On Counting Time

The Christmas tower of candies, pretzels, and chocolates I ordered arrived at my grandmother’s house today. Nestled at the end of Arlington Drive, she lived in the house for over fifty years, with very few nights not spent in her bedroom at the end of the hall. But, yesterday, the day before my Christmas gift arrived, she moved to a nursing home to receive the level of care she now needs. Pick any one of the last 18,000+ days, and she would have been there to receive the gift. You almost have to try to have timing that terrible!

This time of year, timing is a big thing. Kids are counting down the days to Santa’s arrival. It’s an agonizing count. I can still recall feigning illness one Christmas Eve as a child, hoping, somehow, that it would make the day go faster. I’m sure I learned that, whether you’re participating or not, time does not sympathize.

It’s not just kids counting days or this time of year, though. Adulthood is all about counting the days. Hubby and I watch the calendar as we prepare to move and wonder how many days until our adoption finally materializes. My sister wakes each day, closer to ending the chapter of her marriage and striking out, single, soon. Mom tarries over her mother and an impending goodbye, while Dad acclimates to his new cashier job at the local retail store during the holiday rush. My brother- and sister-in-law count the days to their baby’s first birthday, as well as the days to their next baby’s birth, while my mother-in-law juggles an impressive social calendar with the responsibilities of a family matriarch. My best friend frets his next court date with the ol’ ex-, while my aunt spends her time in Escher-like administrative litigation.  Coming full circle, my older nephews plead with me for hints about their Christmas gifts, unable to bear the nearly infinite amount of time before they can open them.

We’re all a day or two away from the next big thing, biding our time until we can cross it off the list. It may be wonderful, it may be awful, but, regardless, it’s the rhythm and order of our lives. It’s the foreseeable and unforeseeable sequence of future events that give such meaning to our current selves. And it’s such a cliche to ruminate about “living in the moment,” especially when so many of our moments find our minds trying to make sense of the past or to give order and meaning to the future.

The cookie company e-mailed me to say that my grandmother’s gift had been delivered “on schedule,” but I knew it was one day late. Most definitely, one day late.


On Slipping the Knot (Ver. 2)

I took another stab at my prior poem, hewing more closely to its iambic tetrameter in this version. I think it’s an improvement. Hope you enjoy.

I took a breath beyond our love,
a pause to see you go your way,
resigned to savor mem’ry’s knife,
and thrill its bitter long decay.

I’ll wrap the past in tears of joy
if after years of hurt and pain
I find the peace to staunch the loss
and call out your forgotten name.

I slipped the knot you offered me
and watched you dangle from below.
And turning from your greedy gaze,
the seeds of life I sadly sowed.

On Prayers Over Pastrami

My neighborhood sandwich shop is a great place to people watch. On any given day, you can witness hungover college students gulping down giant sandwiches, priests and nuns passionately debating the latest Catholic news, neighborhood kids ordering milkshakes they can barely carry, beggars shuffling through the store asking for money, pamphleteers taking a break from changing the world one leaflet at a time to chug a soda, and local beauty school attendees nervously studying up on the latest hair-dos (and hair-dont’s, for that matter). I never know what I’ll encounter, and I guess that’s half the fun of walking down a few blocks for my usual ham sandwich and chips.

Yesterday, as I waited patiently in an unusually short lunch line, an older woman pushing a wheelchair caught my eye as she approached a monk quietly enjoying his lunch in a sunny part of the shop. I could not hear what was said, but the body language, the eyes, the mouthed words indicated to me that these two people did not know each other. I wondered, with at most half-interest, if she was asking for directions, or inquiring as to his funny-looking robe. Then, among the crying baby, the teenage girls on their cell phones, and the panicked clerk floundering behind the counter to make change, my world slowed down as I watched the lady reach out to hold the monk’s hand and bow her head as he said a prayer.

It’s not unusual to see someone pray in public. Although I will always maintain that Jesus does not want any soul to invoke his name over a plate of McNuggets, I grew up seeing families bow their heads before a meal, teammates take a knee after a hard-fought game, and students gather around flag poles to join hands in prayer. Despite being a faithful churchgoer all throughout my childhood and youth, these displays always seemed a little showy to me, almost profane to make something so personal so public. As I got older, grew into myself, and abandoned the orthodoxy if not the lessons of the church, the call to prayer, faint as it had ever been, left permanently. Over time, I viewed these public prayers with bemusement and perhaps a little self-satisfied indignation.

The woman holding the monk’s hand in the sandwich shop was different, though. She wasn’t putting on a show, waiting to be seen, or going through the motions. I don’t know what compelled her to approach the monk. She was pushing a wheelchair carrying a man I presume was her husband. Maybe she was praying for a miracle that he would walk again. Maybe she was simply tired. Maybe anything. Who knows?  It doesn’t really matter, and it’s none of my business. The sincerity of her approach, the respect she held for the monk was evident, though. That level of faith and belief is simply inaccessible to me.

