Wonders Small and Large

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Today is a day you send back in time. Your younger self needs a hint, however fleeting, that this day waits for her. She won’t know you’ve hand a hand in whatever traces across her skin. She won’t even know you’re here watching over. Even so, today and the other days like it twine their slender threads around her. Lift her gently from the vortex of whatever drain she’s circling. Help her break the surface.

When she’s found her breath and feet again, she’ll call it luck. Or coincidence. She’ll credit a friend’s arrival, a passage on a new page, lyrics she’s never heard just so. The meds. Her own grit. She won’t know you’ve transported the snapshot complete with its texture, its scent and fizz, to shiver through her senses. She’ll never know, not until later. Until now.

You’re okay with her ignorance. You only need her to stay alive for a little while longer. To reach you. Continue reading “Wonders Small and Large”

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Action as Antitdote

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Buried in the back of the Sunday Post behind Sudanese child soldiers and Syrian refugees is this story. In a part of Detroit well on its way to eroding into yet another ghost suburb in the strange narrative of post-industrial suburban decay, residents are re-claiming the place as their own.

They say that action is the antidote to despair.

The problems seem far too big. Arson, illegal dumping, sex work, drugs. Houses are gutted and razed, whole blocks turned into weed-choked lots. How could anything resembling vitality ever return to this place? Maybe the natural laws of decomposition and succession could redeem the story, but only after the place has lain fallow for a few generations. It’s a distant and sorrowful kind of hope, but it’s the best we can do.

Except that a few neighbors, apparently, are doing far better.

This neighborhood is too broken to re-animate in the here-and-now. The notion is folly. Absurd, really. Because when you sweep your gaze across the whole panorama — absence of stores and services, distance from economic opportunity, prevalence of crime, abandonment by residents — you throw up your hands and say, “I wouldn’t even know where to begin!”

Except that a few neighbors, apparently, just begin.

They begin with confronting one truck dumping one load of building debris. Or they begin with one piece of plywood over one burnt-out window. Or with one garden bed on one abandoned lot.

The tenacity of these neighbors is gritty inspiration. They remind us that “getting” what we want in our lives and communities really means making it from scratch. Steady, courageous, intentional effort and unwavering focus are required. So is using every spare moment — even those that have to be stolen from elsewhere — and every tool at hand to hack through the brambles and lay the groundwork.

Intensity of focus, however, is just one critical element, and insufficient at that.

These neighbors show us that we need each other.

Even though many of the Brightmoor pioneers have all the demands pulling at them the rest of us do — jobs, kids, aging parents, school, commitments pressing against the clock — they find each other. They cultivate the kind of we’re-in-this-together relationships necessary for building the future they want to inhabit.

They are hope in action.

They somehow got over the myth that first beguiles and then cripples so many of us in this increasingly commodified and solipsistic nation: that the neighborhoods, schools, and relationships we want might be out there somewhere. If only we could find them, if only we could crack the code! The folks of Brightmoor recognize that a dream is something you have to cobble together. . . together.

Their future is an uncertain and often unwieldy work in progress. These neighbors have to improvise. They have to trust in the messy process of winding up half-formed notions and setting them loose on rough, living ground.

With this courageous, dedicated, and wholly foolish commitment, they come a little closer to getting what they want for themselves and their children. Closer, perhaps, than most of us ever will.

They also heal one small corner of the world.

It’s more than a pipe dream. It’s happening right now, right up the road, at the hands of people just like you and me.

Photo credit: Digging Detroit

 

 

Sugar Spun

Chef and Chicken

When you peel a peach, there’s a color right beneath the peach skin that’s hidden except for that very moment. It’s like there are all these little secrets moments in kitchen, and if you don’t pay attention to that, you’re missing so much in life.

“In the Kitchen with Ruth Reichl,” New York Times, September 15, 2015

Safeway, as it happens, stocks every color of Jello except blue. The big package I bought earlier at Target should have been enough but half of it ended up on the wrong side of the saran wrap and the rest of it on the floor. The last thing I want to do is visit yet another store. As I stand here in the baking aisle, the kitchen’s engine idles. I can feel its thrum as it waits for my return.

I toss the unflavored Knox into my basket and hold out hope that I can find my stash of food coloring from last year.

Unpacking my groceries at home, I root around in the back of the cabinet and unearth the stained box. I’m relieved to discover the blue tube has a few drops left in it. This leaves me now with the small issue of taste — something I had rather avoided dealing with at the store.

