10-Line Tuesday

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.

December 26, 2017

restoration of persons apparently dead from drowning *

First, make two smarting smacks to the stomach with an open hand. This will likely
not revive the patient but will at least provide the body with a reminder
of its own stubborn leanings toward aliveness. Turn over and square the face
against the floor to reduce the glare of onlookers jostling for carnage. Demand the cameras
be put away, then press all your weight on the back until the spine makes full contact
with the ground. Stay on your knees. Count slowly. Breathe like normal. It will seem
fruitless, of course. The drama of the pool will have its eyes on you,
the frantic crowd threatening your fortitude, your commitment, your optimism.
You must ignore the catcalls of the disbelievers. There is air still left in these overwhelmed
lungs. It is rising toward you now, incremental but sure. Do you see it? Do you see?

* from the book Valuable Information for Daily Use in Every Household published in 1887.

December 19, 2017

nothing is futile

Except, perhaps, the leaf blowers, who return to the same street
each week and aim in unison at a pile that will, on the heels
of a breeze that very afternoon, resettle to its innate disorder. Or the driver
who shrieks at the car in front, then leans on the steering wheel for emphasis,
imagining the horn's uninterrupted wail will loosen the gridlock. 
Or the pugilist who remains in the ring long after the fight's been called,
throwing punches in a desperate pantomime to woo the opponent back.  
But you. You who offer your quiet, loyal ministrations to whatever garden
you are tending. You who stay bent to the task, despite the incalculable time it takes
to bear fruit. You who keep your gaze on the ground, on the air, on the seeds.

December 12, 2017

when they call you names

Your hair will grow disconcerted while you sleep, until one morning,
another woman entirely will be staring back at you from the mirror,
a minor goddess who, excluded from the cannon, has quietly
sharpened her nails on the rocks from old volcanoes, thickened
the skin of her back against a low awning of sagebrush, practiced, in silence,
the keening of her own heart. She meet will you in the smudge of that glass.
She will lick her tongue across her teeth, clear her throat, and you will know
she is at the lip of battle. It will take less time than you'd imagined to get dressed,
pull the sword from the shadows of your closet, spit the shine back to the blade.
It doesn't matter that you've never picked it up. You already know how to swing it.

December 5, 2017

making bagels with my father

He was here in the kitchen, I'm sure of it, beside me at the Cuisinart
when a fine dust of flour escaped as the blade started spinning,
here when I pressed "Off" and opened the lid to reach in for the dough, and here
when I made those first turns on the countertop. It was one of those things
I hadn't learned from him specifically, like how to write a résumé or do my taxes, 
but his voice entered the room anyway, his long thin hands cupped around
the edge of my right shoulder as I dug into this strange, new art,
reminding me, like always, to stay patient and forgiving if the first try
failed my best intentions, and watching, wishful and wild-eyed, as inside the oven
my own innocence returned, blooming with potential.

November 27, 2017

comparison giving

There are bike paths in rural Pennsylvania that desperately need resurfacing. Equally,
a gallery in Newark, perennially underfunded, is on the verge of losing its tenancy.
Across the country, the annual pleas arrive from the usual suspects, complete with
intimate portraits of those whose lives were saved by donations like yours.
Everywhere, the sidewalks in front of grocery stores populate with costumed men
holding red cans and ringing a single, insistent bell. No matter how many times
I reach into my pocket, it feels like what's inside will never be enough. But I forget
the daily plentitudes whose wells resist emptying - kindness, not the least of these.
There is a clutch of old wounds - mine and someone else's - that would welcome release,
and who knows the richness that might roll in then, filling the cracks.

November 20, 2017

everything is expensive

The appliance salesman ballooned with good news as our time in the showroom
stretched toward lunch. A sale, a rebate, a better tax break if we bought the stove
in a neighboring county! Still, it was hard to keep my gaze from wandering too far
from the numbers on the spreadsheet, his and the one perpetually nipping at my heels.
The kitchen's not burned down, has it? it demanded in a plaintive but accusing tone
and it was impossible to argue with that particular line of questioning. I'd spent
years learning to talk to my stepsons through loaves of banana bread and incalculable dozens
of chocolate chip cookies, scrubbing bowls and measuring cups as the trays cooled and they ate.
Maybe I had more baked goods behind me than poems or dollar bills, but everything
is expensive, even surrender, even love, and sometimes you just have to stop counting.

November 13, 2017

It's 5 o'clock. Do you know where your life is?

I see the list in your hand: Eggs, napkins, toothpaste, broccoli.
The back of the driver's seat holds a map you haven't looked at in years.
Sometimes, you think about your art teacher from fifth grade. If pressed,
you'll recite your old school song, or what you chanted around the fire
the last day of camp. Mostly, though, there's that list and that map
and everything you slide between them like a sandwich, the real estate so worn
you argue against the idea of a different meal. There are things to do, you say,
tucking the paper in your pocket and lifting the keys, as always, from their hook.
I'm running out of time, the sky whispers back, waving a pale finger of light in your direction, hoping you'll notice.

