This Autumn Friday

The flame in our gas fireplace doesn’t get very high. For a couple of years it also took a long time to light. We’d flip the switch and wait, and step back a little bit, and watch with that jack-in-the-box tension building until it suddenly blasted on with a force that rattled the glass. It was a situation that hinted not very subtly at eventual disaster, and I did the usual thing: Searched the internet for quick fixes to my problem, and found none. Then I searched around for local gas fireplace services, found a few but balked at the probable price tag, combined with the (at the time) possibility that they wouldn’t even come into our house anyway. I eventually figured out what the problem was and what needed to be fixed (that internet again. If you don’t have one yet…), ordered a couple of parts that arrived in 2 days, installed them and got our fire turning on in a way that can probably be best described with a clever British turn of phrase that begins with “right as” and invokes biscuits, the Queen’s ankles, or something seaworthy. Or a combination of the three. “Right as eating biscuits off the Queen’s ankles in a cuddy boat.” Something. Like. That.

So now we don’t have to run out of the house when we turn the fire on and wait for it to ignite, but the flame isn’t any bigger. I assume that with more flame there would be more heat, but it rarely gets anything like cold here in Seattle, so It isn’t a real concern. As it is, the low flame makes for a really nice morning mood. Any hotter and I wouldn’t want the blanket. Any brighter and I wouldn’t be quite so relaxed. As much as I would love a real fire, part of what I love about the dark winter mornings is the quiet and solitude. If I had to rattle irons and logs, and wrestle with a flue catch, and kick up a burning wood smell in the house, it would probably just wake everyone up.

Robert Hayden knew about waking up with fire:

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?


I wrote a paper about that poem a few years ago. Organized it into three sections, each one focused on one word in the title. It was one of those papers that was more fun than work.

Let’s Reflect on Heaven

Symmetry is an answer key –
kind, like a held hand.
But Love, go out and find for me –
in our infinity of mirrorlands,
some mathless magic in the sea –
a scientist’s anomaly.
 
Love, go make discoveries!
Write them in divine shorthand.
Find – but don’t bring back to me!
that sanctified asymmetry.
The matchless wing, the squareless root,
will die here in captivity.
 
Then – come back and lay with me –
show me what you’ve written down.
Fingers like a drunken bee
will trace an ‘up’ that needn’t ‘down’
and mate the palms of unlike hands
to pray like only difference can.

Mailing It In

I love forgetting about something until it shows up in the mail. You don’t really get to do that much in this blissful epoch of two-day and even sometimes same-day deliveries. But a while back I was offered a thing and I – wisely – accepted. I chided the sender once, then left off, and yesterday it arrived. “That’s odd handwriting.” I knew it wasn’t my mom’s, thought it could have been my dad’s, if he was in a hurry, then I looked at the return address and remembered that Miss Dickinson had been on her way, as she says in #324, Some Keep the Sabbath, “all along.” Thanks go out to Gerard for the best of gifts: a book with a personalized inscription:

It’s a gambit of sorts, because I gain more from it than this book. It means that I, like Gerard before he sent it, now have two copies and can send one off to anyone who wants it. Raise your hand in the comments and we can work it out.

There’s a lot going on, to be sure, but I don’t want to talk about it. I want to do this: Sanding the deck (it’s done, BTW, we’ll stain this weekend) inevitably, finally, reminded me of this poem:

Cut

There are days you learn things
like —
 
the real feel of sawdust,
downy in plush piles
No trace of the pain
of its bellicose birthing
 
Days you learn that things  
you don’t long look at —
things made when two mean pieces meet
and one must give —
are too quickly swept away
 
The first time you smelled it —
a tidy slice that bled
all freshness from the dying
whine of the chopsaw
(hard named thing!)
was in the garage, probably,
or a cobwebbed shed or even
in the bright back woods,
under a stiff wind
that moved whole seasons
and could not help but carry
the fruit of hewn history
straight into you
 
That first time it was only looking —
 
A place to live
A home forever
 
We know it now not
as the smell of the jobs of our fathers —
jobs that didn’t seem enough
 
We know it now
as the smell instead
of the work they did
that we silent saw
(and they more silent did)
 
 
Work that was rough,
that was mean,
that mother sometimes seemed to think
wasn’t good for much
 
That it was only the work —
just that, merely the work —
that made them,
merely, men
 
But now we know that Mama knew
and nothing good was left unseen.
We know that she knew that
 
Papa had to be the silent thing
to clear a little holy space
for a little violent shepherding
 
Now we KNOW that Mama knew
what rough cuts made the dust,
and how she must not just sweep it up
but that she must
(hard fought stuff!)
form piles —
neat peaks to bear up the brutes,
the boys, the noise-born boys!
whose shouts we shussshhhh —
 
stamp right out.
 
