Break the stick

The story goes like this – once a Master

said to his Student: If you tell me the stick

is real, I will beat you with it. If you tell me

there is no stick, I will beat you with it.

If you say nothing, I will beat you with it.

The Student reached out, took the stick

from the Master and broke the stick.

But you are no Student, so the stick

we are beaten with daily we do not doubt,

it is our geography, our politics, our family,

for we prefer to be beaten with a stick

to daring to break it – no matter how we

acknowledge and study sticks, deny our stick

is real, or say nothing hoping it will end

if we only hope against hope quietly, and

we mock those who dare to do what we can’t.

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Pages unturned…

This is a room in which all of life fits
soaring arches of stone unearthed and shaped,
draped in heavy, old wood, dark with age
from the Garden of Eden but untouched,
with all of everything bound and shelved,
rows and rows in some divine order
not worth arguing over, only to enjoy,
spaces for reading, seats at tables,
paper but only pencils for taking notes
shafts of light crisscross and dust dances
in the show of rhythmed, unhurried air,
in perfect quiet only small sounds heard,
a turning page with tender respect,
signs of satisfaction or stifled laughs,
but in the shadowy recess of the isle,
before a skewed chair left untidy
it an open tome, heavy and solemn,
resting readerless with tear-stained pages,
unturned.

What are those things…?

City born and bred, our first a wonder,
teaching us to be parents, she the scholar,
reading and seeing, loving and eager,
and always with a song, ever singing,
it seemed she risked everything she could see,
and we thought she saw everything,
I’d like to think that an inherited acuity,
living in the bright lights of life;
tonight wading carefully across a farmyard
in the middle of nowhere
she stopped, arms dangling, mouth open
chin up, eyes wide, looking
and asking “What are those things?”
the perfect darkness of a farm’s night
lit by countless luminaries
this daughter of Abraham
had never seen so many in our Ur,
innumerable pops dancing stilly
above our small world as her universe
expanded, again, wide and big.

Again, again, again…

lines bookThe marks have no moral,

they know no stories,

nor me or mine,

no memories surfacing

in the quiet of the day’s ebb

haunting and mocking what can’t

be changed by dreams,

they are carried along

as the wave of the page turns slowly

to the next leaving anyone

reading to wonder

who writes this way,

not how but why;

and the way the words go

becomes a prophecy

because it is a path

leading to another nowhere

ready to mean something,

to be noticed

and maybe even remembered

enough to justify

a child’s plea to read it again,

again, again, and again.

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.

 

Da Yu

Yu-the-Great_proj-copy-700x420

This is the story of Da Yu, who we saw walking along a roadside on the early evening of one Sunday – Easter Sunday of all Sundays – and a child asked “What’s that man’s story?”

So this is Da’s story.

Yu the Great was the founder of the Xia Dynasty over four thousand years ago. Yu’s father attempted to control a great flood that threatened land and life. He built dikes and damns of soil and rock to hold back and contain the waters. He failed.

The great flood continued. Yu was conscripted to do what his father could not. Instead of restraining the great flood, Yu dredged deeper channels in rivers and valleys to carry the great flood to distant rivers and distant seas.

He opened waterways, unearthed damns and removed dikes with hard labor in long days. He was covered with the same dirt and mud his father struggled to amass, but Yu was washed clean in the rushing flood he did not resist. Yu succeeded in the task his father failed, and he was given the name Yu the Great – Da Yu.

Today Da wears his suit. The blue one He has just the one and he’s only ever had just the one. So, Da wears it. As dusk begins to cover this late April afternoon, along a road he’d built, Da Yu walks in his blue suit and white shirt – his shirt as white as his full head of thick hair – he walks home, alone.

As a young man Da Yu was pushed in one direction and pulled in another – he didn’t want what his father demanded for him and yet would not refuse what he must do.

Mr. Yu – Da’s father – insisted, “You will not be like me.” The hard life of manual labor had strengthened the father’s back and his resolve as well, and he was determined that his son would not live such a hard life because he didn’t have to live like his father had to: “I work so you can learn to do better work; not so hard work, and you will be happy and not tired like me.”

