Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Pinata

As a child his peers seemed to regard him as an acquaintance at best and lacked the basic civility that is a prerequisite of friendship. He was more of a sycophant than a friend and often they treated him with animus. Sometimes their cruelty was gentle. On more than one occasion his “friends” had offered him candy, toys, and even money to go home and let them be. Other times, there was nothing gentle about it at all.  

One day when Ren was nine years old he was passing time with a neighborhood boy he considered one of his better friends, Christopher, or Chris as he was called back then. They'd had sleepovers, shared trite, youthful secrets, and their mothers, especially Ren's mother, seemed to take a particular pride in their friendship. She could often be heard telling people, including Chris' mother things like

"You know Chris is just so pleasant. He is one of Ren's best friends and it is just so wonderful to see them play." The neighborhood was nestled amongst large oaks and pines. Chris' father had recently built him a tree house with a ladder to get up and a rope-swing to get down. The fort was the envy of all the neighborhood kids.

The afternoon was crisp, cool in the shade, warm in the sun. Ren had spent the night and they'd spent most of the morning digging up the yard for some sort of magical river they had divined in their imagination. When Chris' father came outside he was incensed at the series of trenches that had been ripped through the half-acre landscape.  

“I spent two days building you that fucking tree house and what do you do? You dig up the whole goddamn yard! That's the 'thanks' I get uh?" He proceeded with a vituperative scolding that did not stop at his initial grievance but continued into a captious laundry list of shortcomings. To his father this was but a symptom of a much bigger disease: Chris' inherent idiocy and thoughtlessness. Within a minute of the diatribe, something inside Chris had died. He fell silent in embarrassment and shame. The light in his eyes dimmed as the curtains of his imagination closed.  

Chris walked crestfallen towards the tree, climbed up the ladder and sat up there feeling small. Unfamiliar emotions slithered through him. Poison was being manufactured in his heart. Following suit Ren climbed up the ladder without a word, took the rope swing between his legs and lept from the platform without a word. As he swung back he could see Chris climbing down the ladder and as he swung out a second time he saw Chris on the ground looking upwards with a long, sturdy stick in hand. His eyes had a focused determination as they locked onto Ren's swing the way a cat's eyes lock onto a bird's flight. The quiet air felt heavy like it was hinting at suffocation. Ren suddenly felt uneasy and confused. He swung silently though, as boys do not have words for such feelings. As he approached the nadir of his second swing out, he felt his inertia met with blunt force. Time slowed. He was bewildered wondering what he had hit. A murder of crows bolted outward and upward from the tree as if to avoid the same fate.  

When Ren's swing approached the far end of it's pendulum the pain and the horror began to set in. There below was Chris, stick in hand, readying for another strike. Ren's body swooped down and met the stick with its full velocity. As the rope lost momentum the swings lost their rise, setting him up to be an even easier target. But he was still moving too fast and too high to jump and so for a third, fourth, and fifth time he was beaten. Amongst the truculence oak leaves fell softly to the ground.  

Ren could hear the stick breaking the wind and he could hear the solid smack it made against his small, proud body, the percussion of violence that he would never forget. It was the sound of betrayal, of anger wrapped in friendship. This was the sharp painful contrast of being loved and being hurt by one single source.  Ren's clear, blue eyes welled up with tears. His beautiful long eyelashes yielded to the weight of his sorrow. Ren was speechless and oddly so was Chris. Finally, Ren's heart broke open spilling sour and bitter candy.

Memory is a Funny Thing: A Memoir of Masculinities in Reaganite Suburbia

It is a fact, but nonetheless has the quality of a rumor- something heard but never seen, known but not understood. The fact is this: my father has cried twice since I was born, 31 years ago. If there were other times only he is aware of them. I know of these two times only from the testimony of my mother who speaks about it only to trusted company as if she was the lone witness to some secret government experiment, as if to speak of it could be dangerous. My mother found herself the third angle of an obtuse triangulation. She stood between my proud father and I, his pugnacious progeny. She was the peace broker and thus bore the brunt of both of our own selfish tragedies.

