Los Naufragos

We stand up, trembling, wailing, weeping.

The waves of the storm

have capsized the boats we made

out of determination and fear.

We lost the captain to his own self-interest,

gone into the water

like a trout

disappearing beyond the reach of light

or reason.

 

They came for us, feathers crowning their heads and

arrows shot straight and true.

They feared us

which was only right

for we had crossed a distance

they could not fathom.

They were not Christians,

only savage dogs

that we hoped would someday convert,

or be converted into corpses.

The land was all water

and fallen trees

and we spent so many months

hungry

thirsty

naked and half-dead.

But let me not speak of the these things,

of which you cannot imagine.

 

We did not know where we were,

except lost in our own misfortune.

The land was inhospitable

and its people terrible savages.

Long were the nights in the cold,

fearing for our lives, praying to

Our Lord that he might save us.

 

The last thing I have in my mind,

the last image of that place

that will not leave me,

is the tall and handsome stranger,

fit and strong,

weeping for our misery.

I cannot name him.

He did not speak our language

and I could not speak

the tongue of savages.

I see his face lit in the small halo

of the bonfire’s light, weeping.

 

That was long ago,

and all his people are now gone,

leaving the land empty,

water and fallen trees,

oysters no longer harvested.

I cut my hands trying to pull food

out of the salty water, so great

was my hunger.

I drank the bitter water, so great

was my thirst.

 

The stars are bright and the wind

strong. A storm comes and our

boats are set off course,

tumbling into dark water.

 

That is all there is, now:

Memories, moonlight splintering into

spider webs over the dark water.

I sat on the boat, many years later,

and went back to

Christian lands.

I never saw those men again.

It was as if they had never

touched me, never saved my life,

never gave me fresh water

or built a bonfire so I could

sit and be warmed in

my nakedness.

Christ had not touched them,

those unredeemed savages,

lost in the storm of a superior nation:

Mine. The words feel like

hunger in my mouth and I

taste blood. The boat rocks back

and forth, safe now, safely sent back to

Christian lands. No one is left to wonder,

what happened to that

man, whose life I saved? What came of

my compassion, my pity, my grace?

 

The storm rages, and we stand up in

the waves, shouting, trying to hear each other above the storm.

But long before nightfall

long before salvation

all who are left

will be drowned.

Katydid

This morning two leaf grasshoppers, bright green, their bodies the perfect mimicry of spring leaves, of sunshine distilled into chlorophyll, adhered themselves to my driver’s side door. They didn’t let go when I got in, so I drove off, expecting them to leap to freedom at the first stop sign. They didn’t. One got blown off somewhere along the way, but the second made it the 30-minute drive to work, at speeds of 60 miles per hour. He was still there when I got back in my car to drive home for lunch. I didn’t see him until I was stopped at a stoplight, and he hauled his green body, on thread-thin legs like tiny pieces of green stitching, to the top of the side mirror. He hunkered down, face first into the wind, and I imagined him as if he were a dog, enjoying the air folding back his ears—erh, antennae. I became attached to him, somewhere on the drive home. He was cute, for an insect, and I could admire his perseverance. He made it home with me, somehow, improbably, and when I pulled into the drive I wished him well, expecting never to see him again.

A long lunch hour later, I got back in my car, headed back to the office. Again, I didn’t see him until it was too late, until I was on the highway, until he was climbing towards the top of the side mirror, but this time a gust of wind turned him, one thread-thin leg pulled up from the car, his wings ruffled, pushed back towards his face until I was sure they were broken, his illusion of a leaf stripped bare. I found myself slowing, watching the mirror instead of the cars around me. I didn’t want him to die. Finally, though it was stupid, and I was already late coming back from lunch, I pulled over, made a left into the entrance of a green, heavily landscaped subdivision, stopped, got out, shooed him off. He flew away. He could still fly.

It was going to be okay.

 

Yesterday, or the day before, or sometime recently, or sometime soon, a man walked into a bar—wait, there’s no joke! A man walked into a bar and killed 49 people. He didn’t know them. They had done nothing to him. Whatever rage, anger, hatred, burned him up, he had created it himself, out of thin air, out of malice and pain and conceit. He could have given life, but instead he gave death, and grieving, and loss. We let him do it. We gave his weakness weapons, and he turned them against innocent people.

That will never be okay.

 

Plastic Surgery

My friend just got a boob job. I don’t really have anything else to say about it.

I think I’m supposed to be judgmental about it. Even my husband sort of expected that from me. I guess I’m supposed to Disapprove, on feminist principles, or something, but I don’t. Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what you look like.

I learned that from two of my favorite Famous People: Dolly Parton and Joan Rivers. I judged them for a while. But then I thought: Would Joan Rivers really have been on Fashion Police if she looked like most 81-year-olds — a ruff of wrinkles, a sagging physiognomy, a litter of liver spots — and be permitted to prick with her acid wit insipid, badly dressed, much younger stars? Maybe she accepted something about Hollywood I haven’t. I would have loved to have seen her face, the face she would have had, wrinkles and sags and liver spots. She wouldn’t have, but I would. Joan! I would have said, because she would have looked divine, divinely like herself, and that would have pleased me.