“Picky” and “discerning” may be synonyms, but the palate of your average 3rd grader leans toward the former. These are children who will devour an entire box of stale Chips Ahoy cookies but recoil at the sight of a cranberry scone. A concoction of unflavored gelatin and dye, even infused with a drop of syrup or lemon essence, is unlikely to win me any friends.

I rummage through the cabinets. Seltzer water? Too bland. Kool aid? Too red. I try the freezer.

Apple juice?

Just right.

I bring the concentrate to a boil while letting powdered gelatin dissolve in cold water. On another burner, marshmallows melt into a buttery soup. The steam filling the kitchen is fruit and cream with a hint of vanilla. I fill my throat with it, open my lungs, let the sweet warmth flood the deepest parts and oxygenate my hungry blood.

A wooden spoon in each hand, I stir melting goop and bubbling amber. The dog tip-taps in, stretches her neck and lifts her nose towards the countertop before dropping her attention to the more promising territory at my feet. I pour hot juice into the bowl and froth it up with a broken whisk. Clumps of powder morph into their quasi-liquid state, and I plop in four drops of food coloring. They spin and bend like batik, strands of pectin and heat, gelatin and color all bleeding into one another. When the solution settles on its constant, the shade is more antifreeze than Caribbean sea. It will have to suffice.

Because “edible birthday structure” is a bit of a mouthful, we’ll call this a cake. Once a year, as much by compulsion as choice, I fall through the mirror into the culinary Flip Side. I come to in a tripped-out, toucan-bright world of floating cities and dragon’s gold. Whatever big plans I had for duty and sense are abandoned back in grownup-land. My boy is having a birthday, so here we arrive, me and Kidd Video. Ay yi yi, we look like. . . cartoons!

Within moments of landing, I’m up to my elbows in frosting and fondant. My efforts invariably yield C-grade work, but boy it’s a blast! We’ve been through princesses, pirates, Legos, spy kids, and Pokemon.

For his 9th birthday, it’s Minecraft.

Which means engineering something palatable from blocks of stone, sand, water, and dirt.

My pastry ineptitude is almost as boundless as my hubris. Almost. Luckily (or perhaps unluckily) for my son and his friends, hubris wins every time.

Milk in the batter milk in the batter

Perfectionism can kiss my floured derriere.

That’s the way it is in the FlipSide.

During our walk this afternoon, my girlfriend and I stopped at Michael’s so I could buy a little gadget called a “grass tip.” Somehow — it’s anyone’s guess how I’ll manage this — I am supposed to glom eight ounces of cream cheese and about a half metric ton of powdered sugar through holes the diameter of dental floss. Meanwhile, the rice krispie treats are cooling on their tray. The double-batch durable cake is trimmed down to an even rectangle and wrapped in the freezer. I have the ruler ready for a scrub and the big knife honed for stonecutting. In the refrigerator, a loaf pan of Atlantic seawater cools into an edible lagoon.

And because things can get a little crazy on the Flip Side, the cabinet next to the fridge is my portal back. Inside, one boring but reliable box of cake mix stands at the ready.

My cartoon hands are, after all, attached to this mom’s sturdy bones.

Before I return, though, I’ll stash caramel sugar into the dark channels that cradle my veins. I’ll sneak in through the window, hide candy jewels in the corners, insulate the walls with gingerbread.

At night, just before sleep and all her monsters come thundering through the gates, I’ll nibble my way through. I’ll even take Bug. Sugarplum visions. Rock candy mountains. We’ll slip down, splashing into those dreams. We’ll follow our noses, swimming in the milk that swims in us, and we’ll drift like lost boys in the light of the night kitchen.

Green Atlantic

82. Things I Can Watch: Dream Reels from the Projection Booth

Sleep. . . knits up the raveled sleave of care.
 
From Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 2

I follow him along the circumference of the earth. The globe bends under us. A rusted iron chain strewn out loose on the ground guides our hands, our feet. We walk near the shore then into the surf which licks our ankles as it rises. Soon it sweeps us up, the surge, and I clutch at my father’s back while he swims hard for a distant city on stilts. It is all that is left of our land.

Dazed and shivering, we climb to the rickety boards and look for a place to rest. A man squats against a corner of railing and hisses out the rates. Six to a room, he tells us. Fifty cents extra to use the loo.