The first time in my life that he cried was on the night before I went to school wearing my mother's concealer make-up. It was1982 and I was seven. A lot happened that year. My father’s father died after forgetting who everybody around him was - everybody, even his wife and his kids. My father’s brother currently suffers the same fate of forgetting, and so too might my father, so too might I. My mother, a nurse-in-training at the time, sat alone with my grandfather as he died. She knew death was close. In high school she had been a poet and her mother had been a closeted artist. So, using her words, my mother painted him a picture to die by. She described the lake house in Wisconsin that he owned. I have only a few faint memories there, but it was his personal Shangri-La. It was there that he smoked his pipe, went fishing, and loved his wife. It was also there that he watched his son, my father, do hotshot fly-bys with a plane owned by the United States Marine Corp. That was about 1961 and in a matter of months my father would stand at attention on an aircraft carrier for 12 hours next to that same plane. He was waiting, like the rest of the country, to see if Cuba and the U.S. were going to start a nuclear war. It may have been one of his proudest moments. History is complicated after all.

So, my mother described a lake, a boat, a sunset, and all the people who had joined my grandfather there. The doctors had been wrong about one thing. Yes, he was going to die, but he would not die without a memory. At that moment, this man who didn’t recognize his own son, much less his son’s wife, shed one tear. He probably couldn’t tell the difference between the picture my mother was painting and heaven, and truly, there may have been no difference at all.
I do sometimes wonder if that was the first time my grandfather ever cried. Even that night, my own father did not cry. However, he was not unaffected. One week later, whatever rivers of rage or sorrow that had been dammed up inside found themselves a chink. Stone and water rushed through the night with destructive abandon. I don’t remember the details of the argument we had that night. I don’t remember how it started, how it proceeded or how it ended. I don’t even remember his hand slapping my face. I remember my parents being alone in their bedroom afterwards and me, lachrymose and abandoned. According to my mother however, I was not alone in my tears.

In that house there was this gigantic brown chair that I loved to sink my small body into when watching television. After their time alone in the bedroom he came out and was noticeably calmer. He asked me to sit with him in that chair. I sat on his lap and he wrapped his arms around me. I remember this more like a photograph, without sound and without motion. The next morning my mother put her beige make-up over the fingerprints on my cheeks.
The other big event of 1982 was that my mother, finally pregnant after months of not conceiving, miscarried. I was the first to know that I had a sibling on the way, and the last to know that this little cosmic package had been marked “return to sender”. I remember very little about that event. One moment comes to mind however: at seven years old it was still my ritual to wake up, get dressed, and find my parents. I could see the glow of the bathroom light in their bedroom. I approached, eager to see whichever parent was in there. My mom, still in her nightgown, was on the toilet hunched over, her face red-hot with tears. Again, I remember this more like a photograph- without sound, without motion. Somehow, I later connected that scene with her loss, with our loss.

Eleven years later I found out that this was not just a sad fluke but a more permanent condition on my mother’s part. The way I found out was a tragedy too. I needed socks. All I wanted was a pair of socks and each and every pair of mine were dirty. My father would surely have some socks I could wear. Having just returned home from a flight, his clothes were still packed. I shuffled through one bag and found not just socks, but also a pack of condoms. A few weeks later I found my mother again bent over, her face red-hot with tears. This time she was not pissing out a fetus. She had angry suspicions and was beside herself with heartache. For reasons I still cannot understand, I involved myself. I told her about the socks, and the condoms. She became oddly calm and said only this: “Well, that settles it- we haven’t needed to use condoms in over eleven years”.