On his eighteenth birthday Da received just one gift from his parents – a blue suit. It was as expensive for Mr. Yu as it was important, “You will wear a suit and not dungarees.”

But this changed the day Mr. Yu came home lame.

Mr. Yu would not cry in front of his wife and son – he would yell and stomp and curse, but Da knew his father cried when Da was forced to give up on his father’s plans and dreams. The boss of the road crew Mr. Yu worked said that Da could have the work until Mr. Yu was healthy. Mr. Yu barked “Never!” but he never was healthy again. As a man of hard labor, he withered each day he was lame, and willed from his bed – fighting back the inevitable – the victory that eluded him. Mr. Yu never worked again and Da worked every day for forty years from that day.

Not long after Da wore the suit to his father’s funeral.

He wore it when he asked a sweet girl named Sarah to marry him, and he wore it when they married in her church.

He wore it when his boy Sun was christened for Sarah’s sake, and he wore it the Sunday he went to church each year on Easter. She didn’t ask much and he knew this was to please Sarah’s family because they were concerned about Da, and that Sarah was settling for a man who lacked dreams; a man who did not fight back, a man who simply nodded. All this Da knew but it was never spoken of – there was nothing to be gained and little that would change if he protested. He would work his hard work and wear his dungaree, and save his blue suit for special days to be remembered.

In his first years, Da’s skin became tanned and leathery from summers and winters, the cold, rain and heat of long, hard days. His hair was black and thick and covered his head, and a cap only made him sweat so he avoided his. The crew chided Da that he yellowed in the sun. Sarah worried that he worked too many hours, but a was happy to work and he was healthy and would do whatever was asked and he worked hard. When asked he would simply nod; he was glad to work. He did not refuse hard work.

Da didn’t get bigger or fatter or stooped like the others with whom he worked. Younger men took their places and the next generation took up the same lament – work is hard and the best work is no work.

But Da was healthy and quiet and bosses wished they had a dozen Yu’s but hired more of the others instead. Da’s hair did turn white; not gray – white and pure.

When his child, Sun was a young boy he would asked his father what he did, why his skin was so dark and rough, and why his hair was white like snow. Da always answered that he worked in the sun and rain and snow, so his skin showed he worked hard, and his hair just showed outside what was inside. But the boy didn’t understand.

Sarah was kind to Da; gentle and affectionate – she called him Yu-Yu, lovingly, and she was understanding of his labor. What he earned he gave his family and took little for himself. She worked herself when Sun started school, and she’d ask him to take a day to rest, but he’d always refuse, “What would I do if it wasn’t working?” he’d answer.

When they had time they’d take walks together, with Sun in a stroller, then the three on foot; always just walks that took different paths, along different roads and streets and returned them to their small home. It was the home Da’s father and mother had, the home Da had grown up in, the home Sarah and Da moved into after they were married to care for his mother, and the home she died in one night and their home since the day Da wore his suit to his mother’s funeral.

Da didn’t dream dreams of a different life, and he refused the nightmares of his own son’s life. There was only discontent in such dreams, and Da’s way was a nod and not a dream. He never bought Sun a suit – he could afford to, he had the money, but the thought never occurred to him.

When Sun grew, his mother and father helped when they could with clothes and books and papers that proved their modesty, but Sun grew embarrassed. The very things that showed their love were too modest for their son. Soon Sun was off to school, but Da and Sarah didn’t visit their son until his graduation when Da wore his suit and Sarah coughed through commencement. It was a cough that came one day and stayed, keeping her away from work, in bed eventually being cared for in the evenings by Da who stopped taking the walks.

The next time Da wore his suit it was to Sarah’s funeral.

Sun moved away and stayed away, but Da kept working, now less with shovel and more with a sign that read Stop and Slow. And he again walked at the end of each day, retracing the same paths and same roads and streets he’d walked with Sarah and Sun. He lived in the same home but it became more of a house. He washed his clothes, his own dungarees, made his rice and worked only his own hours until they told him he’d worked enough and not to come back tomorrow.

