Shoulders, Naomi Shihab Nye

Shoulders

A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.

No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.

This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.

His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.

We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.

The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.

This will be my last post until September. I’m taking parental leave, and I know that despite my best intentions, the likelihood of getting back here before the unofficial “start of the year” (for me, the year has and will always begin at Labor Day) is a pipe dream. Having one kiddo was busy – having a newborn and a toddler, I expect, will be chaos.

That being said, I never get tired of sharing Nye’s work with a larger audience. She has been one of my favorite poets (although she’s a wonderful author of fiction, as well) for over a decade now, and I’m constantly stumbling over her words, tucked away in some notebook or word doc I’ve saved, at the perfect moment. For me, this is that time. I’m on the precipice of a life change I can hardly imagine but feel deeply blessed to have, and at the same time, I’m concerned that our second child will be born into a world so dramatically different than our first.

Our first was a child born of Summer (I still remember being moved by that idea of “eternal” plenty when I read A Game of Thrones back in 2001). Although the world was far from “fixed,” it was still a hopeful period for this country. The rights of many were being recognized in ways they hadn’t before, and the political spirit was leaning toward uplifting the most vulnerable rather than trampling them. My own life, and the lives of many of my nearest and dearest were in celebratory periods, and I felt a great confidence – not only in myself, but in friends and stranger alike. I floated through pregnancy enjoying a sense of alignment with the world that I don’t think I felt before or since.

This time around, I’m much more anxious. The things I hear and see, the lengths people have to go to to be recognized with simple dignity, the pain I’m witness to in the people closest to me – it has been a far cry from the sunny peace of two years ago. I feel a sense of powerlessness and exhaustion to make the kind of statements I want to make for myself, my family, my neighbors, and those around the world who are suffering horrendously. And yet, this little wiggle, this busy kid I carry with me everywhere, he offers me great comfort. He is a reminder, when I feel overwhelmed, of my ability to empathize with other mothers no matter our differences, to have patience with the greater questions, to be as kind to those I meet as I hope they will be one day to him.

It’s a lot to get from a little person who hasn’t made an official appearance yet, but I’m profoundly grateful. The serenity of the world may not surround me right now, but I can still find it, still breathe deeper remembering my role – not just as a parent, but as a human being – is not to fix everything or celebrate always, but to keep my eyes open for opportunities to care for those who cross my path.

 

Be well, my book loving friends. I look forward to rejoining you in a few months and hope in the meantime, you find great books to transport and transform you.

On Turning Ten, Billy Collins

I had a book I was going to post about today – that I should be posting about, since I promised my friend John, and his editor, that my review would be up – but the reading of it has been so sad, so perfectly January, that I haven’t been able to bring myself to rush through. It’s not a long book, and it’s not nearly as aching a story as his first (if you haven’t read it, and you can bear a brilliantly written tragedy, you should), but it’s harder because he and his family are friends now, while in 2014, he was barely an acquaintance.

I’ll have it done by February, for sure, and I look forward to telling you about it, because John’s one of those writer friends I love and hate for being so damn good at what he does. In the meantime, here’s a little bittersweet Collins to carry you into what promises to be a divisive weekend.

On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.

It’s almost Christmas, and for once, we’re not getting on a plane (at least not until next week). We won’t see our families until New Year’s, instead opting for a cozy holiday with our own tree and the company of our dear friends and neighbors on Christmas morning. In the past, we’ve alternated between my husband’s family in Colorado and mine in New Hampshire, and this would have been my family’s year; however, this Sunday marks a momentous day for me and mine – the day of my mother’s retirement from 37 years of ministry in the UCC.

Her ministry has been instrumental in shaping who I am. Her particular sense of humor, her tireless efforts for the justice and dignity of the most vulnerable among us, and her enthusiastic acceptance of all people and all faiths has influenced more people than I’m sure she could ever imagine. She is far too humble to think of herself as a tide changer, but those of us who know her know the truth – she is a light, a warrior of love, and a beacon for those who love the church and those who have been mistreated by it. She is dearly loved and deeply admired for her perspective, her compassion, and her faith, and while I know she has many more years of world-changing in her, she’ll be doing it from a different venue now.

In honor of this incredible transition, today I’m sharing a poem she wrote about Christmas. In addition to her work in ministry, she’s the author of more than twenty books and spent a year as a poet laureate, in addition to having taught writing for several decades. For me, there is no better way to ring in this holiday weekend than by considering her words and the overwhelming love she has for this difficult, hard to love world.

Improv on Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch who Stole Christmas, Maren C. Tirabassi
The grinch on the inside of Who you and Who me
who shrinks from the carols and ducks under the tree …

The grinch who fears weight gain and avoids every store,
with chestnut-roast muzak and wreaths on the door …

The grinch who dreads greedies and commercials for toys,
and deplores the way sadness is wrapped in fake joy …

This grinch has a heart that is just the right size,
but it hurts so at Christmas that it is no surprise …

That with all of the darkness, the hurry, the haste,
with all of the “must-do’s,” the parties and waste …

The grinch on the inside of you-grouch and me-beast,
the grinch who hates candlelight service and feast …

The grinch who is lonely, and feels like a stranger,
the grinch who’s disgusted when I rhyme with “manger” …

Finds that all of the stories of this Christmas season,
the Scrooges and Nutcrackers point to one reason.

It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Fred Claus,
and the Polar Express are all written because –

There’s a mystery here, there’s a wonder, a glow,
that comes not from a package or starlight on snow …

That is not about family with its comfort or grief,
and is not about having some perfect belief …

It’s all about God, who won’t come the right way.
who jumps out of the church, as well as the sleigh …

God who needs diapers but takes myrrh in a pinch –
this God who sends babies is in love with each Grinch.

