Sanctuary

Up early
with the light
to walk to a church
that houses a man
with an ankle bracelet
who cannot see the light
of day, though the real criminals
are the ones who would send him
back to a country he fled 18 years
ago for this land’s promise of better
protection and safety. Did you hire him

to plant your garden? Did you pay him
under the table to trim the edges
of your property, to make it look
pretty and welcoming? Now his wife
and children wonder how long
they will have to wait for his return,
relying on community support to pay
for groceries and rent. He prays everyday.

As for me, what matters is that I have feet
and my work is portable and my children
are warm in their beds and I am unduly free
to go where I please, when I please,
and there is nothing fair about this equation.
Please, understand: Those who look weak,
those who look needy? They are the leaders.

If I had a lawn, I’d say come set up a tent
city with booths and creative currency
and herbalists and midwives and women
in overalls who know how to build things.
I’d say keep out unless you want to come
in to stretch out a hand in offering.
Nobody has nothing to offer.
Nobody is above reproach.

This land is your land.
This land is my land.
This land is none of ours but we are here
and my great-grandparents fled somewhere, too.
To you whose ancestors knew the names
of each root and leaf and star: I am sorry.
To you in a city so close to and so far from
my small town, let me translate my shame
into something mighty, like a rock through a window
or a warm glove on the coldest morning yet.

* * *

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Amherst church to provide sanctuary for Guatemalan facing deportation

Silence is Violence

Goodwin Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church

Goodwin Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church

This morning, Pearl, Aviva and I went to a “Voices” service at the tiny Goodwin Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church. The theme was “We see something, we are saying something.” Because none of us has answers but we do know that silence is complicity. Silence is violence. It is better not to know but show up than not to know and give up.

It was a privilege to sit in that small sanctuary. We walked over from home, the three of us, a beautiful September morning. We listened to so many voices, indeed. White people. Black people. Young people and older people. People who marched on Washington and felt more hope 50 years ago than they do today. A woman whose great-uncle was shot in the back, running with hands up, by police in the 1920s. A beautiful young woman whose hands were shaking as she spoke of soul-killing racism in what should have been a safe environment. Another young woman read scripture. We listened. An incredible poem that left me breathless, read by a man whose name I wished I had asked before we left, that began, “If they had told me, I would have stayed an angel.” “I wrote this five shootings ago,” he began. Because it’s like that now. And it has been like that all along, but now there are cameras and the world might finally be watching.

America is in deep trouble. I hesitate to write this because it seems so downright obvious as to be pointless. But to not keep calling it out is to throw ourselves into the abyss of the space between the America we learned in school — the one where pilgrims and Native Americans joined hands at the table, slavery ended, the Civil Rights Movement brought equal rights, and we don’t see color — and the real one, the one where 43% of the American electorate wants to elect as president an ignorant, racist demagogue who incites violence against women, people of color, Muslims, LGBT Americans, intellectuals, activists, immigrants, and the working poor.

After an hour or more of listening, Aviva took the mic. She spoke from the heart about the privilege of taking “a break” from the news. I watched Pearl turn around in the pew to see those sitting behind us, and then around again, to listen to the choir sing “Senzenina,” a South African protest songs in Xhosa/Zulu:

What have we done?
Our sin is that we are black?
Our sin is the truth
They are killing us
Let Africa return

We don’t have to know the words. We don’t have to know the answers. It feels like there are none, and it can feel like speaking is futile in the face of one murder after another. But to not speak is its own violence. And this is ours to figure out. This is ours to fix.

When I did speak briefly, it was as a mother and as a Jew, as a gay woman, and most of all as a a white woman who knows in my bones these words James Baldwin wrote to Angela Davis in 1970: “For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night. Therefore: peace.”

We may not be in Tulsa or in Charlotte, but right here, right here in Amherst — and there where you are reading this, Black Lives Matter and white people need to keep standing up. My voice might shake, but this is not about me. This is about justice.

No justice, no peace.