The second time in my life that my father cried was shortly after his mother died. I was in Mexico with a woman who I thought I knew, but barely knew. So it goes with young love. My grandmother, like her husband before her, also forgot who everyone was during the years proceeding her death. She however was apparently not satisfied with just losing memories, she created new ones too. One night, for example, she called her neighbor saying that men were robbing her. No evidence could be found that this was true. So off to the nursing home she went. A year passed and then we both got ready for our trips. I was going to Mexico and she was going to heaven. I think she had a better time but we still haven't talked or traded photographs. I wasn't with her in the moment she died as my mother had been for my grandfather. However, I was there very near the end. I knew this would be the last time I’d see her with any lightening at all in her brain. So, I told her what any grandson should tell his grandmother: that she was wonderful and caring, that she spoiled me silly and I loved her for it, that I was glad she had been my grandmother and glad she had raised my father… and probably some more true things that I don’t now remember. And guess what? Despite no longer knowing my name, she cried one tear too. I wrote down what I had told her in the hospital room and decorated it with a bit more eloquence and fact. This was her eulogy, to be read by my father at her funeral. So about two weeks later, while I was climbing the pyramids of my girlfriend’s ancestors, my father read my farewell, bit-by-bit, tears sneaking out between each sentence.
My mother has since read this story and her only response is, in a sad, hopeless tone, "memory is a funny thing". The implication was that she does not remember these events in the same way that I do. Maybe my grandfather did not cry on his deathbed. Maybe the Cuban missile crisis wasn’t my father's proudest moment and maybe he did cry more than just two times in the last 31 years. Again, this is only what I have heard but not seen, known but not understood. And yet, I still find it fit to call fact, at least in the mythology of my own life. What a subjective world we live in.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Maternal Makers

To the maternal lineage, to my mothers close and far, here and gone.

A long line of women who lived difficult and uncertain lives. Each generation carved and altered the tortuous river down which I came crying for breast milk and the sea. And from that day I began to flow in my own canal of sweet, terrifying water. But where did this river begin? It is only stories that have the power to paddle upstream and retrace the riptides, the places of bliss and tragedy. And the stories are few. It is as if there once existed a strong, unyielding eddy that pulled the past concentrically out of existence and into a place where all struggle ceased, where hopes and fears were returned to the darkness from whence they came. A long line of women who lived difficult and uncertain lives.

I know so little of them; here and there only partial tales of either brooding, silent men or men who were never silent enough. One day the fork down which I flow will finally reach the sea and I will be welcomed into the oceanic afterlife by my matriarchal makers. We will drink tea at the bottom of the sea and I will humbly ask for their stories. I will ask to view the artifacts absconded from the brief and incandescent space between the womb and the grave. And I will ask their condolences as I grieve for all that I left behind, all that I gave, which was never enough. And there I fear I may learn that pain does not end with death, that a life is to be celebrated but also reconciled.

But for now I am still on the side of the living. So I use my dreams to send my belated love downstream ahead of my arrival. I do this so they know they are not forgotten but more selfishly so that I am not forgotten. Scrawled upon these love notes from the abyss I send my inquiries, my pain, my repentance and my gratitude. I tell them everything that I hope is true, and everything that I fear is true, and of everything that I am trying to make sense of in this life. This is what I say to my mother and her mother and the many mothers down the line:

My hope is that though you may have suffered derision of spirit, that you may also have found wings in your life, something that allowed you to rise up, look down and see the smallness of all that shamed you. My hope is that you knew that your body was my temple, that while you cared for it and took solace in it I did as well, growing and becoming whilst the forces of oppression encircled your shrine with their phallic threats.

There are some things of which I am certain, however few they may be. I am certain that however you survived, you did so, in part, on my behalf. This is a debt I cannot repay and I should hope that in your world there are no balance sheets, no accounting of what is owed and what is received. I put my faith in the existence of a deeper currency, one in which worth is naked and apparent, its value innate. My hope is that you knew men, or women, who loved you gently and courageously, that you can somehow, through the wall of oblivion, teach me their ways before it is too late, before I die with an angry and unresolved heart. I know this is a lot to ask of you, but it is through this adulterated heart of mine that the women I have loved now have so much in common with your own suffering. My hope is that I will be forgiven for the times I sided with fear and invoked the dark father, taking sanctuary in the fallacy of arrogance.
If I am lucky, my river will be long and slow, determined to fully taste the rich earth it cuts and claims. If I am lucky, you who await my return, and you whose return was awaited by the mother of everything, will recognize something eternal of yourself within the life that I have led. If I am lucky, I will carry down this river the light you gave, a light unexstinguished by relentless sorrow.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Marionette

