She said I had a gift. That is, my mother said this of my writing. She said I had a gift, and that it would be wasteful to pursue my art when it was only mediocre, and my writing was so good.
Somehow, instead, I survived with my sense of wonder intact. Somehow I still believe that the natural state of the human spirit is ecstatic wonder. And that I should settle for no less.
No, I don’t believe in love… unless I am in love with everyone. And, yes, I am in love with everyone, a grain of sand in love with the sea, a star in love with the far arms of the Milky Way.
When you are sick, you can’t get comfortable. There are aches. There are things called noses which do not exist unless they are cold, or unless they are running. Mine is running.
I thought it was food poisoning at first. Maybe it is. My stomach grew fists. I got very little sleep. I discovered for the twenty-third time in my life that porcelain is very very cold, even through fever dreams.
I do not understand people who want to be alone when they are sick. I do not understand the desire to shut yourself away, and make everyone else go away. I want people around. I want them to sing me silly song, and run their fingers through my hair. I want them to make me matzoh ball soup in a good homemade chicken stock, and to bring me tea, unafraid of contagion. I want them to read to me, long pages of Shel Silverstein, or Maurice Sendak, or Friedrich Nietzsche. I would do the same.
My friend Faith makes the best matzoh ball soup. “Everyone needs a Jewish mother when they’re sick,” she says, and I agree. I wish I could carry her in my pocket, so that when she’s hurt, I can hug her, and when I’m sick, she can make soup for me. We’d give each other good advice.
My problem is that I’m a sun lizard. I am always cold. My nose is cold, even though the rest of me is burning away. If I had a heat rock, I would put my nose on it, and let it run until it was quite finished, and then put it back on to enjoy some matzoh ball soup.
But I don’t have a heat rock. And Faith does not fit in my pocket. And being a mystiskeptic, my matzoh ball soup is mediocre at best. I have to make my own comfort, which is not so bad when you can measure it in nails clipped cozy down to the quick, in the weight of a cat’s purr, and in the smell of read pages. Unread pages smell different. Take my word for it.
Because when your friend Faith is far away, and you have only mediocre matzoh ball soup, the comfort you make is the best you’re going to get.
I never knew where they’d hunt the turtles, but they brought them back in buckets. I kept one, and named it Nicole. We dug pits in their backyard, set pulleys in trees, and ranged around on our bicycles just down the street, turning circles like small pale-skinned vultures. We didn’t know that our neighbors were a network of spies, informing our parents. We didn’t know that the only time we were truly free was when we dove through the underbrush, picking up prickle burrs and climbing high into the forest canopy. They never saw us there, the watchful eyes, and the better for us, perhaps they reasoned, learning independence. We were independent little things, and we made our own adventures, pretending to be stranded on deserted islands in the tropics when we pulled ourselves from the waves of an above-ground swimming pool, seeking out signs of animals we’d never met before under the arms of old oak trees.
We were trusted to wander far, and when we weren’t, we slipped leashes and struck out on our own. We were caught and dragged back by ears or arms, given stern lectures, but the call was too strong to ignore. There were river banks to explore. There were patches of woods between neighborhoods, and daunting pines to climb, half-trusting their boughs to bear weight.
I look around me at the kids I know today, in this different time and place, and wonder about their wanderings. There’s a lot I don’t see of their existence. There’s a lot that’s different from mine. Was it better as a kid for us to have been turned loose? Was it better to be able to roam the back ways on bicycles and find our own paths? I can’t make a judgement call. I only wonder, do they trust them own sense of freedom?
I took it for granted, all of it. I own every issue of Poetry Magazine from 1981 to 2008, skip a few and smatter in some 2010. I would lazy-handedly pull them from shelf or bin, whisper them open to a random page and read, then read again aloud. I own chapbooks and volumes thick and thin of Vénus Khoury Ghata, Margaret Atwood, Jacques Prévert. I have years of the Georgia Review, and a few of The New England Review/Breadloaf Quarterly from the 80’s. A few issues of Ploughshares. Not a few issues of Crazyhorse. Rattle. But these are lists, and though laid out lovingly, they mean nothing.
No, I will tell you this, because this means something: I would, lazy-lipped, drink words and roll my tongue over sharp diatribes laid out in three lines, and I, wounded, would reel for the next three stanzas, blood dribbling from my chin. I would curl around quiet moments overlaid with alliteration and a sense of loss like a cat in a sun puddle, soaking in the sound of these words.
These poems? They were air. They were water, food. I never go a day without reading one. But they are not with me. They are packed away in North Miami. I am dancing through Broward County. They are like artwork in a museum and I can’t afford an entry ticket.
Today, I am gnawing off my arm. Today, I am searching for publicly available poems. Prose can only take you so far. The rest is a leap of faith into verse. Today, I am dragging my tongue over internet pages, craving paper copies of poems by Kathleen Graber.
Poems are a need. I need them. I need them. I breathe them. I took them for granted, took space for granted, book space, open, delicious shelves, and rows of poems like fresh peaches to savor. I am starving, now. Will trade food for poems. Speak them in my ear. I will give you the last of my heart.