NOV. 15, 2015: Headlines – A Poem

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Attackers in Paris

‘Did Not Give Anybody a Chance

as if chance played with motive

none are chanced

when death is not feared

FEAR:

it is all that keeps us good

and goodness is relative only

to the god one is willing

to die for

this god militarized,

weaponized

expanded

personalized

assault driven

a god unknown to

civil – ization, decency

lost in three hours

of hell;

a lifetime

of blood spillage

all red being read

in black and white

newsprint echoing ancient

tales written down

the original sin

in concert with the

unconscious brain

man-made insult

the beginning of pain

the parchment of war’s genesis

held tightly in the

fists of bloodstained

armies ordered

young conscripts

avenging lives dear

motivated

by chance

motivated

by fear

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THINKING OF SUICIDE WHEN THE HEAD- LINES SHOULD BE ENOUGH

2 NYT headline

Send Kevorkian away

His services unnecessary

For the slow death

That comes from the congenital

Uncontrollable urge

To read the daily newspaper

(And not the easy living sections either)

Always, like magnets,

Injustice draws the eye

The travesty of the slaughtered

Lions,

Ideas,

Ideals,

The travesty of the disenfranchised

And the people who struggle

For some semblance of happiness

In pictures of mothers and fathers

Running ragged

Across borders children in arms

Tripped up by reporters’ cameras and legs

That horrible hubris at center stage

Every day

Clothed in the 1st world democracy

Of law & order

Laws written by beneficiaries of

The order

Meted out by chanting trolls

Ignorant of humanity

I’m sure I will die a death

By thousands of strokes

Of a newsroom keyboard

A slow death

Swaddled in helplessness

My own keys taking

Weakly vicious strikes

At an enemy

I refuse to acknowledge

As I brush my teeth

In clean 1st world water

Eyes downcast

I turn out the light

Leaving the room

Before the enemy arrives

In my own reflection

A Country For No Child

Jaime Kalenga, whose mother died in labor, suffers from malnutrition and tuberculosis. Credit Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times
Jaime Kalenga, whose mother died in labor, suffers from malnutrition and tuberculosis. Credit Nicholas Kristof/The New York Times

There is a country rich in diamonds,

Oil and foreign sports cars

I know this – having read it in

The Times

This is a country in which one child

In six will die before the age of five

Says The Times’ Kristof

But I live in a country that cares

About children – Some of us

Care so much we call authorities

On parents whose children walk

Home from the park – alone

Keeping our children absurdly safe

Ignoring the Angolan mother holding

The “twig limbs,” swollen belly, wizened face

Of the near carcass that is her child

She’s waiting for care from the few who do

Those people who come from far off places to nurse and

Heal everyone’s children

Those people who know that diamonds

Are friend to no one

The people who recognize

The diamond’s sparkle

Being stolen everyday

From the eyes of babies

Leaving in its place a

Haunted spectacle, skeletal frame

Held together in wrinkled brown

Wrappings of skin

My Mother: Celebrating the Life of Ruth Norman

My mother - beautiful at 58 years old
My mother – beautiful at 58 years old

What does a cup of coffee, a wicked sense of humor, and a loving and determined mother have in common? All three of the above elements served as foundation for all that my mom was – and remains in my memory. Coffee for my mother Ruth Christina Norman was the elixir of choice. I learned at an early age how to make coffee and every morning before I left for school I treated her to a cup before she got out of bed. She would sip a bit before getting up and getting ready for work then gulp the rest before grabbing her keys and heading downtown to work. This became our ritual after she and dad divorced in 1968. Gatherings around coffee brought forth so many memorable and hilarious expressions from a woman who was taken out of school after the 5th grade to help care for brothers and sisters who would later disown her. They showed this by failing to inform her of her mother’s death by almost a month. So afraid were they that my mother would show up with the darker members of her family. My mother carried around this well-hidden pain for 77 years. So many years to shrink into resentment and bitterness. But not my mother – not as long as there was coffee and people to enjoy.

