Rafael’s Question, by Carla Drysdale

My son carries the name
of the healing archangel. He

sits on my lap, at the computer’s
luminous screen. We look at photos

of my parents, divorced
when I was two. Their faces

sagging, eyes hopeful.
Still alive, but their visits to us

number less than a handful
in his five-year-old life.

Sometimes, after brushing our teeth
he’ll say, “Mom, make it like a river.”

And I’ll cup my palms together
under running water, and he’ll drink.

Tonight as we sit together
I’m silent, because it’s hard to explain.

He asks,” “Do you still love them?”
So gently, so gently.

Carla Drysdale, from Inheritance, published by Finishing Line Press. Republished with permission of the poet.

Photo credit: Daniel Padua via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.

The Indian Family in the Hospital Lobby

Rushing between off-site meetings, I carve out some time to sit and eat lunch in the lobby of one of the hospitals in the Longwood Medical Area. There’s a huge family at the table next to mine that has an entire catering setup — I guess to feed everyone who’s come down to support their loved one. They take up four tables and are eating delicious-looking Indian cuisine, speaking in what may be Hindi or one of India’s many other languages.

Seeing them makes me think about frugality, and how it requires you to stop worrying about what other people think of you, and about what it means to live in a multicultural society, and about how diversity is hard because humans are hard-wired to fear the Other, and also about what it means for me to live so far away from the support system of an extended family. I’m lucky to have a huge constellation of family-by-choice, and friends, and kindred spirits — I know more wonderful people than I can possibly have deep friendships with. But the bond of shared DNA runs deep, even with the low-level irritation that can develop among grown-up relatives. When I’m in the hospital, it’s my family that comes to visit me. And if they’re not related to me, I begin to understand who truly is my family of choice.

For better or for worse, that’s my life: to be a stranger in a strange land, even when it’s one I’ve lived in for years. Writers and artists often live at the edge of society. It’s what gives us the perspective and the fearlessness to speak our own truths about what we see. I’m most comfortable on the edges of things, observing the swirl and color of human existence — I see things that I wouldn’t if I were at the center of my own drama.

And perhaps it’s why I need the company of plants and animals to recharge myself. They speak a quieter language free of the body-mind duality that plagues humanity.

Update: Five Things

  • My father-in-law is dying of cancer. He is dying at home with round-the-clock care, surrounded by his extended family. My father died in a public men’s room of an overdose. The contrast in details is pretty stark, but the feelings are much the same. And in the end, they’ll both pass through that gateway alone. Grief doesn’t live in a line, but a labyrinth. I’m surprised every time I turn a corner to find it there.
  • I have a pile of review copies in my office. Interviews with a couple of poets are in process, but none are ready for publication yet.
  • I’ve completed applications to three low-residency MFA programs. Yes, Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen didn’t need MFAs to become successful writers. But I’m not living in the 19th century. Who knows what will happen during or after my course of study? It still seems important to try.
  • I’ve spent three days out of the past two weeks in bed. Having an “invisible” chronic illness is especially frustrating at times like these. Yes, it’s exacerbated by stress, but it’s not exactly like I can keep my life from being stressful. And it’s true that certain preventative measures can keep the symptoms down, but it’s not very helpful to beat myself up about not taking them (or being able to take them) after the fact.
  • We have a brief respite from February’s slings and arrows. I’m going to take advantage of it right now and go for a walk before the winter weather returns with a vengeance.

Photo courtesy of Akif Mert via Flickr, CC2.0

(In)Gratitude on Thanksgiving

All the FeelingsI recently heard a historian giving an interview about the original Thanksgiving. She pointed out that what made the English colonists so thankful was the awful year that had come before. The Pilgrims hadn’t meant to settle on a rocky coastline with poor soil and long, frigid winters. They’d been heading to Virginia but got blown off course and landed on Cape Cod in desperation. That first winter, they lost a huge chunk of their numbers to famine and illness. Native Americans in the area had also been decimated by a smallpox epidemic. If it weren’t for assistance from Squanto and treaties with other members of the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims would have been no more than a footnote in the history books.

Continue reading “(In)Gratitude on Thanksgiving”

Garden of Images: Mother-Brother-Sister Mandala

This is one of my favorite mandalas. I drew it just after a visit from my mother and brother — the nuclear family I grew up with. We each live in different cities (and on different coasts) and hadn’t been together in the same place for at least three years.

Image of a mandala divided into three parts, each with a tree on a hill that shows both branches and leaves: in one, a stick figure rolls down a hill in the sunshine; in another, a stick figure stands under a tree with wiggly lines radiated outward; in a third, a stick figure stands under a night sky under a full moon
Wednesday, March 5, 2014: The day after my family leaves. The first time we have all been in the same room together in years–

 

Father's Day

My father’s legacy: chronic illness, sorrow, trauma, SSDI survivor’s benefits that helped pay for college, nonconformist leanings, love for the music of the 60s and 70s, pretty good rhythm for a white girl, and a deep and abiding understanding of the importance of creative expression.

