Mexican Opal, Sunset, and Me

** On October 30 of this year, my Grammie had her 100th birthday. There was a party and everything; everyone who’s anyone was there.

Oh, you hadn’t heard. So sorry you missed it. Me, too, alas.

But I bragged on my Grammie the Centurion all day to my students and anyone who would stand still. Last year, she gave me the ring pictured, and the subject of this missive. I have hardly removed it since I got it. It reminds me to stand taller than I feel. What a life; I am so thankful for her. (All factual errors in measurements, ages, and numerical stuff are mine.) **

mexican opal

For all I know the stone in my new ring may be colored glass. In fact it’s probably Mexican Opal, also known as Bohemian art glass. The manmade, smooth oval stone has captivated my imagination since I was little: engrossed in Grammie’s “sunset” ring instead of the lesson at church. Now the ring is on my left pinkie finger, my hand freckled like Grammie’s, my nails not so nicely manicured, and hands that have never known the same kind of hard work that her hands knew. The ring, beloved, feels foreign and out of place. Even though I know it was freely given, I was afraid to wear it when I went to visit in December of 2016; afraid she might think I had “snitched” it from her jewelry box without asking.

***

At her tallest, I think Grammie was about five feet tall. The last time she stood next to me she just about reached my shoulder – maybe four foot ten or eleven. When I saw her last month I felt like a giant next to her. But then she didn’t really stand, just shifted her weight from sitting on the bed to sitting in the wheel chair. When they were young, I’d guess she just came up to Pa’s shoulder, maybe not so high – he was six feet tall, I think.

When I first walked into her shared hospital room in December she was a tilde, that wavy mark above the “n” in Spanish that softens and lengthens its sound; a toppled over “s” underneath the brown and blue-fringed plaid blanket. She lay with her eyes closed on the small twin mattress. To see her so frail, diminished took me aback, even though Momma had told me how much she had shrunk in mind and body since I saw her just six months ago. I wasn’t sure she would know me. But she turned to me from under the blanket and said my name, the way she has said it my entire life. Turns out that being the oldest granddaughter matters.

But maybe that’s not what matters. Maybe what made my name cross her lips with relative ease were all the years we spent together making memories.

I was a baby in her house, my nineteen-year-old mom and me living in the spare room. I don’t remember that time, but snapshots in photo albums tell a piece of that story: me shuffling around the house, my feet swallowed in Pa’s hard-to-fill work shoes; riding Fritz the dachshund – I remember his soft, soft ears, and that I loved him; eating strawberries from the garden; sitting with my little legs stretched beneath the TV set to watch my programs; baths in the kitchen sink. Later, when me and Momma and Daddy lived across town, staying over to go to church on Sunday; “coffee” (mostly half-and-half with a little coffee and sugar for color and flavor) with breakfast; meeting cousins to pick up pecans and dig holes to China (oooo did we hear about it over the holes to China), to prowl the drainage ditch, and turn the green house into a castle or mansion. Later still, in college, I lived with Grammie and Pa one semester and laid on my bed — that had been Aunt Sharon’s bed and Grandma Williams’ bed — reading The Federalist Papers, listening to fifteen-year-old rock-n-roll – Pink Floyd, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and the rest; practicing my Spanish with them at breakfast; hopelessly trying to work chemistry formulas through tears at the dining room table; rehearsing choreographies in the den surrounded by Grammie’s coleus, geraniums, violets, and other assorted plant life – always colorful, always vibrant, always thriving under her gentle fussing.

Most nights that long summer and fall I helped wash dishes; I don’t remember cooking, but Grammie made boiled potatoes for me nearly every day because she knew I loved them with butter and a little salt. I sat on the kitchen counter and talked to Grammie while she made supper, like I had done when I was little. Sometimes I went grocery shopping with her. Sometimes I drove over to the fix-it shop for lunch after class. Even though I was struggling in myself that year, it was a good year in many ways.

Principally, it was good to participate in day-to-day life with my daddy’s Momma and Daddy. I absorbed a lot of lessons about love and hard work and perseverance from their nearly seventy years of experience. Some lessons I learned easier than others; some I’m still working on.

