Sunday, July 13, 2014

That's Not the Sun Up In The Sky

That's not the sun up in the sky, it's a human heart
-- The Mountain Goats, “Alpha Sun Hat”

That’s not the clock on the wall, it’s a broken knuckle
That’s not the evening turning gray, it’s a photograph
That’s not the warmth of your skin, it’s a…it’s a…
That’s not a child’s bicycle, it’s a stray ottoman
That’s not the dried amaryllis our neighbors gave us,
The one in the window in the spare bedroom
That’s not the hammer with the shaky head
I told you, I told you, there’s just not enough light
That’s not the monkey we saw at the Baltimore zoo
That’s not the stale saltwater taffy, it’s an effigy.

That’s not the proper order, it’s a welcoming
That’s not how you spend the evening, it’s criminal
That’s not the feature of your face I’m familiar with,
It’s neither this nor that, it’s a cameo, a bit part,
A burgeoning, the way the storm splits the gutters,
Rents the rooms upstairs, plaster and paint chips
Everywhere. Oh, everywhere. Not mathematics,
Not vestigial fingers, not scales, not historical novels
That’s not the morning turning warmer, it’s the blood
In our veins, coursing forward, coursing forward again.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Meaningless Pictures from Old Magazines

Of the Silence of William Archibald Spooner: A Ballad

I write reminders on my skin
Clip meaningless pictures from old magazines
I tape them to the walls
        -- The Mountain Goats, “All Up the Seething Coast”


After sixty years teaching Divinity, black-robed
W.A. Spooner began to accost the strangers
Who, uninvited, appeared in his classroom: “You
Haven't come for my lecture, you just want to
Hear one of those, well, things.” Then the students
Grew ever more restless with his



Once, after a particularly nasty quarrel, one
That included her slicing her finger, Spooner’s wife
Is purported to have said, You know, I was a fool
When I…
     but didn’t bother
     to finish.
Here’s what I want, Spooner replied:
I want to live in a world such that a chicken
Can meander across a road without its motives
Being questioned.


        Perhaps his wife simply
Wanted to improve herself, perhaps by learning
A new language, or perhaps the problem really
Boiled down to how best to use prepositions: of or
For or beneath, for example, a pith helmet (also known,
Let it be known, as safari tin, sun shade, or such).


But remember that we may not be able to make
Proper judgment without help. Perhaps this morning,
When you told me you had met him on a double date,
You already knew he used to be a detective. Did you
Know? Did you?
     And what of it?


Well, I’ll tell you
What of it: If you proceed, if you insist on proceeding,
You will likely fall into

    a pit.


William Archibald Spooner would
Surely answer, surly as ever: That’s clever,
That. Let’s give it a try then.


Oh, fuck it.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Talking to the Statues

Yesterday I put in a good five hours
talking to the statues,
Chased your memory all around the room,
didn't manage to catch you.
  -- The Mountain Goats, “Korean Bird Paintings”

I could write about consequence and reason or about the frayed ends of thatched reeds dangling beneath a chair’s seat or about the body’s own poisons. I’d rather recount the famous, dead and gone, whom I’d like to invite to dinner, Monk and Molina and Maravich, just to mention the M's. But what makes any of us think such geniuses would rise from their graves and straight away consent to share a meal and answer our questions? And what is it we should ask? What was the bright spirit by which you were possessed? or Now? Is there so much as a single shallow breath? In other words: What should we want to know and how much?

It is fruitless, of course, to aspire to genius, but that never stopped me. I wanted to be a child prodigy, though even then I suspected I didn’t have it in me, that I had something of the second-best coursing through my veins. Oh, what arrogance dwells in such a notion – that one will always triumph until the very end, until all but one other has fallen away, until the last shot in the final game spins its way out rather than in at the buzzer, death without dominion until, of course, its proper reign has well and surely begun.

