10-Line Tuesday

August 1, 2017

the empathy museum

Begin with the closest specimens: discards you find on your walk
to get more roast beef for the kids. Notice the optimistic colors of cast-off soda bottles,
the way a crushed cigarette pack bears the mark of both desperation and relief,
how the imprints of teeth on school pencils remind you of the infinite horror
of standardized tests. Soon, your eye will fan out to the frayed collar of the man
on the corner asking for spare change, the missing hubcap of the car broken down
on the busy highway, the look of sheer exhaustion the Target cashier can't hide
despite the careful cheer of her greeting. This is when it will dawn on you, all those places
you'd rather ignore but where, in fact, your gaze is needed most, rooms housing another's
shadowy narrative, and the doors you must walk through to lead you out of your own.

July 25, 2017


When the man to my left unwraps his sandwich as we're settling in,
making a production with the paper bag, the circus of pickles and raw onion,
and the entire row begins to take on the odor of a deli on the Lower East Side,
I don't imagine we will be speaking much during the trip. Still, since we're seated
at the exit, the flight attendant confirms our willingness to assist in the unlikely event
of an evacuation, and suddenly there we are, heads bowed over a colorful placard, 
nodding our promise to work together should the need arise. Somehow, this proximity
is enough to get him started on a conversation, which I am surprised to find, we continue
well into the Rockies and Nebraska, where a solar eclipse will pass in late August,
and the light which change for those willing enough to look up.

July 18, 2017

you're not crazy

For the tattoo you're plotting on your vertebrae, or the paragliding flight off the cliffs
at Fort Funston, or the two thousand miles of a bike path along the Mississippi
that you conjure from your window seat at 30,000 feet and say, "Why not?" as your neighbor
polishes off the last pages of a romance novel. Surely, someone deemed improbable
the dream that led two people to meet each other in that big house in suburban New Jersey,
on a holiday weekend no less. But the math, eventually, pierced through all that
unlikelihood, just as every ambition gripping you with its wild, tentacled longing
cuts through the thickest glass, even as the signs warn otherwise. Your language
has its own cadence. You lean on certain words, luxuriate over particular consonants.
So, too, does desire. Mapless to everyone but the girl with her heart on the trail.

July 11, 2017

too early for peaches

It is summer, inarguably, and the line for ice cream curves into the parking lot
even as a thunderstorm looms. Weekends, smoke wafts from neighborhood grills
and the front display at the CVS is a bright Pantone of sunscreen. Nevertheless,
something pulls at you, a memory willful as a teenager. Flesh yielding to your teeth. 
The blush of softness in your hands. The defiance and purity of your hunger.
Sometimes, you don't know what to do with that voice at the back of your throat,
the one that speaks what your tongue won't say. The one that howls for the taste
of peaches as you take your place for a sugar cone and a hamburger, medium-well.
And yet, there is no shortcut to the harvest, no quicker season to the fruit of your own
becoming, sweetened by time as it is. 

July 4, 2017

weeding my mother's garden

In the stillness of the backyard, a chorus descends from the trees.
Below, a trail of ants in the thick of industry, a vine of cherry tomatoes
reaching skyward in microscopic increments, a bee barreling into a nest
of white blossoms. I've planted myself in the shade, slouching over the weeds
at the far back edge. Yesterday's rain has made them easier to pull, and soon,
a clearing emerges behind me. We aren't always so easily rewarded, of course,
but I guess that's not the point. I rise and make my way back to the house, back
to my life, which advances in fits and starts not quite mappable to the effort I've given it.
Sometimes, the work looks like magic and sometimes the work looks like work,
or maybe they are one and the same.

June 27, 2017

soaked to the bone

You imagined an empty porch, a stiff drink, a ream of paper stacked at your feet,
the hot breath of the Muse at your neck and all those paragraphs catching fire.
In your mind's cinematic eye, a novel was unfolding frothily inside this microcosm,
sharp-tongued poems licking at the glass. Instead, the neighbor's backyard carpentry
keeps possessing your pages, the dog trolls haphazardly in and out of the narrative,
lashing you with forlorn, guilt-inducing looks, and a boy falls into your lap, sobbing,
ripping each line in wet, jagged seams. Whatever you thought you were keeping out
is finding a way in, and the great art of your perfect, kempt desire is mottled with a rain
your tidy world cannot repel. The room keeps pawing you with the fleshy demands of a story
that refuses all margins, but here you are in the downpour, soaked to the bone with words.

June 20, 2017

we have to say goodbye to everything *

Even the vine of peas climbing incrementally upward as summer opens
to its first chapter. In the grip of optimism, we still hear the cautionary tale
of scars from old disappointments, losses we thought long buried. It's hard,
almost heroic, to give the full thrust of undiluted joy to anything, knowing
what we know. The storm we were waiting for inevitably comes, flinging hail
to the yard, drowning the garden we'd built, and something changes irreversibly in us,
a muscle forever tenderized by the pummel of grief. But there is also this: that moment
the weather moves east and we look up and see a wash of light that takes over the sky,
and below us, we notice the tenderness and greenness of a vine whose chances
have not yet run out. This - this - is why we're here.