Whatever I didn’t learn right away, stayed in my toolbox of life skills for facing adulthood with a greater measure of confidence; I learned what it meant to be a life-long learner by listening at breakfast to their practice conversations in Spanish, the dictionary close to hand. They worked hard to get better: as people, as Christians, at their relationship, and to stay busy and to make time for study and family every day.

They both worked at Pa’s fix-it shop; they both still drove; they were both strong, and even though I thought they were “old” they didn’t seem “old” the way some of my friends’ grandparents did. There were no wheelchairs or canes in the house. Pa wore a hearing aid and false teeth. But Grammie did her own nails every week and her teeth were whole, complete, and her own and until about two years ago, her hearing was as sharp as ever. There was much for 19-year-old me to learn.

***

I’m still learning. The weight of this silver ring, its oval aurora borealis dulled with time and use, reminds me how much. Grammie’s world is continually shrinking, from the big house and yard on Pecan Park Drive, to the small apartment where she and Pa lived with some assistance, to a tiny efficiency apartment with just one room after Pa died, and now to a single twin bed in a room with a closet, a nightstand with Pa’s green banker’s lamp, and a bathroom and a roommate. Meanwhile, my world and my work is still growing, and I still have room in my heart and in my body to grow in these ways, but Grammie’s legacy is heavy, and I feel sometimes that it may be more than I can carry, strong and broad as my shoulders are.

I need to get to a jeweler to have the stone in her ring — my ring — polished, so I can see the sunset there again, and be inspired to keep expanding while the motivation is easier to come by than it will be when my eyes and ears betray me and the world begins to shrink to the size of a piece of polished art glass.

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Whale Watching

Relaxed against the horizon
jagged with olympic-blue mountains,
flat and staggered like risers in the quire;
Above cloudless, powdered blue: infinite inhalation;
Held aloft on sapphire blue the rhythm of the boat’s
chattery lullaby, cradled us
soothing away breakfast, and transit, and lunch, and concrete.

I almost blinked.

orca blades rising and falling
smooth ebony backs
in arcs broad and narrow
three dancers with waves and foam,
currents and breath

I almost blinked.

black bubbles of stone
trembling and murmuring under sleek,
but careless, naps of lazing seals

**

Dazed by the crisp snap of salt on my face and in my ears
I wondered what they spoke of,
those beasts who saw us trapped in our boat.
Were we their day’s entertainment?
What do they wonder about us
passing by in regular shifts?
Do they know we are not all one?
Do they know we think they are the spectacle?

I yearned to be the whale next to the whale who was oldest:
feel her song cross my skin, know her stories.
I wanted to hear her voice endlessly
across the ocean and over the sands
back to where my desert mountains
line up, jagged against the horizon
like risers in the quire.

~LD

Let Them Eat Artichoke

For the longest time, I disliked artichoke (among other “weird” looking vegetables and fruits). Artichoke looked entirely unapproachable. Artichoke looked scary, unknown and unknowable. Dislike is the absolutely easiest thing in the world. Dislike implies little to no emotional risk.

My thoughts will sound non sequitur, but trust me, as my grad school mentor (progenitor of bitch face) used to say, “Everything is to the point. Our job is to make the connections.” I should know: even when I was a sketchy teacher, I proved Nancy Walker right every single school year, and usually again during the miniscule weeks of summer break. I still do. Every year, I remember that I know for sure that our job is to make the connections.

I first gave artichoke a chance the summer of 1996 when Paulina, a dear teacher friend, gave me a book called She Taught Me to Eat Artichokes. (I think I finally know why, after a four week summer writing workshop she gave me that book – connections don’t always come instantly.) My mom was visiting that summer. My mom the gardener, the would-be vegetarian; my mom the writer and thinker and teacher. Momma and I were inspired to boil up artichoke and make hollandaise dipping sauce thanks to Paulina. Thanks to Momma, I learned about the “choke”, and the nutty sweetness of the heart.