The spirit isn’t bright but dark, and I should have said that, having known this for what feels like forever. It can’t have been forever, of course. There must have been a dozen or so years before it. But it can feel like forever, just as our lives can feel like forever: an endless sloping line, perhaps halved from time to time but those halves never amounting to – as halves of course cannot – nothing. Something must always remain.

Or maybe not. Wallace Stevens’ listener, nothing himself, attends to the nothing that is in the final line of “The Snow Man,” a poem worth recounting whole:

One must have a mind of winter 

To regard the frost and the boughs 

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time 

To behold the junipers shagged with ice, 

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think 

Of any misery in the sound of the wind, 

In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land 

Full of the same wind 

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow, 

And, nothing himself, beholds 

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Perhaps it would be best to be brazen with such men, ask Stevens how he spent his final few Sunday mornings, ask Monk to relay a bit of what swirled through his head all those days at the Baroness’s estate, ask Jason Molina whether the beauty warbling in his throat as he sang tasted bitter or sweet, ask Pistol Pete if he knew somehow, or at least suspected, that he was born with only half a heart.

Recite these words: While the wolf had her fangs deep in my heart, who’s been writing them songs, who’s been singing and who’s been listening, blue eyes while you’ve been gone, that two dollar hat and them old black stockings, down on the bowery. Then listen to Jason Molina sing them, hear them from his lips and tongue and chest and breath. That is how genius elevates, how suffering ennobles, how beauty transforms. Or perhaps you find yourself unpersuaded. Then go lie down in the tall grass; let the black birds come for you at sunset. They’ll either carry you away or pluck out your eyes, claw at your heart, peck away to get at the sweet marrow of your bones. You decide -- we all decide -- how you wish to be taken.

I should tell the living what I think of them, let them hear my admiration, let them make of my words whatever they will. Those words are not, I know, worth nothing to them. It does not belittle me to speak. So much easier, though, to talk to statues, to imagine the dead resurrected, to pronounce one’s faith only after the miracle has been enacted.

To the ones I love, though, this. Only but always this.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Whole Wide World

The last of the repercussions
died off real slow.
The sky was still;
the cold sun sank down beneath the snow.
I hung by my hand
from the tree outside
 and I looked on
The whole wide world

    -- The Mountain Goats, "Whole Wide World"

What are those famous Susan Sontag lines about illness? Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Most of us, she writes, make our lives in the kingdom of the well, until and unless we are obliged, at least briefly, to call ourselves citizens of that other, darker place. 

But what about the border town? the nowhere-land between the two? the hazy, dilapidated strip between the now leaving... and welcome to... signs?  Mostly it's a place you pass through-- spend a night, or at most a few weeks, sweating it out in some low-slung pastel motel -- and then drive on into the proper provinces of illness or health, where, whatever the state of affairs, there's at least some sturdy government, and you'll  know the pattern of the flag and what currency they'll take.

But even the border town has a population. The ones who keep the motels, and the greasy-spoon, and the 24 hour Cash-for-Checks & Currency Exchange place  up and running. Who know the backroads and the menu of the one bar by heart. Who live whole swaths of their lives in the in-between. 

Illness is not a metaphor, Sontag says. And maybe she's right. But I was raised-up in the border town between illness and health, and I'm here to tell you -- it's where metaphors are born.

Thank the Lord, rarely in my life have I been truly sick. But I've damn sure never been well. Not from my earliest blue moments in the hospital incubator, failing to breathe, and then doing it badly. I'm not dying any faster than most of us. There's no foreign invader in my blood, no fatal flaw in my heartbeat. I can't claim  a visa into illness, really, and I shouldn't.  But every time I try to cross the border into wellness there's a reason they won't stamp my passport. Pick one: high muscle-tone, absence of motor control, chronic pain, lack of balance, graceless gate, scar-tissue, bruising, muscle weakness, general fatigue. Even beyond my body they claim brain damage, lack of spacial awareness, persistent depression, severe anxiety, lasting trauma.

I get sick of this list, and sick of the fact that I know it so well.  Everything grows banal if you repeat it too many times. Even pain becomes bureaucracy. 