The Back Way

the-back-way

Cemetery Road used to be the back way
to Northampton, but now everyone knows.
I have this memory of being a kid, just shy
of 10 on my mother’s 40th birthday. It was
December. Something (a rock?) shattered
her windshield. (Or was it just cracked?)
All I knew was that she seemed sad.
I liked writing and wanted to make her happy
so I wrote her notes saying she was the best,
best, best, best, best, best, best, best, best
mom in the whole world. My sisters were
teenagers then and windows were sometimes
left open at night and I listened for fighting,
my ear to the door, but all I remember hearing
were the hisses of the s’s as I strained for more
of the mysterious conversations the grown-ups
were having. Back then, we took the back way
to Northampton, and it meant we lived here
now, we were locals, we were no longer
from somewhere else. Where are you from,
you ask, and I tell you, here, gesturing around
tobacco barn and houses with year plates
over the doors: 1791, 1834. Back then, not
only weren’t we here, we weren’t even in this
time zone. Take modern-day Macedonia,
take L’vov and take Romania, take what was
once a town in Spain where maybe my great-
great-great-great-great-great-great-great-
grandparents on my father’s side were writers
or bakers or scholars or sages, and you will
find the beginnings and middle of us who sat
tonight around the same dining room table
where we ate nine-minute family dinners
(I know this, because once in 6th grade,
I timed it to see how long it took from setting
to clearing), my father said, “It takes a long time
to grow a family.” He and my mom just marked
53 years together, and my sisters and I sat
in the very same spots as all those decades ago
when I was still trying to be good, still feeling
special for knowing the back way to the next town
over, still becoming a woman who wrote poems
like “Glad 2 B Female” as I walked the one main
street in my Docs and leather jacket feeling tough
but actually lonely and with a head full of Russian
verbs. “Life is long,” my mother’s mother used
to say. “God willing,” I say back, and suddenly
miss her and realize she’s sitting here on the edge
of my bed; she can’t believe I’ve married a woman,
I’m wearing this Star of David from Toledo
on a silver chain and it has my birthstone,
a garnet, and we are the children of the ones
who got out or the ones who chose to seek
something better, the ones who lived so far
downtown before there were tall buildings
and the twins were Annie and Celia, my Grammy
and her sister who died of the flu when the first
war started. All these years, so many wars later,
no more twin towers, no more predictions
of the best way to get there — who knows really
what you’ll find — only that luck may have nothing
to do with whose shields are shattered and
whose families are broken and whose seeking
is rewarded and whose tables will always
have empty chairs reserved for the ones
who didn’t make it home. The back way
isn’t always the way back. Now I know.

**

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108: The House of Love (or, Where I Was the Moon)

Moon_and_Stars_series

In Jewish numerology (Gematria), the number 18 signifies “chai,” or “life.” And about the number 108 — my parents’ house number — Shiva Rea writes: “108 has long been considered a sacred number in Hinduism and yoga. Traditionally, malas, or garlands of prayer beads, come as a string of 108 beads (plus one for the “guru bead,” around which the other 108 beads turn like the planets around the sun).”

I wrote a poem once, in 1998, about my parents’ house. It’s called “Dreaming Pasternak” and to this day, it might be the best poem I’ve ever written. The house plays an important role in the poem, which came directly from a dream. I mean that literally: One morning, I woke up, put on my mom’s old soft pink bathrobe, grabbed the latte I’d stored in the fridge from my Starbucks shift the night before, a notebook and pen, and my pack of Marlboro reds, and climbed out onto the flat part of the roof where I liked to sit and smoke and write. And I didn’t so much write the poem as I wrote down the poem; it came all at once, as if it had been prewritten in the dream and I was just getting it onto paper.

In the poem, the house was the house of love. The house of love on the hill. The house that love built. The house was built in the 1880s I think, by a man named Edward Thompson. He was also known as Thompson the Tinkerer. He apparently built the house for his beloved wife, Frances. That’s all I know, but I always thought it a romantic story.

I had a relationship with that house. With myself in it. It was a house where we celebrated Christmas until we didn’t. It’s the house where I didn’t quite know I was Jewish until I did — and then I dreamed, too, of Jewish babies I couldn’t save, of the Holocaust in ways that made it clear I’d be there, running, running, and unable to save my own sister.

It’s a house where my mother has grieved the loss of not only her sister Nancy, who died 18 years ago today on SwissAir flight #111, but also of her sister Bobbi, who died in 2015 after a decade of cancer.

It’s the house where I think of myself as having swallowed silence and given it to the moon. Where I was the moon. Where I could not quite grow up. Where I would be a scholar but not a lover.

