a few stragglers remain.
a few stragglers remain.
The picture of the two of us,
pulled from my suit-coat pocket,
leans on my dresser.
Square with rounded corners,
faded blue ink–
Kodak May 1980–
printed on the back.
I scanned it for my lock screen, too,
so I can see myself
leaning up against her in the slanted spring light.
The first few days after
Mom taught me how to die
but when I walk outside,
leaves are turning and
afternoons are darker now.
I’m finally looking into the cardboard box
I brought home from my mother’s house late last month;
The clementines she had insisted I take
and perched on top have long since been eaten;
it’s been otherwise untouched
sitting in the corner of the yellow room.
Two pairs of my infant pajamas–
The yellow, corduroy pair with the embroidered lion,
the faded white and green night dress.
She had remarked on the drawstring she had sewn into the bottom–
how it was still there–
the fold-over sleeves to keep me from scratching myself
as I slept in my crib.
My white shoes, too, laces gone,
but still with their impossibly stiff bottom;
my grandmother’s blue-and-white Canton ware,
wrapped in the 1975 Daily News of Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Just before I left,
we had sat on the basement couch flipping through
faded Kodak prints, square with rounded corners,
taken before we moved into the house on the hill.
We paused at one where I wore that night dress,
my sister and I standing
in the deep darkness of an evening east window.
There were others, too, from that forty-years-ago,
and she told me again about each one.
We had such fun, she said,
my unfinished work
littered with brittle browns
deepening shadows —
autumn’s reds and yellows
forsaking their offering
It was one year ago today I took the photograph that inspired my first tanka. It has been a less prolific season this year.
I may not be strong enough
for the weight of our tears,
or for end-of-day regrets.
I fear I am not strong enough
for the leaves that keep falling,
for each sun-drenched morning,
or the last whispers of childhood.
somewhere past paper thin
wisps of mourning
Many of my poems recently have been starting our long; I let them sit and then find myself stripping away words and lines that seem to clutter the feelings that first prompted me to write. Some moments I think I could write more without disturbing the essence if I were a better poet. Other moments, it seems just right.
A co-worker and I stood in the office kitchen this morning as she searched for a spoon. We joked about how she might eat her cereal with a fork, how it might be easier if it were cereal and yogurt. My voice was clear and my laughter sounded easy. But my heart was somewhere else.
What is the toll, I wonder, from laughing, from pretending and projecting that all is well, when the reality is something different?
My wife and kids have been away for a few days, visiting family now that the school year has ended. I stayed home, with a few meetings this week that I could not miss. Last night I returned home close to midnight after one of those meetings and went out to close up the barn. Five of our six chickens were perched up on their roosts, with the sixth lying very still and awkwardly on the floor. I propped her up on some fresh hay for the night, but this morning she was less responsive and clearly dying. By now, she’s certainly passed.
My son was devestated this past fall when we lost our cat, a dear member of the family who the kids had grown up with. I was so deeply moved by his reaction as we buried her that a story poured out of me that night; that story became the inspiration for this blog.
The chickens were a present for him for his eighth birthday in April. He said it was the best birthday present ever.
I grew up raising chickens, along with sheep and rabbits. I remember the first spring flock that I was responsible for, and my dismay when we lost most of them to an intruder in the coop, likely a fox. I like to tell people that growing up around animals was a good experience, that I learned at an early age about caring for others, about life and death. My original Tibetan Buddhist practice, too, spoke of the value of coming to understand death as a part of our lives.
I’m not so sure this morning about either of those stories.
My son will come home today and learn about this new death. I’ll want to make everything all right for him, knowing at the same time that is not possible. I could look at this experience as a gift. But it’s hard. And what will I do when the death in our lives is closer?
I can’t share any of this with the people around me. I move around the office pretending that this is just another day. I pass by co-workers and talk jovially about this and that.
A little while ago I closed the office door to call my wife and let her know about the chicken, what is awaiting her at home. In the course of that conversation, I learned that the emails I have been sending to her over the last few days, reaching out to make a connection, have gone to an account she can’t access away from home. I hung up the phone feeling more isolated, then went to sit in a meeting and discuss the ramifications of the end of the fiscal year.
I didn’t realize it when I began, but my spiritual practice has taken shape as an effort to drop pretense, to live my life as it presents itself. In some respects, I have begun to realize this through Zen. At the Temple I can sit wth the complexity of fatherhood, marriage, love, joy and sadness, or share with a friend in the sangha after the evening practice has ended. I’ve been striving to do this at home too, with my wife and children, and it has allowed me to experience both joy and sadness more fully, more intimately.
At the same time, I am more accutely aware now of the places and times that I cannot. I worry about the cost.
When I get home this afternoon, I’ll hold my son and tell him it is okay to wonder why this has happened again to an animal he loved. I will tell him it is all right to be sad, to cry, to deeply feel whatever arises. I’ll tell him there’s no need to pretend.