My mother was so very proud of her six children. This was a pride that took root in her relentless devotion to her responsibilities as a parent. My mother married my stepfather in 1954 when I was three-years-old. It was my father’s discharge from the Air Force that year that caused our move to his hometown of Los Angeles, California. I say this to point out the fierceness of my mother’s spirit when confronted with the amazement of my father’s friends and family when he returned to L.A. with five children. It was this fierceness that drove my mother to her ultimate concern with appearance. You see, no one was going to say Ruthie came to America with all these raggedy babies. If my sisters, brother and I had a closet in which hung all the memories of growing under mom’s care I believe that first memory would be of cleaned and starched school clothes. Also, in that closet would hang the communion dresses, the shirts, and the wedding dresses that she made in those late-night hours after a full day’s work.

My mother was a wonderful cook. Her meals were hearty and unforgettable but few people knew that, in Canada, after the death of her first husband my mother took a job as a camp cook. She told me this story not long before she died and I am awestruck by the image of a 22 year old widow, tucking her three babies in the canoe before putting the kettle of food for the campers and paddling across the river behind her rural house to the camp on the other side. The stories of my mother’s miracle surrounding SPAM are legendary, as my college roommate will tell you. There was the proposed (in jest) cookbook 101 Ways to Cook Chicken & Potatoes Without Really Trying with my mom as author. Needless to say my mother was the queen of survival. There were evenings when our cupboards were seemingly bare and yet by the time we washed up for dinner, the table was set and we ate – and ate well. I remember hearing the “loaves and fishes” story in catechism and walking home convinced God was a woman – had to be – because my mom did that “loaves and fishes” thing – a lot. My mother knew the value of time and she filled hers with family, friends and work.

My siblings and I can tell you that the biggest sin in our house was looking un-busy. Looking back on mom’s indomitable will and spirit you can understand why. When I was in elementary school she would go to work at Terry Tuck sewing pockets on terry cloth robes earning three cents a pocket. She would then come home cook for six children and a husband before going to her second job sewing the cording on decorative pillows while my dad went to night school. My mother’s life was filled with hard work and I wonder now if she ever resented her mother taking her out of school to help care for her siblings?

My mother was not without her own creative gifts. Gifts that became visible when I went away to college and found my mailbox some days filled with poems written by her. I remember studying her usage and structure and knowing any gifts I may have demonstrated certainly had their foundation within this woman of modest dreams and wild desires. In spite of my mother’s lack of formal education she was the best teacher a child could have. She taught by example earning her PhD in the school of life.

My mother withstood the blows to her heart when her oldest daughter died of breast cancer and then, three years later, when her youngest succumbed to malaria. Such tragedy of monumental structure. My mother survived the inside out, upside down world takes over when a woman’s child dies before her. She refused to crumble rather, when we returned from the last wake my mother put on a pot of coffee, gathered her remaining family around her and carried on. In 1999 my mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and even then I knew that this disease was not going to take my mother out – not this woman. In fact two years into her “dance” with multiple myeloma she called me from a Los Angeles hospital in tears – a new doctor told her to get her affairs in order. She was shaken and so was I as I listened to my tower of strength telling me I could have her Kaufman’s card (this was serious!). I called my mom the next morning. She picked up the phone just as she was telling the young doctor what she thought about his suggestion of the evening before. She told him never to darken her doorstep and stay away from her if he had no good news because she was going when she was ready and not a minute before. She was right.

And in the run-up to her ‘time’ my mother prepared us. I remember her taking my face between her hands forcing me to listen to her burial plans that ended with the option of burying her face down and all those who had nothing good to say about her could just “kiss my ass.” If we decided to cremate (which was her choice) then we could sprinkle her ashes over a J.C. Penney store for all the time and money she spent there.

