10-Line Tuesday

January 29, 2019

sometimes, strangeness is a place I lean toward

Outside Johannesburg, Monica is bending down to pet the fur of an infant lion,
marveling at the way the cub seems oblivious, undisturbed by her human presence.
Across the world, on the cobblestones of a highland city in the epicenter of Mexico,
Andrea is retrieving lessons from a salsa class, squaring her toes between cracks,
humming a few bars to keep time. Of course, I’m imagining that part, the singing, 
just as I’m placing my own hands at the belly of a tiny beast in a country I’ve never
once visited. Sometimes, strangeness is a place I lean toward, an alien continent
I travel to when my own geography rubs its too-familiar elbows at my ribs. I like
how the distance ripens my enthusiasm, opens my mouth to the rim of some red
margarita Andrea must be dancing toward, crystals of salt inches from my tongue.

January 22, 2019

somewhere between

"I'm tired of my clothes," I said to my wife, coming home from the gallery opening. 
Around me, the artists had looked glossy with purpose, their bodies sturdy as tripods.
I'd made my way through the maze for a glass of whatever was being poured
at the back table, clutching my coat close. I'd not dressed for the part I was hoping to play,
somewhere between fitting in and standing out, and I realized, mid-sip of a too-sweet
Chardonnay, I was always aiming my sights to this strange middle distance, caught
in a perennially swinging door of visibility and concealment, and I stood there,
juggling a tippy plastic cup and a heavy-gauge scarf as the lights blazed down. 
Outside, winter was repeating itself, too, but it still it made its way into every conversation,
fresh from its long hibernation and looking sharper than ever. 

January 15, 2019

The light, the town, the people, the food!

Jean's photographs make me long for the burnished hues of Amish country, barns 
the size of football fields. The cafe where she stops for a late breakfast features
cookbook-perfect biscuits and a waitress straight out of a movie set. I want to be
in the booth seat opposite, clinking coffee in thick ceramic mugs, but I am nowhere near
the turn off that particular highway, and the day is already curving too sharply
toward its finish. I get in the car anyway, and the back roads curlicuing from the parkway
take me to a graveyard just as dusk descends. At a back plot, a fresh bouquet is leaning
toward a newer headstone. Whoever was here sprinkled potato chips on the petals
in private homage to the woman buried below. The frozen grass is confettied with crumbs.
It's not Ohio, but Jean's here anyway, painting the whole scene in gold.

January 8, 2019

you can't blame everything on the president

I've been eyeing every head of lettuce with a mounting suspicion, reading my phone bill
with a new surliness about the charges appearing there. The stove seems to take forever
to warm up and longer to cool down. In the mornings, I find myself standing numbly
in a fog of hot water, the post-New Year malaise squarely upon me, until I watch clips
of newsroom analysts and then, with rapid-fire surety, relocate the onus of responsibility
elsewhere. Last week, I paused before a refrigerator case at a mid-town deli, deciding
between sandwiches, feeling a sudden burden of choice. I ate without the usual joy.
The bread had dampened in the cold, but I threw the yoke of critique on the shoulders
of a man I've never met, hundreds of miles away from the soggy mess between my hands,
my fingers creased from so much pointing. 

January 1, 2019

blind spot

Last week, there was an article in the paper about the 3,000 pounds of confetti 
a team of 50 volunteers would disperse from 20 floors up before the New Year's ball dropped.
I imagined it descending each story during that final countdown, passing by
the residents who'd stayed in because of the forecast, or simply because the view
was so much better from where they lived. I thought of strangers standing by
their living room windows as a cascade of cut paper drifted streetward, then pictured
the movement of a single square, the way it might wobble in the air as an updraft
from a subway grate caught it mid-flight. This morning, walking miles of city blocks,
I went looking for it, one tiny quadrant of color left in the concrete, a souvenir of festivity
to take home. Above me, miles of uninterrupted blue kept trying to flag me down.

December 25, 2018

ready *

The boiler is expressing something that sounds like protest.
I can hear an intermittent whining all the way to the second floor.
Even the appliances are ready for a new year. 
I make the rounds of the house, straightening knickknacks and magazines.
This time, I say to no one in particular, I will do a better job with dusting.
I will read the fine print before signing my name or committing my resources. 
Afterward, I microwave leftovers and put the electric kettle on.
I think of all the letters I might send, now that I have everyone's address.
Moments later, I am watching news bloopers and opening another caramel.
Baby steps, I tell myself, as if I'm teaching myself to walk all over again. Baby steps.

December 18, 2018

sometimes, I am a woman counting bagels

For brief periods each week, you'll find me with a pale square of bakery paper,
peering through clear plastic doors behind which unkempt piles offer themselves
shamelessly in my direction. My mouth goes slack at the overflow, my hand reaching
numbly forward. I came sideways into motherhood, the way sleet arrives in December,
my face streaked with the marks of its sudden assault. Those first years, I bit down 
on the sounds of basement video games and tripped over the sneakers they left everywhere
and fell into bed with a feral exhaustion I did not recognize. Now, sometimes, I am
a woman counting bagels - two sesame, three plain, one everything. I twist a little red tie 
around the bundle and keep going. There are pending requests for body wash and
pulpless orange juice and rare roast beef. Patience is an art, like any mother.