He is all string and wood
Has faith as he should
In the benevolent hidden hand

With his heart he's believing
That from the beginning
It was he who made his legs stand

But of late he has noted
The wires that have floated
Around him all his life

If he could just grab a string
He could pull down the thing
Seeing clearly what dictates his strife

If he could he would find
That the hands are of time
And that all of the strings can untangle

Tugging and twisting
Despite his resisting
The cast of his past does still wrangle

A father who raged
Is still above stage
Mangling his son with the wire

A mother he misses
Still has her wishes
And she too pulls the weight

And the things left undone
Are now knotted and hung
Slowing his forward gait

Choice is a lie
And though he has tried
The puppeteers are just that much faster

So he longs for the day
When he cuts them away

And the puppet becomes the mast

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Fifty Lempira

Doña Keña sold me pistachio ice cream for 50 Lempira a scoop. She was a kind woman, a loving mother, a devoted wife and a humble ice cream vendor. Every unbearably hot Honduran day she sat at her ice cream stand-on-wheels to the side of a dusty dirt road in the small Evangelical pueblo of Cofradia, where I had taken a one year teaching position. Doña Keña sat silently, most often alone, save for the brief company of her customers.

While her face seemed difficult to gauge in years, her motherly, round body was probably in its fourth decade. She dressed casually, in jeans and a t-shirt or simple blouse. Doña Keña could often be found waiting for customers with a book in hand. When talking with her, people (especially foreigners like myself) wondered why she sold ice cream and was not instead in La Universidad or the head of some other institution. The Doña was smart. She could converse easily, in an informed way about matters of politics, science, or history. Yet, her forte, as far as I was concerned, were matters of the heart.

Doña Keña's eyes implied a deep appreciation of life and also, a sad resignation, as if she had in fact once dreamed of teaching or traveling and perhaps did not actually enjoy selling ice cream on the side of the road for 50 Lempira a scoop. Yet, it was the gratitude and sense of wonder that she made more obvious, especially when she spoke of her daughter. Like many Honduran women, her greatest joy, and her endless sacrifice, was her family.

Ice Cream is one of my comfort foods and my 50 Lemp bought me both comfort and food. Though I was clumsy with her mother tongue, Doña Keña and I somehow forged a friendship. At the end of every difficult day of teaching I craved nothing else more than a scoop of ice cream. And so became my ritual. Doña Keña was one of the few people with whom I could speak (or try to speak) Spanish and not feel intimidated. She spoke at an easy pace and was very patient. She also, unlike many in Cofradia, did not seem to see me as suspect or strange. Our conversations began simply enough within the licks of this creamy consumption. Initially, we would talk about the weather and children. But it wasn't long before we were talking on more personal terms about more personal things. It wasn't long before "ud." became "tu". Though our talks were often limited by linguistics, they were never inhibited by emotion. It is amazing what complex things people can express with just a few simple words. It wasn't just words of course. We spoke in gestures, we spoke in frowns. We spoke with our hands and we spoke with our eyes. At the time I did not realize just how precious this was, this experience of bridging worlds without words.

Sadness is as much of a bridge between two people as laughter. Over one particular scoop, I told Doña Keña about how I'd been born with a heart condition that resulted in several surgeries. She replied with her hallmark motherly sweetness.

"Oh but Chris, you have such a good heart.", she said from behind a playful smile. I asked Doña Keña if she had been in the hospital before, other than giving birth to her precocious daughter. In fact, she had. She too had a medical condition which changed her life. Truth be told, my English ears understood very little of what this condition was. The affect it had on her however, was very clear. From this story, I began to understand the sadness that sat in her heart and looked out her eyes.