Believing —
 
we can polish the mean teeth
of the saw,
pad the menacing head
of the hammer,
quench the fires blasting
in the bellies,
And still have a house to live in
 
Mama —
who made us
know
Who made us
whole —
sees us act
 
as if we could make all the hard things soft and the loud things
quiet and the mean things nice and never once put tooth to tree.
 
As if we could have the
(yes, messy)
blessing of the dust
without the saw
 
We never saw that
mama cuts things, too
 
She lifts her blade while papa
(who always mutely knew)
swings his, severing, down
 
We stand between, above —
smelling home with every
swipe and hack

The PVP Diaries #63

Two days ago I an around telling everyone “tomorrow’s my dad’s birthday!” I know my wretched memory, and it was my way of making sure that I don’t forget. Yesterday, I forgot. Sorry, Dad! I hope you got some cake. I’ll get the kids together and we’ll FaceTime later. Right now, one of them is sleeping under a cat on the couch, and the other is having chocolate chip cookies and cinnamon toast for breakfast.

“He who loves men, loves their joy.”

-The Brothers Karamazov

We had another one of those “-1” death days yesterday. I’m not really sure what they’re doing out there. But I do know that masks are now required by law in Washington state. It’s a “public health order,” anyway. In his presser, Inslee said something about it being a misdemeanor to not wear one indoors in public, or anywhere outdoors that social distancing isn’t possible. Enforcement is likely to be scant, of course, what with the ever-present mantra of “our police have more important things to do.” LIke pulling body parts out of suitcases. I, of course, have no idea how many people, if any, are guilty of the big hypocrisy, but there is an unmistakable coexistence of the calls for enforcement of mask wearing, at the same time as calls for the defunding of the police. One commenter wrote that we should be “quizzing” people about the masks they’re wearing.”When was the last time you washed that?” That sort of thing. Yes, that’s the world I want to live in.

Gonna put this in here for posterity, too, because I hope that reading this in 20 years just sounds ridiculous: I’m not paying much attention, but there’s enough white noise to infer that the city of Seattle is starting to get a little sick of the whole CHAZ experiment. Apparently there’s been a few shootings, and of course there’s no police allowed. The mayor or the police chief or someone said “It’s time for everyone to go home.” There’s a slow, collective facepalm developing in all the offices that opted to let this particular situation go unchecked. Yes, I’ve seen the conservative websites saying that CHAZ is all violence, drugs, and mayhem; and I’ve seen the liberal websites saying it’s a summer of love. That’s all very predictable and meaningless. None of it fully true or fully false. We no longer have the luxury of being able to understand the world through information.

I admire the clumsy struggle to get things right, but weep for where we end up in the process. Every sign-waving protester wants to be the next Gandhi or MLK, but those guys were like Gordon Ramsay in Kitchen Nightmares – once their work was done, the restaurant may not have been perfect, but there was simply no longer a call for that level of intervention. A little unspectacular management is enough to keep the ship afloat, but we believe that anything short of mutiny is slavery.

We could do with a few precincts worth of Mother Teresas.

Mother Teresa and Mr. Rogers. My family gave me “Kindness and Wonder” for Father’s Day. I’ve only read the introduction so far, but I’m a sucker for messages of joy, so I have a feeling that I’ll be tearing through that book with some zeal. And saying embarrassingly cheesy things here on the blog.

Joy

As long as we define ourselves
			by all that we’re against



we’ll have to go on wondering
			where all our happiness went.

Phase 2. I took The Boy to a real, live soccer practice yesterday. They have it very ground down and structured – I couldn’t watch because spectators aren’t allowed inside of the complex. We have to wait in the parking lot, or come back later, or have kids old enough to drive themselves. This morning I’ll be taking The Girl to a soccer practice of her own, 45 or so minutes to the south in Auburn. I’ll say this: It was nice, last night, to go somewhere outside of West Seattle. Outside of the very few places I’ve been for the last 3 months. It really is staggering and defeating to think of how limited my movements have been. Half a dozen trips to Home Depot? It’s a mile from home. I’ll take this trip to Auburn and back, breathe a little on the highway with the windows down, read some B.K. in the parking lot, and come back at lunch time for a very likely stop at the Habit Burger drive thru.

