Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep…

now I lay me down to sleep...Looking off she quietly said,

“I’ve been practicing death since

I was born… closing my eyes every night,

happy enough to dream I’d awake another day…

it’s like we were born for this – trusting rest, but it

takes a lifetime to learn to be ready for it.

And I’m ready.”

In the Hills – Excerpt 2

I was first, then Cathleen and then baby Johnny. It only took a few years to have the three of us, but it changed life in ways mom and dad couldn’t really explain to us, although they tried. That change, or rather changes, that came into their world when we the world. The way they tell it they were very poor and very happy before I was born – romantically living paycheck to paycheck, eating canned peaches and stale bread and peanut butter and saltine crackers the couple of days leading up to the next payday and then after cashing that check they’d buy more of the same anticipating poverty again the next week. They were never ashamed or embarrassed to inform me and then Cathleen and me and then Johnny, Cathleen and me that their happiest days were before me and before us. It wasn’t me or us that made them less happy they told us. It was some unspecified, incalculable ratio of paucity and happiness; sometimes told as one-in-spite-of-the-other and at other times as a we-didn’t-know-any-better-but-that’s-still-okay-because-we-love-you-all kind of fairytale.

They also never tired of reciting the inventory of all their earthly possessions in great detail, which was easily done in light of the number of their possessions. They owned a folding table and three folding chairs that didn’t match as their kitchenette, a very, very old sofa with a back cushion missing and the folding chairs doubled as living room furniture, a double bed and a couple of crates covered with old curtain fabric as night stands for their bedroom suite. Add towels, everyday dishes, hand-me-down flatware, pots, pans and kitchen towels from my dad’s mom’s kitchen and they could cook food when they had enough money to buy food to cook. It never sounded like they bought fresh food, but I’m sure they did – like some hamburger or a can of vegetables or even a potato they shared in a romantic dinner-for-one-eaten-by-two moment they never forgot to rehearse for a table of five with more leftovers than they had for a month before me, before us, as they insisted on reminding us on many occasions.

Before mom became a Mom she was Mary and she was a typist in a secretarial pool. Three years of what we’d call high school education for a poor girl on the south side of Chicago meant typing, grammar and home economics classes. She claimed she only owned two dresses and wore one then the other and then the first one again, rotating the order the next week – that’s what she always told us but we didn’t believe it. And she met my dad while working at the law firm when he was clerking. He was in his second year, didn’t have a penny to his name, lived with his mom, and fell in love with a seventeen year old girl with a 22 inch waist accentuated (according to a photo of her) by a full skirt and tight sweater. He didn’t stand a chance. They had  cheap dates of free concerts in park, visits to museums, the zoo, parades, walks along the lake and anything else free the city of Chicago had to offer. They ate meals at the school’s cafeteria or at one of their family’s homes. “Mary, I have nothing to offer you but my love; will you marry me?” They were standing by the lake next to the Shedd Aquarium.

Like Shedd himself sort of. John Shedd started as a poor clerk in Marshall Field’s store and worked his way up to the top and became president and chairman when Field died – from poverty to riches and a story told through hard work for forty years. Shedd bought into Daniel Burnham’s “make no little plans” hook-line-and-sinker. He put up millions to build his fish tank and then died before it opened but after he paid for it. His own wife – his very own Mary – stood on the lake front and cut the ribbon for him. This made it something romantic and couples just happened to favor this spot for their proposals.

The aquarium was something huge and romantic and totally unrealistic. It took a million gallons of saltwater brought by train from Key West, Florida to fill the tank in this first permanent inland saltwater aquarium. And when did all this happen? Well right at the start of the Great Depression, that’s when! When everyone was dirt poor in Chicago (except Shedd obviously) he built that one damn huge tank of water that sat right there on the edge of Lake Michigan. It was as extravagant as it was ironic. And to top it off, literally, was its Beaux Arts design. That was a style used for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and everyone was so impressed by the Greek and Roman synthesis became a way of making Chicago “the Paris of the Prairie.” That’s why young couples went there to do romantic things, including propose marriage like dad did. They’d stand right there where John’s widow Mary cut the ribbon and promise to tie the knot.

