Poem of the Week, by William Stafford

For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid
– William Stafford

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot–air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there.

Shall I Jump Now?

At twenty-five I dreamed a dream that has haunted me ever since: My mother faces me on the sloping deck of a gunmetal gray ocean liner. Perhaps it is an aircraft carrier; it has that same forbidding, ominous look. A narrow rail runs along the edge of the deck. No deck chairs, nothing to hold a body to the surface of the ship – and that slope, that slope is strange. Should you slip on that sloping deck you would careen right over the edge.

I peer over the side. Huge waves boil and heave, flinging angry spray dozens of feet in the air and still not even close to where I stand clutching the rail. If I fell overboard I would drown within seconds. No one would hear my cries. No one would even know I was gone.
Something, a sixth sense, makes me turn around. My mother stands yards away from me on the sloping deck, her arms held out for balance in the strong wind. She is smiling. She’s wearing her blue velveteen bathrobe, the one that zips from ankle to neck. She’s wearing her blue slippers too. She looks the way she looks first thing in the morning, when she moves about the kitchen making coffee.

She smiles at me. Her arms are held straight out to either side. She looks light and joyful.

“Shall I jump now?” she says.

Years later, I tell only one friend about my dream. I describe the blue bathrobe, the happiness in my mother’s eyes.

“The blue bathrobe,” says my friend. “Hmm. What does the blue bathrobe represent to you? Security? Warmth? Comfort?”

I suppose the blue bathrobe represents all those things to me, but that is not what I focus on. What I see are those arms, lifting as if to catch the wind.

When I unravel time, the furthest back I can go is this: my mother was ahead of me, climbing up brown stairs that had little bits of grey on them. I know this because I am crawling up the stairs, looking down at them inches from my nose. My mother carries a bucket. I am wearing diapers; I can feel the plastic heaviness rubbing on my legs and back. I look out through the railing on the stairs and I see the world going by and time passing, and my mother is climbing, climbing up beyond me and even though I cannot think in words yet I tell myself: Remember this.

My young mother is lovely, slim and straight, with beautiful long legs. Unruly chestnut hair frames her dark-brown eyes. She wears red lipstick. She shepherds her three small girls (our brother is not yet born) out to the bus for school, so that she can get in the car and drive to the high school where she teaches algebra and geometry. She drives to graduate school for her second master’s degree. She places an X and a Q on a Scrabble triple word space; has she won again? She has won again. She weeds the garden, plants flowers, hangs the laundered clothes out on the line. She sautees zucchini in her electric skillet. She does the New York Times crossword puzzle. Castanets in hand, she dances the flamenco.
I remember her sitting at the kitchen table before her worn sewing machine, feeding lengths of flowered cotton through the presser foot and needle. She senses my presence and looks up and smiles.

“Look,” she says, and holds up a sleeveless shift trimmed with cotton lace at the neck and hem. Flowers against a background of green. Red for my sister Laurel and yellow for my sister Holly. In the photo taken on Easter morning a few days later, our mother stands on the steps surrounded by her little girls, all three bathed, ribbons in their hair, wearing flowered dresses.

Years later, standing on the faded blue concrete of the porch, my mother wears her blue velveteen bathrobe and her navy velveteen slippers. She is waving goodbye to me. One arm rises and falls in a slow circular motion. She will wave until the car that is bearing me away is out of sight, rounding the curve of Route 274.

Where am I going?

Maybe I’m 16 and heading to Portugal as an exchange student.

Maybe I’m 18 and heading to college in Vermont.

Maybe I’m 20 and on my way to Taipei, Taiwan for a semester.

Maybe I’m 22 and moving to Boston.

Maybe I’m 25 and driving west, to Minneapolis.

Wherever I’m going, it’s away.

My mother stands on the porch, waving and smiling until I’m all the way gone. See her now. She cups her hands around her mouth. Goodbye, she calls. Goodbye, darling girl.

“The dream,” my friend says. “Why the ship? Why the ocean? What sort of journey does this represent?”

