Presentable Metaphors

We glimpsed swans on the road I chose, but the road I chose was still considered wrong. Circling Boston, clover-shaped off-ramps, and always the rain that never quite makes it to snow. We are blossoms, not machines.

Old people arguing about why young people don’t go to church. She insists that come summer she’ll still be able to drive  to Cape Cod and of course you know better than to underestimate her. Castration fantasies, Electra complexes, and a sense that knowing the way is not by itself sufficient.

We build our maps on other maps and with other maps: it is important to see this, lest we think we are a) alone or b) experts at cartography. In my head, David Gilmour solos, especially the second one in Comfortably Numb. It is not that everyone is lying but that everybody is telling the particular story that works for them, and who exactly are you to declare your story better?

I wake up late and write and the writing is hard, the morning sliding out from under me, my plans for the day dissembled. What does it mean to be related is similar to asked what does it mean to share narrative proximity. Snow glitters on the back porch roof, smooth and fine, and one admires it without insisting on presentable metaphors.

Yet all morning there was a pervasive sense that a way to bear witness to love was possible and already given, if only I could structure myself (locate myself?) in a way that would allow for its expression. We no longer argue but we are not at peace either. You learn a lot noticing who you are tempted to mock.

I don’t have answers, only a cheerful willingness to give attention to whatever questions surface. Pausing where the road turns to study a flowing river where hours earlier seagulls had scavenged muddy flats. Deer with broken necks dumped unceremoniously off the highway.

I thus float in a dream of wellness, a honeysuckle blossom borne by rain gathered in a black bear’s paw print, a wordy man whose wordy entanglements are brief visitations of vast ahistorical currents. Remember: there are teachers who arrive late and some who never arrive at all.

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A Posture of Compliance and Submission

It snows at the beginning but by late morning I am closer to tidal flats, wind ruffling egrets stradding shallows laced with sunlight. It is family all the way down.

When lost, we orient according to corporate landmarks – McDonald’s, Starbucks, Ocean State Job Lots. She puts on lipstick, talking about how sad it is to visit friends in nursing homes, and I wonder what my life would have been like had seagulls appeared less exotic.

He was discharged from the army in 1957, a fact I learn only because certain medications make him talky. Turtles surface, stoic reminders that inquiry (and the complex social fabric sustaining it) is not forbidden.

These days when I catch myself praying I stop and try instead to notice what is going on that intimates a posture of compliance and submission is viable. The dog was scared of the sheep (who were mostly curious about the dog) and so we structured our walks accordingly.

Yet later, storm clouds began to bunch up on the horizon, swollen and gray, like furious angels utterly convinced of their cause. Lunch is not quiet at all, not at all.

Over photographs with heavy frames one begins to piece together their own sense of the family story, which hinges on understanding how all stories are merely constructions. Lost in the carpeting, loose purple pills barely larger than rice grains.

Sometimes you think there’s a lot to say and there actually isn’t but the laws do not demand you be quiet. In the bathroom I realize how unmotivated I generally am and wish he were here so that we could commiserate.

What does it mean to be related? Sometimes I feel small, want to hide, don’t know the rules that underlie our shared equality, et cetera.

By afternoon the coffee is cold and budget restraints prohibit replacing it, so it’s cold coffee all the way west up the turnpike. Or is it just that as we grow older we are less tempted to insist on the primacy of this particular experience (against, or over, that other experience)?

A quiet stillness passing familiar hills, snow falling in wan moonlight, yet the road ahead clear. Ten thousand gods my dear and you chose this one.

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A Vermont of Our Own Making

Biting off the distance. Eyes are windows behind which the soul lives, yes, but the actual living the soul brings forth is mouthy – breathing and chewing and kissing, saying and singing and praying. Snow falls and for once I don’t go barreling through it at four a.m. in search of poems but stay inside, bundled under quilts, drinking hot coffee. Naked was the previous incarnation, now I’m dressed for the choir loft. If you ask Jesus to show himself, Jesus will show himself, but you’ll probably miss him in the crowd of your preconceptions and their offspring expectation. In my dreams now, there are frequent references to skillful navigation of difficult situations – car crashes, burning cities, churches built like mazes, altars doubling as slave camps. Yesterday I allowed myself to imagine a date with you – a long walk around the lake talking, bread and cheese and tea at a little table after, then going home to make love, slow and intense, Dylan’s Planet Waves looping in the background. Of course we lived in a Vermont of our own making. How happy we can be! The snow falls so softly I can hear it a mile away. Beloved, ask instead to recognize Jesus. There is nowhere we are not as one.

