10-Line Tuesday

July 3, 2018

a thousand petals are possible *

She was worried there was so little she could do to save anything or anyone,
how a certain darkness had settled in like an old, unwelcome guest,
hogging the dinner table and, later, sprawling grotesquely on the couch to flip
channel after channel. Even when she stole out to the street to
stand under the cherry blossom tree or squint for stars, she could hear
the television humming, see its lurid glow pulsing through the windows.
Her body, whole as it was, felt bloodied, caught on a barbed-wire fence
installed improbably between deserts. It was hard to know where the water was,
or if it was even there. And yet, parched as the air felt, the tree held its leaves, and the sky,
its light. A thousand petals, if she started counting. A thousand stars, if she kept looking. 

* I stole this line from a Facebook post by my friend Jennifer New.

June 26, 2018

Triple A

We've lost the keys to the car and there may or may not be a spare
in the glovebox, and my mother is already retrieving her membership card to AAA
and dialing the number. When someone picks up, she introduces herself,
as if this person might recognize her, and at first, I think it's strange - why
is a name more important than the problem? And then I remember, 
I've heard her do this countless times - calls to the bank, the internet service provider,
the plumber during the busy winter season. Each time, she identifies herself, 
as if placing the emphasis on the fact of her personhood. And of course, now,
this makes me think of the thousands of families desperate at the border, pleading
for help. Who is listening for their names? Who is coming to unlock the door?

June 19, 2018

failure is an option

My first casserole - baked for my parents on an overcast early summer evening
and served with the unmitigated pride and exultation of someone left
to her own devices - was barely edible. I can say this now, 30 years later,
how I'd been so heavy-handed with the olive oil and undercooked the squash,
how, in a fit of improvisational verve, I'd made a gleeful orgy of spices that did not,
in the end, find each other attractive. But this wasn't the point. Instead,
what clings to the vines of my memory is the collision of effort and joy my body
made against the task, my hands focused and fervent, how the countertop
held the weight of an outcome without the judgment of not meeting it, and how the meal
made its way onto the plates as the sun began to set, imperfectly, through the clouds.

June 12, 2018

squinting for stars

Sometimes, she dreams of cleaving from the dishes and recycling,
the millionth swipe of the sponge across a stovetop polka-dotted
with sauce. She imagines deserting forever the pile of untwinned socks,
the Q-tips and Kleenex wads birthing progeny behind the trash can, 
the stubborn resin on the soap dish, the hazard of upturned razor blades still sharp enough
to slice a thumb open. For years, she's extracted clean lines from the leavings of others,
feeling the brief satisfaction of her daily ministrations. A practice, some might call it.   
But the canvas always looks the same, a pale outline of beauty born of perpetual order.
Certain evenings, the street lights come on and she stands at the doorway, squinting
for stars, relieved to find them exactly where she remembered.

June 5, 2018

push/pull

The boys are fighting over who gets to drive the car. I want to tell them:
There are two lonely bicycles in the garage. Or, Your legs aren't getting any younger.
I think about my great-grandmother, who stretched into her late 90s
before drifting off for good one night. She survived two World Wars, rationed sugar, sent
her own young sons on a boat to America not to imbue them with a love of the open sea,
but to save their lives. Sometimes, I sound like my hard-chinned math teacher from 8th grade,
who grimaced whenever the calculators came out. She was, I've no doubt now,
reminiscing about the smudge of graphite sticks, the grain of pulped paper, the minds of children
well-oiled from use. The boys don't want to hear these stories. They'd rather fight over the car.
The air fills with the smell of skinny tires and old perfume and tarnished coffee spoons.