Who the hell knows, I want to say. Who the hell cares? Can’t you see my mother, dammit, standing there, asking me if she should jump now?

My mother’s slender hands are always in motion, her fingers long and expressive.

“I talk with my hands, don’t I?” she said in astonishment, the first time she saw herself on video.

Sometimes. Sometimes you do. Sometimes you don’t talk at all, but go still and silent, as you did when I was seven and your mother took the train up from the city to visit us.

Something was wrong and Grandma knew it. She had a sixth sense. A shift in the universe, molecules rearranging themselves six hours downstate in the New York City apartment she shared with my grandfather. Grandma picked up the telephone and called. My mother watched her. Grandma called again. And again. She paced back and forth, the telephone cord dangling as she walked. Finally Grandma called the building superintendent, and the superintendent opened the apartment door with his master key to find my grandfather dead by his own hand.

I remember driving to the city with my mother and father. I remember going up and down in an elevator, back and forth from their apartment to the street below. I remember the elevator full of boxes and bags on the way down, and empty on the way up except for me and my parents. I remember my mother’s weary eyes. She was thirty-one, an age so young to me now and unfathomably adult to me then, when I was seven.

And I remember the years following, eleven years of daily 4:30 p.m. telephone calls from my mother – home with her four children, home from teaching all day – to my grandmother. My mother, steadfast companion, she who does what needs to be done.

At twenty-two I graduated from a prestigious college with a highly marketable degree in Chinese and Asian Studies, student loans and a singleminded desire to write fiction. I did not even try to find a real job. Instead, I lived in a tiny room in Boston and freelance typed to pay the bills, while rising at dawn to write my stories.

She said nothing.  She let me be, as she always has. She did not try to steer me in any particular direction, despite the fact that she longed for me to be financially secure, the way she never was as a child.

She used to visit me in Boston, in that scraping-by former life of mine that I loved so much. We roamed the streets and drank coffee and ate muffins from DeLuca’s Market, sitting on the floor of my tiny chairless room. We wandered through the Public Garden and along the Esplanade by the Charles River. At night I unrolled a camping mattress onto the floor (no room for a bed) and she slept next to me. She read the short stories I typed out on my rented IBM Selectric II.

My mother stands on the sloping deck of the gray ship. Her arms are out to her sides. My heart seizes. I try to move toward her, take her winged arms in mine and lower them, but nothing happens. Dream paralysis.

“Do you suppose the dream means that she’s just tired?” my friend says. “Sick of responsibility, maybe?”

My mother was a math teacher at a middle school in downstate New York when she found out she was pregnant for the first time, with the baby who would become me. She was twenty-three years old. She ran down the hall to the gym, where a pep rally was taking place, so happy that she couldn’t resist telling a fellow teacher: I’m going to have a baby! I’m going to have a baby!

“Maybe,” I said, “but my mother would not leave me unless she had no choice.”

When I was twenty-four, the man I had abandoned my heart to died. Suicide. A friend drove me from Boston to my parents’ house. It was a six-hour drive in a rattletrap car and my friend chattered to fill the silence and sometimes I bent over in the seat and pushed my forehead into the musty vinyl of the dashboard.

I remember my mother waiting with outstretched arms on the porch. I remember the ticking of the kitchen clock that marked off each fifteen-minute block of time. I remember the plate of pork chops and applesauce and bread and butter she set before me, none of which I could eat.

In a photo from that time, I sit in a bikini on a beach by my mother’s favorite mountain, up in the Adirondacks. Every rib shoves itself out from my skin; I am knobs and bones and angles shivered in pain. Exhaustion in my eyes. My mother is invisible behind the camera, silent witness to her child’s grief. My mother, patient companion.

My sister Laurel and I are at Laurel’s house in New Hampshire, lazily flipping through one of our old high school yearbooks, cackling at what dorks we were. We come to the teachers’ section and see our mother’s photo in the math department.

We stop laughing.

“It was the year Grandma died,” Laurel says after a while.