* I stole this line from a voice message my friend Laurie sent me.

June 13, 2017


It's almost 2 a.m. and your wife is at the hospital with her son
because he tried to punch a hole in the floor sometime after he said
he was going to bed, and you can't sleep because you almost had a heart attack
when he screamed "ER!" from his room just when you were hitting your REM stride,
so you're playing endless rounds of Spider Solitaire as you wait for them to get back,
and you wonder which is worse, the pain in his knuckles or the one that got him
to the brink, while you try, with certain familiar futility, to solve the puzzle
playing on your screen. You wish you could tell him insanity is doing the same thing
over and over again expecting a different result, but there you are, shuffling cards,
losing each hand before dealing another, as if this will be the one that'll win you the game.

June 6, 2017


It was raining, and the laundry had piled up, and the shelves
of the fridge had been cleared by your ravenous children,
and the car needed new break pads, and the wiring of the light fixture
in the upstairs hallway looked ominously frayed, and it's possible
there was a small leak in the roof, and the grout between the bathroom tiles
was freckled with mold. Nevertheless there you were, in the middle of it all,
tilting your attentions elsewhere, eyes closed against the advancing cataclysm,
your heart stubbornly ablaze with rebellion. There would always be some stain crawling
across the walls; few ceilings would resist the buckle of weather or time. Gravity
always wins in the end. But what of this suspended in-between? Anything is possible.

May 30, 2017

how to make room for wildness

Begin with a road trip. Invite more people than can reasonably fit in your car.
Head south on the turnpike with a canvas bag of snacks crammed into the foot well.
When you stop for gas, purchase the chocolate bars of your childhood and a fizzy drink
that will make your teeth wince. Imagine the hours ahead as the rungs of a ladder
you are climbing down, and the miles behind you like years of your life sloughing off,
so that when you arrive you are almost pre-verbal, with a giddiness at this new world
you have entered. Marvel at the bird that accompanies your first breakfast,
its unfamiliar plumage and grace startling you with such wonder, you are convinced
there are wings stirring at your shoulders, and a strange, beautiful song at the perch
of your throat, and nothing - nothing at all - to keep you from sending it flying.


May 23, 2016


The bookkeeper was fishing for numbers, and the marketing expert asked for metrics
we could not retrieve. At the paint-splattered studio table, we sat with our hands
folded in our laps, feeling oddly scolded, and began an indelicate and fruitless defense
as a spreadsheet curled thinly between us. Later, exhausted by the math,
we stumbled home to make dinner and water the new plum tree in the backyard.
Nearby, a fledgling vine of tomatoes was on the verge of announcing its first flower.
The sign at the nursery had given a date by which the plant would begin to yield fruit,
but in the delight of those yolk-yellow petals, and the pride of our own small,
horticultural achievement, we'd completely forgotten
to keep count.

May 16, 2017

fine artist

They were having a discussion about the meaning of the phrase "fine artist."
Did it make a difference, for example, that one favored dioramas and the other,
embroidery? Was the nomenclature the same for someone fashioning lopsided bowls
from outdated Glamour magazines and another who wielded X-acto knives and sliced
hair-thin lines from a vintage National Geographic? They searched for a distinction,
each arguing their cause as they sat on the porch after a long day at the mercy of their work
and the evening light slid down the length of the windows and their glasses emptied
to scant chips of ice. They were getting nowhere. Neither would bow to the other's vision
or give up their own. There was nothing to do but be exactly who they were.  
"To us," they said, and the toast stretched, nameless as beauty, into the quiet street.

May 9, 2017

choosing carefully

There was a time we knew exactly what we wanted,
dipped the brush of our desire all the way up to the neck,
then swiveled our arms to their fullest expanse, pleased at the trail
we were leaving. Now, we labor too long, hovering over our own certainty
as if we were waiting for some fog to clear, nervous about the mark
we'll make, or the space it will take up when we make it. I wonder,
at the final reckoning, which will be more bearable: our splatter
or our restraint. If we will peel ourselves from the pages under our elbows
and marvel at the clean borders or the way our skin is worn with stains.

May 2, 2017


Maybe it shouldn't surprise you, the sudden pinch of too much
busyness. The way even a boozy night at the local bar elbows you
with its sharp angles, or the tinny echo certain conversations carry,
obliterating your new greed - or is it, simply, hunger - for quiet.
Your body keeps squaring itself to the tuneless, forgotten landscapes
just under your feet, where others' casual leavings and discards form
another kind of path - a winding wreckage of rejected pens and green straws,
shopping lists and the plastic seals of water bottles leading you to a single,
cherry red Lifesaver dropped, perhaps, neither in disfavor or disgust,
but a sign just for you, a breadcrumb pointing toward sweetness.