Dolly, too — I would like to see her unaltered face, the lines that would be hers, the age. Not that she doesn’t look good. But she doesn’t look the same.

But what I learned, from Joan and Dolly, is that I still loved them — Joan’s humor, Dolly’s music — because it doesn’t matter what you look like. It can’t change who you are.

A Nicer Person

I refer to this woman at work as “The Millstone.” Maybe it should have been the Albatross. I’m not sure what ancient code I violated, but I’m pretty sure I’m being punished. How much invective, vitriol, and vituperation should I accept, really, when I’m fairly certain I’ve done nothing wrong.

I’ve been Trying (yes, with a capital letter, I’m that Earnest about the whole thing) to be a Nicer Person, and the Millstone is the inspiration. Not because I think I deserve her denunciations, because I don’t. They aren’t, even, usually about me. She’s angry at someone else, but she can’t yell at them, so she yells at me instead. It’s terrible fun. I think she thinks it means we’re “friends.” Really it means that when I hear her clopping down the hall in her sandals, I want to leap from behind my desk and shut my office door. Or at the very least ask, “What now?” with a withering glare. Instead I rearrange my face into blank pleasantness and answer every comment with a noncommittal, “Uh-huh.” Yes, I’m pretty sure I’m headed to sainthood.

So why Nicer? If I’m already so terribly nice? I never understood the expression, “Wherever you go, there you are,” until I met this woman. She could win the lottery tomorrow (come on, fingers crossed, big money!) and she still wouldn’t be happy. She couldn’t be: She doesn’t know how. She’s the victim of everyone and everything she can’t control (read: the entire universe), and the least little thing sends her into an infuriated panic, about how awful and monstrous every damn thing is, every last person.

I recognize a tiny sliver (read: a generous slice) of myself in her need for control, in her constant feeling as though she never has any. There’s a paradox there, a paradox I am learning to understand, from the Millstone, who, it turns out, is a terribly motivational teacher.

The Past

We think of the past as a place, and measure our distance from it — leagues and fathoms and miles — as if it were behind us, rather than within us, carried along with all its burdens, its hurts, its many horrors.

We try to bury it in the ground, its bones, the remnants of its flesh, but still it lingers, the grinning skull of its face. It stays close by me, abides with me, sits close as a lover or friend, one hand on my arm, face upturned to catch the light of my gaze.

How I wish it had a body, a beating heart. How I wish it were separate from me, apart. How I wish I could leave it behind.

I wish the past were a place, a foreign land I could swear never again to visit, instead of what it is — this burden, this flesh, this grave.

The Creature

The creature stalks the
unsuspecting,

From its mission
never resting,

With its heavy tread
like stones,

Seeking marrow from
your bones.

None can meet its
fiery eyes

Or withstand its
constant cries.

The creature speaks
with grief and sorrow

Of all the shoulds of past
and morrow,

And if without a proper
victim

(and with its sighs and moans
restricts them)

It must its own heart
consume

And from the past, old hurts
exhume.

Unloved, unwanted,
never sated,

Only with death will its hunger
be abated.

The Shit Stick

Today has been a DAY, my people. Not the good kind. The first day back from vacation kind. The kind where you want to cry, bang your head against your desk, tell your coworkers to go f*** themselves, and quit. That kind of day.

I must be doing something wrong. Well, I am doing something wrong, in that I’m caring what other people think of me. I’ve heard it said that we shouldn’t care what people think of us, but I don’t quite understand that, to be honest. That’s one step above my enlightenment abilities. I need people to think well of me, don’t I? My boss, for instance? My clients? If they don’t, I can’t quite figure how I would be employed. Which, in spite of how I started this post, is somewhat necessary. I guess what I need to wrap my head around is that I don’t need people to like me. And that I don’t always have to do everything correctly, 100% correctly, all the time. Because that’s impossible, and will make you crazy. I try to sing that song, when I feel myself getting crazy: “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.”

You really can’t please everyone. Everyone comes in with different wants, expectations, desired outcomes … and if you have a spine, or a pair, or whichever anatomical metaphor you prefer, you are going to make someone unhappy.

I guess what I’m trying to do is walk my way around this thought, the thought that “I don’t need to care what other people think of me.” What do people mean, when they say this? That you should be who you are, in spite of other people, their judgments, etc.? But don’t we have to conform, a little? I wear a suit when required, because people expect it. Of course, I’m also the kind of person who doesn’t mind wearing a suit — if I were, I’d need other employ. But certainly I think people should be who they are — I don’t want homosexuals, for instance, feeling like they have to be straight. That’s probably a bad example, but maybe you follow me a little.

But I do feel, all the time, like I’m supposed to be somebody else. Louder, more obnoxious, more unpleasant, more talkative … Generally (to be quite, quite honest) I feel like I should be a man. I haven’t figured out how to be a man, though, and I don’t actually mind being a woman — I just feel like I would be more successful and people would take me more seriously if I were taller, louder, with a deeper voice and a penis. And probably testicles. Although who’s going to check my pants, so, really.