I don’t know who will die next, or why death is the thread I’m pulling on. But it’s in the air, maybe because of September. Maybe because of growing up. Maybe because of remembering grief, the grief of Nancy’s death. I’d lost two grandparents before, but it was her death that brought grief into my body for the first time. I was lost.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see. 

I was blind, to think that I would stay in that house forever. That I could come back here and be anyone other than this me, this woman, not a mile from that house, writing. Doing exactly what I always knew I wanted and needed and was waiting to do: Be fully myself.  Fully alive. In my own house of love.

How Old is This Elephant?

elephantsThis morning, I left the house for a run at 8:06am. I’d checked the time on the stove before heading outside into the rain, leaving my phone for once at home. I ran up the hill to the center of town, then a bit around Amherst College.

Somewhere right around the campus green, I had such a vivid memory of these words: Сколько лет этому слону? That’s Russian for “How old is this elephant?”

The memory wasn’t only of the words themselves, though. It was tied to a moment in the fall of 1990; I’d have been a senior in high school. In addition to this being my fourth year of studying Russian, I was by then taking Spanish classes at Amherst College. I was the youngest of three and the only daughter still living at home, though my middle sister had graduated and gone on to Hampshire College, where our mom was on the dance faculty at the time, so we saw each other here and there — more so than I saw our oldest sister, who’d moved to Southern California.

In the memory, I was walking from the high school over to Amherst College for my Spanish class. I passed by The Black Sheep, a deli and cafe on Main Street, and bumped into my sister there. I’d been practicing the Russian dative case in my head. (Something that was — is still — fun for me. Weird but true.) One phrase in particular was on repeat in my head. I bet you can guess what it was.

That day, the one I remembered out of the blue this morning, I was 16 and high on fall colors and Russian grammar and unattainable crushes and the prospect of finishing high school soon. I was a smoker and a straight-A student. Elephants everywhere. I was probably a good 10-15 pounds underweight by then; that summer would be a low point when it came to swallowing myself whole and the implosion that is bulimia.

A year later, I’d start to emerge; at 18, I’d transfer to Barnard, declare my Russian Studies major, quit smoking (for the first but not even close to the last time), and — this part might be important — proceed to ignore the whole herd of old elephants in the room. Or maybe I started to learn how to coexist with them.

This morning as I ran through that campus — all five feet, one inch, 110 pounds, and 42 years of me — I remembered walking there as a teenager who lost and found myself in foreign languages.

“Hello!” I’d said to my sister at the Black Sheep, feeling grown-up about traipsing to my college class alone in the middle of the school day. I was probably showing off a little for her and her college friends. “How old is this elephant?” I asked, in English first, and then with exaggerated intonation in Russian, just as we’d learned it in class. She laughed and we said hi and then bye and off I went and off she went and that was that. I doubt she remembers this minor encounter.

Why did this question resound in my head this morning, as I ran through that elite swath of green? I wonder. Wondering is one of the reasons I write. Running, too, helps me clear my head, especially when it’s stampeded by elephants. Old, old, ancient elephants. Old as the hills, the grass, the seeds.

I smoked my first cigarette at 13. My brain literally grew up around nicotine; nearly 30 years later, I’m not smoking, but some days still more than others, it’s as if I have to manually peel the clinging ivy of addiction from my sticky brain.

How old is this elephant?

I ran and remembered that moment — me at 16 and my sister at 20 — with a flash of compassion for us both and a mind’s eye glimpse of us today:  sisters still, mothers now, three out of four of our own kids the ages we were then, when…. and so it goes. The generations of elephants lumber and grow. I want to say I’m doing my best, but even that feels too easy somehow, too pithy.

Here’s what it comes to: I miss smoking, and I struggle with the choice not to, almost every day. Not when I’m running — then I feel strong and free and so very glad — but for sure when I’m writing. (Or grabbing a latte in the middle of a busy day. Or irritated for no good reason. Or overwhelmed. Talk about rewiring.) I could light up again in a heartbeat and it wouldn’t be smart — not nearly as smart as conjugating Russian verbs and practicing case endings I learned oh so long ago and barely remember today.

I close my eyes and imagine sitting on a pile of colorful cushions with golden tassels. I open them again and find that I’m right here, writing about memory and elephants, sitting with reality and with how hard it can be, sometimes, to do the right thing. And then doing it anyway.