Faith at the Front Door

The bell signaled
Jehovah’s Witnesses
on my porch.

Polite, older, black women in
neat dresses.
Umbrellas tucked under one arm,
tracts under the other.
Prepared.

They looked disconcerted
to hear that I,
barefoot,
in coffee-stained pajamas,
already had a a vision of
heaven, that I was
studying God at that very moment at
my computer before the
bell rang and the dogs loudly
raised the alarm.

I studied God
in them
in that odd minute.

I don’t know that they were pleased.
But I was.

God was beautiful.

Asphalt Chronicles: An Afternoon at Wildwood Centre

I am learning to love parking lots
to see the beauty –
small scraps of hope
flashes of green holly and red berries
a hint of a crape myrtle in the
tortured trunk and tiny sprouts.
Squirrel, mourning dove, crow,
stranded oak.
Maples
root-bound yet
determined in their
circumscribed islands of soil.

I am learning to love parking lots, to
forgive the harsh word, the
rude gesture, the
impatient insistence of dominance, the
thwarted intention.
To watch the care as parent reaches for child’s hand,
not judge the car that straddles the line or the
rapid reach for the cell phone and the
peril averted just in time or the
cart full of Fruit Loops and Cheetos.
Or the memory of what grew here before.

This is what is.

The song says we paved paradise.
The deed done,
asphalt laid,
now cracked, faded stripes,
ghosts of a meadow and creek.

Parking – a
gift? right? privilege? requirement?

Multiculturalism in the
Honda
Dodge
Audi
Ford
Jaguar row.
Intersectionality at the intersection.
Saabs and Jeeps and Chevrolets.
We’ll take our diversity in the form of
paint colors,
model years,
features we want or
what we can afford.
Consumer choice.
Do our wheels speak to
one another in accents of the land in which
they were made?

I must learn to love this,
this world here.

Two yellow cars fringe a row of
more mundane shades.
For a moment the eye can dance.
Alice Walker guides us in this place:
live frugally on surprise.
What happens if
you start with expectations low,
eyes open?

Windows down, the
rain begins.

Fall colors
Taco Bell bags
chocolate bar wrappers
gnarled plastic straws.
Black pavement
beige buildings
white faces and brown faces.
Nary a pastel in sight.

Nuns at Wal-mart,
old people buying useful old people things and ice cream.

A man leans against his car, smoking, his
old brown hat angled,
knife case secure on his belt.
He waits,
not with patience.
Man and car both need a bath.

A woman hesitates.
To carry her coat or not –
what matters most?
Freezing for short minutes
between car and store?
Or the weight of the coat
as she shops?

Zoning, shopping, crime and naps.
It’s all here.
Of us and we of it.
Heat and cold alike radiate,
water washes
off in torrents
drains trash and streaks of oil.

This is what we wanted.

This is what we were told we asked for.

To Be in the Audience

I wrote this poem after attending a play one night. Thinking, however, about all this season’s graduations, it could apply there as well.

To Be in the Audience

What does it mean to give
your body wholly to something?

To lean forward as the curtain is drawn,
shadows of bodies
frame the stage.

To be down,
waiting,
can’t wait
to get up.

The itch of art
until the deed’s done
the day’s done.

Missed cues and muffled lines,
accents and
grace and power,
speed.

To watch the single prop transformed,
a swirl of color and light,
cradled like a toy,
whipped through the air,
tied at the shoulder.

Every show needs an audience.

Is it art if no one watches,
dearth of applause,
empty of appreciation?

Well,
yes,
but
showing up
helps.

Asphalt Chronicles: Adventures in Traffic

Upon hitting the city at 5:00
on Friday night –
smack into a
slow rush hour,
on the roads of a
Southern city with
no public transit to
speak of.

We descend the twisting ramp to an
8-lane parking lot
going north,
radio announcing where we’ll find
brake lights.
No worries there –
we’re drowning in them.
Red washing over fragile metal,
progress measured in feet, in
single speedometer digits.

