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

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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.

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