Crocus Punch

 

 

For FP

 

It’s true to say that there were April freeways—

More true, in fact, than to say that there was pain

 

Pain is a squirrely concept, sullied and conflated

As it is with time’s inevitable rot

 

April freeways are sleek black ribbons

Beneath blue canvases like God Frisbees and

 

Always there is the bang of a stock car stereo uncontaining

Guitar licks and the sunroof doing that

 

Thing with the cigarette smoke as well as

Dark glasses and her dark locks like bullwhips

 

In the wind and most importantly of course

There are bends in the road and countless

 

Possible destinations

WHAT I TOLD THE CHAPLAIN

 

When I met God he told me you’d be surprised at the way it all shakes out these days, how virtue and vice lend each other ballast.  The depths of spirit that contradiction and hypocrisy sometimes suggest if you can—as he can—just lift the silly veil of those concepts, which are, after all, flimsy, cycled so many times through our bullshit puritanical washer.  No, God told me, while he might conjure a friendly nod for adherents to black and white Good as they giddily slog their way through the pearly gates (these are useful but inaccurate symbols, of course, as they always have been: pearly gates, God as he, etc.), but it bores him.  He finds himself most passionate about border-dancing souls regardless of where the gravity and gusts of this world ultimately cause them to land: in his cloudy grove of bliss or the fiery pits below (God sounded particularly bored with this last symbolic illustration and I sensed that if he’d had the energy he might have made quotation marks in the air around it).  He experiences a rush of the sacred now only when he can usher a controversial case into everlasting peace.  The monk who spends all week on robed knees, then bullies a Harley through the hills come Saturday, a Sig Sauer strapped to his hip.  The feminist wonk cutting her way verbally through seminar rooms and news shows who submits powerfully to brutal gangbangs when she clocks out.  The pro bono abortionist doc braving picket lines, who decided at age sixteen that he’d never be party to the medical liquidation of his own seed again.  The psychotherapist weed whacking and vine chopping through dark and tangled psyches toward fragile truths, who closes his door at night to watch back to back episodes of Lost.  The vegan yoga guru and insight meditation instructor deep into her six-pack and blunt at one a.m.  The cop that thrashes abusive husbands in the squad car.  Etc.  No, it’s not rigid adherence, not dogmatic integrity, not fanatical embrace of virtue or literal acceptance of scripture that make God’s heart skip a beat these days.  Maybe he’s just gotten old, God said, but things have changed.  And he shook my hand, but also told me that despite himself he’d probably feel a certain pleasure—definitely a thrill—when they dropped the hood over me and threw that switch.

 

IRRESOLUTION

The insidious entropy of resolutions

Is violent

 

The tradition wears a virtuous costume:

Spine erect, eyes reflecting a fire but

 

The scaffolding sags if not with dawn

Then with

 

February’s dark expanse or

Certainly April’s giddiness

 

Certainly: adherence as an examination

Of will

 

But also: a proscribed space

To commit acts that ought

 

To roll and bloom

From the landscape of life

 

December 25th is for generosity

February 14th is for love

November 23rd is for gratitude

December 31st is for change

 

I resolve to place no more cages

Over the moments

 

In which I can stop

And rethink,

 

Act,

Love.

Counting Down

 

 

 

 

 

For FP, after Amy Gerstler’s gangster soliloquy

 

 

 

Fragments of sordid recollection come careening down on me at this time of year like the surplus missing posters of her danced on the airstream of a bonfire in a North Cascades meadow when we sealed the end of 2004 with flame.  Fragments of sordid, I said: the piss stink and shuffle lurch of dark figures in the alleys she might have crouched in; the gravestone faces of swing shift workers huddled in a bus stop, deadpanning us like the poster of her deadpanned them; a huff of plaster dust and arc of blood from a knuckle traced by a laugh that is not a laugh; the butt of a large knife pressing my hipbone while I cut my eyes at a lying addict.  The whole city reels through a rainy nighttime kaleidoscope that describes rivers of embers, stoplights and blood and if we could have stayed vertical long enough perhaps we would have tread every loop and found her supine and pooling away in time to give her our breath.  Everybody’s looking for something and when I disobey the leash law of my mind I suppose I’m looking for a wormhole back to those streets and a different dawn on a different horizon but she laid down in a neighborhood called the West Edge within screaming distance of the black Sound and the end of this land.  While the city sleeps toward the Holy Days again I am most awake when the gusts hit the top of their velocity and I am free to shiver in bed and pull whole fucking soliloquies of what might have been said through the cracked window.