No entry for the damaged, darling. 

So I make my life between hills of barbed-wire. I have a permanent room in one of those stucco motels, and I've taken the bad oil paintings of ships down off the walls and filled the room with typewritten letters written from hospitals and orchids somebody snuck in for me from the land of the well. I'm near the ice-machine and the one balcony where you can see the sky, and the boy down at the diner knows how to make my coffee just right and that I like crab cakes for dinner. 

But here's the thing about nowhere, in-between, border town: there isn't enough there to keep you alive.

This spring I become inexplicably convinced that I am, indeed, dying, and now. I can't breathe or keep my food down. My ankles swell and my heart is like a bottle-rocket in my chest. I shake in the sweat-soaked covers of my bed, I shut myself in the bathroom, light every candle in my place and pray. I bite my lips raw and bleeding. I beat on the gates of the kingdom of the sick: let me in, in, in. For three nights I sleep on a friend's couch and try to cry softly enough that I won't wake her children.

Oh Molly, stop it. My father begs on the telephone. You'll waste so much time feeling like this...

The most awful thing is that he's paced his own years in the border town, is pacing them now, maybe. I hear his echo alter: I've wasted so much time feeling like this...

From the kingdom of the sick, they send small pale pills in increasingly high dosages. From the land of wellness they send water and chocolate, and small pale pebbles the color of my thumb. From everywhere they advise breath.

In my room in the border town I have a desk. At my desk in the border town I write a poem to the mind I fear I'm losing. It is roadkill, a milk bottle, a lover, the water, my body, a disobedient boy. I write through a whole day, Godbless it. In the border town there isn't enough to keep you alive; Goddamn it, you have to conjure it up, out of muted-florescence, and gasoline, and faith. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Suppositions: An Interlude

If you keep quiet, it will stay like this forever.
If you just keep quiet, it will stay like this forever.
I feel certain of it now.
-- The Mountain Goats, “Noche del Guajolote

I suppose there is indeed a perfect text and the writer’s job is to struggle toward it, hoping that at best he will manage a kind of approximation of what he ought to have written, the way an umpire can call a strike on a pitch that’s in the neighborhood of the plate – an inch or two high or low, outside or in, of the strike zone – the batter’s knees buckling when he fears the curveball or slider will hit him but instead arcs back over the plate and the umpire contorts his limbs into an approximation of the martial artist’s deadly attack, while the fans groan or erupt, depending on whether their team’s player has thrown the strike or taken it.

And these the ingredients in the bitter recipe of tortured romantic ardor: mother, child, and angel; pulse, twist, and wretch; terror and longing, prayer and regret. Home, lost. Home, alas. Home, oh terrifying angel. Home, oh mother to the man become brother of the chosen, unchosen himself, the terrifying angel wrecked and torn. That’s all Rilke, I suppose, locked in the chains from which he cannot release himself.

I will say this about my eye troubles: I have come to understand the precise ways in which our vessels and nerves are nothing but vines wrapped around muscle and bone, shaped according to sinew and skeleton, how a sharp stitch in the eye can stab not simply at spine and scrotum and bowel but at the ball of a foot and the cord of a finger, at temple and ankle and crook of the arm, knee, or neck. Thus, I suppose, we see not merely with our eyes but our entire selves. How else would we detect the dull beast squatting on his matted, leathery haunches in the dark field behind our home?

I suppose there are certain things you can’t take a picture of, like the yellow orchid in the west-facing kitchen window at sunset. Oh Susanna, don’t you dare cry for me.

Fourteen years ago, in Spain, in a stone castle dangling above a magnificent cliff, and in Wales, among the gorgeous ruins of Tintern Abbey and on the rain-soaked hills, and at thirteen, seated for hours against an oak tree in Lake Vista, and on the Lake Pontchartrian seawall at seventeen, and at dawn, at my desk, more mornings these days than not, and seated driving in my car. There. There. There. I suppose there is indeed some perfect moment to be captured, but in what manner? At what expense?

