A Giving of Palms

a turning over of lilies, preparing the dirt
for new rows of white. Teeth in the hillside,
cut on family lines and blood. Gaze

a drop of rain in the sinking pool of memory.
I did not want to return to this place.
Avoiding eye contact with the headstone

so dead set on sinking into mud,
I was.

II.

Nights out west, breath coating my mouth
like tiny fractures of starlight overhead, I gave pause
handed over a moment to the God
who took away so much more from one I loved,
not understanding, not comprehending
“the work” being “wrought.” Bullshit

and hoof stomps reverberated in the dark, opening
my mind to the possibility that yes, sure,
each and every one of us might one day die —
but what does that have to do with me?
Then: it is all too close, take away the stench

of death. Horses can’t be near it too long, and I am
drowning in it. Our legacy

will be one of plum trees that never bloomed,
coated in first-fruit’s blood. A mark to
pass over.

III.

I imagine those rolling skies to be
the handiwork of infantile hands, no regard
for the life that stirs and snaps and breaks

with each sweet pang of ignorance, the laws far removed.
A baby playing on a piano bench,

shrill joy curdling in our ears down below. Not music,
much less symphonic genius. Just dissonance. Havoc
and distance. I wanted to go away

become deaf to what the passing of autumn dropped
so unconcerned at my feet walking through pasture,
to a hopeless nowhere, a “fly over zone,” where
bodies go missing under mountains of snow. Anywhere

but in the moment I got the call. The prayers must
have been all mechanics, because they didn’t work.
My palms folded into fists and cracked

against earth, trying to create a fire that even God
couldn’t ignore.

IV.

“Nothing but hair and nails is left when the body
is laid in the ground. Two, three years. All
it takes. The flesh and eyes shrivels up. Eaten.
The worms get hungry.”

A glance of a disgust, then the tentative question —

“What about the teeth?” Thinking of lilies. And unspoken,

Since this would be the year your body disappeared,

is there the chance for resurrection if the body is taken away
by God’s own creation?

V.

“We are walking. A small mini-you, clutching your hand,
wearing pink that matches the tulips flanking
our sides, my hand grips yours, holding on for
“dear life,” afraid of getting lost without you —

a hand that, years later,
would almost blind you in a fit of rage, knocking
your glasses against your face, scratching it, all because
you told me not to be stupid, not to go —

a hand that reached out when I found you cowering
in the dark of your secrets, afraid of being caught,
but more afraid of how you got there in the first place —

a hand that clasped your back when I was spit out
by the cruelty of the east, and departed
for the black hills, searching for —

a hand that held yours when you laid, unconscious
or asleep in the hospital bed while I read you Psalms, trying
to ignore the sound of your last breaths, the knowing
I would never see your blue eyes again –” STOP

The tape comes to a screeching halt–

V.

Death is the only experience you cannot prepare for.
After, it is like living on one side
where everything is as if nothing occurred all while

your hand is still in that other place, reaching out,
flailing helplessly. And you pray incessantly

that no one finds out just how defeated you are inside,
because you know that no matter what,
the smiles disappear like crescent moons into black,
our bodies unravel into dust, that we are not
invincible, no matter how much we do or know

and the only hope you have from now on,
is that your palm, extending out to receive
on the other side, is met

not with teeth, honed on familial regret
and desperation

but an olive branch given freely
from the hands of those we lost.

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Rest

“Loneliness is a science—
consider the taxidermist’s
tender hands
trying to keep from losing
skin, the bobcat grin
of the living.” + Kevin Young

Two weeks ago I dreamt of my mom. This New Year’s Day, she will have departed the earth for three years. The absence of her life, and what led up to her losing it, is like a stone that hangs around my neck that I swivel around until it presses against the wings of my back where I cannot see it. But every now and then things happen, I am rocked this way or that, and the stone crashes back against my heart. Heavy and huge and demanding, almost knocking my own life out of me.

That is not to say that her memory is cumbersome, unwanted. It just so easily slides into the background, out of the frame, a blur in the (otherwise) focused lens of the timeline that stretches on still.

In my dream, she was still alive. In my dream, she was in immense pain. I read her a story from a children’s book and she fell asleep, and I promptly woke up here on earth, where she is no longer.

I cried and cried on my way to school that day.