My mother was my age when her mother lay in a coma in a room at St. Luke’s hospital in Utica, New York. The nurses told my mother that Grandma’s blood pressure was dropping, and my mother sat vigil in the quiet room. At some point in the night, my mother went out to the nurse’s station to lie down on their couch and try to sleep. She startled out of sleep to hear her mother calling to her in a young and happy voice.

“Daughter! Daughter!”

Thinking it was a dream, my mother went back to sleep. Half an hour later the nurse came to waken her, and said that Grandma had died.

“I have always felt that this was her way of telling me that she was fine,” my mother tells me.

Who else did my mother have to see her through her grief? No sister, no brother, father long dead. All my mother had in the way of a patient companion, a witness to her sorrow, was that fleeting call from her dying mother, that young and happy voice.

Our mother in black and white smiles out from the old book, weariness in her eyes. Oh my mother, how thin you are, too thin. How young you look. The present me looks like the past you. If only I could reach into that book, into the room where you sit alone at your desk, and put my arms around you. Comfort you. Make you a plate of pork chops and applesauce. Tell you, as you have told me in the dark hours, that all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

“So our mother is off to Guatemala,” Laurel tells me. “Some house project for Habitat for Humanity. Can you imagine her, pouring concrete?”

She laughs. So do I. It is entirely possible for our mother to be pouring concrete and we both know it. There is not much that is impossible to imagine our mother doing. Close your eyes and pick a day, any day, in the life of our mother. Here she is driving north to the mountain lakes, her yellow kayak in the back of her van. Playing Scrabble with a housebound elder. Teaching English as a Second Language to Bosnian refugees. Working at the local food bank, putting together a charity mailing, begging for pledges for her latest ski-a-thon, walk-a-thon, canoe-a-thon, take your pick of any and all worthy causes.

I rise in a summer dawn and steal glimpses of my children, asleep in their rooms. My youngest has taken off her pajama shirt in the night and lies on her side, hands tucked together under her chin as if in prayer.

Behold her smooth brown back, her spine a tender curve of buttons, her ribs a pair of cupped hands that hold her heart. The moment I had a baby was the moment I understood terror, my heart blown sideways with adoration and fear. How dazzling and how awful to love someone this much.

Not long ago my mother and I sat in her kitchen, talking of children, mine and hers. Dogs, mine and hers. Teaching, mine and hers. Fiction writing: mine. Projects that make the world a better place: hers.

“I could tell you anything, my darling girl,” she says at one point. “You have been through the fire.”

Fire, meaning the kind of loss and grief that cracks your heart. Fire, meaning joy so deep that it, too, opens your heart. Fire, meaning life, the way it stretches and hurts and raptures you, if you let it all in.

There is one fire I have not yet been through, though.

I see my mother standing on the porch in her blue velveteen bathrobe, smiling and waving, waving until I am out of sight.

And I see her standing on the sloping deck, waves hurling themselves at the smooth sides. Her arms rise up, wings in blue velveteen. Why does she sound so light of heart? No. No. But I am frozen in my dream and cannot scream.

“Maybe you’re interpreting it wrong,” my friend says. “Maybe what the dream is really asking you is this: are you ready to let her go?”

Soon I will wake. My throat will ache for the rest of the day. Twenty years  later, my throat still aches when the nightmare imagery conjures itself. The only real lesson the years in between have taught me about my dream is this: that when the time does come for my mother to jump, to call my name in a young and happy voice, then the enormous work of staying behind and waving, waving until she is out of sight, will be mine.

* * *

(Note: this essay originally appeared in Riding Shotgun, an anthology of women writing about their mothers. The book is available here and there and online at places like  amazon.)

Poem of the Week, by William Butler Yeats

– William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

For more information on Yeats, please click here: here.

Little houses made of ticky-tacky

The question must be asked: why does the container of colored blocks to the right of this paragraph keep disappearing? Not in real life, but in this entry. It’s becoming a real problem, and one can only hope that by the time one presses “Publish,” the blocks will still be visible. There are no guarantees, though – not in life in general, nor in this recently snapped crappy cell phone photo.