Reciprocity, John Drinkwater

I hate when my busiest working season falls in the summer. It’s always interrupted by travel and bbqs and outings, and I end up half distracted while at my computer, and half worried while I’m out trying to enjoy myself. This year has been especially challenging with two major projects in high gear since the beginning of June, all of our family commitments long flights away, and a seemingly endless parade of distractions that keep me from focusing.

I suspect I could make good use of blinders right about now, but since single-mindedness eludes me, I’m doing  my best to multitask through the madness. That means, yes, I’m reading, but it’s slow. I get maybe a chapter a day if I’m lucky, and that doesn’t jive well with my reviewing schedule.

On the plus side, it does mean I get to share some of my favorite poems. This one has become almost a mantra for me in the last month. I read it once or twice a day and then spend maybe thirty seconds admiring the leaves rustling out the window. It doesn’t sound like much, but it serves to ground me, and to remind me of the fullness of life, even during one of its stressful seasons.

Reciprocity, John Drinkwater
I do not think that skies and meadows are
Moral, or that the fixture of a star
Comes of a quiet spirit, or that trees
Have wisdom in their windless silences.
Yet these are things invested in my mood
With constancy, and peace, and fortitude,
That in my troubled season I can cry
Upon the wide composure of the sky,
And envy fields, and wish that I might be
As little daunted as a star or tree.

Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson

My theme this spring has apparently been “start great books I don’t have time to finish,” and Brown Girl Dreaming is no exception. This was a gift from my mother-in-law at Christmas, and although I started it over a month ago, it’s too beautiful to rush through. This hardcover has come with me for a much needed haircut, in the stroller to the park, and out to the grill when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the food, and that’s saying something since I’m much more accustomed to making use of the Kindle app on my phone.

51-pl9bj7il-_sx331_bo1204203200_Written in free verse, Woodson’s perfectly paced memoir is exquisite. Having put together my own memoir in verse a few years ago, I recognize how difficult it is to make every piece as strong as the previous one, and she puts my meager efforts to shame. How she does it – I can only imagine how much work went into telling this story. How she must have agonized and organized and overwritten in order to eventually prune down to this one exceptional volume.

When it comes to books like this, it’s hard not to get lost in considering the craft behind it. In some cases, peering behind the curtain might mean a book is lacking in some way – the reader is distracted by all the bells and whistles – but in this case, it’s more like examining a butterfly’s wings. The detail makes the experience richer. Woodson’s technique is fascinating, and I want to both bathe in it and somehow make it my own.

Her experiences growing up both in the north and the south also give her a unique perspective on the racial tension that was exploding across the country then, and which we still feel the effects of today. I only hope this book makes it onto reading lists in schools every year, because when I was a child, I had the privilege of thinking this discussion was only a part of history, when my friends and classmates knew differently, from experience.

Woodson writes her truth in a way that is accessible and beautiful. Her story is one children can both enjoy and understand from a young age. For an older audience, it’s a wonderful jumping off point for challenging conversations about discrimination in this country while encouraging hope and love as the bedrock on the path to justice.

South Carolina at War

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us-
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is

why people are marching all over the South-

to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.

And that’s why people are so mad.

And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.

We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.

This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist
on something
gently. Walk toward a thing
slowly.

But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.

And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway.

Even my mother joins the fight.
When she thinks our grandmother
isn’t watching she sneaks out
to meet the cousins downtown, but just as
she’s stepping through the door,
her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,
Now don’t go getting arrested.

And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,
I won’t.

More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,
and we’re still fighting for the free life
we’re supposed to be living.

So there’s a war going on in South Carolina
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.
And just as good and bright and beautiful and free
as anybody.
And nobody colored in the South is stopping,
my grandfather says,
until everybody knows what’s true.

The Happiest Day, Linda Pastan

The last two weeks have been so crazy, I didn’t even realize it was Thursday until about an hour ago. I was patting myself on the back for starting a book for next week’s post when I realized that next week was already here…

So this one goes out to everyone who walks around chin up when the balance of life is perfect, and has nightmares and dishes overflowing the sink and tiny legos stuck to the bottom of their feet when it’s not. Because we’re all just doing our best, right? We’re savoring the happy where we can while missing it more often than we want to admit.

The Happiest Day
It was early May, I think
a moment of lilac or dogwood
when so many promises are made
it hardly matters if a few are broken.
My mother and father still hovered
in the background, part of the scenery
like the houses I had grown up in,
and if they would be torn down later
that was something I knew
but didn’t believe. Our children were asleep
or playing, the youngest as new
as the new smell of the lilacs,
and how could I have guessed
their roots were shallow
and would be easily transplanted.
I didn’t even guess that I was happy.
The small irritations that are like salt
on melon were what I dwelt on,
though in truth they simply
made the fruit taste sweeter.
So we sat on the porch
in the cool morning, sipping
hot coffee. Behind the news of the day–
strikes and small wars, a fire somewhere–
I could see the top of your dark head
and thought not of public conflagrations
but of how it would feel on my bare shoulder.
If someone could stop the camera then…
if someone could only stop the camera
and ask me: are you happy?
perhaps I would have noticed
how the morning shone in the reflected
color of lilac. Yes, I might have said
and offered a steaming cup of coffee.

This week, my better half is on the other side of the world for work, and my mother has come to keep us company. That hasn’t left much time for reading, but it did remind me of this poem. I’ve loved it for years, but I understand it now in a way I never imagined. It just burns at my heart.

To a daughter leaving home, Linda Pastan

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving
goodbye.

 

(I’ll be back in two weeks with a proper review, but for now, time must be spent with a few of my favorite people.)