What we find before we know we’re seeking:

One – a landmark midtown tavern I’d always meant to visit.
I tell the kid to look old.
She drinks a coke and reads her book.
I sip a draft – only 1 – and write a friend.

Two – Ethiopian drive-thru.
Spongy bread,
spiced cabbage,
red lentils,
potato stew
to go.
The kid passes me neatly
scooped handfuls at
stop lights.

Three – a vast outdoor store with
stuff on sale.
Tons of tempting items
promising adventure.
We mark items off her camp list
before returning to the road,
dark now with
headlights and
street lights and
stars.

Saturday on the Pediatric Rehab Unit

Written a while back, but for me it still speaks to bearing witness to difficult times – and there’s a whole lot of difficulty in our world right now.

Saturday on the Pediatric Rehab Unit

One sobbing 2-year old with burned hands.

One dislodged NG tube.

One baby’s blood on my shirt.

One young man obsessed with Mountain Dew.

One exploding gas line burns one house
and three people in it.

One rescue inhaler missing meant one heart stopped and one brain died, almost died, died to
the life that it knew, to the life his mother dreamed.
And now I stretch his stiff, sweaty limbs,
curling into knots
and watch his eyes for silent screams.

One smiling, unspeaking 16-year old, who
lives with a body that has turned on itself,
lives with her sister’s ex-boyfriend,
lives with a mass of knotted wig on her head, which her mother refuses to comb.

One breathing tube out. Finally.

One 5 year-old with the flu,
and a brain tumor,
just diagnosed,
inoperable,
and a mother who fears
the father who hates.
A thin sheet of pretense veils the room.

One boy who set afire a string on his shirt
and his shirt
and his arm
and his back
and his chest
I don’t go back to my mama’s, he says.
She throwed toys at me.

One boy with clay on his hands
a fresh scar dancing across his head
from the car that hit him
as he danced across the road.
His mother, tested for drugs, will not return.
His father, older, bearded, country, doting,
slices through plastic packaging
to open more clay, more crayons, more games and paint brushes.
Whatever he can give
to heal his boy
While you’re here, I’m going to go smoke,
he pleads.
I’ll be back, son, he says to the boy looking at solid food, meant for him,
for the first time in a week.
Pizza and grape juice,
of course.
Trembling fingers pluck thin strips of meat from each piece,
stretch out for the straw.
I roll the clay in my fingers and remind him:
Small bite.
Chew.
Swallow.
Sip.
Repeat.
We watch the day end,
the pizza disappear,
the quiet hope of the night stop by this room
for just one moment.

Dog in the Morning

Smart dog Harriet knows that
when the door locks
the kid is gone,
the day begun.
Still time though
to leap to the window.
Paws at rest,
lean into the life outside,
lean close,
nose to pane
holding the moment,
until, kid onboard, the car crests the hill and
vanishes into the light.

Marathon Bombs

What sick soul builds bombs
aimed at the feet of those
who run?

How do we pray for
those whose
most evident gift is that of
destruction, who find
delight in carnage, who
crave blood and bone
belonging to another?

Thirteen-year old Isaiah
stood beside me that morning,
arms outstretched,
part way through a
psych stay.

I can control the wind
he said.
Like this.
He dropped his arms like wings,
pulled them to his sides,
turned them palm up.

Later,
driving past entire hedge rows of
blooming azaleas
I listened to stories of
police chasing bombers through Boston,
radio squawking with
cordoned streets and lockdown.
Twitter feeds full of
rumor, fear, the
restless exhilaration of
near proximity to
disaster.

They scoured the streets
searching
house to house.
Shot Tamerlan Tsarnaev while I
slept.
Shut down a city while I
showered, while I
stopped at the bank,
filled out raffle tickets for the school.

SWAT teams while I watered the plants.
House to house while I returned phone calls,
spoke to a board meeting
full of young blonde women and
one brunette
one man
one black woman.