I can’t say I’m always grateful, but I am aware of the way he shaped me — intentionally or not. Wherever you are now Dad, I hope you’ve found the peace and happiness that so eluded you in life.

The Day After the Boston Marathon Bombing

Sudden violence (is there any other kind?) throws the world into sharp relief. Horror that doesn’t speak but roars in the head like the ocean. Magnolias blooming under the crescent moon.

It gives things the proper perspective, too.

Last night, laying on the bed, talking to my mother on the phone while Army Guy relaxed next to me, the younger cat purring between us, I felt utter contentment.

This morning I woke at 6:00 am to take down the emergency update on the hospital website that I maintain. Cortisol shot me awake, makes me drained and snappy today. The sun is shining, the air is crisp and lovely. The Copley Square area is closed from Mass Ave to Berkeley. Did they wash the pavement clean? Will they find who did this? Will the cycle of violence continue, into the end of the time? Is peace just a pipe dream, like dreaming for the end of hunger, the end of darkness?

All things in sharp relief, from one moment to the next.

Gratitude Day 25: Cranberry, Turkey, Pumpkin, Pecan, Peace

To do something imperfectly is better than to not do it at all. I wish I believed this axiom. I was raised in the school of do it perfectly and then check to make sure it’s really perfect. I was raised in the school of what do you mean you didn’t know that. I was raised in the key of G Minor.

I don’t remember how I learned to cook a turkey. It’s possible my Mom was involved, but the story I tell myself is that she never cooked. She cooked, of course, in between working long shifts at the light company, practicing piano, teaching piano, driving us to and fro, imagining we were being followed. Upon I reflection, I remember the following:

  • corn tortillas warmed on the gas burners (flip flip quick, until they were tinged with fire)
  • minestrone with the beans too hard
  • bread. lots of bread. she once said that the thing she missed the most when we left California was her sourdough

My brother and I learned to cook from osmosis, trial and error, and the encyclopedic Rodale’s Natural Foods Cookbook. It includes instructions for roasting, braising, broiling, frying, et-cetera-ing every kind of meat one could find in the grocery store. I started with chickens. I can’t remember the first turkey.

The last turkey before this one I shared with my roommate from mainland China and his girlfriend. Mom was supposed to come, but she called in sick — as she has done for more than one holiday since I hit my majority and started paying my own rent consistently.

This year, M’s family came to our house. I cooked the turkey, the stuffing (stuffing is my favorite), the green beans, the broccoli, the butternut squash. His sister brought her own delicious interpretation of mashed potatoes. His mother came early, made the cranberry sauce and the gravy, brought her graceful maternal presence into our home and negated all my mother-in-law fears.

Of course, technically, she is not my mother in law. She’s not even my mother in common-law — I believe it would take another seven years for that to take effect.

For most of my twenties and thirties, I scoffed at the traditional family model, bristled at the term “family values” with the rest of the queer feminist pagans. But to have eight or more warm animals gathered in my living room, brought together not by choice but by the accident of birth, people who in spite of the slings and arrows of outrageous genetics have gelled into a cranberry sauce of a family — bitter and sweet, whole cranberries suspended in a pudding made of the simplest ingredients — to have that in my living room, which is his living room, to be a part of that, was really quite an experience.

One that I wouldn’t mind to have again.

Also: she who cooks the turkey keeps the leftovers.

30 Days of Thanks

Weekly gratitude practice: summer, work, Friday, clothes, love

  1. Summer arrived in force a couple of days ago. After months of shivering under rain and clouds, I will gladly take it. In typical New England style, we moved right from the 40s-50s to the 80s. But I’ll still take it.
  2. I’m especially grateful today to have steady work and a steady paycheck.
  3. It’s the Friday before Memorial Day…
  4. … and I am wearing a cute little summer outfit: a print skirt, a sleeveless top, and gladiator sandals. 75% of this outfit is new, which is lovely. I tend to put off buying new clothes for as long as possible. At a size 20, I’m not a fan of the buying process, but I’ve come to a level of acceptance about mail-order shopping. It’s not more convenient, it’s just a different kind of hassle. I’ve traded crowded Saturday parking lots for shipping fees, return forms, and trips to the Post Office. And it’s okay. Online stores like this one make it worthwhile. Last week I also had a closet consultation with Julie Foley, which is totally worth every penny. We revisited my colors, put together a bunch of new outfits, tried on some clothes I’d gotten in the mail, and made a shopping list. I’ll be busy for the next couple of months putting it all together.
  5. I’m feeling especially grateful for the love that surrounds me: the love of friends, of family, of Army Guy. As a society we tend to focus on romantic love, and I’m not discounting its importance in my life. I’m often struck with my dumb luck in that regard — as usual, it happened when I’d given up on looking for it. But it’s the other kinds of love that really sustain me. Without them, I doubt that my relationship with Army Guy would work at all. One of the reasons it does is because both of us continue to cultivate a wide circle of friends outside of our relationship. Without the sustained support of my friends and family, I wouldn’t be able to function half as well as I do now. I’m grateful that it exists and extra grateful that I know its value and work to maintain it.