Just Hold On

Hold on to what you cherished as a child

for that love came from an unfettered heart.

Hold on to the wildness you find out of doors,

even the slight scent of balsam or the quiet of snow.

Hold on to the physical sense of your life

even the itch of a bug bite on your sweaty arm.

Hold on to the noise of the world around you

though the honk of a car hurts your ears.

Hold on to the brothers and sisters you argue with today

for tomorrow they will say something you don’t know.

Just hold on to that noise of music and stories,

for silence is the worst kind of loneliness.

Praise Song (after Lucille Clifton)

to shy Miss Parker

who stood up to the school board

and demanded in her wavering voice

her students be allowed to read

that book.

Praise her bravery.

She believed in me even if I didn’t—

oh I thought I was smart but I wasn’t

tough.

She was, though. She ignored the slights

of foolish teenagers and ignorant parents.

She plowed right past the sly laughter and grumbling.

Praise the books that gave her strength.

One afternoon in summer we brought an unwashed ungrateful

through-hiker to her mountainside home.

She took him in for the night.

Praise her open heart.

Can you see her, her ancient mother, and the hiker

sitting round the kitchen table,

eating homemade bread and soup?

Praise the lamp that encircled them in light.

Sailor

I learn by going where I have to go.

The wind directs my pace, the sun’s my coat.

Tomorrow I may stay but now not so.

 

Beyond the hills my eyes discern a glow.

Upon the sea there lies an anchored boat.

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

Loud voices jam the wind, yet still it blows.

I read to calm myself these words I wrote:

“Tomorrow I may stay but now not so.”

 

It seems so safe to follow what we know.

But here’s a bridge, yes, walk across the moat!

There is a world beyond and I must go.

 

My life is like a wave, all flux and flow.

Set free the tethered boat, just let it float.

I learn by going where I have to go.

Tomorrow I may stay but now not so.

Because There Is a Snowstorm

I see that I live like a flake of snow 

Symmetrical arrows point away from the center,

Scatter and disperse my focus.

I tumble through air in fragile confusion.

 

This I must remember:

This frozen drop of water

Was once submerged in prehistory’s floes.

A snowflake drifts alone for a time

But always returns to the torrent.

 

There is a river before and behind me.

It holds me up if I lay back and float.

The Strange Boys on My Street

Cruel, bizarre, dangerous, creepy, perverted—these are the words I’d use to describe the boys I knew when I was six. We walked to elementary school together. Every afternoon we came home for a snack and then left the house and ran wild. Sometimes those boys ran wild at my expense.

Start with bizarre. Also dangerous: D. He collected butterflies—pinned hundreds to a black velvet background. Maybe his father helped. (I never once saw his father.) D. had unremarkable brown hair in that 50s cut: short on the sides with slanting bangs parted on the left side. Clark Kent glasses. He knew a lot about science so I tolerated him. D.’s mother was afraid of him—whatever he wanted for lunch he got. I was afraid of him at times, too. Once he ran after me with a pitchfork. I ran ahead of him through the dusty barn while he chased me. He was naked—skinny, skim-milk-colored—and shrieking, “Get out! Get out!” I had walked in on him while he was doing… what? I don’t know.

Then there was the red-haired boy. I’ve deliberately forgotten his name. His parents owned our house, and he came over when his dad collected the rent. He was older than me, so maybe he was eight the day he lounged on our front steps, curled his lip, and told me that Santa Claus was a hoax. The truth struck me like hard rap to the head. I ran into the house, his laughter following me. I hate him to this day.

I was the oldest of four then, soon to be five. Desperate to escape the house, my mother resorted to hiring a neighborhood boy to babysit. She thought my brothers would prefer to have a boy take care of them. I knew it was creepy that W. wanted to give me a bath. I could bathe myself. He followed me up the stairs, asking me to just take off my shirt or something. I told my mother he acted weird and she said, “Stop imagining things.” But then he let my two little brothers make fluffernutter sandwiches. Peanut butter and marshmallow fluff still covered the kitchen when she got home and W. never babysat again.

The worst were the C. boys next door. Muddy paths crisscrossed the thicket behind our houses and my friend, G., and I played back there. One day, two of those C. brothers ambushed me and ordered me to pull down my underpants for a nickel. They were bigger than me—maybe nine and ten—and, while I was scornful of their stupid ways, I was scared of them, too. They threw the nickel at me and it landed in the ooze. I didn’t bother to look for it. Their older brother was even more perverted but that’s a story for another time.

I sometimes wonder how those boys on Stevens Avenue shaped my adult feelings about men. I mean, am I right to be suspicious of them and their predatory instincts?

Insight

Marrying her was the biggest mistake of my life. As if revelation, the thought rushed into his mind as the cereal bowl whizzed by.

“You knew all weekend? And didn’t care to tell me?” She stamped her foot.

“I can’t talk to you about this,” he said. “You’re too crazy.”

“But you quit? Last Friday? You just up and quit?”

When they’d first met, her hair was blond, flowing around her shoulders. Now she’d had it slashed into short dark spikes.

“I couldn’t take it anymore. And… well…”

She waited impatiently. “Well what?”

“Well, Don said some things that really pissed me off.”

“Jesus. You couldn’t overlook it? For the sake of our health insurance, rent money… And my classes, how will we pay for them?” She wilted into a chair. “I can’t believe you did this to me. To us. Again.”

“Well, hey, I can drive you to school.”

The two older kids left the kitchen with their mother. They had places to go, even if their father wasn’t going to work. After all, it was Monday.

He bit into his toast while the baby banged a spoon on the highchair tray. I’ll tell her tonight. That it’s over.

The Day After

It’s too soon to write a poem

about the way the waves sounded different

and I leapt from bed, pierced to the heart by the knowledge

that this was the first day of the rest of the days forever different.

It’s too soon to confess I stole your red plaid shirt

simply because I couldn’t bear to let the frayed fabric

hang limply on an abandoned hanger.

It’s too soon to listen for you

in the music you breathed like oxygen;

to hear your thick gentle fingers

stumble with reverence through Mozart or Beethoven

as I play the piano, two hands alone.

It’s too soon to tell the tale

of how I watched a loon dive and swim in the rising sun’s gaze.

And how, just as I turned to leave, it called out and halted me.

How I wanted it to be you, sending a sign from wherever you are.

It’s too soon to be comforted

by cognizance that any loon’s call

is a message from what will always be your world,

no matter how altered its landscape.

It’s too soon.

(for my father, October 23, 1995)