I drove through a village
hatchback open
left safely untended then
filled with dozens of tulips.
A feast of cut flowers.

I wished them on a frightened city far away.
I wished them on a frightened murderous young man
days ago
before this happened.

Visitation

The morning after burying an old friend,
a day of fellowship and ghosts,
just before I met the daylight
I was flat on the ground
reaching down a ledge
into the river for a
flip-flop,
I think.

I’d been at water’s edge through the night
crises
festive moments
streams of people.
Somehow I lost a shoe.

Extended there,
a shoulder tap.
I craned my neck
turned my head
found my grandparents.
Hazel and E.C.
Charles and Lilla.

They said “We love you.”
They said it twice
nodded
vanished.

I stumbled my way from sleep to
morning sun.
Outlines of trees outside the window filling in with
trunks and branches and leaves.
I woke the child,
gave the dogs water,
packed my lunch,
drove to school,
drove to work.

They did not tell me to do these things.

They did not have to.

For Timbuktu

Religious thugs destroy ancient Sufi texts.
Centuries of prayers up in flames.
A millennium of scholars’ ghosts gasp
at such senseless loss.

I hope the scoundrels breathed the smoke,
that fragments of blessings
blossom in their lungs.
Poetry leaks into their blood.
Infected by art.
Septic with learning.
Culture convulses the body.
So they weep text
given by God.

A Postscript
I first heard of the city of Timbuktu when I was little and reading the Disney’s “The Aristocats”. In that story, bad-guy Edgar the butler attempts to send the feline protagonists to Timbuktu, but instead gets mailed there himself (does that need a spoiler alert?).

As a kid, I figured Timbuktu must be the farthest, most exotic place imaginable for it to have played such a role in the story. The presence of Edgar notwithstanding, I wanted to go there. As an adult who has learned of its incredible history and cultural richness, I still do. Unfortunately (especially for its inhabitants), it remains a risky place to travel because of a continuing jihadist threat.

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago after reports surfaced of fighters from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb destroying ancient texts in Timbuktu. The joyful epilogue is that the careful and quiet work of local scholars such as Dr. Abdul Kader Haidara actually saved many of Timbuktu’s manuscript treasures – and today restoration and preservation efforts continue anew. More of that story can be found in this PBS Newshour story: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/rescuing-the-priceless-manuscripts-of-timbuktu/ and this Guardian article: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/23/book-rustlers-timbuktu-mali-ancient-manuscripts-saved

This poem came to mind in the last couple of weeks as news surfaced of the Islamic State’s destruction of ancient cultural artifacts in the cities of Ninevah, Nimrud, and Hatra. It’s an incalculable loss and permanent tragedy for the people of Iraq and for the citizens of the globe. City Metric has a good article with more details – http://www.citymetric.com/skylines/isis-bulldozing-some-worlds-first-cities-here-s-what-were-losing-840

I offer this poem and my prayers today to  in the same spirit that I did to Timbuktu in January 2013.

All Other Points West: 1553 to Dallas

In Atlanta, the ramp leads us down to the street as
buckets of water dump from the sky.
As one we pull up our hoods and
step beyond a waiting bus to the next, meant for us,
1553 to Dallas.

I trail a small boy, as black as I am white, tugging an enormous red suitcase
whose tag reads San Francisco.
A glance ahead suggests the likely mom,
pulling another bag and another brother.
Then another traveler, a thief of space, mistakes me for weak,
tries to gain a place in our long wet line.
I know this game and
checkmate her with a
single
polite
decisive
step.

Upon the bus, I scan the seats.
There sits the boy, three rows back,
across the aisle from bro and mom.
A safe seat mate.
“Hey, little man. Anybody sitting in that seat besides your backpack?”
Quick glance at mom, who nods.
He tucks the bag to his feet.
I take the window.
Soldiers with duffles,
small women with big purses, and
young lean men of every color slip past us down the aisle.

