10-Line Tuesday

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: 

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. 

February 13, 2018


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 truthTry for actual
gentlenessLife 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 stepBut 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?

February 6, 2018

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.

January 30, 2018

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.

January 23, 2018

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. 

January 16, 2018

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.

January 9, 2018

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.

January 2, 2018

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. 

December 31, 2017

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.