All night and into morning, the brine clings and the heat swells. My father gives way to the other one, the who knows me as equal no matter much I long to be less. We have to find a place for our children on the sick earth. We have to fashion them a refuge, even if we are its only walls.

These choking and sumptuous images careen across the terrain of my imagination. I have seen such places only in glimpses, only when far from home. Kissed by spray from the Zambezi, I leaned over the precipice of Victoria Falls. Two decades have failed to dull the breeze lifting my pink skirt, to damper the white roar slamming geysers upon arrival.

I made a vow then: If I ever choose to die, it will be here. I will soar from this arcing explosion.

I have kept few promises in my life. This one holds, at least so far: I am allowed an escape hatch only of extraordinary proportions. I know that the effort involved and the miles covered will force me into new life.

Now, the stone edge of that Zimbabwean river is etched into a vein of recollection where the cliffs of Cape Breton gather around the New Forest’s scraggy tangle. The faraway place is memory, which means now I travel in dreams.

Sleep is a ticket to a steady body and a capable mind, but it is also a free ride to the outer limits. Just four bouts of it now — four dead zone nights following four decaffeinated days — have spun me along gilt-edged galleries and coursed me through sea caves, then pulsed me back out into the clutches of grinning dystopian warlords.

Through glass walls of a time-warping rocket, wrapped safe in a cloak of gravity and linen, I see worlds that maybe were and those that maybe will be. My soft spine arches as I clear the next mountain rising between the two. From both above and below, I watch as the laws of physics clash and spring against spasms of turbulent time.

 

61. Things I Can Add: Music Room

piano keys

The piano may join us
in this corner we call the dining nook
where our family that is two
keeps a bucket
filled with markers and pens
next to the salt
shaker. When we move again
the table and sofa
remaking our one room
into the many we covet
this becomes the sitting
place and the piano
will be doing that already.
It can stay. A song now
glitches on a hand-me-down
laptop. These machines age
in dog years. The choice
is between upgrading or losing
one lyric after another
to the exponential rise
of force X point O.

Option C is none here,
the above too poor an excuse
for music. It is hardly a maker, 1s and Os
whipping in packs along circuitry
delivering a canned calliope, midway
carousel operating
by remote.

I also want to be new
as if mounting the horse with fresh
paint might offer a ride somewhere
other than where I started
as if I am the lucky one. You are young
enough to believe capacitive touch
means building with light. Still at the table,
you are angry that screens are not invited here
and I lift my wrists in an extended rest, too few
fingers for the chord
my angers weave.

The piano may make us
play the old music
as if for the first time. One note
yours. One note, mine.

All together now.

Soon we will trade these keys for those,
string the hammered
steel tight across wooden belly and let heavy
dampered echoes reach
between us, press down,
tumbling our separate weights
into a sound only four hands
can make. Like us, the instrument
will have to share
this room of a dozen uses. It will join us
at our sharp corners.

You empty your glass. The wall here
is the color of leaves, or maybe one leaf
of blank sheet music. We each draw
a marker from the bucket. The first lines
decide everything.

 

Jamming the Signals

He won’t stop talking about them. “In Animal Jam, my daddy plays on his laptop too and I made another pet who is just like the fox, and there were these phantoms I put in a crate, and. . .” The mere possibility of more screen time before bed reveals this unrecognizable boy who:

  • plays 45 minutes of basketball at the park and even shares his ball with a neighbor
  • finishes his spelling words (15 right, no mistakes!)
  • reads two chapters of his Bunny Private Eye book out loud
  • finishes dinner too fast, including all the broccoli
  • lets mama clip his scraggly fingernails
  • brushes teeth
  • changes clothes
  • does it all without a moment’s hesitation by 7:40 p.m.

“Yes!” he shouts as he jets across the living room. “Twenty minutes!” He plops himself down before the the growling, pinging machine and goes from dervish to droid in half a blink.
 
Seven years, and I finally gave in. Video games now live on the computer and my boy has a hand-held tablet at his disposal. It was only supposed to be weekends. Or maybe it was only supposed to be in exchange for reading. Or maybe on a timer-measured budget. Whatever model-parent solution I meant to try, we ended up here. The boy deliberates vocally about his moves while we’re dressing. Plans strategies in the car. Describes in excrutiating detail what he likes about the characters as we eat waffles. Lists the games he wants next and outlines their endless benefits as I brush his hair.
 
