Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Relay

A starter’s gun sees fit
To startle runners
To swift mobility:
Igniting the twitches
Of quadriceps, locked
In the blocks, to
More productive
Action.

Metal spikes in
Soles of athletic
Shoes, connecting
With a gravel track,
Reverberate in the jaw,
The teeth, grinding
Like an un-oiled
Gear, propelling
The body forward.

A hollow baton,
Painted aluminum,
Whistles a beat,
A bitonal melody,
A rhythm
Matched by the
Maker,
By movement.

Knuckles locked closed,
Gripping a weight,
Requiring a give,
A take,
Compensation
For a body off balance.
With weakened back,
the foundation is sown
Like a farmer’s field,
Untilled and black
With richness
And possibility.

Second leg,
A political war
Of kinesthetics,
The warrior recognizes
Space, time
Opponents in
The arc of a goal.

Baton! He yells,
And raises
A blue-veined
Forearm,
A battle cry.

For a fraction of a second,
Contact is made,
Hand to stick to hand,
Brotherly and unified
Rising into striding sync:
A mathematician
Calculates
Forward progression.

Precision in the final lap
A philosopher
Whirring wheels
Breaks a tape with
Developed powerful
Pectorals inflated with
Steady inhalations –
Unbated –
Unified in hope
Of the three cyclic
Lifetimes that ran
Before him, churning
The cinder of
An ignorant path
Beneath his
Spent feet.

“I could fill Volumes with Descriptions of Temples and Palaces, Paintings, Sculptures, Tapestry, Porcelaine, &c. &c. &c. — if I could have time. But I could not do this without neglecting my duty. The Science of Government it is my Duty to study, more than all other Studies Sciences: the Art of Legislation and Administration and Negotiation, ought to take Place, indeed to exclude in a manner all other Arts. I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Painting and Poetry Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
-Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, post 12 May 1780

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.” -Reinhold Niebuhr

Changing The Sidewalk

“So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and gives life to thee.”
From Sonnet XVIII
by, William Shakespeare

Unsteadily upright,
A white-pated man
Awaited to shuffle across
The intersection. One hand
On a button, shakily
pushed for a pedestrian
Crossing, the other rested casually
On his jutted, arthritic hip,
Exposing the underbelly
Of his hand, his palm,
Flawless and juxtaposed
Next to his exhausted body.

His bowled legs,
Barely able to support
His aged body, met the ground
In blindingly white tennis shoes
With velcro straps, draped
In an easy-fitting
Geriatric uniform:
Khaki pants, zippered
Wind breaker, suggesting
His hands now have
Proven themselves as
Cumbersome during
His daily dressing.

His profile, grey and golden,
Illuminated by autumnal
Afternoon sun, proved useless
To warm his
Cardiovascular conundrums.
The whole of his body
Trembled, weary
From a lifetime of
Crossing busy streets.

Yet the un-calloused hand,
Pristine and smooth, once
Undertook the gentler and
More sensual of tasks:
Childhood sculpting of
Hand-made clay,
Caressing the skin of
A young lover, Cupping the
Open-fontanelled skull of
A newborn infant; a touch,
A neuro-pathway,
A motor sensory memory
Of realized youthful pleasure,
Unchecked and unspoiled
By a lifetime of hard-earned
Changes.

Raison d’Être

Our hound, a rescue of unknown genetic origins,
Delineated clearly his two existences:
That of domestic pet, comforter
Of angst-ridden adolescents,
Creature of decadence, sprawled
Over pillow-topped mattresses,
Receiver of morsels of food
That never quite made it to
The mouths of his human roommates.

Out-of-doors, he became attuned
To his aboriginal identity,
Pulled by olfactory impulses,
Low-toned howls replaced by
High-pitched yips, indicating
His discovery:
An agile rodent on the other end of
A faint scent, but a powerful reminder
Of his true reason for being,
His own brass ring.

At our doorstep, he usually returned
Empty-mouthed to a more mundane
Vie Quotidien. Panting, leaving
Paw prints of perspiration
On the hardwood kitchen floor,
Lapping water
From a polished, stainless steel bowl
With his dextrous tongue,
Eyes no longer dilated from the excitement
Of an elusive rabbit that escaped
His surprisingly lithe gait and
Presumed powerful jaws,
Now rendered vestigial again
At the gentle hand of a child
Offering the crusts of a
Peanut butter sandwich.