My biggest move so far has been a drive South to Burien last week, 10-15 miles. I was on the quest to retrieve the meat we ordered months ago. A quarter of a cow – 100 lbs of beef. It comes from a farm somewhere in Eastern Washington, and I picked it up in an odd little spot: an Australian meat pie company. It was not a glamorous operation, not a very “foodie” type of a place. Too spare for even any hipster love. I screamed my name through a mask and over the hum of refrigerator compressors until that became too frustrating for both me and the guy trying to hear me, then I pulled the mask down and said it again. Worked the first time. The police did not come. But the beef did:

Beyond the obvious joy of an abundance of beef, there’s the pleasure of having cuts that I might not normally think to buy – London broil, tri-tip, that sort of thing. There’s also short ribs, soup bones, lots of good stuff. And one very large brisket that I can’t wait to spend a day or two cooking sometime soon.

Things keep happening, even if they aren’t.


Happy late birthday, Dad!

All the Books in the Universe

Had things been normal, The Boy’s school year would have ended with field day. Each year, a new t-shirt is designed, and the school meets at Lincoln Park for a day of events that the parents and teachers plan, coordinate, and execute with varying degrees of aptitude. Living so close to the park, we have hosted, for the last few years, most of the students in one or both of our kids’ classes for pre-field day shenanigans and donuts. When the time comes we walk them down to the park

There was no field day this year, and I miss filling the street in front of the house with a dozen screaming grade schoolers at 7:30 in the morning. But at least the commemorative shirts were still made. They were handed out with a few other items at the final drive-thru this morning. When The Boy brought it in and showed me, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I have no idea if a parent drew this up, or if it’s some stock design, but it’s the perfect accompaniment to a poem I wrote years ago as The Boy, then just a baby, was falling asleep on my chest:

The Dreamstronaut

The boy adrift in outer space alone,
His hairless pate in a glassy dome.
The awe, the joy, the dreaming soul.
A six-tooth smile in a barrel roll.

While his hands still search and his toes still curl,
Half in, half out of his old man's world.
The half that's in heaves a sigh at me,
The half that's gone starts its reverie.

With that I guess he's in the stars,
Using them like monkey bars,
To swing amidst the giant rows
While the library of his dreaming grows.

And once it's up he'll float about
In no great hurry to be picking out
His stories or his nursery rhymes;
He knows his dreams aren't bound by time.

He bobs on past hoar-frosted shelves,
And a section with a copse of elves.
With a languid pull he moves along,
To the fantasy he'll settle on.

I've always imagined him like this,
Giggling through the stacks in bliss.
The length and breadth of an innocent's whim,
His snickers and kicks propelling him.

Now in my arms he's settled more,
But he shifts a bit one time before
His searching hand tugs on my nose -
He's grabbed a dream, and off he goes.

Of Ballads and Bruises

Emily Dickinson:

I HAD a guinea golden;
I lost it in the sand,
And though the sum was simple,
And pounds were in the land,
Still had it such a value
Unto my frugal eye,
That when I could not find it
I sat me down to sigh.
  
I had a crimson robin
Who sang full many a day,
But when the woods were painted
He, too, did fly away.
Time brought me other robins,—
Their ballads were the same,—
Still for my missing troubadour
I kept the “house at hame.”
  
I had a star in heaven;
One Pleiad was its name,
And when I was not heeding
It wandered from the same.
And though the skies are crowded,
And all the night ashine,
I do not care about it,
Since none of them are mine.
  
My story has a moral:
I have a missing friend,—
Pleiad its name, and robin,
And guinea in the sand,—
And when this mournful ditty,
Accompanied with tear,
Shall meet the eye of traitor
In country far from here,
Grant that repentance solemn
May seize upon his mind,
And he no consolation
Beneath the sun may find.

Seems oddly unforgiving. “House at Hame” is from an 1822 Scottish ballad about a woman, at home and working hard to keep her kids fed and clothed while her husband is gone. Presumably in a war, because that’s how these things usually go. There was some unrest in Scotland in 1820, “The Radical War,” but that was short-lived and domestic, consisting of riots and occasional clashes with authorities (where have I heard that before?). Interestingly, and antithetical to Emily’s poem, the husband in the song does return home, to much joy and celebration. A bit more upbeat than Dickinson’s wish for eternal suffering.


I’m going to let the Plague Diaries slide into a less prominent role here. It’s getting old, and I find myself complaining too much. It’s going to be dragging on long enough that I don’t need to worry about running out of things to say. The Boy’s school just emailed us to the tune of “expect to continue some level of homeschooling next year.” They have no definite plan yet, but it won’t be like it used to be. Months ago I obstinately refused to believe that this vain terror would have any lasting effects on life as we knew it. It may be time to admit that I was wrong about that. I am wrong an awful lot.