He talks. And talks. And TALKS about video games.
 
We keep the gaming down to little pit stops along the winding adventure of our days. We go ponk a tennis ball around a court or ice skate or visit friends. We slop around a trail or bake cakes or scoot around the block. We blare music and read joke books and draw. Then and only then does is Bug free to travel to pixel world. I hate seeing his turbo-charged engine idling to a stall as he hunches over his latest visual fixation. This kind of play may require cognitive engagement and it sure beats TV and cheetos, but here is what gaming isn’t:
 
Motion. Friends. Planting. Body. Magic.
 
Pulse.
 
Seeking.
 
Song.
 
Yet for all it is not, Bug’s new diversions prey on his attention even in their absence. Especially in their absence. Their sirens call. He talks and talks more until I finally bark,
 
Enough. For every minute you talk about video games, you lose one minute of playing them.”
 
Which is unfair and childish, but oh, how badly I wanted a home free of that electronic static. I wanted no static. All dynamic. All flesh and soil and story. But this is not my home. It is our home, Bug’s and mine. My son will have his loves. Some will baffle me. Others will make my skin itch. In any event, this kid should be free to feel his way and free to talk about the shape his desires take.
 
Still. I don’t take back the threat. Not yet.
 
In bed, we have finished books (one about Hieronymous Bosch, for god’s sake) when Bug turns and says, “One day, I’ll have a house with nothing but video games. Computers and ipads and video games.”
 
“Yeah?” I look at him. “One day, I’m going to have a house with 37-foot ceilings and a giant swing hanging right in the middle. And a three-story treehouse bed you have to climb a winding ladder to get into. Do you know what will be at the end of the bed?”
 
“What?”
 
“Big jars full of paint. So you can paint right on the ceiling above the bed what you want to see when you are dreaming. And my house will have an ice cream factory right inside with all the stuff for any flavor anyone wants to make. And a trampoline floor. And above the trampoline, a trapeze.”
 
“A bunch of trapezes,” he says. “So you can go down, and bounce up again, and swing.” He is arcing his stuffed polar bear through the air. “And go down and up and down and up and. . .”
 
“And a basketball court. And I’ll be able to make it really cold and turn it into a ice rink with flashing lights.”
 
“And 38 dogs,” he adds.
 
“Right. And a pool with a glass bottom so you can go under and see all the people swimming with all the dogs, and it’ll be just like the water-bowl-cam on Puppy Bowl.”
 
“And we’ll have the kitty halftime show.”
 
“And a whole room full of musical instruments. Anything you want to play, anywhere.”
 
“Except when you’re pooping,” he says.
 
“Are you kidding? Especially then. We’ll have a violin right there next to the toilet.”
 
“Not when you’re playing basketball.”
 
“Why not? I’ll put bells on everyone’s ankles so when they’re playing it’ll be like ching-ching-da-ding SWOOSH!”
 
“Is that someone making a basket?” He asks.
 
“Yep, and all the other players will be all jumping and jingling when you score the 3-pointer, it’ll be all jing-ding-a-ding-jing, like jazz.”
 
“What’s jazz?” Bug asks.
 
I explain that jazz is an American musical form rooted in the. . .
 
“No, how does it go?”
 
I attempt to bop-hmm through the opening bars of Charles Mingus’ Prayer for Passive Resistance. “Sorta like that.”
 
From who-knows-where, he asks, “What’s the blues?”
 
I turn and face him.
 
Well I woke up this morning. I reached across the bed. I went to hug my baby but I hugged a cold teddy bear instead.
 
I give his bear a limp squeeze. Bug is looking a little sideways at me. I kick it up.
 
Oh, I got so hungry for a sweet pickle but there’s none left in the jar, my baby got up in the night, ate the last pickle and drove off in my car.
 
Where the hell is this coming from? I belt it out before my mind can catch it.
 
Oh, I know she done left me because I’ve been gettin’ home late, I ain’t helped with the dishes and I left old cheese stuck to my plate. O-o-oh I got the blues. I got the empty bed, no pickle, teddy bear blues.
 
Bug bounces his polar bear and grins. I tell him the blues are usually about someone leaving.
 
“Like what?”
 
“Like. . . ”
 
I woke up this morning.
 
“The blues are always starting when you wake up.”
 
