On Vanishing, Precious Things.

Lake Nokomis Beach, remaining its awesome self.

I had the best day today. I am sick with grief. Both are true.

It is Friday. I am covered in sand. And I am sunburnt. The sand will flow away down the drain and the sunburn will fade and fade. I am trying to hang onto something. This day. This afternoon. This sunlight and sand. Children in the water. The smell of sunblock. The screech of their voices. The shimmer of skin. Their hard-muscled bodies launching into the sky.

And I am getting ahead of myself.

My daughters left just before lunch to do a bible study with their grandpa (it is one of his great joys at this stage of his life: those two beautiful girls; the mysteries of the Universe bound in text and paper; the certainty of limitless love) and my son and I were left to our own devices. We had already had breakfast, made banana bread, explored the storm damage along the swollen creek and looked for frogs.

“I’m bored,” Leo said the second the girls left.

“Let’s walk to the beach,” I said.

He looked at the sky. It was still gray and damp with a little bit of post-storm chill lingering in the air. “Really?” he said. Then he shrugged, slid into his swimtrunks and we walked to the lake.

(I am trying to cling to something precious. I cannot hold on. It vanishes the moment my fingers clasp around it. I am grasping at smoke; I am trying to snag starlight with a string.)

We were the only ones there, save for three lifeguards who lounged on the grass reading novels. One sighed as we arrived, hoisted himself off his blanket and summited the guard chair. The sky was gray. The lake was gray. A mama duck shepherded her bright-tufted babies through a red-buoy obstacle course. Leo eased himself into the waves.

“It’s cold,” he complained.

“Come in if you’re cold,” I said.

“No. I like it.”

The water at his knees. His trunks. His belly button. The water lapping his shoulders, then his neck, and then he was swimming, every once in a while shooting me a gleam of teeth over the wave.

“Do you see me mom? Do you see me?” A spurt of water. A joyous splash.

Of course I see you. You’re the only kid here.

We planned to stay for an hour at most. But the sun came out and the day grew steamy. And then kids from the neighborhood showed up. Kids that I have known since they kicked in their watery worlds within their mothers expanding middles. Kids who I love as much as my own. And their mothers, who I also love.

An hour became two.

Then three.

Then three and a half.

The children covered themselves in mucky sand. They wrestled in the mud and grass. They washed themselves new and clean in the water. They swam out to the diving dock and plunged into the deep again and again. They were bright birds, slippery fish, creatures made of fire and water and star. They were magic things.

Do you see me?

Of course I see you. You have swallowed the Universe. My eyes are your eyes and my skin is your skin and my heart is your heart. It will be so until you go into the wild world and leave me behind.

(I am grasping at vanishing things. Each moment is like a bead of water on sun-soaked skin, each ghosted remains scattering like dusty pebbles on a dry, dry river bed.)

I smiled and waved and swallowed a sob.

On the walk home, he took one step for every two of mine. He was barefoot, shirtless, holding his towel to his shoulders like a cape.

He asked about different kinds of rocks. He wanted to know the difference between a paleontologist and an archaeologist (he wants to be both when he grows up). He told me the story about a flying dog who fights crime and who shows up in his dreams most nights. He wondered about june bugs. He wanted to know if he could go to college with his two best friends. He wondered if it was possible to hold your breath for a year.

We scanned the sidewalk for lost pennies and priceless artifacts. We estimated the weight of dinosaur bones. I rested my palm on his thistledown head. He let me keep it there. He smelled of sun and algae and sunblock and boy.

“Did you have a good day, buddy?” I asked.

“I had the best day.”

“The very best?”

“Of course. I always have the very best day. Don’t you?”

I wound my hand in his hand and held on tight.

“I do believe I do, buddy,” I said.

And I swallowed a sob.

In Which There Were Seven Dreams

Last night, I slept fitfully and without satisfaction, my brain addled by the moon’s bright insistence. I am floating now. The earth is separated from my feet by wind and cloud and empty space. I do not know when I will find solid ground.

Right now, two books are growing like moss under my fingers – each a different color, a different texture, a different wild name called against a wide sky. But I will not work on them today. Today I will float. Today I will think about dreaming.

In between each dream last night, I woke with a startled cry, a flail of limbs, a sob lodged in the throat. Each time I got out of bed and walked across the icy floor to the wide windows facing the back yard, and the field, and the creek, and the city beyond. Each time, I pressed my damp fingers to the cold glass, and watched the progress of the moon across the frozen land. Each time I watched my breath collect on the window like a cloud, and vanish without a trace.

This is what I dreamed.