Yet today, as he approaches
His second decade of life,
He stands on the back porch,
An architectural symbol of his segue,
His threshold of two parallel identities.
A rabbit, matted fur soaked, trails
Blood from his no longer twitching,
Useless pink nose.

The hound’s foreleg trembles.
His eyes, solid discs of dark brown,
Hold our own amazed gawks.
His eyebrows,
Brown and clown-like, rise and fall
As he contemplates
The garden, the hearth of the kitchen,
His prize still warm
On his saliva-soaked tongue.
It’s as if, given the power
Of a shared spoken language,
He’d desperately ask: “Where,
On God’s green earth,
Do I possibly go
From here?”

A dog chases a plump rabbit in this detail from Initial E: A Priest Celebrating Mass, an illumination in a Spanish law code. Courtesy of The Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

A dog chases a plump rabbit in this detail from Initial E: A Priest Celebrating Mass, an illumination in a Spanish law code. Courtesy of The Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Emotional Gentrification

The clapboards of the ancient boathouse
Separated at the corners, revealing rusted
And bent nails with rectangular shanks.
The foundation, cracked and in need of repair,
Held the aging structure precariously steadfast,
Offering welcome to the runabouts
Of the last century into its own hull.

The windows waved, burled and
Undulating, rippling the image of
What lay inside – streaks of
Muted color and indistinct forms.
A glass blower, now long since
Gone, forming nostalgic eyes
Which, when opened with love,
Would soften light that would stream in
From an outside world.

I am that outside world,
Curious about a structure that
Over decades, became a mere aspect
To the horizontal landscape.
I paddled my kayak through its
Open portal, expecting to find
A 1930s three-horsepower
Engine, gooey with stale oil,
A wooden-hulled runabout
With a leak and broken seat boards,
A moldy and torn star-spangled banner.

Instead, I find a young couple, folded
Into a sleeping bag like twin butterfly
Lovers in a cocoon
Startled awake, sitting up in fear,
Breaking their loving spoonful
Of an embrace. Hastily I offer
Apologies, paddling backward
To open and clear waterscape
That is decipherable and mine,
Having stumbled into a memory
That I’d swear was my own.

West Shore from Hopkins copy

The Time Between Dog and Wolf

The letters on the printed page
Become indecipherable,
A time the French call
“Le temps entre
Chien et Loup,”
Whereas at dusk,
It is impossible to
Distinguish a dog
From a wolf, a
Domestic friend, or
Potential natural enemy
Who haunted childhood
Fairy tales and dreams.

The late summer breezes
Slow. It is quiet,
The children having
Retreated to eat their
Evening meals, the sun
No longer offering a
Good perspective on their
Bike spokes, basketball nets
Or fishing lines.

The sky darkens and
The horizon seems
A painting, a tableau
Commemorating
The end of a cycle
That is one day.
The cooler air invites us
Out to our lawns
With a drink, making
Meditative exhalations,
Through curlicued smoke
As the last streaks of sunlight turn
Illuminated clouds
To a final grey blue.

The katydid, awakening,
Sounds his mating call,
The first one tentatively
Breaks the silence
Like an uninvited guest,
A killjoy,
Who reminds us all
Of an impending September.

Old wives of New England
Mark the first rushed chirp
Of the ephemeral tettigoniidae
As the last of summer,
The first frost only
Six weeks away;
With a mere year
To replicate itself,
To close the arc of
A short life,
The menacing sound
Reluctantly comes
Irregardless of
Human associations.

In the dark,
We retreat from a full day
When the world is awake and
Quivering with
Work and consciousness.
We curl into worn arm chairs
With books and weary limbs,
Around dining tables
With children, fresh vegetables
And decks of cards,
Into beds with cups of tea,
And music and with any luck, a partner.
We briefly crave
The welcome rest that
Autumn will provide, and
Bring us closer –
More quickly –
To another year,
Through the palest of dawn.

