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.

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.

Tolerance

Sometimes I think that I, like Gandhi, have never met a Christian. I hear in the gospels stories about humility, forgiveness, tolerance, rejection of violence, acceptance of those who are different, and learn that all of us are equal before God. What I hear, out of the mouths of self-proclaimed Christians, is judgment. Make that: Judgment, with a capital J. These Christians are just plain better than other people, and they pity the rest of us, who are unsaved and hell-bound. They’re happy to try to save you, but please don’t talk about any of those deal-breakers for the righteous, like evolution, equality between the sexes, or, God forbid, for homosexuals. I mean, come on, Jesus wasn’t talking about those people. And sure, he forgave that adulterer—but he was a man forgiving a woman. That’s the divine process—woman sins and man forgives. End of story.

This particular rant is brought to you by a conversation I overhead at work, between two righteous, Christian men. “Do you know,” started the conversation, “it’s the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz?” If you aren’t scared already, wondering what two middle-aged, affluent, white Christian rednecks are about to opine about the Nazi internment and attempted extermination of the Jews, you should be. “We think we’re so high and mighty here, but we have abortion, tens of millions of babies killed, right here in America. It’s ten times worse than what the Nazis did.” “Sure, I mean, Planned Parenthood.”

At that point, I had to get up and shut my office door. Did I … Did they …? Could they really have …? I couldn’t change the expression on my face for something like ten minutes. The first part of the conversation should have warned me, but I’m used to this coworker talking about his church, and all the wonderful, Christian things he does there. Apparently, there is some Christian novelist, who writes thrillers about terrorism, and Muslims, and somehow works in the gospels. So, I thought (sitting in my office, trying to ignore him and not succeeding), like 24, only … Christian? So, torture, murder, mayhem, death, but … wait, what? This author had spoken at his church, and made this startling comparison between Planned Parenthood and the Nazis, and he just had to share.

It’s hard for me to pinpoint what bothers me most about this exchange. I’m not offended people are saddened by abortion—I get it. In a perfect world, all pregnancies would be wanted, and all people who wanted children would have them. Okay. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that perfect world, and we never will. Women will want abortions, and unless we think women should die trying to get an otherwise … Okay, let me sum up: “God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in her shoes, ‘Cause then you really might know what it’s like to have to choose.” (Thank you, Everlast.)

As for Auschwitz … Really? That was the best thing you could come up with, to say about concentration camps? “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:45)  That was the only thing you could find, inside your heart? Abortion in the US is worse than the holocaust? I feel certain you have no real understanding of what happened—I know you don’t. And that’s when I decided what really bothered me: Such willful, self-righteous ignorance. Willful, because he could educate himself, but he’s certain he already knows everything there is to know. Self-righteous, because he smugly condemns Planned Parenthood and all those abortion-wielding Nazis, with no sense of compassion or humility. And ignorant, rendered incapable of learning.

Maybe Jesus overestimated the intelligence of his followers. There’s no parable, after all, about a woman ending a pregnancy—not even for health reasons—so really, how could we know how to treat people we think did something morally reprehensible? Our only options, clearly, are hatred and condemnation. Yes, we heard that in the gospels, right after Jesus went all Jack Bauer.

Signs

Yesterday at lunch I spotted a dolphin, and then, this morning, heard and saw a bald eagle. Is this bragging? Is that what you thought you’d read about, when I started, “Yesterday at lunch …”? Am I still confined to a cafeteria, or a McDonald’s, and the confounding dolphin is stuck there too, waiting on line for Fillet-O-Fish?

It was a hard day, yesterday, and when I spotted the fin, I thought, It would mean something if I saw a dolphin. I had just thought that, had just finished thinking it, and not a heartbeat after my overly emphatic mean, the dolphin resurfaced in profile—nose, fin, tail, no mistaking. And I thought, well, this is awkward. Do I make it mean something, or do I accept the coincidence? I’ve eaten at that park several times over the course of the past year, and this is my first dolphin sighting. When I told my husband about the dolphin, he said, “Dolphins are good luck,” but I knew he was kidding. He’s an atheist.

