Lullaby

Once upon a time
when baby had trouble
going to sleep
we played
soothing songs
on our phones
until she drifted off

and baby grew
(that is what babies do)
so that now
when we put baby down
to sleep
she cries for a minute
and then
she sings
and sings
to her own little self
without any words
a sound purer
than songs of birds

(know that I am outside your door
beloved baby
tears in my eyes
listening
listening
to your own angelic
lullaby)

Someone’s getting sleepy…

In the treetops

Today I kept you
and you cried because it’s new
so we went outside

to see all the trees
you touched the green leaves sweetly
with your baby hand

and you looked up high
at the pines rattling with song
cicadas, at last

first time this season
oh how I love their comfort
oh how I love you


Walking poem

Today on Ethical ELA Leilya Pitre invites teacher poets to “walk to your place of comfort.” The idea is to take a break, rest, relax, maybe noting things that capture your attention when you’re on a walk, or maybe walking back in time, through memories, or recalling a personal revelation that occurred on a walk. Just walk, poetically.

I love walks and have written of many… today, I meander back through memory to a place of comfort.

Walking with Granddaddy

Sunday afternoon
sidewalks aren’t crowded
no rush hour traffic
clogs the street
just a few cars
stopped at the intersection

can’t walk over to Rose’s
at the corner today
to buy a toy 
like my Slinky
or click-clacks, 
glass amber spheres
suspended on a string
to pull back and hear
that loud CLACK CLACK,
or a powder-blue
sachet ball made of satin
decorated like a lion’s head
with blue googly eyes
and an aqua feather-tuft mane

no, Rose’s is closed today

so is the drugstore
at the end of our row
no chocolate-covered cherries
or Peppermint Patties
or those caramel creams
that you love so

no, today we walk
hand-in-hand
across the street
while cars wait
at the lights

past the fire station
round back of the 
Baptist church

to the playground

you let me climb
the big sliding board
not letting go
of my hand
until I am sitting at the top

you are there
at the bottom
when the sliding stops

you push me in the swing
until my feet touch the sky
I am a bird 
flying so high

until the shadow
of the steeple-cross
grows long on the grass

hand-in-hand again
I watch our feet pass

back over the pavement
crossing the street
each step measured in time
of heart-to-heart beats

—oh, how yours to mine
still talks
so long after
our Sunday walks 

Granddaddy and me on his 61st birthday.
I am two and a half.

Thirty years later:
Granddaddy with my boys and me, on his 91st birthday,
a year and a half before he died.

He is gone, but never far away.

The robin

Plump little robin
we stand around you, aghast
at your misfortune

stuck there in the grille
of the SUV after
two hours’ interstate

yet you are alive
calling in your bird language
blinking and trembling

head twisting, trying
valiantly but in vain
to set yourself free

I think you’re impaled
except there’s not any blood
plus, your voice is strong,

full of warning, as
I lean in to examine
the situation:

both feet balled up tight
against your belly, somehow
straddling metal bars

wedged body, aslant
—can it really be intact?
—little eyes, so bright

that we three humans
standing before you in awe
vow to do our best

I grab a towel
(my childhood pet parakeet
often flew the coop

and had to be caught.
I learned to cover him first;
that small beak is sharp)

and we cover you,
but your loud cries of distress
tell us pulling hurts

—oh, you’re a fighter,
courageous little robin
biting at the cloth!

My sister-in-law
covers your face; my husband
hands me an ink pen

(ever-present in
his shirt pocket, a good thing,
as you never know

when you might need it,
in this case, to save a life)
so I wield the pen

through the metal grille,
through your feathers, bit by bit
freeing a pinned wing

until you’re sliding
into my cloth-shielded hands
like a newborn child

like a miracle
released at last, in the grass,
suddenly running

yes, flapping both wings
before taking a nose dive
into the clover

unable to fly
at least for now, surely bruised
needing time to heal

—the backyard becomes
bird rehabilitation,
bird sanctuary

where I can watch you
hopping along, pulling worms
these warm winter days

unseasonable
but I’m glad on your behalf,
keeping my distance

hoping predators
do the same, until you’re healed
and take to the skies

lucky bird, forgive
my bad Shakespearean pun:
you’re Robin the Plucked

for salvation comes
in the most peculiar ways,
begging the question

of mortality,
the taking and the giving
in daily living

these two days I’ve watched
your grounded red breast gleaming
by the old arbor

—today, no sighting,
inexplicable sadness
despite the wonder

of your survival
and the part I got to play.
Little Robin, plucked

to live life anew,
here’s to taking flight on your
wings and my prayers.