Second Cup of Saturday Morning Coffee

For many, Saturday Night is Date Night…

Survival Guide

Hyperbolic, first-world declarations
About coffee, air conditioning or
Wireless computer connections:
We couldn’t possibly live
Without them. Throw us into
The arctic surrounds of our ancestry
And forget the igloo, the seal hides
And blubber: we need to check
Our instagram accounts. Keep
The knife, the desalinization
Membranes and radio:
Drag us to the closest cell tower;
We need to read our e-mail.

Throngs of people line city streets
Clutching their surrogate electronic
Rhesus monkey mothers,
Offering nurturing security,
Loving attention from man-made
Bestowers of contact and affection,
A life-line offering one level of
Maslow’s actualized human needs:
Love. The basics come in
Much less comforting packages:
Lunch wrapped in tinfoil, apartments
Sweltering in brick façades,
Swaths of cotton stained from
Sweat of the daily toil.

Grief is love
Encountering its archenemy;
The delivery system of
Our will to live is
A mere incarnation of
Our will to thrive. Survival
Without reason or meaning is
A cell without connection,
Despondent and weakened
And not much worth it
To begin with. That’s
No exaggeration.

recharge

Two Turtle Doves

About a month ago, I discovered that I left the storm window open in my second floor bathroom. In an attempt to bring order to an otherwise chaotic life, I decided to strive for a spotless sill, capitalizing on minutae of life that lay under my power. Removing cobwebs and dead leaves from the space between two pieces of glass seemed an obtainable goal and satisfying task at the time, yet subsequently leaving that window open would have eventually defeated the purpose.

IMG_3256I likely wouldn’t have noticed the oversight until the next OCD attack, if it weren’t for the female mourning dove who had decided to build her flimsy nest there. One evening while attending to my toilette I heard the distinctive, soulful coo coming from the window, coupled with an aviary silhouette: an evening sloped bird shadow in the lower left pane.

The next morning she remained, periodically exposing her two small ivory-colored eggs, much to the delight of my children and me. We scoured the Sibley’s Guide To Birds, devoured the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, took daily photographs and videos of our new feathered friends. We were careful not to disturb her mothering, her dutiful and steadfast wait for her squabs to emerge from their shells as she warmed them with her bulbous breast.

They hatched about two weeks later, wet little chicks with tightly wrenched eyelids, vulnerable to all that lay beyond that sill. My teenaged son crouched in the adjacent bathtub waiting for over an hour the morning we discovered they had hatched to capture their image on film. I marveled at his stamina, his persistence, the ability of this tiny winged creature to tear him away from all electronic distractions. It’s as if Lovey Dovey, a name coined by my five year-old, had reminded us all of a world that existed beyond ourselves, outside of our comprehension or natural abilities.

The squabs matured, violently devoured dove’s milk from Lovey’s esophagus, which is simply regurgitated seeds she had pre-digested for their convenience. The growing squabs bulged from underneath their parent, as we learned that both male and female take on child-minding responsibilities. We wondered when they made the shift change, musing to ourselves that the changing of the guard was done in much more private circumstances than those of Buckingham Palace.

Mostly, however, her presence was reassuring in that there was an order to the world that was natural and that perhaps we were part of it. We instinctively lowered the shade when her uneasiness was clear, when the reactionary ruffle of feathers in a stream of artificial light spilled through the pane of glass that separated us. We understood that there was a wall, albeit a clear one, that offered an impressive view, but kept us definitively apart.

About a month after we discovered we were playing host to one of nature’s wonders, we left for a weekend away, only to return to two adolescent doves struggling their way up our back steps, and clumsily flying to a near-by branch. The nest was left, empty and filthy with guano, as we regretfully acknowledged that we missed the flying lessons and the thrill of observing the first stretch of fully-functioning wings. Of course we are not part of that world, and understood that our connection to this little family was fleeting by necessity, distant by nature and yet unusually intimate.

Yet it is impossible as emotional beings not to connect the experience to interpersonal, human ones. We had suffered loss that all human beings do, albeit in greater concentration in the recent past: we lost a parent, a grandparent, a marriage, the dream of a cohesive, nuclear family, an adored family dog. We had begun to prepare for my oldest child to leave our own nest, as he begins to think about colleges. It made us wonder if all such connections are as fleeting as an accidental intimacy we shared with a doting dove.