It was a cool spring evening – a Friday they said – in May of 1951 when dad proposed. (Make no little plans.) He didn’t even have a ring to offer her, just a promise that he would always love her no matter what. He said he wanted them to spend the rest of their lives together, to have a family and it didn’t matter that they were poor. Mom told us all this more than once and it was the best story she told. She said “Yes” and now she was 44 weeks pregnant sweating through eighteen hours of labor and dad was pacing in the waiting room wondering how he was going to pay for me.

 

Famous Last Words

What if the last thing you ever said
to your father was “I hate you”? Not
‘Good night Dad’ or even ‘I love you’
or the in-between child- and adulthood
‘Thank you’ which shows the first signs
of understanding how much he doesn’t
do that he wants and instead how
many times he did everything for you,
and how much he gave up so
you could have what you thought
was so little and you said those other
three little words, “I hate you,” the
night before he died and that was
more than forty years ago now; what if
that was what you had to live with?
I wish this could be some moralizing
poem by Edgar Guest, or a saying
from some wise Chinaman, but I didn’t
have the luxury of learning secondhand
what mistakes I’d already made like
saying “I hate you” to my Dad one
afternoon and refusing to speak to him
ever again in an eleven-year-old tantrum
because he wouldn’t give me an
advance on my allowance so I could buy
a model car at the toy store that day.
He would take me there after going to
the hardware store on Saturday mornings
where I’d play with the screws and bolts
while he talked to the guys wearing blue
or red vests about hinges or tools and
I’d fidget until he was done and I got
what I wanted and looked at every
model car, plane and ship available.
He was teaching me the value of a
dollar and the meaning of credit and
debt and I was learning he could buy
anything he wanted but he didn’t want
what I wanted and so I taught him
how hateful an eleven-year-old could
be, and I meant it, I really did. Until
I woke up the next morning, that June
Morning, with guests crowding my home
and my Mom sat me down and told
me that Daddy had died and I cried,
mostly because that was what everyone
else was doing and ever since that day
because I couldn’t take back the very
last words I ever wanted to speak to him,
and I’ve been sorry for a long time now,
Dad; really sorry.

Lost manuscript…

manuscript

This started as the tale of a lost manuscript,

an idea that became a story that might have

become an enjoyable book but never will be

as it took a turn while contemplating what was

sacrificed to produce something that’s now gone,

consuming more time than good should

these years of distraction when everything pleasing

around me twisted, lovingly straining to keep

me in the middle as each new wheel began to spin

its own rings, feeding off the others,

once so close their energy sparked blindingly,

now bouncing in their own orbits here, there,

it all happened so slowly, so perfectly, and I

now know I missed too much that I hope they

each captured while I pounded out words

of a fictional life no one could possibly lead

as my own unbelievably wonderful one spun

in and out of days and seasons and states

that are now the lost manuscript of my life.

In the Hills – Excerpt 1

1958Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?

Like you I had the privilege of being present for my own birth. I was right there with my mother but my dad was relegated to pacing in the waiting room. Relegated to the role that no Dad has been trained for and no Dad worth the name accepts easily. He got to pace, back and forth, back and forth and wait; left to worry about paying the bills, wondering what he’d done, how mom was doing and how long he was going to wait – pacing, pacing, pacing. Mom and dad had already waited almost four more weeks than they should have since I was officially 27 days late. Doctors just let you go until you popped-out back in 1956 – no pitocin drip to stimulate contractions, not even old wives tales about drinking castor oil (which only gave you a bowel purging anyway) or having sex to induce labor (which was a little of the hair of the dog that bit you so to speak). Instead they just waited.

Mom just waited in her gravid state for forty weeks plus four. She never let me forget that especially when exasperated with me, ‘I carried you for 44 weeks to have you act like this?! Oh, no, I don’t think so…’. Sitting around the dinner table with all of us waited-for children years later she told us how she was in labor for 26 hours with my younger sister Cathleen and just 9 hours with baby Johnny (and with my 18 hours that equaled 53 hours of contractions – 2 days and 5 hours of labor, of pain, of unexplainable and excruciating discomfort). The math got us started. ‘Okay, okay, so how long were you pregnant with me?’ Cathleen asked. ‘Well just about 40 weeks, not like the 44 weeks with Danny, but Johnny was only 38 weeks.’ ‘That means you were pregnant for…, for…, well…, let’s see….’ I tried to calculate these overwhelming numbers in my head when Cathleen quickly answered, correctly, ‘That means you were pregnant for 122 weeks mom.’ That’s more than 28 months, two and a third years, and that’s 845 days, to be exact. After hearing the math mom never forgot it and never let us forget especially when we were annoying her. But I always thought I was worth it. At least that’s what I imagine.