I don’t know why people pray or believe in God or attend church. As someone rejected by the larger institutional church, it’s all a little hocus-pocus to me. Perhaps a sincere hocus-pocus, but a hocus-pocus nonetheless. Magical spell or no, the lady in the sandwich shop was a believer, and her humble exchange with the monk transcended the precision of science and rejected my smug certainty. I doubt I’ll ever approach a stranger in public for a prayer, but I will admit to a little jealousy, for I find something beautiful about this woman’s world. A world where, among sandwiches and soda pop, strangers can transcend the known world, invoke all-knowing and all-loving power, and comfort each other with their faith. True or not, in its sincerest form, it has a poetry. Even over pastrami.

On Weightless Things

In eleven days, we will welcome the end of a presidential political campaign that, regardless of the outcome, will leave our national psyche bruised and battered. The rhetoric has been occasionally tawdry, frequently nonsensical, and almost universally devoid of substance. The idea of a vigorous contest of ideas seems as far away as it ever has been in American political history, replaced instead with a funhouse mirror distorting any semblance of maturity, seriousness, or sophistication. It’s downright depressing.

As beleaguered as I feel after unsuccessfully avoiding most of the news coverage for the past year, I have enough spirit left to make the obvious point that beyond the brutish nastiness of the campaign has been the jaw-dropping realization that one of the political candidates is fundamentally unfit for not just the highest office in the land but perhaps any office, anywhere, anytime. The childish, moronic, boorish behavior is so prevalent that a single example would do a grave injustice to this candidate’s near savant-like capacity to offend, to distract, and to pulverize any pervading sense of national decency. To entertain a notion of equivalency of the candidates is to render one’s self untethered to reality. To endorse this candidate is not to express a coherent political opinion, or to make a statement against the other party or candidate, but, rather, it is a wholesale abdication of the responsibility every citizen should feel. It is an investment in nihilism.

Flexing moral outrage (dare I say moral superiority) can feel good, but the day after the election will be no party. We will wake up to the politics of division. We will wake up to a country seemingly unmoored to common ground. And we will wake up to the dawning reality that the previous 12 months have revealed more than the triumph of scorched earth politics. Rather, we have witnessed a perhaps unparalleled expression from millions of American citizens that they feel so abused by an indifferent political class, so marginalized by a changing economy, and so broken by the combined might of poverty, lack of education, and drug abuse, among others, that the empty promises of a demagogue speak to them on a profound level, despite such promises being obviously contrary to fundamental American values, the very values in which they drape themselves.

The candidate is not the problem, and the election won’t provide the solution. Our national political paralysis comes at the hands of snotty children the size and shape of adults, free to pillage national character while representing districts where diverse electorates that would hold some semblance of balance and moderation have been conveniently gerrymandered out of existence. Our collection of adult children, nary a statesman to be seen, largely answer to plutocrats and pollsters, and, while self-preservation has been at the top of a politician’s priorities since the beginning of time, the national interest seems to have completely fallen off the list. At least it seems that way.

It would be a somewhat comforting thought to take solace in our national inertness if we could explain the stalemate as the byproduct of a healthy equipoise, a reflection of well-balanced forces rightly aligned to best serve a polity ready to take great steps, even leaps, in the areas of economics, eduction, the arts, science, and on and on. While strides are certainly being made, it doesn’t feel like we’re fighting because it’s so good. Instead, it feels like we’re fighting and falling behind in many important areas. Again, at least it feels that way.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I’m not moving to Rwanda anytime soon.  But to say we deserve better is an understatement. Our political dialogue should be sharp and it should be passionate, for it is important. When our political life leaves behind spirited debate and transforms into a vulgar carnival that misleads the masses and distorts American values to the point of unrecognizability, however, we find ourselves much less than we can be. Less than we should be.

The lack of substance of this campaign and the lack of heft in our current political life has one redeeming quality: like all weightless things, it is swept aside relatively easily. Perhaps that unifying event or force, that thing that reasserts our common American purpose, is right around the corner. Of course, the problem with things easily swept aside is you’re never guaranteed it will be replaced by something better.

On Acting Like a Kid

“Am I too old to be doing this?” entered my mind several times that night, but I didn’t betray my self-consciousness to my husband, as we criss-crossed across Disneyland, bouncing with childish delight from candy station to candy station, filling our bags with candy and our hearts with joy. We weren’t costumed, but at Disneyland’s Halloween party that didn’t matter. And it didn’t matter that we’re in our early 40s and weren’t accompanying a child. That night, it was okay to laugh, to let go of the boring minutia of our very adult lives, and to just act like a kid.

We had flown to San Diego on an ambitiously scheduled vacation that included visiting family, celebrating my brother-in-law’s birthday, soaking up time with our 10-month-old nephew, spending two days at Disneyland, and making a personal appearance at the California-based adoption agency handling our adoption journey. It took grown-up planning, grown-up money, and grown-up know-how, but, as I flew back to my life in Washington, D.C., squished into my airplane row with my husband and mother-in-law, I was surprised to find myself pondering how much acting like a kid had been a part of my vacation.