1. I am in a gold-colored tent in an alpine grotto beneath a snowy peak. I have been here before, many years ago. I slide onto the platform upon which the tent sits and slip my feet into my government-issue boots. My ranger’s shirt. My fire-proof pants. I go to the metal cache and pull out what we need for breakfast, but nothing is there. The cache is empty. I call to the man sleeping in the tent – the one who becomes my husband, but in the dream, as he was at the time, he is connected to me by will and by love, and not by law. The tent unzips. He lumbers out. A damp snout. Black fur. White teeth. Ten bright claws, shining like glass. He regards me, as I regard him. The smell of bear musk. The shirr of the breeze. I snort, snuffle, and open my throat and roar.

2. I am in a submarine, following the migration of blue whales. The submarine is gold with black stripes, like a bumble bee. It is narrow at its face with a swollen middle, as though ripe with young. It has a comfortable, easy look to it, as though it’s only purpose is to act as a plaything for the whales. Indeed, the blue whales seem curious, turning their great, round eyes toward the view windows and peering inside. They blink. I blink. They lean into the deep and I scuttle after them, leaving a trail of bubbles behind. My children are in the submarine and they are stopping up leaks. They use their fingers, their hands, their clothing. They use wax and rubber and paste. They press their mouths to the holes and blow out. “Mom,” they say. “We have to go back.” “Just a little bit farther,” I say. “Mom,” they say as the water pools at our feet. As it splashes our knees. As it slips up around our waists. “Just a little bit farther,” as we skirt the backs of the whales. As we turn upward with them toward the invisible surface thorough the endless stretch of salt and dark and cold, cold, cold.

3. I am being fired. Again. It hurts just as much as before.

4. There is a wolf fast asleep at the end of my bed. It is curled around itself, a spiral of fur and tail and meaty breath. I sit up. It cocks its head and blinks its eyes. It gazes at me sleepily. “You!” I say. The wolf yawns. “You were expecting someone else?” it says.

5.  I am wearing a black pencil skirt with a matching jacket and patent leather pumps. My hair is done with a swooped bang and a high bun and a pillbox hat. I am running. I realize that the world is in black-and-white, with the occasional jerky flash like poorly threaded film, and there is a soundtrack running behind me – bright and jangley like a Hitchcock flick. I have no name. I know I have no name. My only purpose in this movie is to die. The light changes. A blade flashes. The music launches into a brash, assonant chord, like the shatter of glass. I feel the knife enter at the back. I feel the steel in the space between ribs, in the sinew of muscle, the sponge of lung. I do not breathe. My arms fling out like wings and the light surrounds me and I am gone.

6. There is a knot in the umbilical chord. And oh god, there is a knot. And oh, god, there is a knot.

7. I am outside. It is freezing cold, and I am in a tank top and my underwear, walking barefoot across the lace of snow over the brown grass, down to the creek. The cattails are flattened against the shore – no herons nest there now. The foxes have found more private places for their denning, and the ducks have launched into the air and shot across the sky. I am alone. My toes curl onto the mounds of frozen mud and I sink onto my heels, regarding the frozen creek. There is a figure under the ice. Its hands are pressed against the surface. Its mouth moves in horror. It is dressed as I am. Its hair floats in the murky water. I turn, find a stone, crack the ice, and offer my hand. My hand on my hand. My fingers around my wrists. I help the woman that is me out of the ice and lead her back to the house. Where it is warm.

One of these days, I will sleep without dreaming. But not soon, I hope. My dreams are strange, but they are mine. And I will keep them.

Sometimes I dream coyote dreams

Coyote in grass

Image via Wikipedia

I heard the coyote again last night. I am still hearing it in the ears of my mind. It is a cold, lonely sound. It is made of hard, crusted snow.

I live on a dead-end street; it teems with life. Little kids on wagons and skateboards and bikes hollering at each other; parents hollering at their kids; adults hollering their hellos as they haul their groceries into the house, or their garden supplies into the back yard, or their snow shovels into the garage.

The street ends at a footpath that leads to a small, wooden bridge that goes over a creek. The creek swells every spring, foaming and tumbling to the ocean (and from the ocean to the sky). In the summer, it becomes lazy and slow. In the winter, it is ice. We pour onto the hardened water, peering into the cold, looking for the crystallized remains of perch and sunnies and crayfish. Their eyes are slick and wide and aghast.

The creek bends back around the back of the houses and snakes towards the waterfall a mile away. My back yard ends at a field that slopes toward the water. Every day, I walk down to the edge of the creek and sit for a while. In the summer, I am accosted by bugs; in the winter, I am numb with cold. I watch for herons and foxes and neighborhood cats. I listen to the frogs perform their randy songs of love. I am a nature voyeur.