Robin the Plucked right after his rescue from the grille of my sister-in-law’s SUV. She’d driven down I-95 a few days after Christmas to visit us. Robin had some feathers askew from his ordeal but his wings weren’t dragging; my husband and I put him in our fenced backyard in hopes that nature would take its course, that he’d soon be fit enough to fly again (and that he’d want to). There are no words to adequately describe him enmeshed in that grille, very much alive and calling out, or for the sight of him immediately trying to run once we got him loose and laid him on the grass. I was amazed and elated to see him eating in the backyard with other birds that came and went the next day. I didn’t go near him again, as when I attempted it, he ran. I refused to distress him any more (heaven knows being trapped on the front of a car going 70 mph is enough for a lifetime). I joke that he’s my last good deed of 2021; I kept an eye on him all yesterday. On this first day of 2022, he is gone.

I keep watching, however.

One final observation, regarding the symbolism of robins: They’re tied to a number of legends and mostly positive connotations like spring and good luck (begging another question: Who’s the actually the bringer of luck here, Robin the Plucked or me?). But the perspective of Mother Teresa moves me most at present, as quoted in No Greater Love (Benenate & Durepos) on the legend of the robin and Christ’s crown of thorns: “Each of us should try and be that bird – the little robin. When we see someone in pain, we must ask ourselves: ‘What can I do to give them comfort?’”

Happy New Year and new life to you, Robin, wherever you are.

And to you all.

Out of the shadows

Late June afternoon on the porch. A long-settling stillness, the day’s brilliance deepening to amber, shadows slanting across lawns and pavement, a cool pre-dusk breeze riffling trees and wind chimes, carrying the sound of a child calling in the distance. It’s not a child; it’s a little goat from a neighbor’s pen, hidden in a patch of woods. Bleating for its supper, I suspect. Startlingly humanlike voice. A neither-here-nor-there sound, disembodied, suspended in the air like time itself, clinging to these green and gold moments, unwilling to let go…

“Mom, let’s go for a walk,” says my youngest son (aka Cadillac Man).

I grab my shoes.

Walking beside me along our neighborhood street, my boy speaks, as he always does, of music. Songs he is learning, one he wants me to practice with him (it has to be simple for me. He can sing any part he likes in any key he likes; he can play anything he wants on the piano or guitar). I say I’ll try. He speaks of his new job at the funeral home; we reflect on the recent death of a beloved friend who’s the same age I am. Fresh-grated sadness, still surreal.

As we talk I note that no neighbors are out and about this afternoon. We seem quite alone. At one house, pool towels draped over the front railing billow in the breeze. American flags on front porch flagpoles ripple and flap with crisp smacks. A couple of cicadas rattle from high in the trees that frame backyards. Our long shadows stretch out on the pavement before us, where flecks of quartz wink; when my boy and I turn at the road’s end, the shadows disappear.

We pass a row of cypresses where there’s sudden movement in the grass. A black shape materializes, runs after us, crosses right in front of us…

Good thing we aren’t superstitious.

A young black cat, meowing.

“Awww,” says Cadillac Man, as it rubs against his legs. “What a sweet little cat.”

It comes over to me, rubs against my legs, purring madly.

We are devout dog-people. I can’t have a cat. I’m allergic. I learned this at age five or six when my family took in a stray Siamese (Mr. Cat, we called him) that took refuge on the stoop of my childhood home during a storm. Swollen eyes and asthma didn’t stop me, however, from bringing home a black kitten nobody else wanted when I was in college…

“It looks so much like my cat Moriah,” I tell my son. The name came from a magical cat in The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, a book I read when I was about twelve.

Cadillac Man bends down, picks up the creature. “I would keep it if you could breathe.” The little cat nestles against him. Animals love my boy. They seem to sense his gentle spirit.

After a moment, the cat twists to get down. Cadillac Man releases it.