Right now I’m in the middle of practicum, co-teaching a senior class on creative writing and the creative nonfiction genre, and this dream, the weeks that followed, I keep returning to. I keep wanting to say something — but I don’t know how to articulate all the strange and miniature connections between this class and our life stories and my mom’s death and how I had to stop last week, sick, to actually rest, and yesterday, had to purposely turn off and leave my phone at home while running errands because I wanted to be alone…

… but then remembered the hole where my mom’s life should be, and what that loneliness feels like. Awful and gaping and easily hidden behind racing through traffic to get to the high school, playing Nintendo DS to take my mind off the readings for class that are starting to pile up on our coffee table, clacking away at the keyboard at work ringing somebody out.

I am taking the time to write this because I didn’t write it then, when it was all happening and then swift like a crash of thunder shattering glass it happened. And a good deal of the time, I try to go on as if nothing ever had, like it’s a footnote in the pages of my life.

There is something more to be done here, but I can’t quite… articulate it, put my finger on what’s wrong. Maybe it’s the refusal to stop and grieve, like a ghost of a sob that hasn’t made its way out of my gut and throat and mouth all the way yet. Maybe it’s a cautioning, a “hey, slow down, don’t run the red light… hey, you just broke the law.” Maybe it’s just me and I’m making all this sad stuff up.

I meant to write about changes in my life, but I came here instead, to the intersection of life and death, reality and dream. Trying to retrieve what shouldn’t have been lost in the first place.

Morning writing from riwp OAI

Beside me lay the river, ‘lay’ as if it were passive, not trickling like a vein through the city, expanding and retracting with season, alive. Bound to the land as a circle of salt that washes up memory every time you cross the boundary of pipe marking it separate, different. Cars whittle through the street on a mission, headed toward a bright fluorescent future. The river remains in the shade.

The consequence of growth is that we forget what dwells in the former, so transfixed as we are on the latter, the what could be, the farthest point away from here, anywhere but here. In a distant lifetime farmland existed in this place. Whispers of stone crushed like oyster shells grip the now pummeled landscape of the empty lot staring at me from across the road. We think, the farm disappeared, vanished like fog, died out like a creature gone extinct, barely hanging on. We must bring it back, revive its DNA.

But we’re the ones who turned, continued down a road that changed from dirt to stone to tar to paint. Trying to retreat into the hollow spaces beneath the trees lining the riverbed, I stumble, realizing that I share more in common with the fabricated cylinder fence than I do the dirt, the scraggly leafy growth. I ingest data and numerical code, information in bits and pixels, work on their rhythms, permit and willingly allow them to soothe my haywire mind.

We talk of the future, of robots and clones, but we are here, aren’t we? And I see now that growth can imply static, a wall of white noise to silence the truth of real living, emboldening us to continue in a dream of comfortable ease, where people and answers are a click away, where the problems of the world do not start with the reflection staring back at each of us from the riverbank.

Minor things: an essay poem

I.

A tree branch cracks gently, a wind pulling it this way and that. Night has fallen. Somebody, an old friend, reaches out for the first time in years. ‘Hope all is well,’ the sanitary notes we attach at the end of each message following a ‘happy birthday’ or ‘congratulations’ like citations. They’re stale like communion wafers. We know this. But still I wonder,

Should I respond? Continue the dialogue and hope the formality drops?

Say, my father saw you in town. Wearing a black dress. What have you been up to? What is your name now? (Because of social media, I know a little, or a whole lot, of the ‘well.’)

Mention: I keep running into your mother. She never looks happy to see me. Her body turns away even as she staples those same empty sayings to the ends of her sentences. ‘Nice to see you. Take care. Be well’ trailing behind her silhouette stepping neatly into the faceless crowd, anywhere but where the two of us crossed paths.

Do you think it means something, is a sign? (And should I say this to her next time?)

Or should I say nothing at all, and carry on with the easy, lukewarm peace of not involved?

II.

There is nothing more pleasant than the not dissimilar smells of molasses and cow shit wafting on a lemonade breeze (curried with sun and salt from our sweat). ‘True work,’ hung out to dry.

We are heaving vegetables from the dirt and the vine. We are hefting larger produce from our hearts. Healthy, rotten, soured, and ripe. Blossoming red like a tomato, round in our palm, easily smashed to pulp that leaves stains you wish it wouldn’t on clothes you shouldn’t have worn.