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Caught in Repetition

Perhaps I am aging out of discretion, or is it that each morning has its own light, its own way of being new. Holding the coffee a long time before sipping, cats padding around the downstairs, neighbors opening and closing doors. In my dreams, a cardinal kept circling the yard, as if looking for a place to land, but then I realized it was caught in repetition. Sometimes there is a sadness it seems we will never reach the ends of.

Noticing over coffee – between curtain and window frame, partially – the waning moon, further south than one would expect. Nature abhors both vacuums and straight lines yet both exist. One struggles to find what is worth struggling for before briefly surrendering. Dawn, again.

Sean again? On Thursday I’ll drive four hours to the sea and then four hours back, a kind of service or possibly martyrdom. In dreams, there were fires everywhere and I navigated them carefully, saving things that were worth saving. A habit of waking before the alarm in order to triumph over alarms.

Or is not a game at all? We make shopping lists, careful to avoid saying what cannot be said: that we can barely afford food now, let alone the gas to go buy it. You wonder sometimes did Jesus ever long to cease his peripatetic wandering and settle down with a nice girl? I miss you, I’m not okay, et cetera.

Living always with “or else.” And? The requisite coupling continues to elude me. The light, it is so much dimmer than I remember.

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If Ever We Climb Ascutney

The specific way that breakfast can be sacred. One gazes into the pasture where boundaries appear that a year earlier did not exist and wonders when if ever they will be free of conflict. A few weeks after his stroke, my father tried to apologize for not supporting me as a poet and we both cried but oddly the issue was not resolved.

Walking up Main Street with Chrisoula, clouds laying flat on the near sky like rotting fish, here and there a glimpse of soft blue, like the light in a dog’s eye right before it dies. If ever we climb Ascutney together, do not let me forget to tell you about the first time I climbed Ascutney. Warming our hands by the fire, sharing both a blanket and a sense of what’s possible.

You can stumble for hours through snowy forest before seeing a cave mouth glowing in the distance, and all your stumbling will suddenly serve a purpose. Who thinks about death, who does not pause to ask why they think about death. We demean Her when we do not acknowledge Her anger and unsated sexual hunger.

Remember that house in central Vermont we looked at, lingering over an aerial view that somehow calmed the discontent that rises in us when we think about going back to Vermont? Once meant cannot be undone. I return the saw to the barn, pausing to note how cluttered the barn is, a mess alleviated by the sweet and comforting scent of hay.

What is given to be said aloud can now be said to bluets and stars and trout without fear it will be mislaid or fail to propagate. Coffee, scones, yesterday’s clothes and nobody injured thereby. What is the difference between night and later that night?

We “take down” Christmas. A sense one has of looking for the next sentence, as if it were circling the room like a speck of dust straddled by pillars of sunlight. Yesterday’s mud freezes, our telltale prints dusted with snow, reminders of how rarely life bothers with straight lines.

We rise to a last kiss and linger in it without intent. Coming home I hear church bells, car wheels against the rainslick macadam, and birds I do not know the name of singing in trees I cannot see.

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Yesterday is Not Different

Temperatures drop, skies clear and I walk to the river to star-gaze. In the distance, traffic groans where Route Nine slopes west. Can I tell you a secret?

Yesterday is not different, not even a thousand yesterdays are different. The larger horse’s feet are like diving bells or coffins. You rise to my kiss.

Night is a manger, the soul a bale of hay. If you are quiet in certain places or with certain people, you can hear the Lord profess His love for you, soft as rustling moth wings. I am working through my problem with what it means to remove one’s belt.

Trout rise even in winter. After my wedding ring was lost hunting pheasants on the Jones Lot we went to a little Hindu store in Brattleboro and bought a replacement for ten dollars. The difficult illusion that we call “choice.”

At a late juncture one contemplates the maneuvers implied by distant loves. A tendency to see the world as if it were watercolor. Forgotten glasses of wine emptied in the morning.