"I didn't always look like this" she said.
"I used to look more like my daughter". Whatever this condition was, it caused her to gain weight and this became a source of shame for Doña Keña. A few minutes of watching Univision will reveal that Latin America has as many narrow standards of beauty as the United States. Doña Keña's weight had created tension between her and her husband. Hearing this created in me an odd mix of gratitude and indignation. I felt honored that she shared such heartache with me. The women that I had met in Honduras had been far more guarded about the deeper parts of themselves, especially with a gringo. I was also vexed by her husband's intolerance. The few times I'd met him he seemed so kind and yet, he was part fool. I responded in an imitative fashion.

"Oh but Doña Keña, you have such a good body!", I quipped. A small laughter crept out of her smile.

It was Doña Keña, before anyone else, to whom I confessed. After months of chaos, disappointment, struggle, and intense sickness, I wanted to leave my teaching position, and thus her lovely, sad country. I actually didn't want to leave Cofradia, but life never comes in well-organized packages and often the destination looks nothing like the brochure. I was there to do a job and if I could not do the job, my presence there would be superfluous and awkward, at least. So, over my next scoop, I put forth the uncomfortable facts. At first, I allowed myself to believe that I was just sharing the news. Yet, I hadn't shared this news with anyone else. As disappointed by the experience as I had been, it was difficult for me to disappoint others. I felt like a predictable failure. I was another person coming into and leaving the lives of these children, who as it was, had so little. I was a team player quitting the team and only half way into the game at that.

There are sometimes moments between two people when it is realized that the presence of the other changes something in themselves. Suddenly, what is casual becomes less so. In this way, I was taken aback by Doña Keña reaction when I casually told her "the news". I was not prepared for the long look of sorrow on her face. This was not just a woman who sold me ice cream. Her sadness told me that Doña Keña, my acquaintance, had become Doña Keña my friend. I was leaving not just the children and my coworkers, but also my friend.
I departed Honduras without seeing Doña Keña again. During my last week there I was beside myself with guilt and relief, both in equal measure. I was also busy wrapping up the semester before Christmas break and making plans for my next less-than-bold move. There was really no good reason why I did not stop by for one more scoop and one more hug. I guess I was afraid, afraid of her sadness and my shame, afraid of our intimacy.

As the years go on and my time in Honduras gets smaller on the horizon of my past, there are some things that remain large, vivid, and close to shore: the smell of burning trash, the way that Dengue fever penetrated my bones, the one student in particular who, not so different from Doña Keña, was wise and sad beyond her years. I remember the 55 mornings that I walked to school, so disgusted by how hot it could be before 7 a.m.. I remember, and sometimes wish I didn't, the sadness of Doña Keña whose friendship to me was worth far more than 50 Lempira a scoop and whose friendship I neglected. Simply put, I miss Doña Keña. I hope that one day, from one of my more committed coworkers, I will hear something great about her; that she no longer sells ice cream but instead teaches, that her daughter got into a prestigious college, or that she is celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary. This hope is my vigil for our friendship, gone but not forgotten.

The Unafraid

The day can't fool the season. It is hot and the occupied and unobservant go on pretending that it's summer in October just like they pretend that they will live youthfully past 100.

The night is a fortune teller wearing winter as perfume. She is asking you to sniff the scent of her bony, old hands.

To the unafraid this is nostalgia. All that cold darkness they have lived through, without television, without flying south.
The hibernative holing-up in order to measure the year by its losses.
They are careful knowing there is only a few pieces left of the twelve piece pie. They know also that Time is a prolific baker.

For the unafraid the cravings begin:
Acoustic nylon guitar strings
Songs in the minor key
An old pepper-minted tea

And also, a freeze that reminds you of bones (the same bones that will one day host a buffet for a clan of grave-robbing maggots), white and shiny.