Lately, there have been coyote tracks. And scat. And every once in a while, it’s high, brittle voice. I have not seen it, though I long to.

Yesterday, the moon rose wild in a violet sky. I was driving my daughter from one friend’s house to another’s. I saw the moon and gasped and swerved. I pulled the car to the side of the road and stepped out.

“Not again,” my daughter said.

“Let’s howl at the moon,” I said.

“Let’s not,” she said. “People are watching.”

I tipped back my head and howled. People stared, but I didn’t care. My daughter slunk deeper into her seat. “Mommmmm,” she hissed.

I howled again – a wild cry. I wanted someone to howl back. I wanted something to howl back. I wanted the moon to reply. My howl was a coyote howl – cold, brittle, and terribly alone. The world was filled with the sound of engines and wheels and concrete and steel – the sounds of dead things and dead ends. There was no sound of living. I got back into the car and drove.

Last night, in my house of silent eyes and wet breathing, I woke suddenly in the dark. The moon had already slid away from my east-facing windows, and the sky was heavily black. I walked to the window. The room was cold; it bit my bare skin. I didn’t shiver. I pressed my hands against the glass.

The coyote was back there. I could feel it. If the moon had been on the field, I would have seen it. Instead, there was only the shape of the garage, and behind that, the shadows of the trees, and beyond that the thick gray of nighttime snow.

It howled. I felt it before I heard it. That desperate wail. It shattered the windows, shattered the floor, shattered my crystallized skin.

And then it was gone.

My voice was scratchy with sleep, but there, in my house, with my husband sleeping nearby, with my children dreaming, deep in their beds, I closed my eyes, tipped back my head, and howled back.

I wasn’t the moon, I wasn’t the sky, but that coyote was howling at something, and was getting nothing back. And everyone deserves to be listened to.

I slid back in bed, and dreamed of the pricks of my nails against the skittering snow. I dreamed of the smell of animal, the resistance of meat in the teeth, the thrill of motion and speed, the glittering of a dark, icy world, reflecting stars.

The sky poured in my head and the world rang blue

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”  Hamlet

The world I see is not the world I know.

The world I see is dead. It ceased from the moment it shed its light like a snake shedding its skin, sending image after irrelevant image towards my eyes. The moment we see a thing, the thing in the state in which we saw it does not exist. It has changed. We are time travelers, looking ever backward. This is the limitation of seeing.

The world I know is a living place. It exists both before and after I perceive it. There are no befores and afters in Time. Time simply is. Any linearity is simply a construct.

For example:

Two of my children are home today. I haven’t seen them for most of the morning, but my living room is so messy that they may be within the reach of my arms and I would not know it. Anyone could be here right now – small animals, extra children, exiled world leaders. This is how we build kingdoms of limitless space: we allow the debris from the excesses of the world to spill around us, to loop around our feet again and again. We allow the universe to dimple and gather and fold. My messy house is not a result of my laziness: I am expanding space.

Yesterday, on my run, I slipped on a patch of ice, and flew. Time, of course is relative. Under the tyranny of a stopwatch, the time from step to wobble to launch to landing was, doubtless, less than a second. But really – really – it was longer than that. Time bent, looped and lengthened. Time ceased. There was only the sky. There was only the air. There was only a woman in flight.

My dog is alive, though part of her is dead. She has a benign tumor above her leg, the size of a large orange. It doesn’t hurt her, doesn’t slow her down, but it is dead at the center. It is a zombie tumor. The vet says, at her age, surgery would open up more problems than it will cause. The dead tissue has been, we believe, walled off inside of the tumor, and will likely not be the cause of her expiration. Indeed, at the ripe old age of almost-seventeen, she could be killed by any number of things. And so, she carries on her body, a talisman of death. It wobbles and quivers with each step. It draws the eye. It grins through her fur. “I am coming,” Death says. “I am coming. Indeed, I am already here.”

Yesterday, for my birthday, we put up the tree. My house smells of sap and snow and wood. We pressed the lights deep into the branches and they shine like stars. My daughter made an angel for the top. She curled a brightly printed paper into a cone for the dress, and carefully attached a serene, hand-drawn face with yellow braids.

“That angel looks like you,” I said.

“Of course it does,” she said.

“But she has no wings,” I said.

“Her wings are invisible,” she said. “Everyone’s wings are invisible. They are secret and no one knows they have them. Everyone is sad because they don’t know how to use their wings.”

“Do I have wings?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said. “But you use yours all the time.”