And then he’d wait each day until it was time to take the walk at the day’s end, walking the same paths and same roads and same streets he’d walked with his Sarah and Sun. And on Easter Sunday each year he’d put on his blue suit and leave it on all day, until the day’s end and he’d walk along the street he’d paved.

That Couple…

You know that couple you see and
they make you wonder, ‘How in the world
did you two wind up together!?’ but
not because one is beautiful and the
other sloppy and ugly, not an obvious
one who could eat no fat and the other
no lean pair, but just because in a world
of almost seven billion of us these two
somehow found each other and love
or comfort or even settled for, someone
who would listen or talk or smells and
sweats in an attractive way that only
this other could want; you know that
couple in the grocery store, buying cereal
and tea bags, apples and chicken thighs
and you know they’d always thought
they’d be alone if it wasn’t for the other.

Spin Again…

globeMost people live where they live
and die where they die but not me
I was going places and seeing things
I’ve heard there’s so much to see
I’ve got to; I’m not one to forgive.

You can’t tell me it’s all the same
no matter where one may travel
because even paupers and kings
know to set out on paths of gravel
to search for new views to claim.

It may be the path itself I take
or it could be the capital I’ll find
I won’t know until I spread my wings
And set out to venture resigned
Even if lost, it’ll be no mistake.

I’ve waited too long to commence
had too many excuses to stay
lingering one too many springs
there’s no better time than today
I’ve no longer a good defense.

When I was young I was brave
I dreamed nothing would interrupt
my exploration for foreign beings
but I didn’t anticipate how abrupt
just staying here would enslave.

Spin a globe, see where it lands
Risk an exotic foreign destination
Cut yourself free from apron strings
Make the journey your aspiration
Even if no one else understands.

Unless where the globe would stop
the spot where your finger lands
is a plot where a hearse brings
dreamers back to dust’s demands
and that final six foot drop.

In that case, spin again.

Learning how to handle this time thing…

Everyone needs time that’s
quiet to think or not,
just time without, not
simply unconnected, not
simply quiet, but time enough;
I’ve seen it done and done
well; my Dad would stand on
the front steps in almost any
weather at the end of each day
and do nothing – not sit
or shuffle or hum or sing;
it was his time enough;
when I’d open the door
he wouldn’t react, he
would still have his time
enough; and I could stay
with him as long as
I said nothing, did nothing;
never, not once, was I
asked by Mom to go get
Daddy, ask Daddy, tell him
a single, solitary thing
while he was on the front
steps; it was his time, and
I learned this is how the
time thing works: you just go
stand somewhere and do
nothing but that, without
trying even, and especially,
if I don’t seem to have time
enough, and I my only fight
is to wonder if I’m doing it right
or not.

Logos Interruptus and other inconveniences…

Stop-Signs_iStockHurrying to meet an impatient teen barely surviving
the wait of five minutes,
avoiding pedestrians
assuming the right of way, and ignoring repeated texts
of ‘Where are you?’
‘Are you close?’
and ‘Are you ever coming to get me?’
I was forced to pause by the declarative instruction
of the octagonal signage
and there he was,
plopped down on a grassy patch, bag allowed to spill,
hunched and rounded shoulders,
chin tucked, head tilting and tracking
as if joined to his hurried penmanship
marking a tattered notebook,
the disconnect of head and heart healed in is hand,
scratching out something so important
it interrupts everything,
and I don’t think I’ve ever come close to
this level of distraction
overwhelmed with words, or by words,
a devotion disturbing my occasionally thoughtful ways;
but I wish it would happen to me,
and if this urge has tried
but I was too stubborn to yield,
I pray for just one more chance to feel the words
that can stop me like this,
and just then another text arrives
urging the rapid rescue of my dear teen
and that compulsion overwhelms me,
I must leave my hero
to the stares of others who notice and avoid
the brilliance of
such devotion and I reply to my teen, ‘I’m on my way’
and ‘Almost there’ and ‘I had to stop
for the Stop signs.’