The unafraid are two-faced hedonists who welcome tragedy and gain in equal measure. The truly unafraid see little difference. The day and the night are two masks the earth wears trying to impress both sun and moon. But earth is earth and life is life, regardless of which tragedies or gains revolve around it.

The unafraid are the prairie trying to break the plough.

The unafraid will light a fire and sing midnight duets as they play on that minor key.

Thursday, July 19, 2007



She was my neighbor. She worked at a Chevron station a block away. She told me she had two Masters Degrees in Theology. She told me her son was a good man and that he did not steal my CD's. I believed her. She didn't believe me. She told me I was not so bad at the guitar but that the cello was the poet of the orchestra. She hated punk rock. She told me all these things quickly and in a Massachusetts accent. It all sounded like an amateur comedy routine full of lack-luster punch lines and non-sequitors that seemed to act as bridges over the spaces through which someone might leave the conversation. No one could ever leave the conversation.

Unlike many, she was on a first name basis with all her neighbors. Sure, she was full of gossip but she brought people food after she talked about them. She had a husband whose anger shaped his face. He yelled at her with foul language and most often he did so in the morning. She began everyday with coffee and aggression.

Her husband sleeps alone now.

Maybe it was that coffee and aggression that made her so unnaturally skinny. She had just come into an inheritance and her new diamond rings hung like hula-hoops off her long, thin fingers. Because of this new money, they would soon be moving, she told me. Two weeks later she would pass on her inheritance the same way every inheritance is passed. Things were looking up she told me.

She'd bought her 16 year-old son a new car from which he blasted terribly cheesy reggae and hip-hop. He is still 16. Those songs will one day seem cheesy to him as well, but also sad. He was with his mother, perhaps listening to those very songs, when they were hit head on but a 21 year-old woman whose blood was full of ethanol and stupidity. The boy survived, though will go on motherless.

I'm waiting to see if her husband's angry face is now that of stone or of water. I'm waiting to see if her son looks older than 16 now that he's acquainted with death. And I am waiting to see the obituary so that I can find out if she really did have two Masters Degrees in Theology.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Letter to My Very Young Friend

You don't know how to do very much. You can't write too good or read at all. You can't cook or make money. Yet better than most people I know, you can love. You love so well! I wish i could say that's all you need, that you can survive on love. Maybe in other lives, but not this one. In this life the "barers of truth" have fangs and guns. In this life poetry lives in museums. Museums? Oh, museums are the cemetaries of beauty, the final resting place of hope. All the colorful drawings and important poetry you have inside your heart, don't let it go to museums. Let it live and fight and fight for you. You'll need it. In this life you can dance but there is no gaurantee that you can eat. I'm sorry sweetie, that's just the way it is. But don't stop cause in this life there is also us and we love you very much. Plus, we have secrets we can share with you about healing and about disarming, about music and about farming. Also, you can teach us about the things you do best- about storytelling and of course about loving. Don't stop!

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Monday, December 04, 2006

The Gardens of Eden

The Gardens of Eden

It's Monday. Nonetheless, this halcyon day is sunny and still. I hear the harmony made between the humming freeway and the drone of a far-off lawn mower. Everything might still be okay. It is right now. It's got something to do with this neighborhood. Not too many owned homes, some young people, some old people. Each house is different in color, shape, and architecture. The cars aren't new and some of them don't run. They are merely ornamental, even sentimental. Some have Democratic bumper stickers from the 1980's. "Vote for Dukakis,” says one, "No Nukes" says another. The houses have rickety fences that are not designed to keep people out but instead to frame their small, humble weekend gardens; a little mint, a little lavender, maybe a vegetable or two.

It isn't the same sterile stillness you get in the suburbs. It is heavier with history and more at peace with its material longings. It is a forced modesty for which I am grateful. The people that live here didn't rise to the top, they didn't achieve the dream, didn't pay off their debt. They also didn't forget that suffering is an acquired skill, that anyone can suffer but few suffer well. They didn't forget that there is always somebody on the other side of their fence. Today, that somebody is me.

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