Sin with intelligence, intention, with grace. A thousand years didn’t lessen our devotion, it’s hard to see how a thousand miles can do any worse. So I’m confused sometimes, so what?

Moonlight exacerbates our habit of seeing meaning where there isn’t any. We hold hands under the table, we profess our love in ways that nobody else can see.

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Just Another Strategy

Butterflies dreaming they are little boys dreaming they are butterflies. What winds carry us? What love undoes us?

At a late juncture I return to the swells of need, rising and falling in concert with the body’s mute expressing. Winter stars reflected in frozen gravel almost half a century earlier continuously reappear. A story we tell that we realize too late is telling us.

Yet at four a.m. (and earlier when necessary), the monk-who-is-not-a-monk rises and makes coffee and sits quietly in darkness. Thomas Merton eschewed emphasis on form (sit this way, sit that) but that was just the culture talking. High atop the tallest apple tree, a single apple remains soldered to an otherwise bare limb.

She is Luna when we settle outside the familiar subject/object frame. A hill in Ireland that each time I climbed it grew taller, until at last I fled to a city without any hills at all. Who holds us by the fire, who follows us into the night.

Reminiscing about when we were convinced oneness was the answer, which it was not. In early January, a two-day thaw returns to our bodies a memory of green, which is not useful at all. Long drives, at least one of which I will not see the end of.

Investment is just another strategy. Rice with a little salt and butter, a few thin slices of fried steak, a mug of beer growing warm beside the fire. A promise is a tellerless story, gestating in a sacred womb.

If anybody asks, I’m out walking and can’t say when I’ll be back. A quiet near the river to which we will one day surely return.

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The Journey Exceeds Their Lifespan

This was never supposed to be an essay about Hansel and Gretel, and in a way, it is not. But in another way, it goes very deeply into that fairy tale in an attempt to understand how deeply that fairy tale went into me. I am trying to understand healing without making unjustified assertions about my own experience of healing. Along the way, much like the migration instincts of Monarch butterflies, this essay orients towards a new story that suggests another way of thinking about parenting and growing up. Healing.

Parenting is a kind of correction, a sort of cosmic do-over. You aren’t your parents but in nontrivial ways your healing directly implicates your parents. The decision to have or not have children, and then how to raise them, is a form of repetition which allows for endless healing possibilities that flow not just to you and your kids but also to your parents (and their parents et super).

But wait, you say. My grandparents are dead. And I didn’t even know my great grandparents, let alone my great-great grandparents. And no matter how I raise my kids, my mother still repeats patterns of neglect and hostility and whatnot.

That observation – true as it may seem – misses the point by locating healing solely in physical organisms. Healing also occurs at levels which are abstract and not confined to a particular body or bodies.

You carry your ancestors (parents on back) with you. What drove them, drives you. You live in cultural and geographical environments that would be foreign to them, to one degree or another, but still.

The spark of all life is in you. You carry it as it carries you. And the spark is unaffected by culture and landscape, even though culture and landscape are the inevitable canvas on which it is expressed.

Think of Monarch butterflies. The generation that migrates south will not necessarily arrive in Mexico because the time it takes to complete the journey exceeds their lifespan. Yet somehow, their descendants know precisely where to go. And where to return as well.

I do not suggest this is a mystical process, even if we have not yet fully figured it out (Sun compass? Gravity-sensitive molecules?). I merely point out that knowledge is not limited to a body, even when the knowledge is very specifically helpful to that body. Living is always evoked in broadly relational ways that often exceed a particular organism’s capacity for total understanding. Don’t kid yourself; in a lot of ways, you’re just like those butterflies.

Family errors in extending love, and cultural errors in extending love, are not limited to bodies. So when we heal those errors, even a little, the healing is not limited to bodies either.

And here I will talk about Hansel and Gretel.

Hansel and Gretel is a story that endures because what it says remains viable. The ones who first told it did not envision our world or situation. They were not trying to create art that would last for centuries. They were trying to entertain their audience sufficiently enough to pass on certain critical information about living.

My father took my sister and me to see Hansel and Gretel in a theater in the early 1970s. I believe this was the 1954 Michael Myerberg version. All I remember now was utter fascination with the possibility of being lost in a forest. I spent a lot of time in forests in those days; “lost” was inconceivable. How did that happen?