November 6, 2017

Before they change the rules, qualify to carry a gun legally *

The church pews are empty now, save for the cleaning crew,
whose grim task will likely leave them stained forever. And how will the pastor
fare, the one who'd traveled out of town but whose daughter is now
among the dead? Or the pair of siblings huddling in a hospital corridor, 
left to navigate their sudden, inexplicable orphanage? "Let us keep praying,"
someone urges a dazed audience, already so inundated by terror they
hear "praying" as "paying," as men in suits and rifles swarm the Capitol, pretending
it is still 1791. Somewhere, a boy grows intoxicated with weaponry,
aiming a crooked branch at his brother, his finger curled around a knot of bark, 
and I'm hoping their mother will call them inside before it begins to get dark.

* This was the subject line of a spam email I received two days after the Sutherland Springs, TX massacre.

October 31, 2017

if it's okay with you, I'm going to stay happy *

Do you hear the sound of the world breaking?
All that fury in the floorboards and rupture in the walls. Even our hearts
in the throes of their own keening lamentation. This morning, a hard wind
came through the trees, cutting their flock off at the neck. So much color felled
and foiled, this once-sweet season turned bitter in less than an hour.
It was easy - too easy - to imagine this a harbinger or metaphor, to close the door
to the bunker and count the remaining rations. But the sky was so adamantly clear,
almost delirious with optimism, as if refusing the ruin gathering
at its feet, and I wondered if, perhaps, I had misjudged the sorrow of the leaves,
and they'd landed precisely, thrillingly on time.

* I stole this line (with permission) from a condolence card my friend Jean received.

October 24, 2017

the poetry of turbulence

It was a surprise to the pilot, even with his elaborate panel of lights.
Earlier, as we crept toward the runway, he'd announced the smooth ride
we should be expecting, with a good tailwind to boot. But somewhere between
Des Moines and South Bend the atmosphere changed, and he got on the intercom
to tell us beverage service would be suspended and would the flight attendants
please take their seats. In front of me, a mesh pocket held the slim distractions from the
interval of bumps - an illustrated placard, a dog-eared magazine, a foil packet
holding exactly twelve pretzels. Inside my chest, my heartbeats grew rapid,
strangely paced like jazz or like that moment you realize you have everything to lose,
and you've never felt more certain that you won't.

October 17, 2017

this is not everything she has to say

The table is covered in scraps, and the caps to all the glue are missing, 
and there, in the center of the maelstrom, there is a girl
who didn't intend to sit down but did, and she's turning the pages of the small book
she's convinced out a single sheet of paper: "My Dog."
The narrative opens with careful cursive and a pencil sketch of her beloved.
And I look and I nod and offer my amazement, because it IS amazing,
one being who adores another being this much, and I know this is not everything
she has to say, that between the folds, a girl can tuck a catalog of pain so private
it may never reach the surface, never get its own proud illustration, and this might be
the story she'll always carry, unwritten, yet inked deep enough to bruise her forever.

October 10, 2017


She returns to the ash where her house once was. He sifts through mud for a photograph,
for anything. In places I cannot fathom, a child clings to a tongue-sized remnant
of a soccer ball, a faded blue hexagon at the center.
What the fire didn't take lies in sharp, twisted ruin. What the flood
didn't drown is torn in countless halves. What the war didn't kill
slips into a hollowness where only pain endures. And here, on the other side
of the coin, there is a girl turning 8, and I want her to have the party
her innocence deserves, a table heaped with joy's bright-bulbed excess,
where the partygoers binge on confetti cake and take turns claiming themselves
her best friend as she bounces recklessly around the room, oblivious to her fortune.

October 3, 2010

another elegy

How badly I wanted to extol the morning's couplet of toast, 
the slow drip of Irish butter, the caramel hue a tablespoon of cream
painted my coffee. I awoke almost writing, having gone to bed at the tail end
of a perfect fall day, leaves straight out of a Norman Rockwell. 
The headlines pierced my plans. I bent, wilting, over two squares of bread
and a lukewarm mug, poetry disappearing in the smoke of disbelief.
What to say, now, in the silence that remains after the bullets have struck? 
What shred of grace or beauty still clings to the mouth of this October
and its devastating blue sky? I am out of ideas, but here: Take my shatter
of grief and twine it to yours. Let us swallow this bitterness together.

September 26, 2017

this is not a play area

"It's not a toy," I suspect his mother said when she first caught her son pointing
her lipstick in the air as she applied mascara before a dinner party. 
"It's not a toy," she repeated later, as the lipstick turned into a nail file, a rolling pin,
a butter knife, a beer bottle. Her son heard only the words "not" and "toy." She thought
it better to keep her distress to herself, to stay silent about the violence of gestures, 
the way she felt, as he leveled each mock barrel toward any living or static thing,
as if she were taking a bullet in her own chest. The phrase "he's just a boy"
kept trailing, like a dustpan, after each new episode, not quite cleaning up the mess,
and now, years later, his armory stockpiled and spilling past the yard, his mother's heart
long-bled, he is razing whole neighborhoods house by house, shooting whatever he sees.

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