To get to that tender nutty sweetness, the raw, fresh artichoke has to be boiled, steamed or baked a long time. A long time. An hour. Sometimes more. And like the efforts of a teacher who has watched over raw, fresh students, the cook asks and waits, offers and waits, and even after she asks and asks again in a rolling boil the work is still not done.

I waited, and watched, and offered, and asked, and “boiled” this senior class all fall semester. There was a part of me that began to think finding their hearts was too hard, and maybe I should just dislike them and move on with my life. But early in the spring, as I kept watching and offering and waiting and asking – I saw unexpected bubbles of interest here and there linking the struggles of the wife who lamented to the conflict between vengeance and survival in Hamlet; recognition of themselves and their culture in the frustration of Winston and Julia as they sought freedom. Among these bubbles of interest and hints of tenderness the purple heart beneath the choke began to appear.

The artichoke metaphor came to me in the blinding, breathless five days in which I read and evaluated ninety-four 10-page essays (sometimes more, sometimes less). But the metaphor was incomplete until the following week when I sat for three straight class days in the brand new auditorium listening to my students tell each other and their teachers what they know for sure, right now, this moment – about themselves, about excellence, about the world at large.

Unlike my students, when the talks got a little dull or repetitive, I couldn’t distract myself with games or social media on my phone since I was evaluating the nuance and structure of argument and general effectiveness of the talks. I had to pay attention to the peeling away of each teardrop-shaped leaf of experience with my complete self, my whole brain and intellect, while my students reached into themselves and exposed the tricky, hair like choke above their hearts.

At times, during the talks, I wanted to curl up on the floor under my chair and disappear as students sheared away all illusion of youthful innocence. Despite all the watching and waiting, I had glossed over important details about the needs of astronauts, the bent backs of dancers, the shadows of introverts, the power of WORDS, the losses and losses and losses and near misses. In those three days I could see how my students held each other together both intentionally and by accident through the traumas and victories of their lives and the lives of others. Being a grown-up had dulled my sense of observation and turned me into nearly pure choke. On the final day of the talks I was both shaken and renewed. My students had revealed the heart hidden beneath the protective choke, and allowed me to find the nutty sweetness the choke protects.

That was three weeks ago. Now those students are gone and they will never be that senior class in those particular groupings ever again. And they are a nutty sweet memory with a lingering burn on my tongue and in my throat. I will remember each leaf – the beast, the giant weeping Pooh bear, the surgical steel-coated heart, the twin, the son, the daughter, the dancer, the actor, the comedian, the philosopher, the coder, the triathlete, the scholar, the loafer, the lover, the friend, the artist, the broken-hearted and the whole, the insomniac, the gamer, the anxious, and the complete orange – as if I had scraped away the choke protecting them with a spoon and let the pure heart beneath meld into my own experience.

When the artichoke is gone, it always seems too soon. As if I could have savored these hearts so much more, appreciated more, loved more. The wish for more leaves me with an ache, a yearning. Yes, dislike would have been easier, less complicated. But the heart is totally worth the effort.

Only You will Know

if Night slips by
and you don’t notice
the verdigris left
on the back of your
smooth cotton shirt
where you’ve been leaning
against old cemetery gates
waiting in vain with Vladimir
and Estragon

don’t ask me
where time went
or how the stains got there

Keats understood
flight of time,
and Yeats knew
the beauties and dangers of modernity
but none could know
my steadfast heart.

Daedelus, father of Icarus,
borrowed by Joyce,
flew free of the isle
while his son failed.

Cemetery gates don’t call me,
I’m wanted everywhere I go,
except by you
my parallel self.
So, you go;
Believe yourself unwanted,
my raven-haired Icarus.

I’ll fly alone,
low, along the line of cerros —
my heart will carry you
ever
next to the cool flesh
of my soul.

I trust you will wake
from dream tracings
of my fingers on the
verdigris left
on the back of your shirt
where you’ve been leaning
against cold cemetery gates
waiting in vain, when I’ve always been
right here resting into the warm
skin of this Tree, wanting you,
loving you
even though you don’t.