So it is with joy that we discovered that Lovey has returned to her nest this evening, perhaps seeking shelter from a rainy summer night, maybe to delightfully re-use the nest for another clutch of eggs. Let her serve as a reminder that the simple yet wondrous experience that she has shared with us, by some stroke of serendipity, will always be ours, as will every human connection we were lucky enough to make.

Meantime, I will leave the sill littered with sticks and droppings, ignoring – for now – what can be controlled.

Labor and Delivery

A hospice published booklet,
A quasi “What to Expect” publication,
Featured a cover photograph of
Easter lilies in full dripping bloom,
A maudlin image of resurrection.

The penning nurse likened the dying
To laboring mothers,
Wincing through pain and anxiety
In wildly individualistic ways
With some aspects of universality.

The paragraphs that followed offered
Bullet points of signs, what to look for,
What to recognize, what to offer
As “comfort management,”
Generally undercutting the hope
Of a Hollywood ending.

Instead, caretakers are led
Inadvertently down a different
Stream of consciousness:
Wondering what it was like to be born,
And therefore, to die.

The birth simile sends us through a
Channel of the mother host,
Ending a parasitic relationship
In loneliness and fear, the light
At its end, elemental
And blinding.

The first point of a finite timeline,
The lives of their babies are marked
With altruistic, private emotion:
Joy and relief for a relatively safe delivery,
Overcome with colossal responsibility of
A new coexistence.

In the blink of a new clouded eye
The world and all of its realism,
Material conditions now grips a new being in
Wondrous danger: the cold from the air
Will parch their skin, the hunger from
Lack of umbilical support will
Hinder them thrice daily for the rest
Of their lives.
With an innate survivalist urge
A newborn grapples for the breast,
Cantaloupe-scented milk, for sustenance
And comfort, while the clinically-minded
Marks birth weight, length,
The ticking minute at which one
Masked attendant happens to look at
A school house clock perched above an incubator:
The start, his point A, one milestone throwing
A shadow at light speed.

Easter lilies replaced by poppies,
Hedgerows, young soldiers who
Didn’t have the advantage of
Comfort Managers, their continuum
Stopped prematurely, they naturally
Cry out for their mothers,
Yearning for the same comfort.

Their own line has been folded,
Turned, pierced, offering
Sunlight and Moonlight intertwined;
The axes of a place inconceivable
Bend to form a sphere that rolls,
Time ceases to exist and loved
Ones float in ideas.

May the more seasoned veterans amongst us,
Those more fully realized
Making the trip in necessary solitude,
Leave loneliness and fear at
The beginning, be enveloped in light
No longer blinding with all
Points in the line marked
By hash marks of recognized Grace,
And be met by the one woman, who
By a more natural course
Might be present, somehow,
At both ends of the labored line.

timeline-33

Skating on Page Park Pond

We are shuffling together
Across a hospital corridor,
Your aged body weak with malady,
Mine assuming a new role:
That of doting child.

One arm around your waist,
A hand under your twitching arm
We maneuver a wheeled walker
And trailing oxygen tube with
Slow and deliberate mobility.
Your skin still emits warmth
Regardless of all that has
Atrophied underneath.

You held me this way once,
Thirty-five years ago, as we
Glided across ice,
Blades on our feet,
My ankles buckling from taxing
Rarely-used, unnamed muscles.

Embarrassed over my lack
Of skill, trumped by my
Pride in yours, I savored the
Attention, paid with parity
For each acre of your
Complicated life.

Our piece-meal skating costumes
Blue-collared sheaths, were
More like crimson cloaks
And cadet grey capes in
The vapors of our exhaled
Breath, staccato waves of
Effort and laughter.

Currier and Ives printed
The same over your utilitarian,
Cotton, hospital-issued gown,
Shrouding sorrow, grief, and
Illuminating an evanescent
Physical warmth of our
Eternal familial connection.

Central Park, Winter The Skating Pond Courtesy of the Currier & Ives Foundation

Central Park, Winter
The Skating Pond
Courtesy of the Currier & Ives Foundation