 

Jesus v. Santa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear son,

It occurs to me that as houses light up psychedelically and you begin to see fat men in red costumes everywhere you go, when the size of boxes and bags seems to swell and there is suddenly a tree in the middle of your play space, that it might be incumbent upon me to clear up what is for some children an understandable confusion about Christmas.  It is the birthday of a man named Jesus—or Jesús as mamá would say, if she had much interest in him—and, also, the busiest day of the year for a man named Santa.  I use the term “man” both intentionally and roughly, because one of the things that Jesus and Santa have in common is a lingering controversy as to whether they are—or were—truly men and not merely stories made up for various purposes. But that’s not what I meant to write about now.

 

 

Here are some other things that Santa and Jesus have in common: both can magically produce gifts, though from Jesus you are likely only to receive wine—that’s “mama juice”—and fishes (not much like Nemo) and if you’re angling for a Hot Wheels track or remote control helicopter (as I suspect you are), Santa is a better bet.  Both Santa and Jesus can do magic—Jesus, for example, can walk on a lake and Santa can make his wagon fly with the help of deer with bright red noses.  Both Santa and Jesus are kind and caring and have particular interest in making children and sick people happy.  We make offerings of food—that’s “num-nums”—to both Jesus and Santa, though in the case of Jesus it’s mama juice and crackers, and though it’s an offering, we get to eat them ourselves, whereas in the case of Santa it’s cookies and milk and…well, kids don’t get to eat them.  It’s confusing, as are many things about this time of year.

 

 

Here are some ways in which Jesus and Santa are different: Santa is fat and Jesus is very skinny, like tía Helena, but even more. Santa’s home is at the North Pole, which is made out of snow and very, very cold all the time but Jesus came from the desert, which is why the pictures of Jesus aren’t very good—they make Jesus look like papa’s friend Sean when he probably had skin more like uncle Onyx’s.  We’ll talk later on about why they do that. Jesus doesn’t like stuff very much and some people say he didn’t even wear shoes; Santa, on the other hand, really is very focused on stuff (especially toys) and spends most of his time commanding a small army of fully grown men about your size to make stuff, which he then gives away (to be clear).  Santa has a wife, who is also fat and kind but Jesus did not have a wife according to most people, though that story may be changing.  No one seems to know who Santa’s papa is, whereas Jesus’ papa is God, which is like the biggest papa of all.

 

So, what about Christmas Day itself?  Simple: it’s Jesus’ birthday and Santa helps make sure that we celebrate it by flying around in his magic sled and laughing a lot and landing on roofs and jumping down chimneys to eat the milk and cookies that you leave for him and leaving you lots of presents that his little army made in his factory up in the north pole.  He does this because he’s a “saint,” which is like a friend of Jesus except he gets to wear shoes and eat a lot.  Those are the stories anyway. Next year, probably, we’ll start talking about the truth.

 

Merry Christmas,

 

Papa

 

 

 

Dear Moonfaced Man

 

Dear Moonfaced Man:

 

You were a demon to me only for moments, then for many years a ghost and eventually a teacher, I suppose, though I won’t reify you or the hungry shuffle you might still commit on darkened streets where desperation’s scent is as strong as urine.  You tried to buy me or at least to rent my body, but I must tell you that renting the body of a young man may differ little in impact from the purchase of his soul.  That night I was interested mainly in tasting rage like the silhouettes wreathed in cocaine smoke were interested in the glow of their pipes, and my rage had little to do with you, perhaps.  I believe in the necessity of emotional disguise, even now, and the ire that almost got you chopped down probably wafted from the snuffing of my innocence—you see, I didn’t understand when you first asked if I was still working, I thought you were drunk or ill, anticipating a cappuccino despite the shuttered café I stoop-sat.  When the meaning of your question filtered through the day’s cannabis and caffeine, my own naivete flushed my veins with flame.  And what did your mind do when I caught up to you a block north with a work boot in my fist and a friend at my side?  What did you hope for with your denial?  I can tell you now that calling me crazy did not help your case—other elements that you could not wield are what kept you whole: the way the moon lit your face and showed your age; the curve of terror in your Baltic eyes; my friend’s uncharacteristic hesitation; the group of Asian gangsters blowing blunt smoke against the stars and looking just a little bit sorry for you despite my harangue and accusation.  But, also, I was young, a boy, and you were a man, and old, and there lingered in me a vestige of respect or perhaps its dark cousin, fear—fear that you would produce a blade or else go down too easy and despite your intentions land me in a cage where worse things than an old man’s hand stuttering over my body might occur.  Dear Moonfaced Man, I have learned a great deal about loneliness, about starvation, even, not to mention lust and shame and greed.  I have learned how flesh and desire stretch backwards through time.  You were old and I was young; perhaps I should have merely thanked you for the compliment.  Wherever you are now you are safe from me and I hope also from yourself.