Another question which must be asked is why does one’s cursor keep leaping randomly over the text which one is typing. Yes, this text, the one which you –if indeed you are out there– are reading right now. The leaping cursor is a recent problem, one which began the very moment after a new operating system was installed on this computer. Coincidence? One thinks not.

And the third and final question: is it possible, or desirable, to write a post in which one refers to oneself only as one? One shall find out.

So, the jug of colored blocks, and the provenance thereof, both of blocks and jug. Two days ago, one journeyed to a nearby city in order to sign some books at a bookstore. On the way out of said bookstore, one noticed a large box filled with clear plastic containers, attractively shaped like small fish tanks.


That was what the sign above the large box read. The urgency of the multiple exclamation marks caused one to smile. One stopped and perused the FREE!!!! containers. Did one need one of these containers? No, one did not. And yet one idly imagined the things that such a container might be filled with, should one bring one home anyway. Tiny plastic babies, for example. Tea candles. Chopsticks. Miniature farm animals made of painted resin. Cookies? No, not cookies.

One took a container home and placed it on the buffet by the window.

Yesterday, a cold but bright and sunny day, one spent five hours –yes, five hours– in one’s car, loitering from block to block in south Minneapolis as two groups of two teenage girls each trudged door to door trying to sell the inhabitants a coupon card for $20 in order to raise funds for their lacrosse team.

Why did one volunteer to trail these girls for five hours in one’s car? One does not remember. It must have had to do with a latent sense of civic duty. It certainly had nothing to do with one’s saleswoman tendencies, which are pretty much nonexistent.

(Enough of this referring to oneself as “one”! How insufferable!)

No, you are not a saleswoman. At all. In fact, you were the type of Girl Scout who bought back all the cookies you were supposed to sell, just so that you would not have to do what the teenage lacrosse players are doing right now.

Why should these people be persuaded to buy a coupon card? The coupons are basically worthless. As the parent of a teenage lacrosse player, you yourself bought one, but that is only because you had to. These are the dark thoughts as you crawl from block to block, making sure that nothing bad happens to the teens as they plod onward.

You pull up alongside one team of two and roll down your window.

“Now girls,” you say. “If a man wearing a bathrobe comes to the door and asks if you want to come inside and see his new puppy, what are you going to say?”

“We’re going to say ‘Sure, we’d love to come in!'” say the teens. “We love puppies.”

You pull up alongside the other team of two.

“Now girls,” you say. “If a man in his underwear comes to the door and asks you to come inside, he’s got some candy for you, what are you going to say?”

“We’re going to say ‘Sure, we’d love to come in!'” say the teens. “We love candy.”

Excellent. It seems that the teens are in good shape. You have taught them well. Surely a quick stop at the estate sale right on this very block wouldn’t hurt anyone.

Out of the car and into the little house you go. It’s Sunday afternoon, the half-off everything time of day for those who, like you, are well versed in estate sales. Dishes, a heavy four-pedastaled table, a folding chair, a picture of Jesus, old muffin tins and coffeemakers, you peruse them all. The non-colors of the house are beige and tan and brown and whitish.

But what is this! Two large zip-lock bags filled with brightness. Red, yellow, blue, green. This is more like it. You are a woman who loves color. No neutral tones in your house, or rather, a few neutral tones here and there in order to set off all the color.

Did the elderly woman of this little house –for estate sales are almost always about elderly women– keep these little bags of blocks around for her grandchildren? Could they possibly be left over from when her own children were little? You decide not to think about this. Estate sales are replete with sadness, when you think about it, and today is a bright and sunny day with teenage lacrosse players trudging from house to house, and you just don’t want to be sad. You decide to make colored blocks in plastic bags a sign of happiness.

Should you get the blocks? What would you use them for?

You could add them to the two lidded boxes of toys that you keep in your closet for when your nephew and your near-nephew and other little friends come visiting. The blocks would make them happy. They could add them to the Jenga blocks and build tiny houses and airports and factories.