I suppose I assumed that by my fiftieth year I would have a firm grasp of what appears to be going on with, you know, life, love, suffering – the whole lot of it. Not joy, though. I don’t believe I ever expected to attempt such a difficult calculation.

If I keep quiet, I suppose, it will stay like this forever. My good eye. My bad. The knot on the tendon of my right hand. The impossible beauty of the late afternoon sun in the west-facing window. Rise, rise, rise.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

A New Year's Resolutions

One whole life recorded
In disappearing ink…
-- The Mountain Goats, “Lakeside View Apartment Suite”

A New Year’s Resolutions

To finally find the red ball that, half a century ago, sailed high over our heads into the thorny weeds of our neighbor’s backyard.

To walk each day the twilight fields beyond our house with such resolute humility the deer do not bother to scutter away but instead consent to demonstrate precisely how one slowly, slowly, bows one’s head in a solemnly orchestrated homage.

To speak plainly, without shenanigans or wordplay, without costume or cosmetics. To say dog for dog, love for love.

To welcome back not simply those we’ve sorely missed but those long ago and well forgotten, children wandering the halls of washed-away schools.

To be we again, not I, though we do not even know how to manage much more simple mathematical calculations: circumferences, square roots.

To find solace in forgiveness, even at the expense of a proper sentence, a dog set to barking only after the prowler has taken all he aims to steal.

To cease imagining certain inevitabilities: books never to be read, music never to be heard, beauty unregarded, unremarked.

To attend to the gentlest of rains, such slow and mournful songs, until the water overflows the garden’s cisterns, seeks gully, creek, and stream with a philospher’s resolve, a poet’s fervency.

To read and listen, to regard all beauty, with a scholar’s ardency, a penitent’s faith, even as each leaf slips from the branch: sentence and melody and shape become word and note and silhouette become form and sound and ash.

To wake Mr. Justice from his winter nap, ask his help in finding all we’ve lost: first, the red ball; afterward, the children wandering the washed-away halls; finally, the scrap upon which we scrawled this list.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Rooms Like These

Sink low, rise high; bring back some blurry pictures 
to remember all your darker moments by. 
Permanent bruises on our knees, 
never forget what it felt like to live in rooms like these.
       -- The Mountain Goats, “Birth of Serpents”

The Back Room

The back room was where lizards crawled on the one brick wall, where the paperback Catholic self-help books resided on blonde do-it-yourself wooden shelves, where my great uncle took up residence when my great aunt died, his white shirts suddenly left un-ironed, un-starched, coppery stains blooming at the collars and cuffs, while his black and gray and navy suits slumped and sagged one against the other in the closet, the hollow-core sliding doors sticking like stubbed toes and then, when jostled, slipping clear off their hinges, while from outside the swimming pool’s gurgle and gulp snaked through the back door to join the coughs and throat-clearings and whimperings. He’s fallen apart, or something like that was what we were told, so my brother and I found ourselves sleeping on the sofa-bed in the den, each night the inevitable steel crossbar at the hipbone or knee a reminder that there were far worse pains in this world to be endured.

The Rooms Upstairs

After Katrina we went up there, my siblings and I, the only place in the house the wretched water hadn’t reached, mold growing up the wall on both sides of the narrow staircase but then stopping suddenly before it reached the top, a smooth line of demarcation as if even a simple-celled fungus – or whatever stuff such mold is made of – could tell that the particular chemical composition of the space above was of a different variety than the one below. And it had become years and years earlier just that, rooms deemed safe from my mother’s or father’s ascent because the time arrived, as one might have expected, when they’d decided it wasn’t worth the climb or couldn’t. Why seek out, in any case, horrors one didn’t dare address, the tang of adolescent despair, of familiar ruin, of incalculable desire? And once the children were all gone off to hunt their own lives, why bother searching for evidence of life long ago extinguished? Oh, but what science was once to be found there. In the floor-to-ceiling cabinets at the top of the stairs, my older brothers stored sulfurous chemistry sets and magnifying glasses and a heavy black-and-silver microscope with insects and drops of dried blood and locks of pig and horse and human hair all squeezed for careful inspection between glass rectangular plates, their edges sharp as knives, and soldier-shaped molds into which they poured – or at least I imagined they did -- melted lead and tin. They kept binders filled with Mardi Gras doubloons, with baseball cards, with stamps from Senegal and the Dominican Republic and the Vatican, silver dollars and buffalo nickels and donut-holed or star-shaped foreign coins slipped into the felt-lined slots of gold-embossed blue cardboard cases. I collected music, books, the poems I wrote – all the useless beauty I could lay my hands on, every unpronounceable, unspeakable moment I could gather in my scrawny fists.