My seatmate compliments my blue pen,
likes it because it writes so fine.
He’s ten years old,
in the 5th grade.
The name is mumbled once, twice and
then I give up on getting it for now.
He eyes his brother
who has custody of mom’s phone and its games.
“Next time he crashes, it’s mine, Mom. Mom. Mom.”
It’s a word of many syllables.
Soon though not peacefully the phone changes hands.

We trade information.
“I’m going to San Francisco,” he says.
“That’s a long way,” I reply.
“That’s what everybody says.”

Four rows back a couple speaks loudly of sex
before subsiding as the driver works the aisle for tickets.
“We got tickets to San Francisco,” says my seatmate.
The driver smiles. “That’s where you’re going?”
My turn: “Don’t tell him that’s a long way.
That’s what everybody says.”

“Nice watch,” my boy tells the driver.
To me “I bet that cost a lot of money.”
“Well, he does work hard.”
He notes my Timex turned under on my wrist.
“Yeah. Hey, you wear yours likes that, upside down?”
“My granddaddy wore his like that and it became my habit.”
“Oh, okay. You want a mint?”
He’s generous and also offers gum. Grateful, I decline.

We wait
for another bus and its people.
Outside a man argues over luggage gone awry.
Or possibly going awry at this very moment.
He’s not getting far.
The driver paces the wet pavement, then turns
as the sister bus releases another line to join our crew.
These people look tired.
And quickly they are wet.
We silently assess their stuff.
Pillows, dripping coats, bags of boxes of cereal clutched close.

Then the rumble,
both sky and engine.
Darkness suspended briefly as we pull away.
The driver introduces himself as Roger, “our motorcoach operator,”
ticking off rules and destinations.
“This bus will go to downtown Dallas, Texas but
I will only go as far as Jackson, Mississippi,” he explains.

“We go through Mississippi?” asks my little man.
“You do. I’m stopping in Alabama.”
“We go through Alabama?”
“Yep, that’ll be our next stop.”

We turn back to the voice: “If any of you have been listening to the weather,
we probably are going to experience
some very bad inclement weather.”
I’ve been watching the screens as we waited inside.
The worst is past.

Still a thick grey of stormy night descends.
The slick streets give themselves to us
as we roll past sleeping shells of brick,
crumbles of commerce,
shadows of stone human beings.
A row ahead the angry man still fusses
and cusses on his phone about his luggage.
It will be a long story.

Back in our seat, my friend plays his game,
basketball,
on mom’s phone.
I pack my failing electronics away and
speak of reading.
“You read? You mean books?”
“Yeah, I like to read. You?”
“Yeah, I like to read. I learned in 3rd grade. No, 2nd grade. No, 3rd grade.”
His words are deep urban west coast.
My own speech a stew of south and mid-atlantic edu-speak.
We both must work at hearing them,
but tacitly decide it’s worth the effort.

My eyes close as we take the highway.
I hear him surrender the phone,
almost gracefully since it didn’t go to the brother.
Atlanta, Austell, Lithia Springs, Douglasville, Villa Rica blur by.
Familiar exits creep into my dozing brain.
A baby cries for days.
Okay, not really.

The quiet voice: “You mind if I turn on the light?”
“No man, it’s fine. I’m just resting.”
“Okay. Which button is it?”
The slender outstretched arm does not reach.
Not yet.
I help him out and then turn to look.
He’s got a book.
I blink at the paperback with snow and a sleigh on its cover.
A Candlelight Romance with very small print and a heroine named Calista.
“That’s your book, huh?”
“It’s my mom’s. She’s got a bunch of them. But I’m going to read it too.”
“That’s good.”

He begins to read softly, aloud,
each word a swirl of unfamiliar sounds pulled from the page.
“I read this book the whole thing once,” he says,
unfazed as my eyebrows raise.
“I sound out the words. Put them in chunks.”
Mom leans across, tells him to read to himself, quiet-like.