 

Your student, Eli.

 

 

 

IF MY FIST COULD SPEAK

 

 

 

 

If my fist could speak it would recount dumb reptile incidents of fractured picture frames, how it didn’t even injure the lies the photos told beneath the bloody glass

 

 

 

If my fist could speak it would refuse to

 

 

 

If my fist could speak it would put lyrics to metronomes originally beaten against car dashboards

 

 

 

If my fist could speak it would scream

 

 

 

If my first could speak it would tell you of the inadequacy of plasterboard before traumatic sorrow

 

 

 

If my fist could speak it would grin through scars

 

 

 

If my fist could speak it would explain that everyone had always talked about taking down that wall anyway—and that now we can see each other, from kitchen to porch

 

 

 

If my fist could speak it would shake instead

 

 

 

If my fist could speak it would assure you that it has only been aimed at things it was ready to hit

 

 

 

If my fist could speak it would decry the system of safeties that binds it

 

 

 

If my first could speak it would tell you about disappointments, betrayals, about the paradox of its effects against rapists and bullies

 

 

 

If my fist could speak it would sing bluely about its tribulations in a world of guns

 

 

 

If my first could speak it would lament how Bona fide targets slip like mirages before it can land, about how divorce, neglect, injustice and loss have no cartilage

 

 

 

If my fist could speak it would say that it’s just about the size of a heart

 

 

 

 

Commuting

8:17 a.m.

 

podcast bleeds Syrian over the unbuckling Velcro of studded tires on the wet pavement and despite the California stop of the cat at the four way I press the brake like a cockroach and let him go first

 

8:20 a.m.

 

stoplight winks green just as a dark tangle of motion steals my attention in the parking lot north where a fifty-something balding man in a burgundy Aero 19 hooded sweatshirt and torn jeans is striking and choking a small Hispanic woman in a khaki coat and backpack up against the fence so I honk and he invites me to join them; the honk of those behind me eager to arrive at their jobs jars me into closing my door and dialing 911 where a stern dispatcher gobbles up the details as man and woman dash in different directions

 

8:24 a.m.

 

in the six inches of shoulder that the onramp affords a ballcapped dude the age of my dead father grips a torn cardboard plea for assistance in his hands and a determinedly appropriate half-smile on his weathered face and I fork him a dollar over news of Walmart protests

 

8:51 a.m.

 

I sit in a foyer halfway through a cup of coffee. A fountain gurgles tranquility to my right and progressive, hip and well-educated colleagues in pea coats and scarves chatter smoothly awaiting the opportunity to sit around tables and consult with each other about the people we try to help heal in the world

The Terror and the Love

 

 

The snow had just stopped falling in breakfast-cereal sized flakes in Plain, Washington and the Social Justice Fund board had just sat down to hash out the strategic plan for donor organizing in the coming years when Burke got the voicemail.  His little boy, Lucas, born with myotubular myopathy, was in an ambulance, having stopped breathing in the presence of his respite care nurse.  Burke reached out to me amid the crowd and we went into a darkened bedroom of the lodge and I tried to say reassuring things about focusing on his love instead of his fear but they were just words to prop up the air so it could be inhaled.  It occurs to me now that Burke and I crouched in that room and breathed—him nearly hyperventilating, me with the luxury to put mindfulness to it—as if to make up for his son’s lack of oxygen in the halogen-washed rectangle of a jolting ambulance two hundred miles west.

 

 

 

Fearing the loss of cell reception, Burke decided to linger and wait for more news before we split so we stood outside under the gunmetal sky and smoked cigarettes and said things about the terror of parenthood. I said that being a parent is like walking around with your heart outside your body, but you have to keep walking, which is something someone wise once said to me.  Burke said that he and his wife had known they had to keep living their lives despite their son’s condition, that if they didn’t, they weren’t being true to him. We share the terror.  But the odd or graceful or remarkable fact is that while my son is perfectly healthy—strangely healthy, in fact, for a toddler—Burke’s son was born with muscles that didn’t work and his parents sprang into battle for his survival in hour one and have been fighting ever since.  And yet Burke might carry less terror in his chest than I do.  More than once I’ve gotten the sense that his terror is something that he carries like a briefcase while mine is something I wear like a hair shirt.  If I were faced with the task of fathering that Burke faces everyday, I doubt I would be a functional human being, much less an active, progressive, generous member of the Social Justice Fund board.  When a lymph node swelled to the size of a jawbreaker on my son’s neck for a few weeks, I fell victim to panic attacks despite the assurances of doctors, parents and common sense that it would add up to nothing at all.  Perhaps we all receive precisely what we can handle in this life—as people of faith might suggest.  Or perhaps Burke has just done spiritual work on fast forward.  At any rate, though I happily agreed to drive him back to the city, I felt even shakier than he appeared as we hit the blue high ways.