My mom died on July 7th 2004 as I was making a connecting flight to L.A. True to form my mother was organized right to the very end. My sister and I were not surprised to find everything in order with all the important paperwork that accrues when a life is ending. My mother’s handwritten reminder list contained the name of the mortuary, the names of the contact people at the mortuary, what to do with her remains, and the numbers and codes relating to the small insurance policies she had. After each item on this list my mother put her signature smiley face ☺. Her last request on this list was not to forget her ashes. Here is where the smile was turned down ☹. My sister and I cried – not for my mother but for all of us. My mother was ready to die.

Sadly, we were not ready to see her go.

ANGEL IN THE OUTFIELD

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In 1998 I was “stuck” with western New York’s equivalent of “The Bad News Bears.” A team no one wanted and I, by default (with a son moving up to majors with his father as coach), was left to coach. I can teach life-saving & water safety classes but baseball? All I could picture was me ducking and flailing comically out of the way of a come-backer that was sure to find my front teeth. If only that were the singular tragedy that season. The following essay won the 1999 New York State Teachers 1st prize for journalism and a lovely (unaccepted) job offer. I repost today after going into town and having lunch by the river treated to sights of youth on the water and the haunting sounds of balls being cracked into the outfield behind me. Happy spring.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It would be wonderful to say “Stevie” came to baseball tryouts that first day and dazzled everyone. He didn’t. Stevie showed little talent for the game. Even when he came to that first practice, when it was so cold he had to alternate throwing drills with time in the heated cab of the truck, he knew he had a ways to go to be as good as some of last year’s minor-leaguers. I didn’t see him for three practices and one game after that. I had forgotten what he looked like.

On the day of our second game this very blond, fragile boy walked into the dugout. I responded with my customary “Excuse me,” which was freighted with suspicious overtones. He slowly turned and spoke his name. Then I was glad to see him, because that only made us shy one player. Even so, I knew we had to borrow a player from our opponent’s bench and I silently kissed the thought of winning good-bye as I saw the little, very little fellow stumbling our way from the other dugout. I looked back at my bench and eagerness engulfed the boys and protected them from the slow rain beginning to fall.

Stevie took his place in the outfield. He was safe. Balls seldom get out that far in the minors. His hitting was lackluster, too, but I did make a mental note to get to the pitching machine first and get in the much needed batting practice for everyone. At batting practice he swung too late, too weak. I began to feel that he was in little league for other reasons. His body was there; arms, legs, and head, but not his heart – that was somewhere else.

Our next game was across town. Stevie was there. He quietly took center field. I remember my frustration as a shallow fly-ball caused him and the other 9-year-olds to stare at such a phenomenon in awe. The next inning Stevie was taking a bathroom break when we started closing the gap despite our weak fielding. It was the fourth inning and Stevie’s turn at bat – no Stevie. I made a mental joke about his bathroom break being a complete stop. After making a substitution, I went to investigate.

I headed around the dugout just in time to meet his mom and dad who were already on their way back with a very shaken little boy. He had been locked in the portable john that sits on the other side of the playground. Turning the ring-shaped latch to the locked position is a common prank, I was told when I complained. I came back to the dugout to see Stevie huddled in the corner shivering in spite of the 75 degree weather. I told him he could get back into the game after this inning, and he looked at me with tears brimming in his large blue eyes and asked if he could sit out the rest of the game. He was different; unlike the others who would probably have shrugged off the incident and jumped at the chance to play. Not Stevie.

I wish I could say I remember what he said when, later, he came out to tell me about something in his life. I remember him standing there happy to have his mom’s sweatshirt on and flapping the over-sized sleeves. I do remember that was the only time I saw him smile.

The last time I saw Stevie was team picture day. I see him clearly, now, next to his mom with his head in her lap as the other Yankees run amok. I see myself, too, cranky as ever, trying to get eleven 9- and 10-year-olds to hold together in line at 6 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon. The remainder of that week is a blur. Just bits and pieces stay afloat; obtuse, emotional flotsam.