December 11, 2018

this winter, do something nice for yourself

Take a drive to the rusty Pennsylvania town you'd read about in a novel.
Put superfluous mileage on your car, and buy the mediocre gas station coffee
you won't finish. Get wooed by a leather-wrapped blank journal in a stationery store
despite the mounting evidence you won't fill it. Enroll in that improv class even if
you chicken out before the first session. When the party invite comes, suspend your answer
in the liminal space of "I'll get back you to you" and don't think yourself negligible if you fail
to meet your own promise. Cleave, even briefly, from the monumental effort 
of forced cheer. Instead, wade into the same grey miasma as the sky outside your windows,
the non-light it throws on everything beneath it. Welcome your uncertainties like 
old friends, back from a long trip overseas. Make their bed with the softest sheets you own.

December 4, 2018

bygone


We've been cleaning out the closets for weeks. In plastic tubs we'd forgotten about
live the makings of a magnificent work of art, if only we'd seized the reins
of our initial enthusiasm and sat down at the big table. Now, facing the reminder of our
neglect, it is tempting to force some version of the old fervor back into these raw materials,
rethread the needle of potential. We try this sometimes with winter sweaters or a recipe
for a bygone casserole, plucky with hope that what we'd worn or eaten seasons ago 
might still hold the zest of novelty. But I wonder if we can imagine this reunion for what
it really is: evidence that we are not the same as we were, that time and circumstance have
divorced us from stagnation, freeing once more the promise of our wild yearnings, 
uncontainable as they are. The bin is heavy in my arms. This art belongs to someone else.

November 27, 2018

weren't you amazing?

That fall at the Embarcadero skating rink the year you turned 30 -
so cartoonishly inexpert on the ice, you could have slammed your skull 
as Cyndi Lauper burst from the speakers, the rhythm pushing you to attempt a speed
far outside your pay grade. You could have executed the most dramatic exit
as your pre-teen charges looked on, and would have made the morning papers,
or better. Weren't you amazing, then, keeping the tumble this side of tragedy,
merely bruising a hip as you smacked your palm down at the outside turn,
so that now you are holding that injury soft in your heart, with a tenderness you only grant
your failures. How strange, the body and its little divots of pain, the way time circles
each one like tree rings, and every grace you thought had left you only keeps blossoming. 

November 20, 2018

instead of "thank you," try "no thank you" 

Take the thorny, inconvenient step. Create a mess outside your usual jurisdiction.
Stop leaning on the learned practices that have kept the seams of duty
tight as they are. Divorce yourself from the false betrothals of ceremony and disrupt
each tidy garden plotted assumptively by your predecessors. The change
will do you good, birth a blush on your cheeks and a slight tremor in your legs,
the kind that reminds you these particular muscles are far from atrophied.
You are not merely the sum of your inheritances, an agreement made on the merits
of habit. You are the same oyster you tell your children the world is theirs to crack,
the one waiting for the tide to turn, slippery and possible,
every grain of salt winking in the sunlight.  

November 13, 2018

what wasn't erased when the hard drive failed

1. An image of my mother, gardening mid-summer, one hand on her thigh, and the other,
holding a sheaf of basil stems. 2. A small pitcher of wildflowers on a kitchen counter,
the window behind it streaked with rain. 3. The smell the fields gave off 
when we drove the boys through the gentle turns of Brittany. 4. Any glass of rosé
my father served at lunch, the patio stones warming by degrees. 5. Two suitcases
on a Peter Pan bus to Port Authority, and the long hot walk toward Vreeland Avenue. 
6. Jen and Amy and I smoking halfway down the path to the swamp, the terror
and triumph of our small teenage rebellion. 7. The mottled scar at my knee from a failed
attempt at leaping the handlebars. 8. Karate Kid re-enactments on a high school stage.
9. The sound of a hungry dog. 10. Whatever is happening now, and now, and now. 

November 6, 2018

counting the chickens

It was tempting - even thrilling - to make certain guesses regarding the potential
blooming inside the nest, days when whole narratives unfolded over tea and cookies,
when we artfully mapped out the trajectory of flight and painted ornate portraits
of what we imagined was an incontestable destiny. Of course, we'd forgotten about 
the low-belled season of limbo, the air stale and glamorless as a waiting room,
but who wants to consider the incremental movements that necessitate birth,
the minutest fragments of bone forming and fusing in undetectable microns?
Our patience with patience was too thin, but we'd reach that magic hour eventually,
when we'd surrender our designs to the quiet intelligence of time, and in this yielding
we'd feel the minor quake of change, a pulse tapping at the shell, daring it to break.

