simple mistake, make hard tracks in the room and stay awake, flicking
the mud out with a toothpick. You will thrust too much weight on your back
and refuse relief. Squaring off against another's pain, you have fistfuls of softness
to give away. But in the eye of your own needle, how are you holding the thread?
pay no attention to the circus
Entering the tent, a single ticket in your fist, it will be tempting to fall prey
to the juggling man and the dizzying orbit his subjects take. Your gaze might
equally swivel to the precarious acrobatics above you on the trapeze, the muscles
in your neck warning you fruitlessly as you bend at odd angles for a better view.
It's possible the noise of the animals alone will be enough to keep you from your path
to your seat, the collision of such disparate species a marvel that may manipulate
your beliefs about the nature of beasts. Whatever you do, do not mistake these scenes
as the narrative of your own mind or instructions for more agile living. Soon enough,
the curtain will descend and behind it, the actors will scurry to the exits, forgetting the lines
they'd learned, their brief intimacy and polish vanishing, like a vapor, in the sawdust.
on certain afternoons
I cup palms around the outskirts of a mug holding Earl Grey and a sift
of sugar. Other days, I cut out eight sheets of square paper, turn a set of folds
into a lidded box. There is always a tempest at our elbows, heat that could rake
our heart clean through. Even counting our blessings, we hold back the number,
rein in the errant pleasures of any unearned delight. But on certain afternoons,
we find ourselves peeking through the keyhole of a door marked "Yes,"
and our fingers, without yearning or exertion or apology, reach for the handle. This
is the reason there is bread, as I write, rising on the kitchen counter, or how
I might explain the way my mind is on a plane to New Orleans, or why I am,
after all these years, still attempting cartwheels.
what's on the kitchen counter
The compost canister, with its leaning tower of gutted grapefruit halves inside,
tipping the lid like a lopsided grin. A blue-green mug with an inch left of this
morning's pour. Crumbs from an insubstantial breakfast, and a shallot that may
or may not be included in tonight's meal. That infuriating lip of an ill-fitted sink.
A faint remainder of a single frozen blackberry, forgotten after some late-night smoothie.
Tiny bottles of vinegar. An off-yellow sponge curled at the corners. Softened butter. And now,
fresh news from Kentucky, another school eviscerated by gunfire, and from Michigan,
more stories from a childhood no child should ever have to tell. There is sunlight
on one fragment of Formica and a long, cold shadow spreading on the rest and here,
at the intersection, the sweetness and pain of the earth moving through its next season.
hugging the curve
"Brace yourself," the forecasters warned, eyeing the radar and revving up
their nomenclature, all of them angling to find new names for extremity and doom.
The disappearance of milk and bread from the store shelves, the anxious queue
at the gas station, the way we spoke to each other with so much urgency and an influx
of swear words, says something about their success. Everywhere, the sharp residue of
near-catastrophe, life squeaking by the slimmest of chances. Even now,
with that particular storm gone, we still hold rigidly on, our grip white-knuckled
as ever, as if we've forgotten the former glee that accompanied our older,
bumpier rides, when we leaned toward the centrifuge of speed, hugging the curve
of our own fear with such tenderness and fervor it made our skin blush.
the first in a series of permission slips
Buy grapefruit, or chocolate pudding, or that naan bread you like, or
the more expensive tuna fish, something that has nothing to do with the shopping list.
Take long walks without an errand in your back pocket. Wear socks that don’t constrict
your calves. Release any guilt about longing, old or otherwise. When it comes, sink into it
like a familiar chair. Lean back into its cushions. Turn on a nearby light so the shadows,
one by one, begin to disappear. Create the pleasure you seek and wider room
for what you resist. Give space to desire. Donate airtime to wildness and depth.
Paint the brightness out of the background. Make more scenery of your scenery.
It doesn’t have to be beautiful. It just has to be real.
It just has to be true.
half a lemon
In desperate situations, a sheet of paper less than two inches wide
can house a piece of art, a poem, a birthday greeting. For music,
hands on a steering wheel, or a thigh, or the closest coffee table. Prayer
hardly needs a pew, or a cloaked figure at a lectern, or a book of invocations.
Once, I served a meal with only a clutch of spaghetti and half a lemon.
Twenty years later, I can still remember the splinters on that table,
the mismatched chairs, the citizens of a kitchen in a London youth hostel
united by our late-night hunger and a scatter of ingredients. How we gathered close,
almost teetering into each other, passing a dish of salt and a chipped pepper-grinder
as outside, the rain erased the year behind us drop by drop.
succulent in winter
The house is a maze of small upheavals - at the dining room table, a pile of bills and letters
needing payment and reply, holiday cards colliding on the mantle, disks of lip balm
overlapping in a dish already mountained with coupons and stray rubber bands.
This is the lumpy topography of living, a labyrinth we navigate with lopsided measures
of engagement and avoidance, and today might easily beckon as the grandest of cleanups
before the year snaps shut. Still, I don't quite know where to begin, which stack to start
dismantling, and my eyes shift from clutter to clutter, gauging the work ahead,
almost missing the windowsill where a cactus, purchased two summers ago in Austin,
is quietly maintaining a tidy ecosystem above a sink full of breakfast dishes,
its spine soft against the glass in an innocent dare of beauty or hope, or both.
restoration of persons apparently dead from drowning *
First, make two smarting smacks to the stomach with an open hand. This will likely
not revive the patient but will at least provide the body with a reminder
of its own stubborn leanings toward aliveness. Turn over and square the face
against the floor to reduce the glare of onlookers jostling for carnage. Demand the cameras
be put away, then press all your weight on the back until the spine makes full contact
with the ground. Stay on your knees. Count slowly. Breathe like normal. It will seem
fruitless, of course. The drama of the pool will have its eyes on you,
the frantic crowd threatening your fortitude, your commitment, your optimism.
