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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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

I hope you’ll understand… for the Senior class of 2015

Dear You,

You know who you are.

You came into my room last August and I was still sweeping up the dusty pinfeathers left behind by those who came before you.

Today, I felt like I was at the amanecida (all nighter) last night / this morning, though there is exactly zero chance that would ever happen. Nevertheless, I’ve been running on fumes roughly since you started presentations in mid-May. I knew this was coming. I’ve done it every year for so many years that I should be used to the end by now. So I watched you drag in today, pale and barely showered, your eyelids drooping through what would otherwise be a pretty engaging day of stories. You looked like I have felt these last three weeks. Drained, exhausted, hungover in the traditional sense, and in some cases in the more mundane lack of sleep. I watched you slog in, and tried my best to take it in stride, as I often do. Like you, I am utterly and completely exhausted.

But today was not just any old day. Today was the last day. Yes, I’ll see you next week in our final official meeting, but by then the routines will have changed already and the dynamic won’t be the same. You will still be you, and I will still be me, but there will be this underlying change in the way you see yourself, the way you see me. That’s what’s supposed to happen.

You were a little offended, I could tell, that I’m not “in love” with you as I was with the last, and I didn’t explain well, I know. English has its limitations. So let me try it this way: sí te quiero, pero más, te amo. It’s that kind of emotional subtlety that my native language doesn’t hold – alas.

I don’t really know what you see when you look at me, though you have tried to tell me: patient, strong, intelligent, non-judgmental, comfortable, happy (in spite of ten thousand things), a mentor, a friend, a listener, benevolently powerful, genuine, at ease, authentic, passionate, part of you. I guess we can never really see ourselves through another’s eyes because I see very little of what is on your list (ok, intelligent and patient, maybe) in myself. Still, it was nice of you to say so, and I will try my best to notice and at the very least maintain those qualities. Maybe I can even add a few others in the years to come.

And I have lived so much with you in this short time: university essays, recommendation letters, hanging out with Beowulf and Chaucer and Hamlet and the Romantics, new loves, old loves, unrequited loves, decisions about yourself, your beliefs, your direction, fights with authority in many shapes, recognition of grave hurts you didn’t let yourself feel before, losses of friends and loved ones – to age, ideological and personal changes, even death. I won’t take credit for the fine things you have discovered and take with you because I can’t; I’m glad, though, to have been a part of this time in your life and I’m more than a little sad to see you go. It has been a powerful, terrifying, exciting, horrible, wonderful year. I am hard-pressed to let you go, to say goodbye.

But go we must. We will meet again. Or we will not. Either way, the energy of this day could only be held today. A little firefly (luciernaga) in my hand that I must now release to the wilds, lest it lose its light forever. You will do well and you will be happy and successful if you decide to be – even if none of those things turns out to fit into the picture you have painted for yourself today.

Whatever else may happen between now and the next time we meet, know that I hold the light and the hope you brought to me this year fondly in my heart. I will remember (even if I decide to do nothing about it) that it’s not too late, that lessons can still be learned – and taught. So take wing my little lightning bug and show the way through the forests of night. I’ll be watching for you.

With great love and affection – Ms. H

In Bloom, Romas

the bitter, poisonous scent
of his bristles
sticks to her hands
vapors up from
her clothes
and burns away
duality.
There is only this
Flesh that grows flesh
full, warm, red, round
palm-sized sweetness
awaiting
consummation

~LD

Sowing in the City —

you can tell I took this, right?

you can tell I took this, right?

Fields of concrete and asphalt
Stretch into the horizon
Glistening silvery blue
Under flickering rays

Today, I think I’ll be a farmer,
walking my rows of pots
three tomato plants
crowded together
bravely blooming

one tiny green
finger tip
plump and round
disintegrates smog
and traffic

turns concrete and asphalt
into reaches of heaven
the warm, sweet, sour flesh
of Roma summer.

~LD

NaPoWriMo ended without me. Alas. Still, I’m out here. Doing the thing. Waiting for tomatoes.

Not a Breeder

I guess it’s too late to be a grandma
Too late to make cookies, brownies, pies
to spoil the kids of the kids who will never
come knocking on Thanksgiving morning
or in the swelter of fourth of July or their birthdays
or a random Sunday Cowboys’ game in October
I guess it’s too late
to be the grandma of the smartest, most gorgeous
grandbabies to ever set foot on earth
too late to be grammie, or ama, or mamaw or gran or meemaw or lala
too late too late
unless lonely poems
suddenly start breeding.

~LD

***

The funny thing about being human is that we live constantly within the conflict between two (or more) desires and dreams. I want to be clear; I don’t usually feel this way, but there is a little part of me that sometimes feels it and whispers around the other thoughts in my head. At those times, I wish I’d had babies back when I was sixteen or seventeen and didn’t know anything at all. Twenty days out of twenty one, I’m so so glad I didn’t . . . but then again. I blame Napowrimo’s prompt for today. ~LD

Betrayal

"nothing is real"

“nothing is real”


You strolled into my embrace
out of desert afternoon sun –
gangly and long, all elbows and knees,
bleached and browned
by summer’s long, slow touch.
Your ivory smile, framed in blurred crimson,
filled my sight and burned my throat
like moon shine.
Words stacked up impossibly,
unexpectedly,
behind surprise
and a kiss withheld
because my ankles wavered
on a tide of standing and sinking.
We were, suddenly,
perfectly,
broken.

~LD

Shattered Crystal

from warriorcatsrpg.com

Time tends to break.

In the refracted light
on a raindrop I recall
my ragged fingers laced
between your polished nails.
Across the thread of time
moon milk drips
in a long, blank line
toward a vanishing horizon,
where the visions in your fading words
are still the fire in mine.

~LD