It’s kind of our fault, in the end. I write this and hate myself for it.

I don’t know what to think when a farmer, a woman two years my senior, says, ‘You know, it’s never too late to go back.’ I’m still swallowing, digesting the knowledge that she knows my family business and I have just outed our sad situation, thinking it sacred, safe, hidden in the reeds (or rows of squash and potatoes and cucumbers) among strangers.

In the heat of the day, I want to cry and tell her that I’m sorry. And that I understand, the desire to regain like sand sifting between fingertips as we claw into the earth the legacies those before us carved out of the land.

III.

I just want to be plucking that stupid red fruit from those pollen-saturated vines and ruining my good gym shirts with their guts.

I just want to be beneath the blue sky again.

I just want to be able to laugh and cry normally again.

I just want, to stop the wanting.

To take hold of all I have.
And to love it with every measure of my being.

And to be covered in its guts, too. Thanks.

IV.

“It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits.”

Wendell Berry

V.

In the future, I will be able to walk a few hundred feet to a river and not be afraid of its depths, the presence of it so comfortably situated in my everyday existence.

I find this striking, the ease with which we settle into new country, unfamiliar territory,

even as we raise our fists against what is wrong or bad with our land, the people around us, who is in power, cursing it all with the same ill will we despise so greatly in these different, not entirely separate, climates.

In the future, I will be able to walk a few hundred feet to river and not be afraid of its depths, and instead

will look closely at who it is that is staring back,
and observe
how the stones cast in her reflection
affect the whole riverbed.

Undine

Brackish, the uneven edges
of salt and purity, a category that sticks
wrong on the back of my tongue.
I swim the narrow without thought
Of what lay in the muck of sea and spring
what silver-white scales of fish
shimmying beneath my feet
like the eyes of God

What terrible unknowing, what strikes
like stone against sight

What leviathan shame slices into our bodies
floating in sun-bleached amnesia
with rows and rows of teeth like pews
stark and proud, ready for meat
asking our senses are you willing
to forsake everything?

This word is clay and jumbles my mouth
dragging my speech to the dark blue
outer orbit away from beach line, a command
to behave, sink quietly, be good
give
up
the earth
and never

These echoes, cast down like lead
I peel off in scales, no longer
filling my ears with an end

The white pulp
of this heart is bare in the black river
and the salt tells it to let go

binding me back to land.

Poem: widow

Maybe we can’t go back to our former lives
curled up in excess of absence

[Retreat to the windowsill, eyes
spliced by moon and moth
-eaten shadow, remember your hands

in that place, waiting to touch
whatever swam in a night
outside of mirrored glass . . . ]

The scene is dissection. A glance of a knife

against the rock of our emptiness. Chipping away

at the rotted wood, the peeling green paint
(hands once young)

now vapor at dawn, chasing memory like dust.
and I’ve lingered too long. The knot
does not come undone in the darkness that
pools all around

the darkness that swallows it and us whole.

Search yourself

“How many times have you bailed on yourself to watch TV? How many times have you given up before you’ve even started? How many times have you made real progress, only to face a setback and then give up completely? How many times have your family or friends or coworkers watched you quit? How many times have your children watched you give up on yourself over and over and over?

“This is not okay.” + Rachel Hollis

A moment ago I texted my boyfriend, “I need to start writing again, babe.” After school ended, I stopped working on two fantasy stories I began as a way to seize “me time” during the stressful semester. I was mentally wiped from finishing up a major writing unit and writing reflection upon reflection about teaching. The thought of writing more made my brain hurt. So instead of continuing, I let the stories sit… only looking at the drafts yesterday for the first time since May, because I miss the writing, I miss my characters Nymea and Rv’ll and Zenia, and I just… miss the work.

His response was that he knew. How? Hoping he would say something about just knowing how I am when it comes to writing from observing and how happy it makes me, he instead said, “Because you say that all the time.” And since he’s right — it’s true — I was immediately disappointed in myself.