You must ignore the catcalls of the disbelievers. There is air still left in these overwhelmed
lungs. It is rising toward you now, incremental but sure. Do you see it? Do you see?
* from the book Valuable Information for Daily Use in Every Household published in 1887.
nothing is futile
Except, perhaps, the leaf blowers, who return to the same street
each week and aim in unison at a pile that will, on the heels
of a breeze that very afternoon, resettle to its innate disorder. Or the driver
who shrieks at the car in front, then leans on the steering wheel for emphasis,
imagining the horn's uninterrupted wail will loosen the gridlock.
Or the pugilist who remains in the ring long after the fight's been called,
throwing punches in a desperate pantomime to woo the opponent back.
But you. You who offer your quiet, loyal ministrations to whatever garden
you are tending. You who stay bent to the task, despite the incalculable time it takes
to bear fruit. You who keep your gaze on the ground, on the air, on the seeds.
when they call you names
Your hair will grow disconcerted while you sleep, until one morning,
another woman entirely will be staring back at you from the mirror,
a minor goddess who, excluded from the cannon, has quietly
sharpened her nails on the rocks from old volcanoes, thickened
the skin of her back against a low awning of sagebrush, practiced, in silence,
the keening of her own heart. She meet will you in the smudge of that glass.
She will lick her tongue across her teeth, clear her throat, and you will know
she is at the lip of battle. It will take less time than you'd imagined to get dressed,
pull the sword from the shadows of your closet, spit the shine back to the blade.
It doesn't matter that you've never picked it up. You already know how to swing it.
making bagels with my father
He was here in the kitchen, I'm sure of it, beside me at the Cuisinart
when a fine dust of flour escaped as the blade started spinning,
here when I pressed "Off" and opened the lid to reach in for the dough, and here
when I made those first turns on the countertop. It was one of those things
I hadn't learned from him specifically, like how to write a résumé or do my taxes,
but his voice entered the room anyway, his long thin hands cupped around
the edge of my right shoulder as I dug into this strange, new art,
reminding me, like always, to stay patient and forgiving if the first try
failed my best intentions, and watching, wishful and wild-eyed, as inside the oven
my own innocence returned, blooming with potential.
There are bike paths in rural Pennsylvania that desperately need resurfacing. Equally,
a gallery in Newark, perennially underfunded, is on the verge of losing its tenancy.
Across the country, the annual pleas arrive from the usual suspects, complete with
intimate portraits of those whose lives were saved by donations like yours.
Everywhere, the sidewalks in front of grocery stores populate with costumed men
holding red cans and ringing a single, insistent bell. No matter how many times
I reach into my pocket, it feels like what's inside will never be enough. But I forget
the daily plentitudes whose wells resist emptying - kindness, not the least of these.
There is a clutch of old wounds - mine and someone else's - that would welcome release,
and who knows the richness that might roll in then, filling the cracks.
everything is expensive
The appliance salesman ballooned with good news as our time in the showroom
stretched toward lunch. A sale, a rebate, a better tax break if we bought the stove
in a neighboring county! Still, it was hard to keep my gaze from wandering too far
from the numbers on the spreadsheet, his and the one perpetually nipping at my heels.
The kitchen's not burned down, has it? it demanded in a plaintive but accusing tone
and it was impossible to argue with that particular line of questioning. I'd spent
years learning to talk to my stepsons through loaves of banana bread and incalculable dozens
of chocolate chip cookies, scrubbing bowls and measuring cups as the trays cooled and they ate.
Maybe I had more baked goods behind me than poems or dollar bills, but everything
is expensive, even surrender, even love, and sometimes you just have to stop counting.
It's 5 o'clock. Do you know where your life is?
I see the list in your hand: Eggs, napkins, toothpaste, broccoli.
The back of the driver's seat holds a map you haven't looked at in years.
Sometimes, you think about your art teacher from fifth grade. If pressed,
you'll recite your old school song, or what you chanted around the fire
the last day of camp. Mostly, though, there's that list and that map
and everything you slide between them like a sandwich, the real estate so worn
you argue against the idea of a different meal. There are things to do, you say,
tucking the paper in your pocket and lifting the keys, as always, from their hook.
I'm running out of time, the sky whispers back, waving a pale finger of light in your direction,
hoping you'll notice.
Before they change the rules, qualify to carry a gun legally *
The church pews are empty now, save for the cleaning crew,
whose grim task will likely leave them stained forever. And how will the pastor
fare, the one who'd traveled out of town but whose daughter is now
among the dead? Or the pair of siblings huddling in a hospital corridor,
left to navigate their sudden, inexplicable orphanage? "Let us keep praying,"
someone urges a dazed audience, already so inundated by terror they
hear "praying" as "paying," as men in suits and rifles swarm the Capitol, pretending
it is still 1791. Somewhere, a boy grows intoxicated with weaponry,
aiming a crooked branch at his brother, his finger curled around a knot of bark,
and I'm hoping their mother will call them inside before it begins to get dark.
* This was the subject line of a spam email I received two days after the Sutherland Springs, TX massacre.