May 29, 2018

summer and its attendant paradoxes

The tomato vines are thriving in the potent heat of the shadeless backyard,
and three weeks away from the school year's final bell, every kid in this town
barrels down the street with the frayed straps of a backpack fluttering behind them, 
barely keeping their bodies earthbound. Evenings, the parking lot
at the local ice cream shop is a buzzy coil of customers, the arms of its teenaged staff
already muscled from the breakneck pace of scooping. Meanwhile, something inside of me
feels downshifted, quieter, humbled perhaps by the teeming explosions of change
that herald this season. Maybe I'm not ready to join the frenzied, jubilant fray. Or else,
my calendar unfolds in uncalendared pages, the soil of my garden warming to its own sun,
bearing not fruit exactly, but the patient, undisturbed seed that precedes it. 

May 22, 2018

the pantomime of flight

On the third floor of a Los Angeles apartment building in 1983, my grandfather
introduced me to the unicycle. Certain afternoons, he'd position himself
near a plastic potted plant, his arms suspended mid-air like heron wings
while I fumbled and tumbled down the length of a carpeted hallway. I never
got the hang of it, but the glee of my attempts never left my grandfather's face, 
and years later, on a cracked tennis court in New Hampshire, I saw him
on the far side of the net as I cajoled myself to try again. He had been gone two decades,
but my legs, undaunted, kept aiming for the pedals, my body tilted toward
the unnameable distance between here and there, the pantomime of flight
lifting my shoulders skyward, and my hands, turning into his hands, turning into birds.

May 15, 2018

an epic collaboration *

Imagine this: At every intersection with another living thing -
your neighbor's unruly hedge, the ants scrambling across your weekend picnic, a driver
cutting an unseemly and illegal left turn so close to your own vehicle,
the claws of your heart rear back - imagine this a conversation of the greatest
potential. See the bristles of your near-collision simply as throat-clearing,
as the unscripted and necessarily clumsy opening that marks any introduction
holding so much good weight. Consider what they are trying to tell you - 
that driver, those ants, the hedge - as the missing needle for the world's rended fabric,
and you - skin rashed by discordant branches, your highway cleaved by blinking lights -
the thread. 

May 8, 2018

willing the blooms

I had been watching the tree in the front yard, hoping the town crew
wouldn't think it ailing (which it probably is), and come rumbling down
the road with blades in the beds of their trucks. The cherry
blossomed late this season, keeping its buds in check until the final snow
left last month, and I rose one morning to a flood of white flowers on the branches,
the petals nearly arrogant with beauty. The first warm rain came through a week later,
wind swaying the power lines in a do-si-do. I watched from a porch window, willing
the blooms to hang on, which of course they couldn't entirely. Weather doesn't work
like that. Instead, what was cleaved from the tree lay pliant below it, absent of the injury
I'd imagined and instead, softened by the fall, nearly weeping, it seemed, from relief. 

May 1, 2018

my nephew, the pianist

Is there anything more magnificent than an 11-year-boy playing Hava Nagila?
My father, were he still alive, would have been glued, like all of us, to Eli’s face,
transfigured as it was by the notes and the lineage from which they fell. Afterward,
he would have clapped his hands in the raucous glee of the near-possessed. I tried
to stay composed until the closing bars, but I was already undone from the start,
straddling the seesaw pitch of past and present, wishing Dad
were there to listen, and imagining this was him, square at the bench,
tipped slightly toward the keys. My sister, having already heard the performance,
knew exactly why I had to turn away, my heart pinched between the fingers
of grief and gratitude, my whole body broken into song. 

April 24, 2018

the unplanned, the un-choreographed, the unintended,
the rootless, the formless, the still-to-be-named

This time around, I'm giving the peas permission to die, knowing what I know
about my spotty record. Last summer, they barely made it to the trellis,
then withered on the vine after bearing a handful of pale, underwhelming progeny.
It's not that I can't muster the effort or even the hope, which flowers perennially
despite the evidence stacked against every good intention. But what I want now,
also knowing what I know, is to square myself to the fickleness of survival,
acknowledge success as more accidental than earned. When I bend to the earth,
I want to do so on tenderer knees, without the ardor of expectation or reward.
What I want is to praise the bending itself, the miracle of the body, any body,
moving through its orbit, whether fallow or fruitful, not despite the odds, but because of them.