I’m reading Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis and the chapter “Lie 2: I’ll Start Tomorrow” really hit home. My boyfriend’s explanation sums me up as a writer: non-committal, talking the talk but not walking the walk, wanting to be the real deal and chasing my dreams but not putting the effort in. Instead I blame work and go out, or hit the gym and play a game in bed instead of opening a blank document…

I give my time away to various people and activities but leave no room for what makes my spirit shine. I go so far as to say that taking the time to write would be a waste because there is no real physical outcome that definitely benefits anyone else, in measurable terms. I think I even use that excuse as my reasoning for turning to teaching for a profession, instead of trying to spend more time with writing in a program designed specifically for it, because who wants to drop $$$ on an arts degree?

(For the record, I could care less about the degree. I’d really just super appreciate the time to write.)

But there I go again. An excuse. What’s the alternative to pursuing my dream of writing? Unhappiness. This feeling in my chest right now. Years and years, a lifetime of refusal. A legacy of broken promises. A path littered with trashed dreams. My word, worth nothing, after all the talk but no follow up.

I want to put an end to it…

Hollis writes, “the only person you need to be better than is the one you were yesterday.” She also goes far enough to say that we are responsible for ourselves, the choices we make, and we alone manage our dreams — no one else will or should do that for us.

Looking in the mirror, I see a woman (tempted to say girl) who HAS — not past tense — crazy potential to do something big with her words. I also see a woman who locks the other one away, keeps her under wraps because it’s uncomfortable risky childish wasteful escapist lazy a dead end not the right time to even think about writing as a priority and… I’m just so tired of giving energy to thoughts that are cynical and “realist” but also deeply lacking hope, like a river running dry.

And I guess that’s where I am right now… halfway through this summer. Guess I’ve been thinking more about my future than I thought I was.

Dissolving

“Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.” + Wendell Berry

“I react to the suggestion of a miracle — or for that matter, any thoughts about God, the spiritual, or the transcendent — with skepticism and cynicism. It is my default setting.” + Mike Cosper

Last I wrote here, I was spitting with anger, moody and miserable as I neared the end of my first year back to school. For the first time in my life, I experienced not one, but three separate anxiety attacks when faced with the deadlines and expectations of my teaching program. Even when not presently working on an assignment or sitting in class these attacks hit me: in the company of friends, when I lay in bed alone, moments where I felt my heart rise as my body sank like mud, where I relied on the cool shuddering of stars overhead to ease the blood rush of panicked thoughts circling like hungry dragons in the depths of my mind. When the semester closed, so did the attacks. But not the worry, the anxiety, the uncertainty.

It isn’t a huge secret that I have stepped away from the church in recent years. Nor is it an unknown fact that it occurred around the time that my mom passed away, that I began seeing somebody new, that I applied (and enrolled) to the teaching program. It’s very easy and tempting to blame all these circumstances, but I choose instead to name them small catalysts for a change in my heart and life that I’m still puzzling over, saddened by how still and quiet the spirit is, clenched tight in my fist, like I’ve yanked it out of my chest in defiance, but determined on this path to who I am despite it all… It was going to happen, eventually. My faith was a rotten system of roots, no steady grasp upon the land, easily ripped out. A matter of time.

There are so many versions of Christianity I’ve witnessed, see. So many versions of the person I was supposed to be, through all that glass, the smiles on Sunday mornings, the Jesus-loves-you rhetoric. I couldn’t carry those identities anymore. I was a facade. Instead of continuing on, I threw these versions of myself to the ground and walked away. Breaking my dad’s heart, breaking the hearts of church friends. I didn’t denounce the Christian God or Jesus. I denounced the Christian identity I pulled together for myself, confused, uncertain, afraid. I stopped reading the Bible slowly, until eventually the reading ceased. Prayer has become little more than a “I know You’re there, and You likely hate all I do. How I live. What a disappointment I am.”

It’s sad, really. I know this. It hurts. Every time I think of “going back,” I also reflexively think, “Go back where?” I don’t want to live in the shadow of the falsehood I was before, in the churches I went to. Maybe it’s shame driving me away. Maybe it’s fear, the knowledge of sacrifice. All of the above.

I didn’t intend on spending a whole post on this. Today I ordered a Bible study on a whim, “Judges: The Tragedy of Forgetting God,” by She Reads Truth. I’m trying. It sounds very pathetic, really. What if it’s too late, and my heart’s turned to stone forever? I think these things. What if I’m no longer wanted? Can I have my own belief, not hitched on somebody else’s? Isn’t God greater than all we can ever fathom? I buy books, hoping they’ll light a little fire, something, and it’s just… dead in there. Throwing dirt on the flame, scuffing the spark out.