“It looks kind of thin. I wonder if it’s hungry…” Do moms always think about this first? Is this our deepest default, this hard-wired compulsion to feed all little living things, to keep them living?

The cat sits looking up at us with big, unblinking, green-yellow eyes. Meow.

And it trots right beside us, like a good dog would, back to our driveway where I feed it some of Dennis the dachshund’s steak-flavored food in an old dish.

“I hope it stays,” says Cadillac Man. “It can be an outside cat.”

I examine the cat as it eats. “It has all its claws.”

“We should name it,” says Cadillac Man.

“Look how rusty its fur is in the sunlight,” I observe. “Black cats aren’t exactly black. It’s a genetic mutation of the tabby pattern. See the faint rings in its tail, there at the tip? So much like Moriah, only she was smaller and didn’t have a tail…” another mutation. She was the last kitten left in the Free Kittens box on campus the day I found her and took her home. Shelters say black cats are the hardest to find homes for; no idea on stats of cats with stumps for tails…

“We aren’t naming it Moriah, Mom.”

“Of course not. She was one of a kind and besides, this one’s a boy.”

Cadillac Man is silent for a moment. The cat has nearly finished his steak dinner. “Well, you know it has to be a musician’s name…”

This is what he does. Since childhood he’s named pet fish after bass singers; his dachshund, after drummer Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.

I can see what’s coming: “Brian, I suppose?”

Cadillac Man smiles. “Not quite. I christen this cat Douglas.

Brian Wilson’s middle name. I was close.

After licking the bowl clean, Douglas follows us up the sidewalk, cutting in front of Cadillac Man to roll over just like Dennis the dachshund does for a belly rub.

“Awww,” says my boy, rubbing the proffered belly. “Listen—he’s purring like a truck!”

Indeed he is.

It’s getting late. We need to go in to wash up and have our own supper, so we stroke Douglas one last time. I make sure to wash my hands well, with extra soap.

We peek out of the windows from time to time. Douglas is lying on the porch, and then he’s gone.

But not really.

He’s curled up under the rocking chair, sound asleep.

When he wakes, I take one of Dennis’ soft blankets out and put it in his chosen sleeping spot. Douglas sits on it at once.

“There,” I tell him. “Now you know that if you need a safe, comfortable place to sleep, you have one. If you’re hungry, I’ll feed you whenever you come around. I’ll leave water out for you. It’s summer, see…”

Douglas purrs as if he understands…and maybe he does, for the next morning he comes to polish off a whole bowl full of food, and he’s waiting in the driveway to greet us on Wednesday night when we return from prayer meeting.

And then he vanishes.

A day passes, and another, and another. No Douglas.

It storms. Thunder, lightning. Rain gushing from the gutters.

I hope he’s all right, wherever he is. If he belongs to someone, I hope he’s back home and happy. We ought to have named him Macavity, the Mystery Cat.

I shake out his blanket, fold it, replace it. I toss yesterday’s water from his new dish and refill it with fresh.

I think of Mr. Cat. Of Moriah. So long ago.

I wonder if it’s absurd to keep leaving fresh water out for a cat that may never return.

But I do it anyway, because I told Douglas I would.

I also told Cadillac Man we could have named him Question Quigley (from Harry Potter) for that tail

The best shot I could get of his face; Douglas kept trying to rub against me while I attempted to take his picture

Asking for a belly rub

For comparison: my cat Moriah, almost forty years ago, with my childhood dog, Bagel

—OH, and P.S. Guess who came for dinner last night?

Memories, like little shadows, return, too.

*******

And so it is that black cats are my favorite, despite their long-maligned history (another reason I feel concerned for Douglas). I wrote another take on them if you’re so inclined: 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Cat Crossing Your Path in the Time of COVID-19 While Driving to School to Teach Online Near Halloween of Election Year 2020.

with special thanks to the Slice of Life community at Two Writing Teachers.
We are our stories.

“Secret connoisseur” poem

with thanks to Karen Workun who invited a quick write today for #verselove at Ethical ELA. The idea is to brainstorm “secret areas of expertise,” choosing one to spin into a poem.

This is dedicated to Dennis. Again.