~LD

Nearly a Decade of Facebook Status Fails…

(subtitle: censorship is bad, even when you are both censor and censored)

I catch myself wanting to argue on Facebook (FB) with people that I actually care about, but whose philosophies and values don’t fit with mine. Luckily, my more rational self nearly always kicks in before I go “there” – under the troll bridge. But in case you are one of my FB peeps who thinks I don’t believe anything at all because I seldom if ever post stuff other than my cats and my house and occasionally work, let me take this opportunity to give you a long list of FB posts that never made it to FB.

I am a feminist (#Ineedfeminism because at least once a week I’m asked if I feel “complete” as a woman without children – “It’s not too late,” they say). I am a humanist, and an independent voter. I believe in social justice and states’ rights and true equality of opportunity. I don’t think a party exists that embraces these apparently contradictory ideas. I love the country I was born in and the country I live in. I think international borders are political creations to make some people feel bigger and others feel smaller because of an accident of birth. I don’t believe in the concept of God that other people do. But I do believe that energy can be neither created nor destroyed; it can only be transformed. Given the opportunity, I would vote for very limited gun control and for drug legalization, but against defunding Planned Parenthood (where as a young adult I received healthcare far beyond reproductive health when I couldn’t afford to pay for a “regular” doctor). I would vote to allow people to marry (have the same legal rights granted to heterosexual persons in a legally-recognized committed relationship) who wish to do so regardless of their biological genders, and to legally recognize the identities of persons whose biological gender may not match their psychological gender. I think it is heroic to find the you-know-whats to say out loud that the conflict between biological and psychological gender exists from either experience or scientific research. I think it is heroic to fight and / or die for a nationalistic ideal that may or may not be true. I would vote to educate every person with the desire to study without charge for as long as they want to study, and the right of every person to both preventative and curative health care from a personal physician. I believe that many times medicine is not the answer to what causes people dis-ease. Though I’d love to see a woman in the Oval Office, not in a million years would I vote for Ms. Clinton. Republican candidates don’t inspire my confidence, either. I will vote.

I function in what I consider to be organic and intuitive ways that I’d like to think allow people to be their own best selves regardless of their agreements or disagreements with me: in part because I know I am flawed, at best, and in part because I can nearly always understand the points of view of others, even when I disagree passionately. I will not argue politics or religion with you or anyone else, though I am happy to have an open, honest, evidentiary-based conversation about nearly anything, as long as your evidence doesn’t rely solely on the sacred texts you cling to. As literary and cultural evidence such texts are fine and good places to base oneself, but in isolation mythology isn’t valid evidence. I don’t feel the need to be right or to convert anyone to my point(s) of view. I am a person without borders, but rather with limits.  You don’t have to “like” any of that. ~LD

Divinity in August

Coincidentally, I thought this week of Nannie’s hands, fingers running at sharp, arthritic angles into her knuckles even when I first knew her twenty-odd years ago. She was my love’s grandmother, and I loved her stubborn perseverant joy in life despite the obstacles of age. She made candy at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and made the best morel mushrooms I’ve ever eaten. I used to have some of her recipes stashed on three by five cards in a box that was lost to the ravages of time, flour, use, and carelessness. I loved her as much as I could, not nearly as much as I think she deserved. When I learned today that Nannie had died, all I really wanted was some of her homemade divinity and a few extra days in Missouri for a twirl up through northern climes to hug her when I was there this summer. But decisions have to be made. Time is always too short, our wishes too long to fit in this miniscule grain of sand that is life.

Mine won't turn out as good (at least not the first time), but I'll give it a go.

Mine won’t turn out as good (at least not the first time), but I’ll give it a go.

I thought, too, of the woman with younger hands, with a life fully lived in only half the time that Nannie had, whose kids have been my students, are my students, will be my students. She died on a school day; her kids pulled from school on thin pretense to go home to grieve. I never knew her, but I had walked near her eldest son last year as their family wandered through a jungle of bewildering illness, wavering between hope and despair to end here where life and death step out of textbooks and into the living room, the hallway, the driveway, the front and backyard, and all the places that can’t be avoided because life insists on continuing in the face of loss. Her nieces wrote about her kindness and her joy; her ability to think of others despite her situation.