“What are they made of?” I asked. “Skin? Hair? Feathers?”

“No,” she said. “You’d be able to see them if they were. Your wings are made of sky. Everyone’s wings are made of sky.” She looked at me as if I was the silliest person she’d ever met. “It’s obvious, really.”

Today’s Poem: “Evening, By The Lake”

Evening, By The Lake

The sky poured down
onto the water,
colors spilling
from shore to shore –
midnight blue
the glinting of stars
the drape of clouds –
rippled by waves
and the night-cooled wind.

A thousand birds
floated on the sky
wings tucked tight
heads nestled
in feathery pockets
dreaming dreams of migration
and summer
of a world made of water
and cloud
and glinting star
and endless sky.

My kid is made of rubber. Or titanium. Or self-healing plastics.

Tonight, as the sun set and the light waned and the sky leaked orange and gold all over the lake and the whole world shone, Leo and I walked back from his Tae Kwan Do class. Or I walked. Leo rode his scooter. It was a beautiful evening – warm and breezy and lousy with birds. Dry leave skittered across the park as the shadows deepened and darkness spread around us. Leo zoomed ahead, a brilliant flash of white in his uniform, his brand-new orange belt (and oh! he is so proud!) glowing in the growing dim.

“Be careful,” I called.

“I’m always careful,” he called back through the swirl of leaves.

That was a lie, of course.

And we talked about the gathering birds, and their plans for migration and southern skies. And we talked about other animals that migrate – whales specifically.

“I would like my best friend to be a whale,” Leo said.

I told him that sounded like a fine idea.

“I would like my best friend to be a whale AND I would like to be able to speak Whale.”

I told him that it probably wouldn’t be too hard to learn how to speak Whale, provided he studied very hard and practiced every day.

“I would like my best friend to be a whale AND I would like to be able to speak Whale AND I would like my whale best friend to be able to fly.”

“A flying whale?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “A flying whale IN SPACE.”

“A flying whale in space?”

“Yes. That I can talk to.”

“That’s a tall order,” I said.

He shrugged. “When things are hard, you just have to work harder,” he said. Then he whizzed away, his uniform glowing in the dark.

And I thought about this. There is a purity – a marvelous purity -in the association of action and consequence that little kids possess. For them, cause and effect are simple, straightforward and unambiguous. I do a thing, and it bears a result; end of story. When I do a good thing, the result is good. When I do a bad thing the result is bad. When I work very hard at something, the result is something very cool that not many people achieve.

Like a flying whale best friend in space, for example.

And I’d like to tell him the world works that way. I wanted him to live in that kind of a world. Hell, I wanted to live in that kind of a world. I wanted to tell him that if he worked very hard he really will have a flying whale best friend in space. I WANT that to be true.

“Be careful,” I called as he hit the turn and flew down the hill, the autumn-bright trees crowding their limbs together, making it hard to see. “Be careful, honey!”

Because he thinks that careful people can’t get hurt. Because he believes in the power of his own body.

And I didn’t see him fall right away. It happened fast, and it was dark. I called out. I reminded him that there are bumps and ridges in the path. I told him that the world was dark and the road was dark and that things will trip us up that we will never see and that even careful people get hurt sometimes.

He didn’t listen.

And he fell.

A flash of white against the dark torsos of the slim trees.

A glowing riot of arms and legs, pinwheeling against the sky.

And the boy flew, feet over kettle, over his scooter and onto the ground.

And oh! My baby!

And oh! Your arms!

And oh! Your legs!

And oh! Your neck!

And oh! my baby, my baby, my baby!

He made no sound.

“LEO!” I shouted. And ran over the dry, dry leaves.

Leo leaped to his feet. He looked at me. His crooked teeth flashed in the dark – a disembodied grin.

“That….was…..SO AWESOME!”

He picked up his scooter and ran back up the hill. “I’m TOTALLY doing that again!”

Today’s Poem: Wind


Open the doors
throw wide the windows
and let in the wind.

Goodbye dust
goodbye toys
goodbye mail
goodbye rugs
goodbye stairs
goodbye tables and chairs
goodbye paintings and dishes and walls and shelves
goodbye books abandoned and books twice read
and books scrawled in the margins
goodbye tablecloths and curtains
and closets and coats
goodbye cupboards and pantries and floorboards
and plumbing and plaster and beams.

A house made of wind
a roof made of sky
a mind clean as paper.

Today’s Poem: “Farewell Goose”

Farewell Goose

Thirteen geese fly in formation –

sharp, black curves

against a skim milk sky –

over the head of a boy on the ground.

The boy is denim blue against a fading green,

hair so yellow it gleams.