 

 

 

Phone reception came and went many times in the first few miles, the phone calls breaking before any sense could be made of what was happening in the ER that we hurtled toward.  On that black forest-choked highway under freezing rain, I strangled the steering wheel to steady my hands against the fear that right there, in my shotgun seat, this young man would get the news that his beloved son was gone.  I tried to imagine what I would do: pull onto the shoulder?  Speed up?  Say nothing, breathe deeply, keep driving?  Should I let him go if he told me to stop and then threw himself from my truck at a run?  Should I chase him?  What would I want him to do for me?

 

 

 

Fate was kind tonight and Lucas stabilized when he arrived at Children’s Hospital.  And by the time we were halfway back, Burke and I were having philosophical conversations about family relationships and justice.  By the time we strode the hallways of the pediatric ICU Burke’s urgency was more to simply hug his son than to reach him in time…

 

 

 

I was supposed to be at a board meeting all weekend.  I am so lucky that instead I was allowed to drive like a bat out of hell home in time to hug my own boy and put him to bed, safe and warm.  And I am so lucky to have the grace and courage of people like Burke and his partner Krista—and Lucas, too—to humble me and teach me.

You can read about the joys and struggles of Lucas and his parents here: www.lucascamilo.com

 

 

 

 

In the Funhouse Mirror: KCJD & UCDS

This morning a privileged young father moved directly from a tour of the University Child Development School (UCDS) to his work mentoring poetry with youth incarcerated at King County Juvenile Detention (KCJD).  UCDS was designed and constructed around the theme and virtue of “invitation” and the spaces are all open to one another, a wild vision composed of catwalks and broad entryways and interior windows and staircases, all interlinking physical domains of learning, which is intended to mirror the ways in which learning itself is interlinked.  KCJD was designed and constructed around the themes of security and surveillance and the spaces are also designed to be visible to one another, a grid of triangles with plexi-glass vantage points and circular control posts, all interlinking the grand effort at control and reformation.  UCDS left the pipes exposed so that students can lie on their backs in the carpeted lobby and follow the flow of water as it courses.  KCJD is trying to keep its pipes unexposed but ancient leaks make their yellowing progress through the chalky ceiling tiles and the howl of flushed toilets fly like yoked ghosts through the cellblocks.  UCDS systematically comingles age groups and classes so that children learn how to propel themselves onto an elevated level of communication with others, depending on the other’s developmental stage.  KCJD carefully segregates youth based on gang affiliation, intelligence reports, mental health status and, sometimes, neighborhood of origin so that the likelihood of altercation remains as low as possible.  UCDS prizes respectful communication between teachers and students and an appropriate decomposition of the barriers that authority invisibly draws.  KCJD staff uses clarity, severity, volume and threat to vividly demarcate the division between authority and non.  UCDS accepts children aged three through ten; KCJD incarcerates children aged ten through eighteen.  Children graduating from UCDS are not, however, prepared to enter KCJD.  The children that populate the rank, chilly, cinderblock and linoleum world of KCJD in most cases were prepared for it by the lives they’ve lived: bordered with the ache of cold stone and structured by the stinging lash of shouts.  The children of UCDS are overwhelmingly white and wear the unconscious accoutrements of care: clean, brushed out hair, straight teeth, matching high-quality clothes, the ability to hold your gaze.  The youth of KCJD are overwhelmingly black and brown and move under the weight of badges of neglect and abuse: hematomas, scars, unkempt, greasy hair, eyes hung with packed bags, averted gazes—or hostile glares.  Just as the young father’s blonde, blue-eyed child will be prepared for the challenging but supportive world of a competitive middle school should he spend his early years at UCDS, most of the youth who land in KCJD have likewise been prepared for their entrance.  The young father avoided mirrors on his drive between UCDS and KCJD; now that he’s in Tank A, waiting for the youth to come and depict their world in their own damn words, he doesn’t have to avoid mirrors—they are prohibited here.