Or, you could keep the blocks for yourself. You could spill them out on your big wooden dining table, the one where you don’t eat, the one where your teenage lacrosse player does her homework and where you play Bananagrams. While she does her homework, you yourself could make tiny houses and airports and factories. Wouldn’t that be fun?

Yes. Yes, it would be fun. You pluck up the bags of bright wooden blocks and take them to the semi-harried woman at the card table by the door.

“How much?” you say, dangling the bags of blocks.

“$4,” she says. “Which means $2, because it’s half-off Sunday afternoon.”

Two bucks. You walk out the door into the cold sunshine and squint down the block. Why, there are the four teenage lacrosse players. They have not been abducted by predatory men in bathrobes. They have made good choices in your absence. All is right with the world.

You put the blocks in the trunk. The four teenage lacrosse players fold themselves into your tiny car. Off you go to get some ice cream. And when you get home, why look, there is the perfect container for your new-old colored wooden blocks.

Poem of the Week, by Stanley Kunitz

The Layers
– Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written,
I am not done with my changes.

For more information about Stanley Kunitz, please click here.

I owe you

There are people in the world whom you owe. People you think about, and wish you’d thanked, or more than thanked, at the time, but out of shock, or because you weren’t thinking straight, you didn’t.

All this long time later, how can you make it up them? You can’t, not to them personally. You can try to be kind, try to ease the lives of others, but that’s a going-forward kind of thing. You can’t go backward.

You’d like to thank those men in the rusty beater of an ancient car who saw you stuck in the middle of that snowfield between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles that blowy winter day 15 years ago, that day when your tiny car slid right off Lake Street and sailed out into the snow.

How many cars drove right past? Dozens. It is and was a busy, busy intersection. You sat behind the wheel, calming yourself, ready to get out and trudge all the way back home, from there to call a tow truck. No cell phone, back then.

Then the ancient car full of Spanish-speaking men pulled off to the side of that busy street, and all of them jumped out, running across the snow to where you were just getting out of the car. Laughing, gesturing, they pointed you back into the car, and then they massed around the car, motioning you which way to turn the wheel, and pushed you back onto Lake Street. Two of them stood in the far right lane, directing traffic around you until you could safely make it back onto the pavement.

You got out again, wanting to thank them, maybe offer them some money, something, anything, but again they laughed and motioned you back in the car. They jumped into their rusty beater and they were off, leaving you with the memory and, ever since, a wave of gratitude whenever you hear a group of men chattering in Spanish.

You’d like to go back in time, fourteen years ago now, to a public park in Hangzhou, China. You and your baby daughter in her stroller at dawn, making your way around the paths. So hot. So unbearably hot, even at dawn.

A group of women practicing fan-dancing. A group of men and women and teenagers doing tai chi. A woman, swimming alone in a greenish, rubbage-strewn pond. You and your baby daughter, taking in the sights.

From across the grass came three men, two walking and their friend in a primitive contraption that passed for a wheelchair. Made of steel, or iron, low to the ground, with creaky unstable wheels, he pushed himself along laboriously. You watched. In a way, it was a beautiful and amazing sight.

“I like your vehicle,” you said in Chinese, unable to think of a better word for the thing that he was strapped into.

He looked up at you with dark, deep eyes. Raised his eyebrows.

“It’s very difficult,” he said.

Simple words that you have never forgotten. This man comes to you in your mind often. It’s very difficult. You can hear his voice still. You can see his two friends, standing patiently beside him.

Within an hour of leaving the park you were filled with regret. “I like your vehicle”? You had money, relatively so anyway. You had passed a store the previous day that sold wheelchairs, shiny new ones, ones like Americans used.

You wish to this day that you had gotten that man a wheelchair, or given him money to buy one. It’s very difficult.

Many, many years ago, someone left a basket of food outside your apartment door. This was not a pre-made, cellophane-wrapped basket of cheese and sausage. This was a basket that she had put together herself, and it came with a note.

I’m not Jewish, read the note, in part, but there’s a Jewish tradition that when someone is grieving, you should leave them food. I wish I could do more.