We arrived in San Diego to find our infant nephew as cute, precocious, and beguiling as we left him six months earlier, if not more so. Everyone thinks their family’s baby is the sweetest, cutest, most precious thing on the planet, and I feel sorry for those folks, as clearly our family enjoys the best little baby in the world. Just like last visit, I feared at times that my husband would not let anyone else handle our nephew, magnetically drawn to hugging, cradling, and playfully jostling baby Bryce as he is.

It’s fun to watch normally straight-laced family members melt to puddles of yammering and blabber when faced with the pile of cuteness that is an infant. You see sides of loved ones you never knew existed, peeks behind our adult selves that we flash to all the world, at work, at home, online. If only for just a moment, the trivial seriousness of life is left behind as we revel in those bits of pure connection without pretense or duplicitousness.  I had arrived at my baby nephew’s home on the heels of two months of intense work and, unfortunately, a tad under the weather. But none of that mattered as I watched my husband smile and laugh and practically beam as he held our nephew. Just as wonderfully, launching my nephew into the air, carrying him around the room, and blabbering on like a 10-month-old myself was a fantastic antidote to all of the “important” work I had been undertaking.

A few days later, I found myself at Disneyland, trick-or-treat bag in hand, snaking around in candy lines behind 8-year-olds dressed as Pixar’s greatest hits, and, yet again, I was acting like a kid. Hoping for my favorite candy — Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — to fall into my bag. Proclaiming “trick-or-treat” with gusto. And running onto rides such as It’s a Small World, Thunder Mountain, and Peter Pan — the ultimate boy who refuses to grow up. Among the doubts of age-appropriateness were other thoughts: isn’t this fun? shouldn’t I feel this way more often? why is this place so darn magical?

The next day, I arrived with very sore (but happy) feet at the adoption agency. The walls were covered with pictures of babies and toddlers and children wearing smiles with various number of teeth, as proud parents held them or stood in the background. The best pictures, though,were those of parents in the mix with their kids, be it blowing bubbles, hula hooping, or wearing funny hats. In other words, acting like a kid. We met with the lead attorney and several of the social workers, and our discussion proceeded to be very adult with talk of adoption trends, rules, and practices. All very necessary, all very warm. But none of it as sweet or meaningful as the thoughts of blanket forts, cartoons, or special stuffed animals. Is it a cliche, romanticized version of childhood and parenthood, for that matter? Of course. But, then again, adults think about things like that.

It’s not profound or novel to suggest that we could all stand to be less serious, more goofy, more playful. And right-thinking folks always do well to recognize there is a time and place for everything. But it’s certainly interesting to ponder how most of us spend our lives being a kid or trying to act like a kid via our children or grandchildren. Could it be the universe’s way of reminding us that the meaning of life isn’t so serious or complicated? That, perhaps, the answer is right before our eyes…spraying a water gun, hosting a tea party on plastic cups, or snuggling up for a nap with a favored blanket? A serious adult might write a blog post on that subject. Someone acting like a kid would probably just go color in their favorite coloring book.

On our final full day of vacation, as we drove back to San Diego to rejoin our family, my husband asked, “At what point do you think we will be too old to trick-or-treat at Disneyland?” I smiled and confidently proclaimed, “We’re a long way from there.”

I hope I’m right.

On a Farm Walk

The smell of cow dung knifes your pink nose
as you walk down the hill lined by fence,
behind the ramshackle old farmhouse
where your bygone and present condense.

You pass the goats, rutting at the dirt
in front of the corrugated pine,
blinking the ammonia from your eyes
so you can see some family line.

The woods start after the grey goats, and fall
away from house and familial cast,
with its green-roof porch and mangy old dogs
and acrid tinge of smoke and the past.

The woods is carpeted with wet leaves —
red, brown, and yellow soldier platoons
delimbed and dead on the battlefield;
your cul-de-sac under far distant moon.

The salamander so surprises
that you jump and startle just a bit
at your city ways and clumsy hands
and total lack of countryish whit.

You see the cow lounging past the wood,
and the weathered shed where father slept,
and hear the far off laughter roll down,
gathering speed to find you inept.

Standing quiet by the gurgling brook,
imprisoned by trees and rolling hill,
with a green salamander in your hand,
your open heart baring plenty to till.

On The Tree Alone

I drove along the country road,
until I saw the tree alone
standing in front the empty field,
preaching with a withered bark.

With jagged arms aloft in prayer,
it danced a sad, whispered despair;
a trunk so bent and stooped it lurched
over the burnt acre in spasm.

The cars behind me motored dumbly,
obtuse to grief and loneliness
here born by branch and deep-dived root,
I bowed my head and paused, humbly.