When we drove home, I closed my eyes and leaned against the dashboard, burying my head in my arms, maximizing darkness. Could I tell when we made a right or left turn? Could I discern when we left the paved road for dirt? How does one become lost?

My father thought I was crying because the movie was over. He patted my shoulder and said we’d see another one some day.

[Perhaps one way to become lost is to be parented by men (like Hansel and Gretel’s father, and my own father in that moment), men who cannot see the actual problem and so try to solve a problem that isn’t actually there. Your Dad mistakes your deep spiritual inquiry for cheap grief and twenty years later you’re drunk in Galway Ireland playing Hank Williams songs for free beer and hoping somebody wants to take you home because it’s raining and you have nowhere else to go.]

The other part of that movie was the possibility of being eaten by a witch. It was deeply sexual for me, even though I completely lacked any language or imagery to know this at the time. I felt being eaten by a witch. I wanted it. The Tooth Mother showed herself – declared her intentions – and I wanted to be possessed by her.

I went all in, right away. I fell in love with “lost” because it seemed to invite the Tooth Mother into your life where she would consume you, black widow style. I had watched snakes slowly swallow toads, robins drag worms out of the lawn. I understood this was a painful way to die. And I understood – because all animals resisted dying – that death reflected at least the possibility of oblivion.

[Was it perhaps also possible that the Tooth Mother – even then – was patiently instructing me (beyond the grasp of intellect) that living was only possible through death, and that autonomy, as such, was a lie told by bodies to other bodies?]

For I did not question  her. I did not fear her.

Around that time I began to notice that things could vanish from my mind as if they had never existed. I would go for hours not thinking about the cows and then have to rush out to the barn to make sure they were still there. I wondered what happened to things that I forgot and then didn’t subsequently remember. Could you forget a dog? A parent? Could you forget yourself?

I experimented with memory’s grasp. How long could I hold a certain dandelion in mind? There was a white stone by our driveway – I made a pledge to remember it forever. So far I have. But what I have forgotten from those years is . . . not coming back. And that “one” dandelion is now an idealized dandelion (it is all dandelions), and so it, too, is gone and not coming back.

The Tooth Mother is a destroyer but it is an error to think that her power is always given to evil. For example, Gretel is a Tooth Mother. She uses the witch’s problem-solving tool – murder – to save her brother. The Tooth Mother was going to kill in a way that ended Hansel forever, but Gretel learns that killing can also save life.

You can burn a forest to the ground and within a few years, the forest is visibly growing back. Life rushes into death, colonizing it. We don’t have to be scared. We are children of a living God who does not go by the name of God (nor bear much resemblance to the God of our mother and father).

The witch reminds us that death and life are conjoined and that we have to be intentional with respect to their conjoinment. When you sleep with the Tooth Mother, your dreams are full of blood and you wake up with a vague feeling of discontent. It’s not that she wants to eat you. It’s that she is hungry and you can be eaten.

You are apt to get confused here, as Hansel and Gretel’s father got confused, and as Hansel got confused too. You think you have to go to war with the Tooth Mother and defeat her. Or you think the Tooth Mother wants you to worship her with terrific sacrifices, the bloodier the better.

But the Tooth Mother just wants you to be alert and make deliberate choices that bring forth life. She will eat some of her children and let others live, and this is not evil but fructive. It is true of everything that eats. Hunger is not special and eating is not a privilege. On both sides of the plate – eating and being eaten – we commune with the living God.

If you are stuck in a cage, look for Gretel to save you. She may assume some form outside of you, like a lover or a therapist, but she may be inside you, too. She isn’t always a girl. Witches, like God, go by whatever name gets the job done. They don’t distinguish between worthy or unworthy. Perceiving the utter equality of all life, and acting accordingly, they are truly in love.

This is not an essay about Hansel and Gretel so much as a story of my first meeting with the Tooth Mother, and what I learned (and some of what happened along the way). Perhaps it can be summarized by telling (adapting, really) another story I have always liked.

Once upon a time a little boy and his grandmother walked into a field. It was late afternoon (but not too late) and there were butterflies everywhere. Mesmerized, the little boy leaned into his grandmother’s strong arms and fell asleep.