October 30, 2018

the veil

I regret not waving the garbage men through before driving north on Claremont.
Hours later, I am asking myself what false hurry I'd convinced myself of
to keep such solid pressure on the gas. "Are we not," as the poet says, 
"of interest to each other?" And here they are, in my mind's rearview mirror, 
standing in the middle of the street with yellow reflectors on their pockets like small suns,
and I'm wondering about their wives' names, and how old their children are, and where
they dream of going on vacation when the weather turns. I am suddenly full of questions -
their favorite team, the childhood hobbies they never abandoned, the meal they still ask
their mothers to make on their birthday every year. When I had the chance, I might have
rolled to a stop, rolled down my window. The veil was as thin as it needed to be. Now what? 

October 23, 2018

poet, interrupted

Had she been the one to hold the leash on time, her lines would have arrived hours ago,
and the fistful of conversations keeping her from solitude and silence would have been, instead, 
a welcome and genial reward. But the day had loosened from its moorings 
at the beginning, her usual wake-up rattled and delayed by strange dreams,
which shifted the tectonic plates of all ensuing plans. Now, finally abandoned
to her work table, she is scratching at the callus that grew in the span of those few
entangled hours. Below it, she's convinced, lies some soft, diaphanous work of art,
but when she gets under the skin, she finds only an unexpected grey remorse, 
like she'd missed a full moon because she was too busy dusting the furniture,
and the whole sky had lit up while she swiped at each surface, not seeing any of it at all.

October 16, 2018

eggs and existentialism

If I could, I would keep my attentions on the narrow diameter of my plate,
wax poetic on the finer grains of the sprouted wheat toast at its perimeter,
praise the speckled pattern made by a turn and shake of the pepper grinder.
If only I'd linger on the solar yellow taking center stage, press my thumb
tenderly against the winking nickel of the fork, and see everything for what
it is, instead of what it's not. Maybe it's the nearby cat with one leg missing,
or the wedding revelry diminishing in the wake of each guests' departure, or 
something more elusive and shapeless, but my heart wouldn't cooperate,
kept pulling me into one shadowy chamber after another. The birds came, then,
to pick up where I left off, their untroubled wings just inches from my face.

October 9, 2018

my nephew's YouTube videos * 

provide a brief amnesia from the crush and woe of hard news, and I am grateful
to be given a tour of the game he is playing and the choices his avatar
is poised to make, even though the outcomes have little bearing on anyone's future.
Still, to watch Eli's earnestness is to lay myself at the feet of innocence, to return to
those clean, undisturbed hours I pawed through the backyard to search for fragments
of old dishware, having found a single shard of brown glass one afternoon. Never mind
it was likely a half-drunk Budweiser tripped over and smashed some humid summer.
It became the origin story of whatever else might be buried underneath, and for months 
I pulled at dark, damp soil, certain of what waited just beyond my reach.
Does it really matter if I found anything there? I dug without answers, and kept digging.


* Here's his channel.

October 2, 2018

dyeing in the desert with Deb *

In the rugged remove of east Texas, a woman is laying out a clothesline,
arranging jars of creosote and oleander on a cracked patch of earth outside
her kitchen window. The threat of drought is always nipping at the heels 
of this particular wilderness, but the tradeoff is the kind of patience art sticks to
like tar, and the wind is waving its hands like policemen do to break up gridlock.
Soon, the line is moving in a dance of sheets and Deb pans the camera out,
and it feels like the desert is, in fact, its opposite, joy populating every available
square inch, even the stoic mountains transfigured in the lap and sway of fabric,
and 2,000 miles away I peer down at my own hands, twitching at the keys,
as if they are hearing that music, too. 

This poem is inspired by this video of my friend Deb Taylor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saq1X3MnYGg&t=323s

September 25, 2018

at the fork of her next uncertainty

Yesterday, for several minutes, a foam-green inchworm toured the island of a single
drop of water. Nearby, the garden's last zinnias were pretending it was still summer. 
There was a toasted bagel flayed open beside the vase, its buttered ridges catching the late
morning light. It seemed as if the kitchen had briefly cleaved itself from the world, 
or perhaps merely reinvented it to include only its most essential features. Whoever 
the woman was who sat on the high-backed chair to witness the proceedings, she 
carried, in her pockets, her fair share of dread, which might have been the reason
she spoke to the tiny creature navigating the unfamiliar tableau of the breakfast table,
why she bent close to its thin, breakable body and urged it to take care, and why later,
at the fork of her next uncertainty, she remembered its legs moving, unshakably, forward.

September 18, 2018

breaking the silence

I stole the family supply of bubble gum once, stuffed four packs in my mouth
and felt my body vibrate with the sugary glee of the rule-breaker. 
Twenty-eight sticks in, my jaw like an engine, I stumbled to the living room
like a chipmunk drunk on a sudden windfall of seeds abandoned at the bird feeder.

Sometimes, I wish my parents hadn't come home, that the afternoon could have stretched
like that gum did around my teeth, that my little secret could have stayed intact and
undisturbed. And yet, even in the thick of my delirium, I knew my radical mutiny
was saccharine and brief, the flavor already receding from my tongue. When they arrived,
I barely protested. I knew I had taken something that wasn't entirely mine. No matter
how hard I might try to tell the story otherwise, the truth would always be stickier.