You barely knew this woman. You had run into her a few times, was all. But she knew of the awful thing that had happened, and she went to stores and bakeries and put together that basket for you, and she wrote you that note. You brought the basket into the tiny kitchen and you put it on the table.

You owe her too, for that simple, complicated act of kindness. To this day you remember it, how she tried to comfort you when she didn’t even know you.

That man on the sidewalk below as you type this, walking his dog. That boy on the skateboard, the one who must be skipping school. Your own dearest friends and family. The woman ahead of you at Rainbow Foods. The girl behind the counter at Kinko’s.

You owe them all, somehow, and you will try to remember that.

What I've Been Reading

I’ve been on a reading binge the last three weeks. Below are the books I’ve read, along with a one-sentence –yep, one sentence, sue me– review.

1. Borrowed Finery, by Paula Fox. Much of the power of this unaccountably moving memoir of a young girl rejected by her parents and moved from place to place throughout her childhood comes from Fox’s decision not to examine the past, but only to tell it, exquisitely, in one detailed fragment after another.

2. Aloft, by Chang-rae Lee. This first person account of a Long Island man at first turned me off by its chattiness and what I assumed would be a predictable mid-life trajectory, but by the end it had achieved a richness and depth that brought a lump to my throat.

3. Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, by Steven Millhauser. On the surface, this book is a parody of a literary biography, but that, in combination with its exquisite description of childhood, psychological acuity and a stunning twist of an ending, blew me away. I loved this book and will never forget it. (Okay, that was two sentences, but this book totally deserves more than one sentence.)

4. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua. Read all the reviews, saw the scathing letters to the editor, listened to the NPR interview, and decided I had to see for myself what the big fuss was about before I joined in with the excoriators: Lo and behold, I found her honest, self-deprecating, fearless, willing to stand with the courage of her convictions and funny as hell to boot.

5. The Full Cupboard of Life, by Alexander McCall Smith. When the brutality of the world threatens to pull me under once and for all, I go to the store and buy another in the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series, and Mma Ramotswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni lift me up and remind me that gentleness, decency and kindness are still out there.

6. Get a Life: You Don’t Need a Million to Retire Well, by Ralph Warner. And isn’t that a good thing (the not needing a million part) – idly scanned this while waiting for my daughter in a thrift store, was taken by its practical advice on living a good life (more friends, more goodwill, more of what makes you happy, less worry about money, seeing as there’s an entire industry based on making you fear that you will never have enough of it anyway), paid $1.69 and finished it at home.

7. Atlas of Remote Islands, by Judith Schalansky. Beautiful, haunting book of real places and (sometimes; it’s hard to tell) imagined stories behind them, complete with hand-drawn maps; a book that I keep beside my bed along with a bunch of poetry books, the better to read one entry at a time before dreaming.

8. The Grace of Silence, by Michele Norris. This memoir by my favorite NPR commentator (she grew up not far from where I live in south Minneapolis) includes stories about her family which she never knew until she researched this book, something which made me think hard about how silence within a family can both help and harm it. The unexpected bonus of this book is that I heard her beautiful, warm voice reading it to me in my head the whole way through. (Okay, that was two sentences too, but I’m tired, so please forgive me.)

Have You Been There Too?

Driving hundreds of miles in the dark, heading north, two-lane road, high beams lighting the night, shiny eyes of deer waiting in the ditch. A fox. A feral cat.

The only station drifting in and out is an oldies station, “the songs of your life.” Is this the first time you’ve known every single song that a station plays? It just might be. One after another, you beat time on the steering wheel and sing along. For once you know almost all the words. You open the windows –it’s late, you’re tired, you don’t want to get drowsy– and the trees rise up on either side of the road. Your children aren’t in the car to tell you to stop singing, so you sing.

Peace Train comes drifting in and you’re 16 and an exchange student, living with a Portuguese family, not long uprooted from their Angolan home near a coffee plantation, in Lisboa for the summer. Your Portuguese sister, Angela Paula Vieira Lopes, loves Cat Stevens and plays his records every day. Strange to hear English here in this non-English world, the first time you’ve ever been without language.