I’m not really getting at the meat of my question, which was, how do you not care what other people think, but care enough to conform enough to be successful? All I know is, today, I was doing something wrong. I got handed the shitty end of the stick and I took it, and I don’t know why I did. I got mad at myself for taking it. I wanted to throw it against a wall and scream, “This is somebody else’s shit, not mine! And I’m not cleaning it up!” but I didn’t. Okay, I did, a little, but there’s no doubt in my mind that when I get in tomorrow, that shit will still be on my wall, and my boss will be in my office, pointing it out and telling me to clean up my shit.

That’s all, really. That’s all I’ve got. Someday I’ll learn to be a better person. But in the mean time, I’ve got shit to clean.

The Millstone

I’ve been trying to give up complaining for a while now. Man, is that ever hard. I never noticed how much of my day-to-day chit-chat at work centered around bitching, until I tried to stop doing it. I once had a friend who tried to give up swearing, and when I pointed out he had just said, “sh**,” responded, “Well, fu**.” It’s kind of like that.

I started my bitch-fast because I noticed how drained and unhappy the constant complaining made me. Or should I say, I had given up complaining — not intentionally, just as a byproduct of not having coworkers or bosses to complain about (unemployment did have its perks). I was happy, and grateful, for things like food and shelter and puppy dogs. But here I am, working full-time again, feeling like Bambi after his mother gets shot, wide-eyed and horrified by the never-ending stream of complaint coming from my coworkers.

It’s impossible to be happy and continually complain, I’ve decided. It just is. You can’t constantly be identifying everything wrong with everything in your life and then turn around and feel great about it. It just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t matter if nothing is wrong with your life. You just walk around feeling drained, and annoyed, and despairing. Or I do, at any rate. Somehow through my years of un- and under- employment I had rediscovered the inherent joy of not hating everything.

Of course there’s a villain in this story, the co-worker who can’t open her mouth without invective leaking out of it. I decided she wouldn’t be happy until I was dead and she was sucking the marrow from my bones. She wants everything from me, and she’s not content just to complain to me, at me, she wants my agreement, my complicity that everything is terrible, RIGHT?! Every time she says that word I picture it just like that, capital letters, question mark, exclamation point. I feel that exclamation point, right between my eyes.

Did I just complain about my co-worker? Well, fu**.

Creation

What is life? A painting, blue mixed with red, slashes of brown, all come together, intertwining threads of color, made into her mantle, laid across her knees, and in her delicate, parchment and alabaster hands, a book.

The book of life? Not really. The book of death, one of several, a collector’s edition, the final copy, a heavy black ledger, and somewhere, written in gold, her name.

On her temple, above one eye, the gold feather: Crown of the eagle, crown of the chief, painted over satin brown skin, sun-creased, knit, worn, a patchwork quilt of her people and all their many days.

Over the water, ships in the water, the hull creaking and here we row together or we die, sun and the sun-warmed backs and this bark, over the wide ocean, like a prayer.

That is what I used to do—pray for you. That somewhere, behind the snow-capped mountains where you hid, you would hear me call, the cry, up in the sky, curled up in the wing of a shore bird, my voice, falling from the sky, unanswerable but heard—my voice.

In the beginning there was only time, first of the gods’ great gifts. All our shoulders huddled, curled together in the middle of the vast sea, strengthened by the touch of laughter, before the storm tossed us each out, into the water, this bark, rowing hard against the ocean, terrified, exhausted, brave.

I waited a long time, to hear your voice, back over the water, but the squall ate it, a greedy throat of foam ate it, and I could not surmount these monstrous tides to get to you. You over there, the other side of the moon, I thought—so far that even dreams can’t reach it, can’t imagine it.

The dark night curled above the house, shooting stars, and we three were all together, and I was strong, but only because you stood there with me.

Music becomes another language, one without vocabulary but with grammar and syntax. It becomes our language, though it has always been your language, will always be your language. The words were lost, dropped one by one like pearls into the water, but the song came back to me. The shorebirds gave it to the osprey who, quiet and circling, gave it to me.

Every journey is a prayer, every destination, hope. I can’t explain. Those who crossed the water, long ago, they prayed. Not for survival but for discovery, for the destination, the arrival. We pray for discovery.

I washed up, from my broken up bark, on terrifying sands, the desert of Amin, or Sahar, the desert of my ancestors, the nomads. Did they really once inhabit these God-forsaken places? The oasis nearly beaten in by drought, no place a refuge.

Refuge is what we seek, Good God Almighty: shelter. To know where we are is a greater gift than to know where we’re going.

The woman wears red satin, and pearls. In my mind she has been arrested, halted, the whirling of infinitesimal atoms only just contained.

Out of the water came mermaids, spitting jewels.

I watched the clouds in the sky, hurried by the wind, forming and reforming, no compulsion but compulsion itself, to end and start anew. I dreamt of harmony, the moon pressed white and full against the window.

Up in the sky rose the osprey, curled around the note, tucked beneath its wings, diving fiercely into the groundswell of the music, being lifted, thrown, joy in the exertion. That was my voice, a lone brown in the long blue, up and away to you—where you might hear it, and know it, and sing, too.