But I’m right, too, and it’s frustrating. Yesterday I received an email from a friend. I went to high school with her husband. We don’t talk much. But they’re a very thoughtful couple, and it didn’t surprise me that they reached out, offering prayers, thoughts, well wishes while they hear about Seattle on the news. I can’t imagine what image they are getting through The Big Filter. My mom, for instance, asked me how close I lived to “The block party.” No irony, no sarcasm. That’s just what the news told her was happening on Capitol Hill. And that kind of confusion and spin is what fueled my response to yesterday’s email from my friend in California:

It's odd here. From our house it's impossible to tell anything has happened. Or is happening. The West Seattle Bridge being out of operation really cuts us off from the world, and with all the Coronavirus restrictions, well, our universe is decidedly shrunken.

The behavior of people confuses and saddens me, and I guess I just try my best to know what I think about it all. As of now, I have no idea. Everyone seems to have a good point to make alongside every bad one, nobody's doing anything all the way right or all the way wrong, and the whole thing just seems to keep everyone divided and unhappy. I'm reading The Brothers Karamazov right now, in which the principal character lives (at least in the first part) in a monastery. I can't help wanting to run to one myself.

Whether it's streets blocked with protesters, or COVID restrictions from the Governor, I'm tired of not being able to go where I want, when I want. It's a pretty nice life here in our big house with plenty of food and money, but the soul begs for movement, contact, and variety.

Wherever the other side of all this is, and whenever it comes, I hope we all arrive there better than when it started.

Here’s to getting healthy, Comrade Citizen.

The PVP Diaries #59

“A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it?”

– The Elder Zosima, The Brothers K.

Here’s a reprint for a day that’s simply one too many:

Soft Armor

Guard against the joylessness -
the shout
the sloganed cry.
Guard against the chanted curse
and truthful-seeming lie.

Guard against the joylessness -
against the sheepish fright.
Guard against the mirthless marches
that wilt without the light
(a truly righteous Army thrives
even out of sight).

Guard against the joylessness -
the hunt
the blue bird’s noose.
Guard against the flashing placards
that turn a lynching loose.

Guard against the joylessness -
against the textbook heart.
Guard against the low momentum
of the classroom’s faded arts
(the ivory’s crumbling fastest
at the over-polished parts).

Guard against the joylessness
my son,
my girl child,
by suiting up in Mother’s grace
and by wielding Father’s smile

Found Poetry

I’ve never read any Kerouac. There’s a short section of this poem dubbed into a song I’ve known since forever:

…America and Steel civilization rushing by with San
Francisco Chronicles and green Call-Bulletins not even enough
time to be disdainful, they’ve got to catch 130, 132, 134, 136 all
the way up to 146 till the time of evening supper in homes of the
railroad earth when high in the sky the magic stars ride above
the following hotshot freight trains–it’s all in California, it’s all a
sea…

Wait a little for it, but listen until you get there. It really isn’t all that bad:

I rode down to the tracks
Thinking they might sing to me
But they just stared back
Broken, trainless, and black as night
Climbed out on to my roof
So I’d be a poet in the night
Beat the walls off my room
I saw the big room that is this life

This is my condition:
Naked and hysterical
Reaching to grab a hand that I just slapped back at
This is my condition:
Desperate, alone, without an excuse
I try to explain
Christ, what’s the use?

Read and I felt so small
Some words keep speaking when you close the book
Drank and just about smiled
Then I remembered us in that bed
Put my ear to the door
I just heard hot rods and gunshots and sirens
People kill me these days
There’s keys in their eyes but they locked from the inside

This is my condition:
Naked and hysterical
Reaching to grab a hand that I just slapped back at
This is my condition:
Desperate, alone, without an excuse
I try to explain
Christ, what’s the use?

The Butler Rises

 

I’ve always had a hard time writing to a specific theme. I could come home from a hockey game and write a better poem about baseball than hockey. All of this to say that I don’t think I have a specific Mother’s Day poem in the archives. I do have this, written in 2012, when the kids were still 1 and 3 years old. I was only just starting to get good at this dadding business, and their mother’s work travels left them very much longing, and I with my hands very full. I was still working full time then as well, so it was a whirlwind. We celebrated her returns:

The Countermeasure

Mama’s coming home today!
In anticipation, the pancakes fly
From the children’s plates
To the dog, through the sky.
Mama’s coming home today!

The sun makes noise to celebrate!
In obeisance, the butler rises
To quiet the household’s gears
With oils, and compromises.
The sun makes noise to celebrate!

Mama’s coming home today!
In preparation, a runner’s sent
To deliver the angels’ praise
For surviving, and keeping up the rent.
Mama’s coming home today!

………

She hasn’t traveled for months now, and that is what we celebrate. Here’s to a world waking itself up to travel, and a love that never leaves home.