Then, this morning, first thing as I sit down at my desk, before I even sort out why my computer won’t turn on, I hear a bald eagle. They have this most incongruous, cheerful little chirp, quite out of place for such an imposing bird, and it’s unmistakable once you know it. “That’s a bald eagle!” I said, even though no one was around to congratulate me. I looked out the window and saw two flying away from me, and again I thought, I don’t know, maybe those aren’t eagles, when one cut straight across my field of vision, left to right, no mistaking. Later I told a coworker. She said she’d seen them, too, but I didn’t believe her.

I’ve seen bald eagles at work once or twice, over the past year, as they fly over our building towards the bay, so it wasn’t singular. All the same, I thought about that “lucky” dolphin, about seeing not one but three bald eagles out my window this morning, and I thought, maybe I’m just looking for a sign, because sometimes I do. And then I decided, maybe that means something.

Of Camels

I never aspired to be a starving artist, or a starving anything, for that matter. Maybe that’s my problem, that I should have wanted to Suffer for my Art, and instead I only wanted to be able to pay for things, like shelter, and food, and clothing, and health insurance—the list goes on, really. Turns out, I like to spend money. But maybe like turned into love, want turned into need, and I became a bloated camel, unable to fit through anything.

Of course I’m making it sound like a choice when sometimes it isn’t, when sometimes you don’t get an option marked: “Don’t starve.” Here in the U.S., I sometimes feel like the only real safety net is a credit card. In some states, even incarceration incurs an IOU. And if you didn’t start out with something, enough of a something to get that card, then, heaven help you, because no one else will. Food stamps come with drug tests, lest you come to the mistaken conclusion that everyone is entitled to eat. Not so fast! Maybe you deserved your destitution, your starvation, the whole misery that can be human existence when you go without.

On the other hand … how much do you really need? I’m reminded of something I read, read long enough ago that I could just be making it up, that some of happiest people live in Africa. Not war-torn Africa, but nonetheless poor Africa: grass huts, dirt trails, no toilets. Maybe they don’t live as long, but they were happy as long as they lived. And also reminded me of some story about Native Americans, some long time ago, when Manifest Destiny was just getting started, when some Indian, somewhere, apparently said: We don’t understand the white men. We think they are all crazy.

Have we been made crazy, then—insane, depressed, unhappy with our generous lots in life, wanting, ever, always, perpetually wanting, shit we don’t need? Maybe I should have chosen starvation, lilies of the field. Maybe it would have meant choosing happiness.

In My Head

I don’t know what it is about me that makes people feel they can comment on everything I wear, say, and do. I never make comments about other people, unless it’s complimentary—”I love your shoes!” “Your hair looks great!”—and believe me, I think many things that are not complimentary. Many, many things. In my head, I’m Heidi Klum and this is an episode of Project Runway. Everyone I meet gets a makeover—hair, makeup, clothes. Okay, maybe it’s more like What Not to Wear, but I’m still Heidi Klum.

But I never actually offer any of these opinions. Even if someone were to ask me what I think (and they don’t), I would lie. Okay, there was one time, when a friend asked me about her curly hair, and I made the mistake of saying I thought it would look better shorter, in order to be, you know, curlier, and she gave me That Look, the one that means: Eat shit and die. “My husband,” she told me, “likes long hair.” To which I replied (in my head), “And my husband likes g-strings and body glitter. In what universe do you ask a straight man for fashion advice?”

Anyway. So I keep my opinions to myself. Why can’t other people do the same? The overweight admin who wears tennis shoes to work told me my Stuart Weitzman’s were ruining my feet. Eat shit and die. The woman who wears outfits to work I wouldn’t step out of my house in, not even to walk the dog, thinks it’s funny I wear pantyhose with a business suit. Eat shit and die. The grouchy old man who won’t shut up about how terrible his life is, told me I should talk more. Roll around in that shit before, you know, you eat it and then die.

But I only say these things in my head. Maybe someday they’ll slip out of my mouth, out into the world, at which point people will offer me this astute opinion: “You’re such a bitch!” Without any sense of hypocrisy. Maybe one day I’ll be ready to take on my new name, my new (if you will) nom de guerre. But as it says in the New Testament: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak.” (Matthew 12:36) Oh yes, I just went Biblical on you. In my head.