The Helping Hands Room

504-288-0334. Because we were not allowed to linger on the first line, 504-282-5612, seeing as how any moment an arm or leg might be broken, how our elderly Christian Science neighbor might need a bit of undocumented medical attention for her gout or lumbago or fluttering heart, how the orthopedic ward nurses might require my father’s consent for more – and more potent – pain-killing medication for his newly post-surgical patients, we acquired a second line, ostensibly in the service of my mother’s charitable endeavor distributing discarded clothes to Cuban immigrants, but also for the children – or, more precisely, for all that I cared, for me in the service of my own machinations, the hours and hours of conversation with my girlfriend. I cannot imagine what we said. Did we talk about her alcoholic mother, her two sisters confined to psychiatric wards, her own surgeon of a father, a man who years and years later I would discover, when I’d come to care about such things, was the spitting image of the poet William Carlos Williams? Did we trade Cat Stevens lyrics back and forth? Did I dare to profess my admiration for the long stick-shaped legs stretching out from the bloomers beneath her cheerleader skirt? I don’t remember, of course. We do not ever remember such moments because we believe them – wrongly, wrongly  -- wholly insubstantial, fleeting, unaware that they will indeed linger season after season, lodge themselves like clots in our blood, the way the x-rays my father slipped beneath the clip of the fluorescent-lit device in the Helping Hands room are still imprinted on my eyes, the way his mumbled dictation – period, paragraph, salutation – still echoes in my ears, precisely the same sound my footsteps make each evening when I set out near sunset for a walk behind our house. It’s like the scraping of the dried leaves at the field’s edge before there’s nothing but the quiet of the soft fallen grass. Just like that.

The Living Room

Where we did not live. Where there was no living to be done, or so every grimly appointed inch of it seemed to declare. Where the lights – a 50’s-era modernist chandelier, a heavy table lamp carved in pseudo-hieroglyphics – were not switched on for weeks on end. Where the dining table’s waxen sheen remained unsmudged, the carpet’s warp and weft unscuffed. Where the art – gauzy gray-green landscapes of willow and moss and swamp -- hung in gold-painted wooden frames, unremarkable, unremarked-upon. Where we were not welcome or simply would not dare go when strangers we did not know visited and were offered iced tea or instant coffee. Well, there were the years when my mother hosted a weekly prayer meeting for Catholic women of similar ilk and interest, gatherings that included inedible snacks to accompany the recitation of Bible verses and some measure of Pentecostal shenanigans: speaking in tongues, earnestly raising one’s hands as if to touch heaven, and a fair bit of the Holy Spirit’s thrashing, shouting, and possession. And when all of that was done and gone, I gained occasional claim to the Philips hi-fi in the corner, James Taylor and Cat Stevens giving way to ever greater melancholy, more than enough to fill not just this one room but all of them, the whole entire house, a whole entire life.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

[Search] … she was a dancer on her toes, a foreigner who made her home in the flowers of…

I've got a message for you, if I could only remember.
I've got a message for you, but you're gonna have to come and get it.
La la la la la la la la, la la la la la la la la.

