Instructions on Not Giving Up

Ada Limón

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

Words for Departure

by Louise Bogan

Nothing was remembered, nothing forgotten.
When we awoke, wagons were passing on the warm summer   
          pavements,
The window-sills were wet from rain in the night,
Birds scattered and settled over chimneypots
As among grotesque trees.

Nothing was accepted, nothing looked beyond.
Slight-voiced bells separated hour from hour,
The afternoon sifted coolness
And people drew together in streets becoming deserted.
There was a moon, and light in a shop-front,
And dusk falling like precipitous water.

Hand clasped hand
Forehead still bowed to forehead—
Nothing was lost, nothing possessed
There was no gift nor denial.

2.
I have remembered you.
You were not the town visited once,
Nor the road falling behind running feet.

You were as awkward as flesh
And lighter than frost or ashes.

You were the rind,
And the white-juiced apple,
The song, and the words waiting for music.

3.
You have learned the beginning;
Go from mine to the other.

Be together; eat, dance, despair,
Sleep, be threatened, endure.
You will know the way of that.

But at the end, be insolent;
Be absurd—strike the thing short off;
Be mad—only do not let talk
Wear the bloom from silence.

And go away without fire or lantern
Let there be some uncertainty about your departure.

Did Rise

by Jessica Rae Bergamino

Did tear along.
Did carry the sour heave
of memory. Did fold my body
upon the pillow’s curve,
did teach myself to pray.
Did pray. Did sleep. Did choir
an echo to swell through time.
Did pocket watch, did compass.
Did whisper a girl from the silence
of ghost. Did travel on the folded map
to the roaring inside. Did see myself
smaller, at least, stranger,
where the hinge of losing had not yet
become loss. Did vein, did hollow
in light, did hold my own chapped hand.
Did hair, did makeup, did press
the pigment on my broken lip.
Did stutter. Did slur. Did shush
my open mouth, the empty glove.
Did grace, did dare, did learn the way
forgiveness is the heaviest thing to bare.
Did grieve. Did grief. Did check the weather,
choose the sweater, did patch the jeans
worn out along the seam. Did purchase,
did pressure, did put the safety on the scissors.
Did shuttle myself away, did haunt, did swallow
a tongue of sweat formed on the belly
of a day-old glass. Did ice, did block,
did measure the doing. Did carry.
Did return. Did slumber, did speak.
Did wash blood from the bitten nail,
the thumb that bruised. Did wash
the dirt-stained face, the dirt-stained
sheets. Did take the pills. Did not
take the pills. Cut the knots
from my own matted hair.

I Am Like a Leaf

by Yone Noguchi

The silence is broken: into the nature 
  My soul sails out, 
Carrying the song of life on his brow,
   To meet the flowers and birds.

When my heart returns in the solitude, 
   She is very sad,
Looking back on the dead passions
  Lying on Love’s ruin. 

I am like a leaf
   Hanging over hope and despair, 
Which trembles and joins 
  The world’s imagination and ghost. 

Thanks

by W. S. Merwin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

Where You Go When She Sleeps

by T.R. Hummer

What is it when a woman sleeps, her head bright
In your lap, in your hands, her breath easy now as though it had never been
Anything else, and you know she is dreaming, her eyelids
Jerk, but she is not troubled, it is a dream
That does not include you, but you are not troubled either,
It is too good to hold her while she sleeps, her hair falling
Richly on your hands, shining like metal, a color
That when you think of it you cannot name, as though it has just
Come into existence, dragging you into the world in the wake
Of its creation, out of whatever vacuum you were in before,
And you are like the boy you heard of once who fell
Into a silo full of oats, the silo emptying from below, oats
At the top swirling in a gold whirlpool, a bright eddy of grain, the boy
You imagine, leaning over the edge to see it, the noon sun breaking
Into the center of the circle he watches, hot on his back, burning
And he forgets his father’s warning, stands on the edge, looks down,
The grain spinning, dizzy, and when he falls his arms go out, too thin
For wings, and he hears his father’s cry somewhere, but is gone
Already, down in a gold sea, spun deep in the heart of the silo,
And when they find him, he lies still, not seeing the world
Through his body but through the deep rush of grain
Where he has gone and can never come back, though they drag him
Out, his father’s tears bright on both their faces, the farmhands
Standing by blank and amazed—you touch that unnamable
Color in her hair and you are gone into what is not fear or joy
But a whirling of sunlight and water and air full of shining dust
That takes you, a dream that is not of you but will let you
Into itself if you love enough, and will not, will never let you go.

A call to empathy

It’s so easy to sit in judgment of parents and children and zookeepers and strangers. People who you’ve never met.

It’s so easy.