I’m also pretty sure I was a normal and attractive baby – clean and without blemishes. In labor I may have mildly discomforted my saintly mother who perspired mildly but was a-glow with a hint of make-up and hair quaffed appropriately, covered modestly in a fresh gown and centered in a homey but antiseptic room softly lit with ambience and even pleasantly fragrant. Dozens of medical professionals buzzed about excitedly anticipating my birth. Nurses who were plainly attractive but not one as pretty as my mother were helpfully attending at her head and side, dabbing mom’s brow with a cool cloth and whispering maternal encouragements – secrets shared and understandable only to the uterine gender. The doctor – the only male in the room, before me that is – smiling, directing attention to my imminent appearance but averting his eyes from the vaginal portal whence I emerged lubricated through elastic drapes of privilege allowing only a glimpse of the reproductive secrecy of the origins of my life.

I’ll admit dad was a vague participant in my origins, but only in the masculinity of his grip and biceps and that strength he explained as ‘elbow grease’ and I took to be the determination and commitment and supervision he exerted in our world which was for most of my young life also just the world. Dad was paternal and masculine and sturdy and stalwart. He needed no time to collect his emotions in a time of crisis. He acted sacrificially and bravely without a moment’s notice. He was reliable and a provider of food, shelter, comfort and treats like ice cream on Sunday afternoons and a sip of his beer after a summer Saturday’s gardening. His odor communicated faithfulness – a sameness in his aftershave mixed with the sweat of toil and exertion. And besides the times he was pacing in a waiting room for his children to come into the world I didn’t imagine him waiting for anything.

When will we…

whenWhen will we learn, when
will we realize,
the race isn’t run all at once
or at all some days;
business distracts from the
industry of being,
just being and breathing and
occupying space;
it isn’t in being connected
but knowing,
and happy not knowing all
there is to;
shrewd enough to sleep
at night without
fear of time slipping past us
while slumbering;
when will we learn, when
will we love
enough to believe it all
matters enough;
when will we learn, when
will we…

In a Good Story…

In every good story someone dies
(sometimes, but more frequently,
in bad ones as well); not always
tragically or poignantly, not always
sadly or in a timely fashion, usually
importantly a death is required.

It may be that it’s a way to make
tales more authentic, but it ironically
renders death’s severity a mere ploy
in the hands of desperate dramatists
longing for gravitas yet in failure;
simply turn dust back to dust.

Occasionally it’s accidently but
unexpectedly; and if the desire is
manipulative – the death of a child,
boy or girl, either will do – to tweak
the emotions of even the hardened
with an appeal to the weak.

Now multiple deaths are a waste
to an author and thus school bus
fatalities (a kindergarten field trip
tragedy) are typically avoided
and mass murders’ victims aren’t
the story in the first place.

Too many tales are funereal,
too many yarns come undone
and too many wakes begin stories
of too many things gone wrong;
dramas of dads and mamas
until death do everyone part.

Narrators, of course, play God
knowing, seeing all, all at once
what’s in heads, hiding from light
but telling us only part of a story;
this or that reason for lost life,
providing knowledge we lack.

The human story’s author
has wasted over a hundred billion
anonymous deaths littering lands,
mocking prophet amidst dry bones;
the deity’s wonderful plan for life
trumps all novelist’s narratives.

Walkabout…

WalkingI went for a walk
in the midday clear
without a care
I started here
first I stepped
down the way
looking to turn
and go astray
few set out such
finding one lost
choosing to remain
found at all cost
views first cleared
then went belief
next conviction
this path a thief
I trust no thought
that comes at rest
and make no vow
without a test
no crumbs to trace
no map to cheat
this losing way
made by my feet
I recall that once
it was très fictional
to banter such
so equivocal
for keeping all
enslaved in race
made wars of life
with power in place
until such time
as walks unrare
became a fashion
and tactless aware
question a question
doubt a doubt
avoiding tenure
enjoying the route
power is race,
race is war,
art is tactic
and strategy ignore
limping along
there are ways
for undoing control
and refusing praise
ignoring so much
of important voice
searching out stories
learning to rejoice
enjoying the noise
and lacking cares
following slaves
attending affairs
there is no way
no map to home
no loss of joy
and so I roam.