No Small Wonder

It’s those unexpected details in life that can astonish you sometimes, like little thieves waiting for an unwary tourist around a corner.

Ants coming out two days before it rains. Burro dung holding up adobe walls for two hundred years. A hummingbird’s heart beating over a thousand beats per minute. A blue whale’s tongue weighing as much as an elephant. Humans owing their existence to pollinators, and the sun’s proximity to Earth. Trees working tirelessly while appearing impossibly still. Your body’s ability to digest food with its own consciousness. Plants turning to face the sun.  These are no small wonders.

The slant of the light at a particular moment. Steam rising from a bowl of soup. A certain smell accessing a fountain of memories in your brain: maybe cigar smoke, the interior of a car, the pages of a book, a bakery. A song opening a door inside you. Behind that door, a chapter of your life, a whole sweeping vista of memories, visions, emotions.

Naturally, all this astonishment exhausts you. But it’s a healthy exhaustion, like the one you experience after a long day of good hard physical work, or an hour of lovemaking, or an afternoon spent swimming in ocean waves. The language of being alive inhabits you completely.

You come home to a bag of ripe plums a friend left at your door. Eating one, you celebrate its wine-red flesh. One day you’ll be food for worms – maybe tomorrow, even – but for now you are here, in an astonishing world. Your whole being glows with wonder, almost child-like. You read a while, noticing the moon. You extinguish the light and close your eyes, drifting into sleep.

It’s strange, you think, how there’s no money in poetry, or bending spoons.

 

 

Backbone

This poem first appeared in Red River Review in 2013.

Backbone

A favorite thing of mine, he said,

is a hot drink in early morning,

taken to cut through phlegm

and shake rust out of the brain,

usually around six o’clock.

 

And then to have a walk, he said,

in the company of my brothers and sisters-

the river, forest, sky and stone,

all that is natural upon the earth.

 

And then to have a swim, he said,

whenever and wherever possible,

to awaken the pores,

refresh the mind,

and again make the brave attempt

to view the world without judgment.

 

And then to have a nap, he said,

to gain the healing daytime rest

that helps prevent diseases of the body,

to dream of sex and other wildness,

to dream of perfect silence.

 

And then to do some work, he said,

a few hours of honest work,

whittling away at whatever the project might be,

all the while grateful

for eyes, ears, lungs, hands and heart.

 

And then to die, he said,

to die a little bit each day

because that is what we owe to life,

what those who came before us had to do.

And though we may not live as they did,

it does not change it.

 

Privileged

My eyes are always pulling me into the visible, constantly bringing me back to the exterior. And there are these lines drawn in my mind, lines that divide, names that label. There are clocks and calendars and maps and guidelines and rules and laws, all trying to tell me where I am, when I am, what I am, who I am, what is right, what is wrong. I didn’t put them there, the world I’m a part of put them there.

So it is no surprise that as I lay there with eyes closed, perfectly still, in absolute silence, it came to me: everything is a privilege. And many of the things that appear to be a burden, or problem, are just as much a privilege as anything else.

It would be my privilege to witness this pain, this fear, this worry that has come to me, and then to not be spun out of control by it, to watch myself be flexible with it, see myself move beyond it. As if it were a rock and I was a watery current, flowing forward with gentle insistence.

I am glad to remember the invisible, to be persistent in my acknowledgement of the interior, because what is real is so much more than what our eyes can see.

 

Three Heartbreaks

The tigers kept to the shade, turned away from the onlookers and fascination-creatures on two legs.  They looked out through tiger eyes, thinking tiger thoughts.  Swish went their tails, occasionally, swish.  Primal dignity.

The elephant knew what I was feeling.  Her mind was lucid, comprehending.  With a heart greater and stronger than my own, she understood why I kept looking away, yet accepted her life with a gentle patience that, in itself, elevated the woes of humanity to something transcendent of shimmering grace.

As for the lion, he locked eyes with me.  “Why did you come here today?” he seemed to ask.  “I don’t come to watch you sleep, to watch you clean meat from the bones given you.  Go on now, do what I cannot.  Go back.  Go home.”

Beneath

Your life is not a neat and tidy little package. You are not just the basic facts they trot out in the printed insult of an obituary once you’ve left this world: born here, worked as a so-and-so, married twice or not at all, had children or didn’t, survived by three goldfish and a nephew who’s sad you’re gone but hopes to get his hands on your record collection.

No, underneath the surface distractions of health insurance and grocery lists and registration renewals and wondering how you’ll pay for everything, your life is vast, messy. Full of pain, crippling fears, secret longings. But your journey, whatever its length and nature, is something you can learn to honor. You could close your eyes and penetrate with clear vision right through your fingertips like an afterburner pulling yourself along in your own wake.

America

Walt Whitman, where are your hymns, your patriotic prayers?  Beatniks, circle back around with your feverish daydreams.  I myself ached for America.  Gave her my number but she never called.

So I quit college after a year, swapped formal education for sunburn and highway grit against my neck.  A girl painted my shoes with suns and moons, and sent me on my way.  I bopped, swung, and rag-timed through the scenery of youth, always hugging the outside edge like a good red-eyed trucker on the highway, always on my feet, my Samson feet that I thought would never break.  I balled the jack, baited the hook, and everything was jake.  Even when all heart seems lost, I thought, you find it’s pulse again in places like this one.

America, where the value of the soul’s currency is not decided by you and me.  Where we’re turned inside out and thrust into the streets with no back-up plan, dodging diesel demons with wild faces on their engine grills.  America, where we keep our eyes on the stage but are hesitant to peek behind the curtain.  America your youth was no frosted cake and I worry about your future.

And yet around your jawbone and Eastwood crow’s feet is a marksman’s cool knowing, a way of tossing skirts aside and flinging garters to the floor as the rusty joints of the bed-frame whine and the headboard thumps the wall.  America who are you fucking now, in the private suite above the floor where the paying customers go?

America the steady bow, the speeding arrow.  You want it all but might lose the hand, so place your bets and take a stand.  America I’d be lost without you, yet long to get free of you.  Call me sometime.  Go on then, outfox yourself.

Framework

When you’re young, you can change at the drop of a dime – something harder to come by with the passing of time. Your life fills up, library shelves, an archive of days.
You plan your liberation like an outlaw the night before the hanging, a gigolo on the morning of the wedding day. But escape escapes you, and before you know it, yours is another life spent, a nickel in a parking meter, a postcard without a message, a faded picture in a frame. The frame is how you see your life – maybe straight, maybe a little crooked. Maybe barely hanging on to the wire balanced on the screw in the wall.

Then comes death, greatest pickpocket this world has ever known.

When it comes to dying, you’ll be rich as the richest and poor as the poorest. You’ll be out of luck, out of time. Deeds aside, you’ll pierce the veil. You hope to look good as you pierce the veil, but you might have a bit of rice on your chin, or be so emaciated your family hardly recognizes you. It’s not likely to be a graceful or beautiful death, but you never know.

When it comes to dying, who’s to say?