The blue wallpapered high-ceilinged room in the small apartment that you shared with her. The single hard-mattressed bed you shared. The overhead light with the push-button switch.  What is that thing next to the toilet? That thing is a bidet. But what is a bidet for? You never quite have the courage to ask, and all summer long, you wonder.

Your host sister’s beginner English, your few words of Portuguese.

Nao falo Portuguese, mas comprehendo um cadeinho.

That sentence is probably wrong –grammar, spelling– but it’s the sentence you recited all summer long, all summer as you rode the buses with your Portuguese sister and little brother, Paulo, who would point to his cheek and say beiju, beiju, and laugh when you kissed him.

Your Portuguese host mother in the tiny kitchen, making you homemade potato chips every day, making you caldo verde for Sunday supper, taking you shopping and wanting to buy you ice cream but not knowing how to ask if you wanted one. Pergunta ela, pergunta ela; her hand motioning toward you when in the presence of your host sister: Ask her, ask her.

Cat Stevens, Peace Train, Portugal. You, always the early riser, getting up before your host family every morning, going to the front door of the apartment and opening it to find the blue cloth bag of warm fresh rolls, just delivered from the bakery. The tiny kitchen table. The butter. You, rolls, butter, the silence of the early morning in a Lisbon apartment kitchen.

The gray pocked road of the north country unspools like a ribbon, winding in and out of trees, watchful animal eyes in the ditch.

Steve Winwood, Arc of a Diver. You in the late afternoon tying your long hair back, stretching before a run. The day of classes behind you, the cafeteria with your friends and the long evening stretching before you. You ran down the long hill and up the short hill, turned around and ran down the short hill and back up the long hill. A busy road. Not the prettiest run, but an expedient one that began right outside the door of the old house where you lived on the third floor.

Arc of a Diver brings Charlie R. back to you, walking by and grinning that bright smile of his. You’re quite the runner, aren’t you, Alison? Every day, I see you out here stretching. No, you are not quite the runner. But you smile back at sweet Charlie and head out. Up on the third floor, in her room next to yours, Ellen is playing Steve Winwood, the song drifting out the screen window into the bright air of that day.

Sixty miles to go on this long trip. The Happy Family Fast Food restaurant flashes by on your right, still open this late, and you do an about-face in the red car and pull in. Strawberry malt with extra malt, please. Small, thanks. And a fish fillet. Yes, lettuce and tartar sauce. Thank you.

Back on the road, heading north, twin eyes of oncoming cars once in a while crawling toward you out of the dark. Switch off the high beams. Remind yourself that if a deer leaps into the road ahead of you, you should not swerve. You should keep going straight. Know that if a deer does leap into the road ahead of you, you won’t keep going straight. You will swerve. Remind yourself anyway, knowing that it’s futile.

Pull the fish fillet sandwich out of the bag. What! This is a real fish fillet, real as in not rectangularized somewhere far away, frozen, and then deep fried in an approximation of something fish-like. This is a fish fillet in the shape of a real fish. You take a bite. My God, this is a real fish. Someone at the Happy Family Fast Food restaurant might have caught this fish herself. You’re in lake country, after all. There are lakes and lakes stretching themselves across the surface of the land behind the trees, behind the woods, northern lakes full of fish.

Back on the road and the oldies station confuses itself now, allows the jarring voice of someone telling you to get on your knees right now and pray to the Lord to come blaring in. You turn the volume down just as Neil Young comes crooning on. Comes a Time.

Now you’re back in time, many years ago. It’s a bright blue-sky day and you’re standing outside a building, a tall brick building among others. Where are you? Where is this place? It’s your sister’s college, that’s where it is. What are you doing there? You don’t know. You can’t remember. But that is where you are, and your boyfriend Greg came along, and you can’t find him. Where did he go?

People next to you are pointing and looking up, shading their eyes against the sun. You follow their gaze and there he is, redhaired boy, scampering up the side of the tall brick building. His fingers find a grip among the bricks and so do his feet, again and again, and up and over and up and over he goes. He’s three stories above the ground now, and a crowd has gathered to watch him.