For Day Twenty-Seven of National Poetry Month

Lapland

Lapland
they say
is an icy
enchanted region
where the
northern lights
color-play
in the sky
and where
the only official Santa
actually lives
but here
in my house
I am Lapland
to a ten-pound
cream-coated
chocolate-nosed
dachshund
who will NOT stop hopping
by my chair
until he successfully
springs into my lap
or until I scoop him up
whichever comes first
and where he settles in
to snooze
with blissful
rhythmic
surprisingly loud
dog-snores
for as long
as I’ll let him
which is usually
until my leg goes
completely numb
from his tiny deadweight
yet still I sit
absorbing
his mighty warmth
like a recharging
of life
for the day
and should I have
to get up and walk
to get the blood flowing again
in my poor numb leg
he trails me
with glistening
brown doe-eyes
beseeching
the reappearance of
his cozy
enchanted Lapland
for the sweet dreaming
of his
little dog dreams

Be still

Psalm 46:10 is one of my life’s verses: Be still and know that I am God.

It’s appeared, and re-appeared, at various junctures of my life. When I was a teenager, my youth minister presented me with a little plaque bearing this verse. It hung on my bedroom wall until I married and left home.

In recent years, a church member gave my family a stepping stone with Be still and know that I am God etched on it. That stone hangs on my bedroom wall now.

Imagine my delight— awe, rather — on researching quotes by Saint Patrick and discovering Psalm 46:10 and how it’s reduced, a line at a time, to one word:

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.

I can’t verify that Patrick actually deconstructed the verse this way, but it’s widely attributed to him. If so, what was he getting at?

My first thought: It’s an admonishment to be still. How fitting for the present time. With a pandemic on the rise, when we are at the mercy of a new ultramicroscopic virus with the power to deconstruct society, we must pull in and be still. Fear not. And wait.

It is not what we do best. We are not patient. We “do” fear and anger far better. We are accustomed to go go go and hurry hurry hurry and get get get. We have to-do lists that are never complete, that only grow longer.

And when do we ever just be?

Maybe right about now.

Oh, and by the way, here’s the whole of Psalm 46:10:

“Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”

I shall leave you with the words of Saint Patrick — but not the one you know. This day cannot pass without mention of my grandfather, born in 1906 with the given name Columbus and the middle name St. Patrick (yes, for real). In one of our last phone conversations (his love for me evident in that he would talk to me on the phone, for he hated it; he was hard of hearing), I said, tears streaming, which he couldn’t see, thankfully: “I love you, Granddaddy. You’re safe in God’s hands.”

To which he replied, in his raspy, precious voice: “There’s no better place to be.”

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.

—St. Patrick’s Day blessings, dear hearts.

Stayin’ alive

The master says it’s glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.

—Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

A friends tells me she can’t turn on the news at home anymore because her first-grader is terrified of catching “the cronavirus.”

I remember that terror …

It began with nosebleeds. I had so many as a child that the pediatrician told my father the vessels in my nose might need to be cauterized.

“Carterized? What is that?”

“Burned.” Said my father, before thinking better of it.

Burned?

BURNED?

I lived in mortal terror of having another nosebleed, of having the inside of my nose burned.

I told my Sunday School teacher about it: “My nose might have to be carterized if I don’t stop having nosebleeds.”

“Well, it’s better to have a vessel burst in your nose than one in your head.”

A vessel can burst in my HEAD? What does that mean? What happens to you if a vessel bursts in your HEAD? Do you die?

My head felt weak. I tried not to move it very much.

“Why are you walking so stiff and hunched up?” snapped Mom.

And then there was the sign in the church stairwell:

FALLOUT SHELTER

“What’s a fallout shelter?” I wanted to know one evening after supper when our neighbor walked across the street to play Yahtzee.

“Oh, a place where people can go if there’s a nuclear bomb, to be safe from the radiation,” said Mom, taking a drag of her Salem.

“Yeah, and this is the first place that would be attacked,” said our neighbor, shaking the dice, “with all our military bases and being so near D.C.” The dice rolled across the table. “Damn! Nothin’! I guess I’ll have to take it on Chance.”

How will we get to the fallout shelter to be safe, if it’s blown apart?

Why do we live here?

Nuclear bombs… the vessels in my nose, the ones in my head … what’s gonna blow first? What will happen to me? How’m I gonna stay alive?

—Yes, I remember the terror. To this day.

—Remember the children.

Photo: Fallout. m anima. CC BY