The next day, I got up before dawn to go to class, as I always do. I went with heavy heart and eyes swollen with a weight that didn’t belong to me, and I gave class as if nothing were different, nothing had changed. But I gave a couple of extra unsolicited hugs, and wished I could ease this path a bit for the several young people I know who were touched by her life and the many good, bright things she taught them.

And my Saturday, despite knowing that Nannie isn’t there any more, will be the Saturday I had planned months ago; classes and cooking and house chores that must be done in the interval before I go back to work on Monday. But I will tend my plants with extra care, and I will take time with my cats, and I will admire the roundness of tomorrow’s full moon. Maybe I will make Nannie’s divinity – I have everything I need, except for hugs to send from far away to my former love, and his mom, and his aunt, and his cousins.

Our little grains of sand remain miniscule, but the things we wish to squeeze onto them seem to be more and more. Sometimes the only solution is to keep rolling out with the waves, riding out in search of song-struck sunrises, and sweet, divine cloud-light sunsets.

~LD

Navigating Ink Stains

(a poem in two tongues)

dawn scatters across the room
to find me still tangled in strands of
ink – I struggle, half-heartedly,
to free my fingers from a dream
where you reach for me
pleading that I dive back among
the rivers of your mane,
sable and silky, until the daze of
your tenor finally breaks at my feet
against cold ceramic floor

pero la idea de encontrar
con mis labios, lengua, dedos, piel y pestañas
el arroyo de tu carne
en el mapa de tu cuerpo
que te llevara al gozo completo –
físico, emocional, espiritual —
no es lo que me pega al salir
de los sueños de nadar
en ríos de tu cabello
de tinta negra

No, dawn scatters flesh’s desire
in shards over the floor
where they stick in my feet,
while before my ink-blurred eyes hang
motes of shared truth,
growth, insight, unexpected tenderness,
laughter, song, books,
flawed but growing humanity —
meanwhile, the dream that I must
walk away from clings to me

like letters written indelibly on paths
that I tread every day
pretending I don’t feel
your voice whispering
against the nape of my neck.

~LD

Travelling

High above the center
of the labyrinth,
where I sit sipping
the last of my wine,
the Host of moon
is scraped flat to the east,
but still generously lights
the thread across my palm
showing red dye
awakened by sweat and
smeared like blood
on the day Theseus
fought the minotaur —
now a mere skittering
of enormous, whistling bones
leaning on shadowed stones;

Tugging the thread,
I know that Ariadne’s nap
long since ended curled
in Dionysus’ arms; this thread
leads out to the rocker rails
at my grandmother’s feet, now,
and I pull myself along
right and left and left again
until after many long turns
I’m seated again at her knee
As when I was small;
Today my arm is long
and reaches round her waist,
still strong, and warm
Though her eyes fade and withdraw
From a few feet away,
this close, touching,
she hears every word
and her eyes widen and sparkle
recognizably the woman
I remember,
hanging on to her own thread,
twisting knots of memory
between weary fingers.

~LD

Anhelo

The sun winks
As he turns toward night,
and blush washes over
the breast of thin clouds

Thick velvet mat of treetops
are shot with shining
green threads woven
through by busy lighting bugs

I breathe air
thick with mist
of time, and think
I hear my name

I roll the base
of my glass in its
puddle of sweat
on the table

the raspy, low voice
of flayed earth
calls me across the miles

the sound falling like
grains of sand down through
leaves fish-scaled up to the sky’s
watery surface

the outside edge of my soul
misses the open arms
of desert galaxies
that echo with song

and winds adornment
around the waist
of a yearning not numbed
by spirits.

~LD

Thefts

I’ve been careless
with the ink
from my pen,
going to bed
before the ink
is fully dry
on a leaf.

Words left to
steep overnight
are marred in
morning light;

Some little squirrel
has wandered
through my
heart
and stolen
my last stanzas,

every single one