Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Sigh

     "What is that supposed to mean?" 
     I look around, my head in a swivel, to see what unfortunate soul has done something to annoy my daughter.
     "Well?" she snorts, glossy French-tipped nails drumming the table.
     Ah, she's glaring at me, her eyes full of blue flame. I've done it again, I guess. An involuntary sigh, an innocent explusion of breath has escaped from my lips, from deep inside my chest. I've become famous in my family circle for this sigh, to whom it means much more than an exhalation of carbon dioxide. To my daughters and sons this sigh equals negative commentary on their daily clothing choices, their looks at any given moment, their ambition or lack of thereof-- their worth weighed and measured by my single breath.
     The first memory I have of being on trial for my sigh occurred the night my oldest son was born. Never mind the fact that I had just given birth for the first time, that my new-mother hormones raged along with my adrenalin, or that the ragged tear of the almost episiotomy burned all the way to my brain. The important issue that night was that my sighing betrayed me as I watched my mother-in-law surpervise my husband's touching, holding, comforting of the child he'd fathered but was meeting for the first time.
     "Don't sigh at me, Jill!" she snarled, her face contorting with dislike.
     I saw how it was to be between us, then, and the long process of making her invisible began. 
     After that, I didn't think too much about the sigh, until my children became teenagers. They resurrected the charge against me, and it has remained a constant litany. Did they inherit this sigh-detecting gene from their grandmother, who was never quite sure about me?
     I decided to ask my sister about it, thinking that, as a mother and one of two people left on this earth who love me unconditionally, she would debunk the sigh as adolescent angst.  "You do sigh a lot," she said instead.
     So, I stand guilty as charged, although I believe in my innocence. My defense is this: I admit that I sigh, but I don't plan to sigh, and I swear, oh I do swear, that I don't sigh in judgment of anyone. I think, instead of the personal condemnation my children believe them to be, my sighs are a safety valve, a little of life's build-up hissing out slowly here and there, my own despair leaking into the atmosphere.
     My secret despair is not so well kept if it automatically makes itself heard. How can I explain it to them, that this black mess I carry within me has nothing to do with them? I pile things on top of it--happy moments--but the vapors ooze out around them, moving up my windpipe and out through my mouth. Images swirl in the despair--my father stuffing a sponge into my mother's mouth while she kicked at him from the floor--my brother's pillowed head in the cheap gray coffin, wax plugs almost stopping the trickle of blood from the entrance and exit wounds--the sheriff's deputy's quick rap at my door, his large hands bearing a thick envelope of foreclosure --my mother's open-mouthed last gasp for breath as she died alone, the sight of her face molded by rigor mortis seared into my retinas--the simple understanding that life is a series of losses, that nothing is certain, that what you know to be true never is. My sighs are my mea culpa, my gasp for air.
     "Mom?" she asks a bit snottily, tossing her bangs back from her face.
     "Oh, no, did I do it again?" I tease her, passing the sigh off with a smile.
     There are things better left unsaid. 

Friday, May 1, 2009

Sometimes There is Poetry

For Bob

I can't sleep at night
for all the pawing by the wolf at the door.
It's been going on for some time--
most nights his howl stalks me,
and I run badly as if starring in a B horror film,
fleeing from chamber to chamber in my mind.

My eyes flip open,
the coins fly off my lids.
I feel it before I see it--
the yellow glare under the door
that slips like cartoon smoke across the floor,
at a right angle up the bed and into my pillowed ear.

And so it goes,
as the wise Mr. Vonnegut said.
Even so, knowing this, sometimes I wake up dead--
the wolf having broken through,
gnawing a vein that then floods the room,
leaving a pool of DNA, just in case I have a second coming.

But, now and then,
there is poetry.
A man at my door brings it to me--
offering alms for my soul,
pouring words and metaphors into my veins,
softly binding my wounds with mistletoe and rye.

He stands in the doorway,
his head cocked to the right,
a Godly smile across the lines of his face--
he recites poetry about the blue child,
and oh Suzanna's waist, some catfish lovin'
and coffee served by a left-handed woman, oh damn!