April 17, 2018

anything with a zero

A few days ago, on the phone with my sister, I asked, "Which do you think
is the bigger deal, turning 70 or 75?" as we discussed our mother, less than a week away
from cresting the edge of the former. "Anything with a zero is a big deal,"
she answered, and then I couldn't help but think about the slim span of days
that separated Dad from that magic number and kept the lid on a celebration I nevertheless
keep imagining, the same way I picture summer and its curving breezes
just as November winces from its first frost. And yet, at our father's bedside, 
there wasn't room for anything but the present tense. Instead, we welcomed each breath,
no matter how deep or shallow, as if it were the only one, time suspending its advance
with such generosity and grace, even the clock stopped ticking.

April 10, 2018

the sunbather

I like to wait for a poem to come, not taunt it from the shadows where it's
counting its change, not force it from the last bench of the bleachers, where
it's looking for its jacket or the candy it may have dropped. When I'm writing,
I forget to check the time, forget the meter's running out, forget I'm getting older
and losing a little of my flexibility. As I wait for the lines to situate themselves,
I notice my breath lengthening, notice I am a little more curious about what to call
the particular shade that is this early April sky, notice all the things I am not noticing -
the terrible parking job I did at the Staples lot, the underwhelming dinner I clawed out
from the vegetable bin, politics and its bickering stepchildren. The page stretches out
like an island beach, and I am the sunbather, tilting my neck up for all I'm worth.

April 3, 2018

what has survived you
for my father, David Stein (June 19, 1947-April 4, 2017)

Certain recipes - crepes, roast chicken, a particular salad dressing best suited
for summer - and there is a copper-hued dish that still carries the stains of a tagine
we shared two years ago. The musical you directed the spring I turned 15,
burned on videocassette and featuring a song that, a few bars in, convinces
a good cry out of me 30 years on. I have your feet, your long fingers, the look
you used to give in photographs that made it seem you weren't wholly in the frame.
Your garden, a fraction of which was transplanted a few villages over to a good friend.
She's been tending it since and used the word "prosperous" to describe the blooms.
I was writing in my notebook the day you died, and thousands of words have since trailed
that departure, each seasoned by a vicious tenderness that refuses to let go.

March 27, 2018

a love letter to the daffodils

At 15, my eyes were on the prize of a boy named Carl just a few months away
from college. We shared the stage briefly that early spring, a musical whose title
eludes me now because what mattered always were the rehearsals, time backstage
to flirt, however inexpertly, and feel the electric wash of yearning descend
from the faux-velvet of those burgundy curtains. Carl has long escaped my gaze,
of course, each of us tucked into separate families, though each year, as the soil
begins to loosen, and the daffodils wink their first hello, I return to a place
not yet touched by loss, not sanded by age or worry or unglued of wishful thinking.
Here, I believe everything is possible, every beautiful Carl whispering in my ear
as the house lights dim, and somewhere, in the distance, someone begins to sing.

March 20, 2018

a gladness we'd nearly forgotten

Wherever Spring is, she's not in this zip code. At least, not at first glance
to the sidewalk, where snow from the previous storm remains
encrusted to the parking meter. Across the street, a series of plowings
has produced a pile the size of the world's tallest man. Waking,
we shuffle toward the thermostat in languid resignation, forgoing a peek outdoors
to test the temperature, months away from the glorious turn the air
last made, entering a fresh quadrant of the year. It will happen again the one morning
we won't anticipate, just like every joy arriving without the ceremony of a prelude. 
Instead, we will be dressed for another season entirely and find ourselves at the door
of our own molting, pierced by a gladness we'd nearly forgotten, but recognize instantly.

March 13, 2018

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: 
http://cp.c-ij.com/en/contents/CNT-0011234/index.html

March 6, 2018

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.

February 27, 2018

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.

February 20, 2018

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.