It’s infinitely harder to person up. To pull loose your heart strings. To release the strict hold you keep on your borders and really look at another person.

Because really seeing means letting yourself be seen. Means being vulnerable. Means realizing that the things that we judge other people for are things that we do all the time.

Who hasn’t been guilty of letting our guard down for a moment? The only difference between all of us and certain mothers and zookeepers is that we weren’t the ones taking our eyes off of our child at that crucial second.

We weren’t. But we could have been.

And that fact is the thing that keeps us from true empathy with other human beings.

Because acknowledging that the only thing separating us and them is a cruel blend of circumstance and blind luck is too terrifying to handle.

So we blame. And we stand up and call for the heads of people who have made the same small mistakes that we make every day at a critical moment that ended in tragedy.

Blame is easier. Judgment is easier. Hatred is easier.

Love is hard. Empathy is hard. Compassion is hard.

Within those three things dwells the sharp knowledge that we, in all of our convictions and certainty, are as fragile and as vulnerable to harm as the people we are so quick to villainize.

Empathy is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. The easier it becomes to do the hard work of looking at another person and recognizing yourself.

Try it. You’ll see.

Grave Gardening: Meet Mary

Last night I went to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society here in center city. I got there way early for my 6PM meeting with the other Grave Gardeners. Our talk for the evening was entitled Forget me Not: Planting a Cemetery Garden.

I am new to gardening, but in no way am I new to cemeteries. I spent my life up until I was 21 living across the street from Magnolia Cemetery in Northeast Philadelphia.

I spent most of my childhood running around that cemetery. We didn’t have much of a yard at our house, so the “cem” – a word that I have only encountered in the vernacular of my neighborhood compatriots – acted like a natural extension of my childish territory. Fully half of it was empty, so we used the half not occupied by the dead to play baseball, set off fireworks on holidays, play tag, and generally run amok on.

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A historical photograph of the cemetery from Bryn Mawr College. It doesn’t look like this today.

As I got older, I went to the cem to read. I had a favorite tree that I would sit beneath and friends that I would visit when I journaled.

I was fiercely protective of the cem. When I was 16 I caught a guy peeing on a grave and chased him with a large branch that had fallen from a tree. He ran, dick flapping in the breeze, terrified of the young girl threatening to beat him with a part of the very place he was defacing.

It’s been a long time since I felt as connected to any place as I was to the neighborhood where I grew up. The cemetery and the Wawa and the streets where my childhood was spent.

Recently Frankie and I moved to a house in West Philadelphia. It’s on a quiet little street and, in the months since we moved there, it has become a home to me in a way that nowhere has been since I left Magnolia Cemetery and my childhood home behind.

A few months ago, a dear friend posted a link to the West Philly Local calling for Grave Gardeners. I got deeply excited immediately at the prospect of beautifying a graveyard. And the Woodlands is not far from where I live, so it seemed ideal.

Along with my excitement came the immediate apprehension at the prospect of confronting my legendary Black Thumb head on. I have never been able to keep plants alive. It’s a serious detriment to my image of myself as a nurturing human. I recently got a plant for my desk that I have named Oscar. Oscar has lived for several months on the edge of my desk, in view just above the edge of my computer screen. He was dying in the office of one of my colleagues because she has no windows. But I have access to all the light Oscar could possibly want in my front office.

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Oscar, his brother, a candy dish, and All The Light A Living Thing Could Want.

Against the calling of my Black Thumb, I sent in my application to the Grave Gardeners and awaited their response. I was surprised and delighted when they told me that I had been accepted. Our first class was last month and concerned a history of cemeteries in the United States, the transcript of which I will make into a blog entry at a later date.

Last night’s class was our second meeting, and the last one that will be held outside of the bounds of The Woodlands itself. And the most exciting thing is that, last night, we got our grave assignments.

Mary S Ruehman.pngIt is with great pleasure that I would like to introduce you to Mary Siffert Ruehmann. A resident of the 29th Ward here in Philadelphia, Mary was born to Frederick Ruehmann and Caroline Ludy on January 27th, 1846 and died on the 12th of May, 1909 at the age of 63. At this point, I do not know if she had any children. It does not seem likely since she died with her father’s name, but I am going to try to do some more research and see what I come up with.

I have not fully decided what I would like to do to pay tribute to Mary. I am going to visit her over the weekend and see what her grave calls for. Since it doesn’t look like there is any writing visible on the headstone part of her cradle grave, I will likely put roses or some sort of vine up there as a large backdrop to what I will do below.

Any advice that any of my gardening friends have would be most welcome. She is placed in such a way that her garden will receive full sunlight, so do keep that in mind.

I am very excited to begin working on this project in earnest. There will be a lot more blog entries coming as I learn more about gardening and as Mary’s plot develops over the summer. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!