This whole post is kind of a big prayer, in a way. A big, sobbing prayer that refuses to actually let out the tears. Part of me wants to revert for the ease of it, but that life was a lie, too. When I believed before. Are we allowed these moments, these stretches of the abyss? Excused into the dark, tossed like scraps and coal? “You need some time being away.” I am curious to know, hoping to know, if I am not alone.

In which I rant, and rave

“When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.” + Mary Oliver

This year thus far has been an angry one for me. I’m angry at the educational system. I’m angry at my peers. I’m angry at work. Angry with myself. Angry, angry, angry. I didn’t think I was capable of the emotion, but here it is, burning like a hot iron in my heart and gut. Reminding me that what I’m really angry about is that I haven’t done enough; that in the end, it might all be futile.

I made the decision to commit to teaching. I am going to continue on in the MAT program. There is still uncertainty and fury glowering in my belly like a fire waiting to swallow me whole, and there is still a part of me that wants to hide away in the stories and books I love so much.

One of my professors extended our class to tomorrow night. We have to give a 5-8 minute presentation answering one of four (or all four) questions he gave us on literacy. It’s supposed to be a low-stakes presentation, meaning more reflective than anything else.

I’m going to talk about reading and writing, and how literacy in this context is not enough so long as English is the “language of power” as Linda Christensen notes in her book Teaching for Joy and Justice. I plan on referencing a scene from a YA post-civil war-era zombie book I’m reading currently, Dread Nation, in which the main character, Jane, must hide her ability to read and pretend to be illiterate to avoid suspicion from the sheriff. There’s a sort of duality to this dilemma: one that English is the language of power and that former slaves and black people are not “permitted” usage of it; and two, if they do master it, as Jane has, there are dire consequences. And I want to trace back to how this powerplay unfolds in our classrooms as ELA teachers. It’s all a very strange idea but I’m excited by it and enraged by it all at once.

And it’s also a reason why I’ve decided to stick teaching out. Things like that are just too important to “let go” into the realm of long research papers and studies. Action has to be taken, too, in real time.

This brings me to my writing. This summer I’m hoping to continue working on the two (or three) stories I started this past semester. They deal with issues of power in their own ways. They’re largely fantasy in genre as well. I also have so many books to read. I’m counting at least fifteen, not including the two I’m currently reading and the one I’m going to start following Dread Nation.

In short… I’m hoping this summer will give me a chance to cool off a bit before I go into kill mode come practicum and student teaching next year. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m having trouble wanting to be compliant and nice and all “under wraps.” There is something to be said for “choose your battles wisely,” but I’m starting to think the small battles are just a distraction from the bigger war being waged across the country. And it pisses me off.

Sorry this post couldn’t have been more nicer. Just the state I’m in.

A post from winter: blues

“Maybe I’m not the one, the story you would tell…” + Everything in Slow Motion

There are days where I’m totally enthralled by the story I’m writing, smiling even through the rough patches where I don’t know all the details and what is going on because I’m genuinely enjoying the process and the world unraveling on the screen/page.

And then there are days like today, when I write a mere thousand words and want to discard the whole thing and give up because for all the effort I put in, it’s still not good enough. I read the work of my friends and fellow workshop writers and even though some details are off or need tweaking, they have a clear goal of what they want the story to be; meanwhile, I’m plodding along at the slowest pace possible, missing a week here and there with deadlines and wondering what the heck my character is going to do once I finish — if I ever finish — this chapter.

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” or so they say, and our world thrives on the market of comparison. I want to burn this market and all its emotional trafficking to smithereens.

I say that I want to study creative writing and literature because I want to learn more, read more, devour more, but how much of that “want” is rooted in wanting to be accepted as a writer, to say that I actually “did the thing” I’ve talked about for aeons? How much of it is calling, and how much of it is pressure to follow up and not disappoint because, Lord knows I’ve done that my entire life.

“But my priest says you ain’t savin’ no souls
My father says you ain’t makin’ any money
My doctor says you just took it to the limit
and here I stand with this sword in my hand” + Tori Amos

Maybe I’m just fried from spending so much psychic energy writing through the blizzard we had today, but I’m feeling less than positive and like I know what I’m doing. Trying to ignore the voices of “why even bother?” and doubt…