-- The Mountain Goats, "Sinaloan Milk Snake Song"

[Search] … she was a dancer on her toes, a foreigner who made her home in the flowers of…

She was a dancer on her toes,

A foreigner who made her home in the flowers of...
And no one took pity on her
And she would go and weep
At her mother's grave.

When her father and stepmother and two sisters
Came home, and the prince would dance with none
But her; and when midnight came like the earth embroidered
With flowers, and her shoon were made of silver,

She would buy the flowers herself
And laugh at the girls in their transparent muslins
Who, even now, after dancing all night,
Bustled on, raising roses. Meanwhile, Amanda

Made her entrance by helicopter.
Deliver Amanda, please, a pizza and flowers.
To Amanda, raise a complaint against her parents:
How she played baseball in the house

After soaking her feet, toenails clipped --
footbinding mandatory for all girls -- so graceful
that she skimmed on top a golden lotus and formed
a troupe to perform for foreign tourists.

Little Grace, an imaginary friend whom she brings
Everywhere to make the children happy,
and a foreign woman's baby, a prostitute,
and meanwhile, Niles, all alone in the house.

And the dancing scene in 1928?
The Gumm Sisters enrolled, a trio
prettier than a garland of flowers,
and her "cute" or "girl-next-door" looks

flowered in the shape of a whale.
Palaces and manor houses could be glimpsed
through the splendid woods,  red flowers
becoming up on deck sailors dancing,
and the Prince finally appearing among them.

Notably well educated for her time, she bought
a radio station and then a TV station, cities
and highways: Where flowers bloom, so does hope,
And as soon as I could stand on my own, 
I was given dance lessons in nightspots: the Foreign 
and the Caliente Club, all Technicolor, made of money.

And she asked her friend Hermes
If she could eat at his home and play a teacher
In a low-budget film with the father of her daughter,
And she made no more films.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Transcendental Youth

Sing, sing for ourselves alone
Speak into the microphone...

Try to explain ourselves, babble on and on 
By the time you receive this, we'll be gone...

Sing, sing high, while the fire climbs
Sing one for the old times.

-- The Mountain Goats, "Transcendental Youth"


Billy says he figures he's got maybe ten good brain cells left to work with, the rest of them blitzed away by the combination of too much acid in the 70s and all the low-alcohol beer he could legally drink on base at 18, because back then, in Alaska, they had vending machines in the barracks.  It'd get you as drunk as anything else, he chuckles, you just had to drink more of it. He likes to tell me that now he drives like an old lady, so much wiser and more cautious than he was in all those hapless years of youthful excess. Really, though, he treats the cab like it's the semi he drove for a long time: Turning wide, and muscling it hard from lane to lane, unused to its new, small body. 


When John finally starts singing around 1:30 in the morning, I've been at The Mohawk for almost five hours. Long enough to drink three beers and hear four mediocre local bands, unlisted opening acts, play for a small crowd of their waifish friends. There are four of us here at the end of all that: me, a high school choir teacher and his brand new girlfriend, and a mop-haired drummer who thinks I'm hitting on him because I've spent the last twenty minutes trying to convince him to not leave before the show even starts. Nearly empty, the venue is concrete and cold, and it feels later than it is -- those weirdly seasick hours when you are still awake as the night turns over into morning. We pull closer to the stage to cut into the useless space. Sharp-faced and sallow, John looks like a bird of prey against the microphone, or like whatever wounded animal that bird is circling.


When Billy finds out I'm a teacher, he's thrilled. He's got so many questions for me. He wants to know about double negatives and prepositions and what in the hell a Freudian slip is. It takes about half an hour to get from my house in central Austin to the elementary school down south, where I have a job this semester teaching creative writing twice a week to thirteen nine-year-olds. Billy volunteers to take me there and back for the duration. He's grateful for the steady work, and he never charges me for the inevitable time we spend sitting in traffic. Tuesday,  I teach him what an Oedipus Complex is because he heard a passenger mention it in the cab. We talk about Sophocles and prophecy, and he says, Man, listening to the oracle sounds like it's always a bad idea. I learn that he is adopted, and that though he searched and searched for his biological mother, she never wanted to speak to him. He doesn't speak much to the family that raised him either. I look different, he says, like a dirty gypsy. He runs one hand through his long, damp curls.  