April 25, 2017

improbable auguries

It's like he's here, in these woods, overseeing the proceedings of our short hike
to the falls. Nearby, a set of tires, a burnt-out microwave, the rusty skeleton
of a bike frame, a full bottle of iced tea, frayed remnants of a dog leash, and I wonder
who else has passed by on this trail, paused before these improbable auguries, and known
the tenderest certainty of company. In the parking lot, a single black sock,
sandy with loose gravel, will meet the next traveler, remind her of that day
her mother, now long gone, saved her from a fall in an unkempt river,
and how the wind snatched up one of the pair and sent it to the ether. Now,
it's back, landed at the foot of a rear car door, and she will feel those same hands
wrap her shoulders, tugging her out of the water all over again.

April 18, 2017

when the missing begins

On the Center Street downhill past the nursery, you find yourself
near weeping. Two days later, with weeds in your fingers and the stain
of wet April soil under your nails, again. The bright sting of sunshine
on a Chelsea rooftop and the bulb of a nascent blackberry bush makes
you think how close summer is, and then your heart breaks in yet another
piece. You notice both the sharpness and the haze of your attention, the way
a man's cologne keeps clinging but the taste of wine feels strangely dull.
You don't know what to reach for, exactly - the present or the past - and this
is when the missing begins, as your hand extends toward a wilting bouquet,
the leaves crumbling at your touch, but the petals so soft. So soft.

April 11, 2017

grieving in pencil

When he collapsed in my arms last Tuesday afternoon, I didn't realize
the sadness an 18-year-old boy could carry. My father would have known,
of course, witnessing the hard decline of his own mother more than 50 years ago,
and still unable, on the last walk we took along the river, to hold back tears.
I wonder, sometimes, if the gardens he grew in the interim between her death
and his were a way of filling in her harrowing departure and the vacancy it left,
if the earth somewhere deep below and despite appearances, remained terminally fallow.
The blooms of the dogwood by his front door felt especially vivid when I left, and now
this, down to the scar and everything, my stepson grieving in pencil, and my father's eyes,
unblinking, looking back as if they'll never let go.

April 4, 2017

My father, David Ethan Stein, passed away on April 4, 2017 in Malestroit, France.
He was 69 years old.

in the after

Before, it will feel like this: a watchfulness, a worrying, the shiver against time, a deepening
groove of the third eye, the body pulling itself through doorways and days, a bottomless
cup of coffee raised and lowered in a metronomic cadence that fails to keep your sadness
from advancing, the mirror revealing more shadows than light, and everything -
a cul-de-sac, a broken wine bottle, a pair of shoes flung across a highway median -
convulsing with metaphor. It will seem as if you’ve never been more alone or further away
from home, so when the call comes, you’ll first mistake it for another wrongness, another wound,
the world broken from the spine of its axis. And it’s true, it may be like that for a long while,
but in the after, swimming in the ether of your grief, a softness will graze at the back of your neck,
like the hand you placed at the back of his those last days, and where you know it will rest forever.

March 28, 2017

Note: This week's poem was inspired by a set of directions emailed to me by a close friend of my father's who lives in an adjacent village in Brittany, France. I pared down Ian's lines (shown first), then used the framework (and the title) to create a new piece (shown second).

finding your way to Bodieu

I don’t know if it helps, but the coordinates are N 48 2 32, W 2 30 58.
Or N 48.042106 W 2.516081, depending on the map. Sorry, I don't have the video.
The road signs don't show route numbers. If you get to Trinité Porhoet, you are 6 km too far!
Leave the hospital and turn left. At the roundabout, please mind the daffodils.
Turn right under the old railway bridge. This is a fairly narrow road with lots of curves.
Beware, entry to the village is 30/40 km/hr max. Lots of speed bumps.The same applies
as you leave. After 2/3 km atop a hill, on the left is a village, Brehlu, hidden in the trees.
Next stop: Bodieu. As the road levels out, you are looking for a small turning left.
Our house is the first on the right with a large green postbox. Into the driveway to be greeted by Loupi.
Glennys is looking forward to afternoon tea.

I don’t know if it helps, but you will know what to do when the time arrives.
Others will give you advice, point you to their own experience. Sorry, there is no video.
Maps are useless. You’ll recognize when you’ve gone too far.
Take a break from your vigil. At the fork of your departure, kiss his forehead.
Remember the sound of the waterfall at the bridge, the weeping willow at the front gate,
the sliding glass door of the village boulangerie. The old cathedral. The cobblestones.
As you leave, you will want to know what happens next, but these things are hidden in the trees.
Later, the plane will level out over the clouds, and you will be looking at an infinity of sky.
This will be one of many signs, like the large green postbox, where his dog greeted you.
He will be looked after. He will be loved until the end.

March 21, 2017

when I saw their faces and it felt like home

And I wasn't thinking how I could win them over with that banana bread
or how to move out of the way when they heave through the house
with a bad mood or some unarticulated disappointment. It didn't
occur to me, not once in the 20 minutes of our transatlantic video call,
I hadn't nursed them through their childhood fevers, or talked to them
about sex, or taken the raucous trip to Disney, or given them my hand
to cross the street on their first day of school. Instead, I yielded to the faces
on the screen, the present tense of it all - their happy jostling, the voice
of their mother behind them making dinner I would not eat but could still taste
halfway around the world.