While sleeping, he dreamed he was a butterfly in a field, fluttering near an old woman who cradled a sleeping boy.

When he woke up, he told his grandmother about his dream.  “Grandma,” he said. “I dreamed I was a butterfly.”

“No my child,” his grandmother replied. “You are not a little boy who dreamed he was a butterfly. You are a butterfly dreaming he is a little boy.”

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In Massachusetts Again

I first used the phrase “Tooth Mother” in the gap between leaving Vermont and beginning law school in 1990 and 91. It showed up in some very disjointed poems that despite their abundance basically went nowhere. I wrote a lot at work in those days, filling up scraps of paper. It was strange to be living in Massachusetts again. And sad to think I only briefly made it back to Vermont, despite my vow to live and die there forever.

I think “Tooth Mother” goes back to Bly, who I read carefully in the year before leaving Vermont. There was a phase of his writing – prior to Iron John – where he was very into the dark mother stuff, which I think was his attempt to honor women. They can be violent and crazy too! I seem to recall it in both essays and poems. Sleepers Joining Hands maybe? I don’t remember and the boys are practicing in the loft so I can’t go back to check.

That characterization may not be fair to Bly. It maybe oversimplifies. But Bly is frustrating that way. He was – like me in many ways – a puer, alighting in this or that domain and deciding that because he’s glimpsed it, he’s an expert and can start talking about it. But you can err in the other direction, too – get so lost studying and ascending ladders of merit that you forget to share what you’re learning. What do I know.

I use “Tooth Mother” now for two explicit reasons. First, because it is an alternative to “witch,” which evokes some horror movie energy I don’t want and also has religious connotations for friends whose sensitivity I want to respect.

But second, also, “Tooth Mother” syncs up with a clear focus on being eaten (and eating, I guess), which I have mulled for decades and which in recent months has leaped to the front of the image line. Use me! Use me!

And I don’t especially want to use it. I don’t want to “go there,” as the kids say.

What happens in the writing when you allow a word or image that feels a little troubling? When its provenance is a little less than ideal? Yet which insist on its place in the work?

Well, you use it, yes? You use it and see what happens next. As the Tooth Mother would herself.

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Turtles Began Surfacing

What was her name, the married nurse I fooled around with in a supply closet in 1990, first year of law school? It happened twice and we were friendly after yet for the life of me I can’t recall her name. I do know saying it aloud had to do with the alveolar ridge. She was rail-thin, a runner, murmured “you” a lot between kisses.

I was living with my parents then, an embarrassment but there were no other options, and you do what you have to do. They laughed at my stories about the old men at work, went away a lot on weekends. I’d sit on the little porch and write structurally complex poems that went nowhere but held my attention. I was reading deeply the literature on birds, walking alone for hours at Fitzgerald Pond, trying to square poetry and the law, bird-watching.

In one of those poems I used the phrase “Tooth Mother” to describe Ellen – that was her name, Ellen – because I had an intuitive sense that what we were doing was dangerous for both of us, albeit in different ways. The poem didn’t blame her, just went into the question of why desire acts so privileged. I couldn’t find a draft now if I wanted.

I went on a couple of dates with another nurse, flirted pretty hard with two more, but something in me with women was slipping. There was a lot of space between what I imagined and what kept appearing and it wasn’t clear what could change. Somewhere around that time I saw my first mockingbird and began piecing together the difficult posture of worship my life was about to assume. I remember in late May thinking seriously for the first time about celibacy and then meeting Chrisoula a few days later. The night we met I sat out back with a camping lantern, welcoming moths.

Our second or third date I took her to Fitzgerald pond. We held hands on the trails, ending up on an east-facing rock. A bunch of turtles began surfacing and climbing nearby logs. They were like allies or messengers. It was like that moment before church begins, the priests and deacons and altar servers gathering. We couldn’t speak. We knew something significant was happening, we knew it was about us.

Chrisoula put her hand on my shoulder and eased me back on the warm rock. When she knelt to kiss me, her hair framed my face. It was like a veil behind which we kissed gently for a thousand years. When at last we stopped and straightened and looked around, not one of the turtles had moved.

That was how I arrived at last in the Country of Turtles, solidified my poetics and spiritual intentions, and began a long apprenticeship in Love.

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