He’s a human fly! says someone, and the others agree and laugh, but quietly. Tense. No one among them has ever seen such a thing before. You have. You have been with this man many times, walking along, when suddenly he stops, taking the measure of the building next to you, the one you wouldn’t have noticed. And then poof, up he goes.

You have a photo of him from back then in crampons halfway up the side of what looks to be a sheer ice wall, ice pick in hand, looking down and laughing. Is there any memory you have of him in which he’s not laughing? His face was made for merriment. The force of his laughter used to bend him double, and everyone around him would laugh too.

The people in the crowd now gathered around you shake their heads in amazement. The human fly has made it to the top of the brick building. No ropes. Nothing but hands and feet and the tensile strength of a body made to climb. Buildering, he calls it. He looks down and waves and laughs. Your parents are next to you now, shaking their heads and laughing too.

Years later you will see his happy, smiling face on the cover of Rock and Ice magazine. It will not surprise you.

Not far to go now, on this late night. You are tired. Very tired. So late at night, and will the doors of the inn be locked when you get there? Probably. This is not New York, after all. You’re in the middle of the woods.

Come, hear, Uncle John’s band, by the riverside. And again you’re back in time, on your knees, scrubbing someone’s kitchen floor. But where? Where is this now? Colorado. You have a job as a hotel maid for the summer but this is not the hotel. Now you remember. You took on some extra work, cleaning the apartment of some guys once a week. Again the sky is bright and the air is crisp and you’re up high, high in the mountains.

You’re playing their stereo as you clean up their mess, singing along with the Dead. One of the guys, the one who pays you, comes home just as you’re finishing up.

“You like the Dead?” he says.

“I love the Dead!” you say.

He shakes his head. “No you don’t. Not really.”

“Yes really,” you say. “Really really. I just went to see them last week.”

Again he shakes his head. “Have you sold everything you own and followed them around the country in a van, Alison? Do you wear flowers in your hair and tie-dye and dance for hours before every concert? Do you have set lists for every concert they’ve ever given for the past ten years?”

You look at him. The answer is no, to all those questions, and you both know it. You are a girl with a summer job in Colorado. You will soon leave, and he will be looking for someone else to clean his apartment once a week.

“A true Deadhead,” he says, “knows exactly what her purpose in life is.”

What is your purpose in your life? All you know, right then, is what it isn’t.

Here you are many years later, driving through the dark, the remains of an extra-malty strawberry malt next to you, watchful eyes in the ditches on both sides of the road. All these songs are making you cry, but you can’t cry because then you’d lose control of the car. Every memory brought shimmering up by these songs is bright and clear and full of laughter, full of love. Your throat hurts with the weight of unshed tears.

Poem of the Week, by Dean Young

Restoration Ode
– Dean Young

What tends toward orbit and return,
comets and melodies, robins and trash trucks
restore us. What would be an arrow, a dove
to pierce our hearts restore us. Restore us

minutes clustered like nursing baby bats
and minutes that are shards of glass. Mountains
that are vapor, mice living in cathedrals,
and the heft and lightness of snow restore us.

One hope inside dread, “Oh what the hell”
inside “I can’t” like a pearl inside a cake
of soap, love in lust in loss, and the tub
filled with dirt in the backyard restore us.

Sunflowers, let me wait, let me please
see the bridge again from my smacked-up
desk on Euclid, jog by the Black Angel
without begging, dream without thrashing.

Let us be quick and accurate with the knife
and everything that dashes restore us,
salmon, shadows buzzing in the wind,
wren trapped in the atrium, and all

that stills at last, my friend’s cat,
a pile of leaves after much practice,
and ash beneath the grate, last ember
winked shut restore us. And the one who comes

out from the back wiping his hands on a rag,
saying, “Who knows, there might be a chance.”
And one more undestroyed, knocked-down nest
stitched with cellophane and dental floss,

one more gift to gently shake
and one more guess and one more chance.

For more information on Dean Young, please click here.