Looked for my panting dog. Ain’t no fuzzy tail a-thumping and the house is cold as a fallen log. I got the blues. I got the dog-gone-to-leprechaun-heaven blues.
 
“No, she didn’t go to leprechaun heaven.” He looks at me then tucks his head and sorta-smiles. Our pooch died on St. Patrick’s day. “That’s right. I forgot. Okay. Sing more.”
 
I reached for my furry lop-eared girl but she’s not there to warm my hands. Ain’t got no one to wake me up or lick bacon grease off the pan.
 
“I could do it,” Bug volunteers.
 
Oh, we got the blues. I wrap both boy and polar bear in a squeeze. The no Fenway in the morning, fallen-log, dog-gone, teddy bear blu-u-ues.
 
“Look,” Bug says. He pulls a tangle of Fenway’s black fur from his polar bear’s coat. “She left this.” He hands it to me and I rub the little remnant of our dopey girl between my fingers. Bug turns and curls around the bear. I tuck the fluff into my back pocket and curl around him.
 
Mama’s feeling good. For the moment, her boy’s absorbed in something. It’s raw and sweet hits the blue notes. And it sure won’t fit on a screen. Not even this one.
 

Cut a Rug

The moment on the living room floor. Scratched record, skipping back again. Recollection as perseveration. The sweet cling of liquor breath. Neck. Night. The dim light, a carpet brown or beige or bare depending. Each time the thousandth time.

A cue I did not catch the first time around.

Cut.

I stand and walk from that place.

Over and over.

In lucid dreams, you cut.

Chop off the climax. Slice open an exit. Saw a hole through rooftop, treetop, pillowtop, sky. You reach up with your hands and trace the shape of yourself wherever they land. You open a manhole from the bottom up.

Out you go.

And this is where things get interesting.

Because that place where you step? Where you land up there? That has not been designed yet. The production crew hasn’t made it to the second story.

Cut.

You are writer, designer, main character, and director. You decide, crack boom, with a flick of your chin, the next act. To spin up through the rings of Saturn, to brush your belly over a tropical canopy, to alight on a garden pillar in Babylon. You can tumble-stomp your way up the marble stairs and swan-dive into a dragon’s lair. This is your place. Your riches. Your loving arms.

Your script.

One tilt of the glass. One stroke. One cut.

It took me 30 years to trip into it. Another 10 to realize I could use it for more than grasping at innocence.

You know.

The hush of the cradle before the first time your father failed to come home, your mother told you too much, your friend laughed and left you stuck in the gears of your bike, you laughed and left your friend crying for help. Before you knew how sharp the teeth of the moon. Before you knew that your name did not fill the sails or patch the leaks.

When you were held. When only falling and fire showed the dropped stitches in your untested faith.

That is the place I learned to revisit. The place before the living room floor.

Do you know this before?

When you finally find the capacity to color your own imagined set, this is what you do. You lean back. Back into a grownup simulacrum of infant security. Wealth and luxury. Feet up, rolling open, feathered cloud. Because the mind longs for rest. The body aches for comfort.

At last, to stop having to consider the threats? Someone else will assess the dangers. There are no predators. No failures. No lives at stake.

It feels like peace. The truest gift you can give yourself. Pure, full, trusting quiet. Not sleep. No. Rest. Within your skin, your here-and-now, your wakefulness. That wakefulness no longer vigilance. Whether the place is one of being embraced by complete and utter adoration, or one of total silent solitude, in any event, the desire is deep-down the same.

And maybe, like me, you stop there.

The outer limit of imagination is a few thousand iterations of rest?

Still. And always. The power courses down beneath. Untapped. Barely even poking one toe up through the soil (or down through the roof, as it happens) and roots that trail down from above may look like spiderwebs, veins, the simple ductwork of oxygen, the delineation of your quarters. Of your chosen universe. But they are only the finest tendriled extremities of something so much larger growing outside your line of sight.

This is what happens:

When you decide rest is not an objective or a measure of wealth, and you decide at last, Oh, I choreograph the dance unfolding now. I choose the color of everything around me, the everything of everything around me, then you really begin.

When you have the guts to admit that there is more than returning to before,
more than getting up again and again from the place where the world forced itself on you and broke open the egg in which you could never have stayed anyway

and with intention alone
squeeze onto the wall ceiling floor you face
the ambergris and ochre and butter and blood
then hone your blade with floss and schist
and begin to score the scene

of what is here

and how you might proceed.

Cut.