Thursday, he brings me a peach and we discuss the different meanings of the various spellings of to/too/two and how much we love Casablanca. He has three children. His youngest, Rosemary, is my age and has a thyroid problem. She's my favorite. I mean, I don't have favorites, but, she needs me.  His oldest is a 911 operator in San Antonio, but a few years ago she danced the evening show at the Yellow Rose in town. Her mother quit talking to her, Billy says, but I figured I better not. Otherwise she'd never quit taking her clothes off and come home.

Here's looking at you, kid, he calls as I climb out of the cab.


John's album, The Graceless Age, is easily my favorite of the year. It's brilliant, soaked in Mississippi fire and brimstone, in heroin and hurt, in Faulkner and The Odyssey and California space. It makes an epic out of walking through the ashes of a small burned-down town. He has a kind of guttural, intimate voice, and at the end of one song you hear a crackling recording of his mother talking about adopting him from a Jackson hospital. We got home that night, and you cried in the night, and all of three of us, my mother and your father and I, got up and met each other at the doorway. We all had to take turns going in to check on you. We were so excited to have you be our son. 

Somewhere after that, or maybe way beforehand, something broke down inside the family and the boy they were so glad to have. And there was a lot of suffering. God and addiction and abandonment. And then we got this album. I pray this light will be her guide / into my arms, these crooked arms, /  underneath the southern sky.

You wouldn't know any of that listening to John sing this morning. He just looks wrecked, sad beyond belief, exhausted, hollowed. If I hadn't listened to the whole album fifty times, I wouldn't understand a single lyric. The mop-haired drummer shakes his head, kisses my cheek, and leaves. I pull even closer to the stage.


My kids this semester are in fourth grade. But they do not know the difference between a noun, a verb, and an adjective. Many of them cannot put a sentence together.  For some of them, English is not their first language. They associate writing with feeling dumb, and from the first day, it's clear to me that they're angry about the hours that we spend together each week. They think they've been dumped with me because they're struggling or because their parents are not free to pick them up when the school day ends. They're not wrong. 

My kids refuse to pick up their pencils. They throw paper airplanes at my head. They steal each other's shoes and  leap out of their seats if there's even a second I don't have them engaged.  When one kid does finally write a few sentences, they are about his father getting shot when he was an infant. At the bottom he draws an illustration of what he thinks was his best day: the day he was born. His mother lies in a hospital bed. He is on her chest. A tall stick figure in the corner is his father.  He labels it so that I am sure.  Another little boy, when I tell him he has to open his notebook, begins to stab himself in the chest with his pencil. Hard. I hear the lead break. I have never before felt quite so limited by my wheelchair. I cannot fit between the desks to reach him. The kids cry at the slightest provocation, and otherwise they are trying to yell. They are all bluster and devastation. Tiny storms. Microbursts.

One day, when I stand briefly at the board to write an example sentence, I trip and fall down. They all rush toward me. Warm little bodies; small hands patting my back. I fall down sometimes, too, Jerry says matter-of-factly. Like, Don't worry, you're not the only one.

They deserve someone so much better than me. Someone able-bodied. Experienced. Qualified. But I'm all they've got for these small hours. I'm sorry, I want to tell them every single time.


It's Billy who starts to call them the hooligans. Like, How were the hooligans today? You show those hooligans who's boss? Oh, Miss Molly, he says, I was such a hooligan. I was such an idiot. If I could do it over again, I'd do it different. I'd learn to read. I mean, I can read the road signs alright, but.... Hey, did you know the salmon in Alaska always come back to where they were born... Hey, tell me again about the Oedipus thing...