The phone call came Friday night from a friend with news of the terrible accident involving a 9-year-old in my valley and concern that my son be affected by the news. I heard the name, last name only, so many out there it can’t be THE one. I remember my call to the hospital, and the surprise of the emergency room nurse and her emphatic “No!” when I asked if anyone of that name had come in this afternoon. I waited, hoping against hope and losing track of time. I made a promise to myself to hug Stevie the next day at our game. I went to bed thinking of how I was going to explain the hug and special attention. At 11:30 that night the call came. I wouldn’t have to explain. Stevie was dead … killed when a tractor-mounted mower backed over him. I thought of his fragile body. My dreams that short night ended with the sight of Stevie huddled in the corner of the dugout, shivering from the pain and fear of the dark. I cried most of the day – for Stevie, his mom and dad, his brother, for me and every time I made a call to tell the other team parents of our canceled game and the reason.

I met with my team the following Monday. With Tuesday being a game day, I could not go on with life as usual until there was some acknowledgment with the team of Stevie’s tragedy. A counselor, friend and colleague offered to come and speak to the team and possibly help them with grief. I should be used to this grief. But I am not. So, I could only hope that my friend could do for my team what she did for me that Saturday when I called desperately needing comfort and help.

My team was there, and as we sought the cool shade around the practice field, I knew things would be OK. The tentative smiles of the kids and the smiles strained with sadness of the moms and dads spoke of the need to “DO” and the tools with which to accomplish this task. My friend was wonderful, beautiful in her approach. She came with handouts: “How Tos: for parents who deal with children and tragedy.” Grateful, parents snapped up the papers as they listened to their young suggest ideas for a personal memorial to their teammate. Adult tears were ever-brimming as it became apparent these young people were taking that important first step in grief management. They had been given a platform from which to address their sorrow. Plans were set; the stage would be taken, exits would be made and, however sadly, life would move on.

Stevie’s funeral was 11 o’clock that Tuesday morning. Tuesday evening found the ballpark full of parents and players alike, hearts heavy with the knowledge of why the flag was at half-staff. The ceremony began. The stadium announcer proclaimed the game dedicated to the memory of Stevie and invited all the little leaguers in the park to come to the ballfield. A hat and jersey with Stevie’s number was placed at home plate. Someone on the team said “… Stevie’s home now.” The pledge was spoken as two team members unfolded a banner reading “Angels like you are precious and few.” A brand new bat engraved with Stevie’s number was presented to the team. And finally, the messages taped to helium balloons held in the right hand of each team member were released on the count of “1, 2, 3 STEVIE.” A song was playing: “… if I am not there in the morning … remember me …” My team’s faces were shiny with tears, yet held high and smiling at the sight of a dozen Yankee-blue balloons moving further and further into the stratosphere. I looked at my son, and the sons and daughters of others and I beheld a beauty indescribable.

Oh, if life could imitate art we would have seen, that radiant Tuesday evening, Stevie, receiving his wings in some heavenly arena flooded with light. Even as we left a hole in our lineup indicating no player (visible) in center field, we should have known we would win. Fly-balls – shallow or deep, it didn’t matter – hung in the air, giving my team all the “awe-time” they needed before, yes, God willing, Stevie caught the ball.

Eugene Feldman: 1921 – 2014

Dad at dinner closeMy father-in-law

 Lucidity – blinking and broken

Has declared his life a night

A forgotten dimension

So fast

Where did it go?

92 years inside

The forest of human travel

Following the script

Of human hand

The hand that sent him to war

To love

To fatherhood

To the hearts of those

Who would wash his sluggish body

Wrinkled, tissue depleted

Immobilized by an angry destiny

And landscapes of untold design

And still he wondered why?