Burnout. Holidays. Self Care.

Thanksgiving is finally upon us. Tonight we are heading up to my parents to decorate the tree ahead of the Thanksgiving gorging that will happen tomorrow.

It’s strange how families can change over the years. Or our attitudes to them can, at any rate. I’m really excited to see my parents and eat and relax and have everyone together.

Thanksgiving has turned into a holiday filled with mixed feelings for me. When I was growing up, the whole family would turn up to my grandparents place and we would all eat together. So many of the people that I used to celebrate this holiday with are dead now or have moved on. Nowadays my Thanksgiving is small. My parents, my brother and his girlfriend, Frankie and I.

But the good thing about the smallness of the holiday for me is that everyone is a known quantity. I have seen so many articles recently on how to survive the holidays and how to talk to racist relatives and so on. It seems like people really don’t know how to handle their families at the holidays. The only thing I really have to do is avoid talking politics. But outside of that, everything is pretty smooth.

And honestly, if my parents and my family gave me so much stress that I had to think about coping mechanisms like drinking games when they were racist or thinking “YOU’RE AN ASSHOLE” in order to avoid saying it out loud, I probably just wouldn’t go to family holidays any more.

One of the biggest things about self care is the ability to say “no” to things that we know are bad for us, after all. And toxic people aren’t good for anyone. Not for themselves and not for the people around them.

At any rate, my small Thanksgiving isn’t so bad. It’s a little sad, but the people who are there are such a good and big part of my life that I don’t mind being a little sad when I think about the people who are gone.

Another reason I’m happy to have some time off and relax with family is that I won’t be on social media as much. The things going on in the news lately have been making me so sad that I can barely stand it. Hopefully I’ll be better able to cope with what I’m seeing after I’ve had a little time off from the constant grief streaming.

A World in Pain

On Friday the 13th of November, terrorists coordinated attacks on Paris that consisted of mass shootings, hostage taking, and suicide bombing. When the dust settled, 129 people were dead and 415 were wounded.

ISIL is claiming responsibility for the Paris attacks in the wake of attacks made by France on targets in Syria as part of Opération Chammal, a French military operation that has been ongoing since September of 2014. And France is responding to their declaration as an act of war. On November 15th, France sent 12 planes to drop 20 bombs on ISIL training camps and ammunition facilities in Raqqa in the single largest air strike of Opération Chammal so far.

I followed the explosion on Twitter as everything unfolded on Friday night. I watched people sending out messages saying that they were OK. I watched the inevitable unfurling of racist tongues lashing out to speak hate against groups they felt justified in maligning.

The next day, I watched people speaking out against the violence that has been happening in other areas of the world. Violence in Syria, Beirut, Baghdad, and elsewhere that goes unremarked.

Like a lot of other people, my mind went back to the only substantive moment of terror that most Americans can remember. September 11, 2001.

The actual circumstances of where I was and what I felt and thought while it was happening don’t matter. What matters is the fallout. The aftermath.

In the days and weeks that followed the terrorist attacks on American soil, America did what it does best when it feels directly threatened: It fought back. And we the people saw paraded in front of us a veritable parade of reasons for fighting. A parade of images of the people who had harmed us and who rightly deserved our hatred.

When I look back at that time, I remember to my shame how I locked step with the rest of the country and hated a whole group of people without discrimination. I was 17. I focused my hate along with the rest of the country, impotent as it may have been.

I was so, so wrong. And even a year later, if you had asked me what my thoughts on the Middle East were, my answers would have been so, so different.

Before we even had a death toll on the attacks in Paris, people were taking to the internet and calling for the blood of the “Islamic State” without having the first idea of the implications of what they were saying.

It’s so easy to turn to a place of absolute hatred when things like these happen. And I think it’s especially easy for developed, western countries to flip a switch and go to a terrible and hateful place. But ask yourself this before you give in to that feeling.

We experience attacks like this very rarely. When you feel that hatred well up inside yourself, pause and think. Imagine what it would be like if we experienced an attack like this every year. Every month. Imagine experiencing something like this every day. Imagine the fear, the terror, the hopelessness that would come from experiencing something like that. And then realize that what you are imagining could not possibly compare to the reality of living under those circumstances.

So when you feel like the pain is too much and the world is too scary a place. When you feel that hatred well up in you, try reaching out with compassion to areas of the world that experience terror and violence every day. Turn your pain and your anger into love and empathy and compassion. Make a donation. Volunteer to help refugees in your area. Write your elected representatives and ask them to speak out for the rights of people fleeing violence.

As hard as it is, that love is the only way that I can see out of the horror that threatens to overtake us in those dark moments.

As an atheist, that love and compassion is the closest I can come to an offering of prayer.