The book lasts until it’s time to drain
a huge bottle of Orange Crush of its final swig.
He offers me Doritos.
We talk in expert tones of Cool Ranch and Nacho Cheese.
And then I explain Central Time,
the difference between Mexico and New Mexico
and between city and state.
Topics we will revisit.

“Alabama, it’s nice too,” he says. They have all those tomatoes.”
I’m still deciding what to say to this, when moments later:
“Wow! That’s Alabama?!?”
He points into the dark at acres of bright lights,
a huge, shiny RV dealer.
“‘Yes, this is Alabama.”

First stop is Anniston,
where the bus station is a gas station.
People disperse in search of food, cigarettes, and bathrooms.
I’m stuck to my notebook, with my blue pen.
I like this boy and want to keep the words he gives me,
this journey’s unexpected small treasure.

We resume.
The man in front continues to berate his phone about his luggage,
more loudly now that his seatmate’s wisely moved on.
I’ve been hearing his story for more than 100 miles and
still can’t make sense of it.
“Do you cuss?” my boy asks me.
“Not around kids.”
“What do you say?”
“I’m not going to say them in front of you. Not in front of kids, right?”
“I’m allowed to say the s-word. Because it comes from donkeys.”
“Uh huh.”

Leftovers of a Mexican lunch provide me dinner.
We share chips and talk of favorite foods.
He likes Chinese.
I have citrus to spare for him and bro,
clementines bought by morning for my daughter.
I accept some sour Skittles in return.
Orange, red, and then he adds a yellow.
“These are the best,” he says,
as he takes the yellow one and places it in my palm.

“Are you racist?”
“Ummm . . “
Aren’t we all?
but some of us choose to try to recover from it.
But I can’t say that, so I’m still thinking.
“I mean, do you like black people?”
“What do you think? Do I like black people? I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”
“I like all kinds of people. If they are nice.”
“I’m with you on that one. It gets boring if everybody’s just like me.”

We watch the dark go by,
pass a bus-sized truck whose driver sips coffee,
then the sign for Chula Vista.
He says
“I asked my dad how he was doing. He said he was good.
I said ‘Good’ back to him. And then I told him ‘But man, you’ve got to put more details in it.’”

They’ve come from Charlotte,
a month-long visit so mom,
I hear her explain,
could “take care of some business.”
She offers me her phone charger
to juice my tablet,
but I tell her I don’t have far to go and
have enough juice for that.

And enough to show her boy a map.
He nods.
“I like maps. And globes. You know globes? My teacher has one.”
We touch the screen and trace his likely path across the states.
I tear a scrap of paper and write them down for him to keep.

North Carolina
South Carolina
Georgia
Alabama
Mississippi
Louisiana
Texas
New Mexico
Arizona
California.
At least I think.
I tell him I don’t know how they’ll go from Texas,
but maybe like that.

We review the Mexico-New Mexico difference again.
Then the talk turns to dinosaurs and what they eat
and then to iron and what we eat.
“That’s my TV, the window,” he says. “Are there any black people in Texas?”
“Why, yes there are. I do know that.”
“I mean like a lot of black people?”
“I guess that depends on how you look at it.”

“Look at those lights,”
I tell him as we glide into town.
“I’ve got to call my friend so I can get home.”

You’re a nice lady.”
“Thank you. I think you are nice too. I enjoyed talking with you.”
“Not everyone is nice.”
“No, not everyone is nice. You do have to be careful about that.”

We shake hands.
I finally get his name.
Elisha.
I tell him my own again.
Repeat it.

I give mom my card, tell her to have him e-mail me someday
when he learns how.
She says to him: “you made a friend.”

I hand her the last four clementines.
She has me give them to Elisha.
I remind him: “Now, they’re for you AND your brother.”
“I know.”
“Good.”

And then I go
away,
home.
And they go
away.

I sit this morning in the sunlight,
with my coffee and my dogs and my blue pen.
Elisha should be in Texas by now,
Dallas soon.
Then another bus will take him west,
so he can find his own way
home.