He raises his hands, waves,

calls out to the birds overhead.

But all I hear is the call of geese,

their voices cold, cold, cold,

and flying away.


Today’s Poem – “The Fox”

The fox behind my house
settles deep in the grass
his long tail draped cunningly to one side.
Red, green, red, green, whispers my heart.
My fingers freeze above the keyboard on my lap

No. They are frozen. They are crumbling to bits.

The fox winks its black eye.
“If you were as beautiful as me,” he says,
his white teeth flashing like pearls,
“your stories would never falter.
They would move mountains,
crumble stones.
They would be as implacable as gods.”

“I do not doubt it,” I say through my shortage of verbs,
through my paralysis of action.
The screen flickers, and dies.
The fox rests its face upon its small feet,
its face tipped upwards. It grins its foxy grin.

“Close your eyes,” it says.
And I do.
“Arch your shoulders.”
“Sway your back.”
“Dig your paws into the ground.”

And in my mind, I move as a fox moves
and breath as a fox breathes
and leap as a fox leaps.

“You understand now, don’t you?” it says.
“I do,” I say. And the story begins itself-
and it is wild, wily; a thing alive.

Once A Poet

I’m stunned.

After a – hell, I don’t know-  like a ten-year hiatus from writing poems, I actually wrote poetry today. It felt awkward at first, and insubstantial – like flexing the phantom tendons and imaginary bones of a hand that had long since been amputated. They were ghost poems.

Do they actually exist?

Here’s one (unedited, I might add. And not particularly good.)

The last remnants of stubbled skin
cling brutally to the side.
Grey torso –
grey flesh –
In the glare of the sun,
the memory of shade.

As I said, not particularly good, but it felt good. To write it I mean. And I didn’t start today with the intention of writing poetry. I wrote poetry because I was at a meeting.

A business meeting.

For work.

One of the best perks of working for an arts organization is that, every once in a while, you get to hang out with a bunch of artists. As many of you know, I work for an organization called Compas, which, among other things, schedules artist residencies and intensives in schools around the state of Minnesota. My colleagues are storytellers, poets, potters, accordion players, puppeteers, rappers, drummers, dancers, painters, actors, singers, spoken-word artists, and every other kind of art practitioner that I can’t even think of.

And they are wicked cool.

Anyway, we don’t get to see one another all that often, so I really look forward to our yearly business meeting as my one chance to say hi, drink coffee, gossip, swap stories and revel in the fact that I get to be associated with these folks.

We met out at Dodge Nature Center on an astonishingly beautiful morning. I parked far away on purpose just to give myself the opportunity to walk the trails and experience a moment of thick green and birdsong and bugsong and still ponds and damp, quiet breathing. We met in the education building, right next to the barns.

And after sitting in a meeting listening to the abysmal state of arts education in our state-

(did you know, for example, that there are districts that have removed all music instruction, from elementary to high school?)

(did you know that there are districts whose ENTIRE ARTISTIC CURRICULUM centers on a couple artist residencies?)

(did you know that there are districts who do not integrate the arts into their curriculum, despite the fact that the business world is desperate to find creative people who can think spatially and in interdisciplinary modes?)

But that was neither here nor there. In any case, when it was time for the break-out sessions, I was so filled with rage over the short-sightedness and mean-spiritedness when it comes to the arts, that I just couldn’t go to the grant writing workshop.

Instead I went to the nature poetry workshop. With Diego Vasquez – a terrific poet, a great teacher and a hell of a nice guy. He took us outside and charged us with writing poems. Short poems. About the things that surrounded us – dead things, living things. Things that move. Things that do not move. So, on this absolutely beautiful day, I wandered around and wrote short poems. And it felt REALLY good.

Like I-need-to-keep-doing-this-or-I-might-die good.

Here are some of my efforts, along with pictures of the things that inspired them. And I’m thinking that I shall have to continue writing poetry with my amputated poet muscles. I think I shall continue to write my phantoms – my inklings of the writer that I used to be. Because I kinda need to.

And perhaps I’ll post them on this blog.

Here are the poems:

Two seats
one horse.
Am I a tool
or a metaphor?
Whitewashed slats let in the breeze.
A hail-knocked tin roof. 
A dark, windy, hiding-place.

All my life, I 
it said,
tilting towards the ground.
I once had a dream that I drowned
under a crush of ripe grain.
The silo’s roof is a geometric bite 
on a pale blue sky.
I hold my breath and shiver.

(for Leo)
My mossy shell.
My bright eye.
My spiked tail.
My waiting mouth.
I’m in the mood for a snack.
And fingers are delicious.