Do you know that I was afraid of him the first time he came to pick me up?  He was tall. He had grimy hands and a trucker hat and he smelled like sweat. I rode the whole way, that first drive, with my cellphone clutched in my hand ready to dial. Thinking: he has my wheelchair in the trunk of his car; what am I going to do?  At the end of the ride he offered me a chocolate and told me I reminded him of his daughter.

I think about sweet-faced Jerry and everything he'll grow up to be.


As John sings, I think about how lucky I feel that, even though most of what I write disappears unnoticed into the void, as a poet I don't have to look that fact in the face every day. I just write, and try not to be too bothered by the quiet. But he's driven from California to sing to three of us and fall asleep on someone's couch. Look out at how hard it is to make the thing you love reach truly into the world. Look out at how small you are. Look out at the concrete and the grime and the blackness and live with it. I reach  up and  put both my hands on the stage. I really hope he can tell that he is breaking my heart. I really hope he can tell that it matters. 

Afterwards, John takes both my hands in his and I tell him that I think he is a genius. I tell him thank you so much. 


In so many ways the last year has been the worst one of my life. I had a plan for my future. I had a clean, shining path down the fast-track I'd been chasing since I knew how to chase. I had prestige and security and a well-honed sense of myself as invincible. Success, as an artist and a professional, was an escape hatch from the hardship of my body. I was going to be so good at my life that no neurological disorder, no pain or bruising or helplessness, was going to matter. And then, for reasons impossibly complicated, impossibly quotidian, and, I've come to realize, deeply inevitable, it fell apart. It's not an especially good story. Suffice it to say that I never planned to be falling to my knees in an elementary school classroom. I never planned to be thoroughly alone at a rock show at two a.m.  I never planned to write a book about an old Virginia hospital. I never planned to be discussing the Greeks in the back of a cab for two hours every week. I never planned anything this messy, or this shining, or this hard.


Even as my kids are pissed-off and badly behaved and reluctant, they are also hugely imaginative and gregarious and inventive. They want to stand up and share all the details of what they ate for lunch on a given day, and why they hate chocolate pudding. They want to tell me the dreams they have about space travel and their ideas for the best possible super hero. They want me to call them by the names of 90s pop stars that I have no idea how they heard of. For a week Salvador goes by J-Lo.  Kimani ends every writing prompt we ever do with a list of all the impossibly fancy cars he wants to own. 

One week we read the story of how the camel got his hump. I have them act it out on the rug in the front of the classroom, saying humph just like the camel does in the story, hanging their heads in frustration like the dog and the ox. 

The next class, I coax them into working on the story of how the wizard got her magic. We go sentence-by-sentence. 

How does the wizard get  her powers? A magic astroid. 

What is her name? Alice the Wiz!  

Who is the enemy? A zombie that wants to get the wizard's power by eating her brain. 

Where is it set? A mansion!

Write one important thing about Alice that you might not know if you looked at her...

And at the end of class Julie looks up and says: you tricked us into writing a whole story!

Yeah! they chorus and nod their heads. They are thrilled.

Every class, they ask if I'm coming back. Like I might not. Like I might just abandon them and disappear into the ether. 


None of this is pretty or clean. None of it resolves. 

You have to keep showing up: looking for  the puncture in the pitch dark, the small thing you can do, the one person listening. Not because it fixes everything. Not because it is suddenly enough. Out of suffering, you make a gorgeous album not enough people hear. You never get another chance to be young or to do it right. The people who should love you do not always love you. You are lonely. You are not a good enough teacher. You cannot do enough. Your body is the wrong body. Your hurt does not have an endpoint. 

But showing up is the only ting we have. Showing up for what we believe in. Showing up to be surprised.  It is the only act out of which beauty is ever born. 

So I sit down at my desk to write. So I stay in the empty bar until 2 a.m. So I touch a stranger I don't really know. So every day I tell my kids that I'll be back soon. And I come back.  

One day, as I am packing up to teach, I hear music outside. Billy is early, and he's sitting in the front seat of his cab with the windows open playing a George Harrison song on his guitar. I gather my papers, and I go outside, and I sit on my front steps, and I listen to him sing.