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Licking

He dips, smacks
fist against bag,
growl and clash,
Joe Strummer splits
seams, drop
ceiling shrieks
in protest against
shuddering brace and groaning
beam, crimson everlast
swinging, spine
hunched, gloves up, slits
for eyes, he spits
as bristling
lips clench
jagged like razors
ragged like teeth
wet with stink
slick heat
bell at 3
he scowls, steps
back, steeps
in his own steam, salt
licking his neck
 

Dropping Keys

The small man
Builds cages for everyone
He
Knows.
While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the
Beautiful
Rowdy
Prisoners.

from the Sufi poet Hafiz

Don’t Blink

Maybe when the moving van is idling in the driveway. Or as the plane lifts off. Maybe when the only ones left encircle the bed with whispers of permission. Or when chain link goes up around the place where lovers learned to fox trot long before they could imagine what would be lost.

It’s rarely so clear when we have our last shot.

Endings don’t come with a narrative pause.

When they do, the impulse is to fold like shutters. Pain approaches on horseback. Voiceless momentum, the vibration down low, the faint stink of iron and scorched powder. Get small and douse the lights. Better yet, dash out the side door and don’t look back.

My grandmother told me about the dust coming like night. More than a vision of it choking out the horizon, it was a growling, quickening pulse. Like the collective hackles of every living thing — mule deer, jackrabbit, gnat — bristled to action. Burrow. Batten down the hatches. Take cover.

Run.

It takes an act of will to unclench. That ending is not going to put on rouge or slow its gait. To look it right in the eye means staring down something whose ugly keeps expanding as it shambles into view. No wonder the urge is to cut it off before it can fill the frame. Call it claiming the story. Call it authorship. Call it power.

Call it for the cowardice it is.

Dare instead to turn towards that death. Creak open. Blink clear. See the arrival of the departure.

See it whole.

The architecture. The clay shards. Cracked paint, rusted locks, weathered lips. The polished steel fragment of a fallen bridge.

See the lines in its face. The leathered scar that masks its soft place.

Dare to love completely what you already mourn.

The chance won’t come again.

 

Receive the Blow

I wanted to believe in cards. Like the woven bag around my neck containing seven polished stones — one to ground each chakra — her cards might be the missing talisman. Maybe they could wash clean the deep cut of skepticism inveterate in the daughter of a biologist.

The friend I don’t remember handed me an overlarge deck and had me shuffle. We drew and placed them in the required configuration. Three down, three across, four afield. Celtic Cross. Magic needs its portal. Design is combination, a code that lets the tumblers fall.

She didn’t ask me the question I was to ask myself. A sentence of silence. Imperative. Interrogative.

Intention presses open the door.

I turned them face up.

It’s been 25 years. I recall only one card. The one in the center, the one that made the novice medium suck in her breath.

The cloaked skull, the languid bones.

From the pattern of masks and wands, my friend began to shape my story. It was a transition. An earnest wish. An unreachable other. It was the poison secret. My story was as stunning a truth as a Chinese paper fortune. As dead on as the morning’s horoscope.

When you peel back your bark and feel for gods’ whispering, when the wind breathes through your naked reed, surely you hear music.

Clairvoyance is the prerogative of the young.

Before you snap yourself clean, claim yourself free, before time’s tireless blade whittles you into fixed form, you can still be idol or masterpiece, veined with myth rather than function. You are rooted in an origin both sturdy and sweeping, that origin itself so rooted. You can still feed on light. You are held.

And so you are more free than you will ever be. More so, certainly, than later when you venture to free yourself. You are still free to choose to believe whatever you wish, even what the wise and powerful dismiss as bunk or sacrilege. You don’t have to decide wisdom. You don’t have to delineate power.

You can’t yet calculate the true cost of dissonance.

My friend came back to the bones.

In words picked from among the most tempered, she said death is not death.

Winter is the transformation that happens in stillness. She told me a version of this I can only make out through memory’s scuffed lens. I see a blanket of ice. Compulsory paralysis. Pain as insurance against motion.

She said it is necessary.

(I say, beware of the jealous wind.)

On every branch, the last leaf shivers. Clings. Each gust demands it surrender for a greater good. Death feeds the next beginning.

If you can see down, see that all you were and all you’d ever considered yourself to be blowing away, would you let go?

Or would you hold on with all your might?

You know the source needs you free. This is how cycles works. Death is not a one-way slice. The thing has to shed to live, just as you have to give over if you hope to do the same.

This is the cost of names: leaf, branch, tree, earth. We bring taxonomy. Without language and its arsenal of nets, there is only everything: Cell, thread, ember, night. Tomorrow is the light after the dark, but always yesterday exists alongside next year. Sun warms somewhere always just like sun explodes to nothing somewhere always. Hands sweep the clock face and I come to mistake the measure for the phenomenon.

I am trapped inside my name.

I resist the iced bones.

If I tip towards that death, what promise? What warmth? Only the grinding jaws of blind mealworms. Their hunger erasing history. Everything I was becomes digestion’s stink and sleep. No guarantee that mine — me, this decadent conception — will be the embryo that splits to sky come spring.

Twenty-five years in coming. The cards did not survive the passage. Neither did cookie fortunes or tiger eyes.

My hands reach for something. Anything.

I open them.

It’s the only way to fall.
 

Warming Up

She says, We have a big family. Everyone helps.