As the answer awaited at the forest’s rim

Where the path – well- trodden

Called – he is moving there now

Beyond that forest

To the open sky-filled field

Where the flowers will wildly bloom

In the spring of his step

Steps – light and inoffensive – like him

A child in this fractal world

Enfolding unto himself

Even as Nature reclaims him

Her son

Guiding him on that path

Swaddled in linen

Looking ahead in painless

Expectation

STUTTERING JUSTICE

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My dream disturbing:

Grand black pianos dropping from the sky

Missing bodies frolicking in an otherwise calm, moonlit ocean

Black men still being killed with impunity

I awake Channeling E.B. White:

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

It is hard to plan a day when civility is aligned along

A white fence facing down the barrels

Of hatred, ignorance and a blind lady justice

Hard to enjoy a world when one does not believe

In an organized God

Armed with the biggest guns

Millions of magazines spitting volleys of pain and grief

Days of drought, drones, and death

If I believed

I could commit the supreme act of

Cowardice by putting it all in

His (not Hers?) hands

Walk away ‘enjoy the world’ in a

Disney fog of happiness

I would have around my neck

That talisman

That password

That should admit me to the club of believers

If I believed

If I believed I wouldn’t be naked

But (just the same) I would have no clothes

I know the difference – now

If I believed I would not have to scramble

In my silver rage through the

Glove of darkness

This faux life wearing the liar’s smile

Fingering the cross

Idiot grinning

At other Xanaxed smilers who wonder

Why I am so nakedly angry

And I wonder what my last words will be?

Pleas for help?

Declarations of love?

Regret?

Will it matter?

Who will be the last to hear my voice?

In the Wee Hour of Life

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My father-in-law,

Lucidity, blinking and broken

Declares his life a night,

a forgotten dimension.

So fast,  where

Did it go?

He is still outside

The forest of human

Travel

Following the script

Of human hand

That began in sand and

Grit

 A hand that sent him to war

To love

To fatherhood

To the hearts of those

Who would wash his sluggish body

Wrinkled, tissue depleted

Immobilized by an angry destiny

And landscapes of untold design

And still he wonders why –

The three letter

Through the looking-glass question

Whose answer awaits in the forest

Where the path – trodden slight –

Will call – he is moving there

To that forest where flowering

Dogwood bloom in wait

For his steps light and inoffensive

Like he

A child in this fractal world

Enfolding unto himself the same

As we’ve always known

Even as he is resorbed

By nature – that path

He will trod, swaddled in linen

Looking ahead in painless

Expectation

THE SECRETIVE MS. PEESKINS

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Ms. Peeskins on her favorite perch

Haughty, stretching

Guiltlessly warm

I tell her one day I’ll refuse

To put wood on the fire

See what happens then

She keeps her head to the window

Looking for a bird in the snow

Ideas of catching it melt to fancy

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She’s looking at me now,

Really, I am just caught in her

Tractor-beam, cat scan,

Surveillance of the room;

Goddess of things as they are

She is not the longest lived pet

On this busy country road

Where for many years

Michelin and Goodyear have exacted their

Bloody brand of animal control

Unless a piece of firewood

Falls off the wood carrier

Hitting her, she’s safe

She knows this

But

She won’t tell me

She has put on weight this winter

As if her body swells

With secrets of the house

But not my secret

My apologies for this poem

She hates it when I tell her

Even she is material

Ms. Peeskins cares

Not a whit for poets

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She knows

The difference between

Firewood and those uncut trees

The trees that shade the summer graves

Where the bodies are buried

LOSING MY RELIGION

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Torn mad between

Disbelief and

A final cloud-soft

Happiness

A Christian hoax

That hides the knife

Stabbing me everyday

Headlines broadcasting seeds

Of human decay

 Oh, sweat mead – me

Drink and forget

That you once believed

That your mom was Jesus

One who performed the

Loaves and fishes miracle

Every night of your youth

 Forget that your devout

Grandmother died blocks away

From the Church she attended

Religiously

No black-robed middleman

Walked the distance for her

Forget

 Forget the sweet-soft theft

Of innocence

Forget

That you have to

Walk from this room

Unguarded now

With only darkness

Assured in afterlife

Forget the child who

Wants her pretty

Mom happily warm

Forever after

And

Forget the idea of reuniting

That was her – uncommonly disheveled

Ashes humorously weighted, heavy –

Your last vision to imagine

Her gray dust – scattered

But not lost