Sometimes he sits
in the chair by my books,
a man who lives by words, the Word--
and his wife brings me pictures of purple flowers.
On the very best of days, there is a little
soft shoe, along with the poetry, right there in the hall.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Somebody's Daughter

We all carry pieces of her,
for luck, I suppose,
perhaps for a glimpse
of who we used to be:
for me, I was once,
somebody's daughter.

A string of glittering crystal beads
now encircle my neck,
while a pale green stuffed frog
takes up residence
on an unmade bed,
and a Kodachrome picture
of the three of them
hangs next to the sharp
metal corner of a locker.

These are talismans, for us,
our sad treasures,
but an easy form of solice for those
who lost track of her,
such that she was.

What claim do we have on these things,
her things, even on her?
We lost our rights
when our busy selves couldn't stop
our incessant moving, doing,
or even look up
as she slipped away, a whisp of
flesh, hair, and bone gone,
gone, gone,
under the door.

Be a Teacher; Change a Life, or Something Like That

I'm getting old, I think. My teacher's optimism is graying at the roots. Proof? I spend a little of each teaching day in my building's kitchenette, hands gripping one of my many mugs that celebrate creativity, grousing about my students' lack of interest.

I can't fathom disinterest. I was never able to wrap my hungry mind around this dead concept, but when I was younger, disinterest seemed to have a cure. I would reach them, I knew, if I just tried hard enough. I used to play a game--a capture the flag kind of game, (capture the mind, I suppose) although my opponents never even knew they were playing. The game went this way: when I noticed a disinterested student, a student staring out of the window or a distractedly doodling student, I would flip on my power switch--teaching directly to that lost student, ever more determined to bring him back to the heat of my focus. Most often, it worked, and then our classroom would hum along in some approximation of intellectual unity.

The game doesn't seem to work these days because the ranks of disinterested students have grown, seemingly multiplying indifference infinitely. Even today, there might have been a bland explosion in one of the first floor classrooms. Sometimes, though, I still pull off that willing suspension of disbelief, and the students follow me leapfrog style to the interior of the human heart. When they don't follow, stubbornly digging their heels into mediocrity, I can't believe it's all me. I continue to work the crowd, pulling out the props as I do from my bag of tricks--a joke here, a startling fact there, a shuffle-off-to-Buffalo thrown in for good measure.

In the kitchen later, sipping on lukewarm, bitter Maxwell House, I tell my story. Recently, it's always the same, though the class and seasons change. Here is what I have said and probably will continue to say: The hardest punch isn't that my young people impatiently shrug off the lovely bell-shaped words that I offer them each class, words carefully collected from the likes of Morrison and Silko, magical words that peal inside the heart. Worse than their rejection of this luminescent word pool is the dull sound made by the hasty and indifferent slamming of so many minds' doors.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Hello, Goodbye

She bounded down the airport steps, taking two at a time with her fast feet, flying toward me so quickly that with my poor vision I wasn't quite sure it was Laura. "Rachie," I asked my youngest daughter, "do you see her?"

The whole family had come to the airport to greet Laura, the girl who had left us behind three months earlier for study in California. A family accustomed to picking up returning travelers at the curb, we parked our cars in the short-term parking lot and gathered at the bottom of the steps near the silver turntable where she would collect her luggage. I stood closest to the steps, my family needling me about my eagerness and the other travelers' inability to exit the steps.

The girl I'd spotted flew into my arms, squealing. The hug felt the same, but who was this young woman, glossy dark hair ironed straight, with china doll bangs tipping her eyelashes? Wearing clothes I'd never seen, this young woman didn't belong in Pittsburgh with her dark water-colored jersey, crisp jeans, and a leather boho funk bag bought in San Francisco. Hello, my girl, what's new?

Three short weeks later, we're back at the airport, fighting the three across jigsaw of cars in the Departing Flights lane. She slides out of the backseat, smiling and giddy with anticipation of another quarter in California. Three hugs, and she's gone. Will I ever get used to this?

Her bangs pinned back, the rest of her hair hangs loose in swirly curls. Sweatsuit clad, she struggles to manage her overstuffed bags, and, as she disappears inside the sliding glass doors, I see her bedraggled red bear's nearly flat head peeking back at me from within her trendy leather bag.