The wall of graying oak and maple bends along the dirt drive. Low barrels of fading mums press in around an unblinking blue door. The house is as buttoned up as she is, yet chimney smoke rises. The day tumbles awake. Behind the drift and frost, a pulse.

Her boots stir up leaves that have fallen since the last rain. I imagine many hands, pink fingertips, white breath. The cracking in of a wedge, the mallet’s arcing blow. Someone bends, lifts, carries.

The wall goes up.

I pluck, dismantling it here, there. The loss is barely a shave.

More trees will fall this season. They are everywhere. Obstiant grasp, inexorable reach. They anchor the rust-gold blanket that encircles the house and extends to whatever comes next.

I pull a splinter from the crease in my finger. She takes my two twenties. I put the gloves back on and muscle the last of the logs into my trunk.
 

This Silent Beat

She writes on her wrist, “WAIT.” Why Am I Talking? She considers the purpose of every word. Quiet, she weighs intention. She holds.

Under the even veneer, she churns. Silence has its risks. Being forgotten is a possible cost, as is the chance — the near certainty — that others will muddy her canvas with their careless depictions. Secretary, single mom, working class, slob. Vapid, coarse, striving, dull. The urge to speak presses against her throat. She knows the folly of words whose aim is to set the imagined record straight. There is no record — no coherent one, anyway, and none of consequence. She is as fleeting to the rest as they are to her. Attempts to manage impressions with speech have never been successful, and the question is always there: What measures success?

Which is just code for WAIT.

What is the project at hand? What hope? What promise?

Maybe, then, the urge is to chime in. It’s pure enthusiasm, yes? After all, the idea is in play. Impulse, excitement, the ping and rebound. A human labrador, she thrums for an opening, a nod.

She aches for release.

But she’s been in enough rooms with enough words from enough jumbled heads. Absent a design, all those voices clang. They cross and veer, fall short of the mark or land far afield. She’s suffered. More, she’s witnessed shared and persistent low-grade suffering. All fall victim to the aimless talking, the eggshell egos, the throbbing need. Idiocy framed as insight. Five words where one will do. Then 25 more where none belongs. Dismissive of the call for clarity of purpose, they talk on. Add just one more thing. Barrel into the action (failing to check if this is indeed a playground and if they are indeed invited). Calendars squeezed, conversation pressing out completion, day’s needs choking sleep, all excess wrung out of these things we call our lives.

Why Am I Talking?

She chooses the risks of silence over the indulgence of speech. When her voice is needed, she will use it. Not free it, no. She will consider. Qualify. Check and weigh. Why Am I? Making sense of the possible outcomes based on the options at hand, speaking only after thinking, she tries to become the introvert she is not.

Speech is tight. Trim. Like the correspondence, the public face, like every composition. She uses the fine-tipped pen. Only with the door closed, in meandering tangles secreted away in spiral notebooks or private folders, does she dare let impulse loose in words. The place she stores her naked origins needs a key and a code. But she knows, somewhere under the contained madness, that locks are not required. No one wants to know.

The rest are busy tending their own.

She wants to ask them, those clacking skulls, to WAIT. No one cares.

(About you, yes. Fellow earthling. Neighbor. Dear one. Friend. Be well, be whole.)

Also no.

No one wants to hear the thick and spilling conception tale of an embryonic insight. No one has time. When another goes on like this, on and on in the ways she has ceased to allow herself, she marvels at their unchecked ruminating (Ruminants chew their cuds, she recalls. They stand still. They graze. They are prey.) How do they come by their blind confidence, their self-assured oblivion? Why do the rest of us put up with it?

No one is nearly so interesting to us as we are to ourselves. Also its inverse: No one is as interested in us as as we are in ourselves.

Not the best friend, the spouse, the kid. Not even the parent. Not the boss, colleague, or subordinate. Especially not the subordinate, but what is she going to do about it? The conceit is required. The long journey asks for order. It’s how you stay afloat. It’s how, in fact, you stay aboard. Just don’t mistake courtesy for curiosity and respect for reverence. WAIT. Why? Until she can answer that, she’s not.

Grow up, she says without saying it. This is the best she can do.

With regard to becoming, in the absence of the where or the how — or, as it happens, the who — she’s at least got the Why of this silent beat. At least for now.

She keeps the lips sealed. Slips lead to injury or shame, contrition, disavowal. Narratives are demanded. More words, dangerous words, to further twist the lines and spin the vessel.

Better to wait. There is plenty to do in silence.

Loose and light, she leaps across a row of hay bales under a white-blue haze. Arms like wings.

The girl recedes.

She lets her. She watches from behind glass, behind the wheel on the far-off road, moving without noise. Getting to somewhere.
 

You Are What You Ask

Momentum for change in any human system requires large amounts of positive affect and social bonding – including experiences of hope, inspiration, and the sheer joy of creating with one another. . . the more positive the questions that guide an inquiry and shape a conversation, the stronger will be the relationships and the more long-lasting and effective will be the change. By inviting participants to inquire deeply into the best and most valued aspects of one another’s life and work, appreciative inquiry immediately enriches understanding, deepens respect, and establishes strong relational bonds.

From “Appreciative Inquiry: The Power of the Unconditional Positive Question” by Ludema, Cooperrider, and Barrett.
 
More at Case Western Reserve University’s Appreciative Inquiry Commons