Walking on Water and Writing as Dowsing

Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

When I was a kid, my friend C. from Buffalo moved to a small Boston suburb right around the time my family moved to Western Massachusetts. Like any moment of profound change, my memories from that first year are densely concentrated, like a nebula; I go to touch one and my hand moves right through its gases and vapors. But sometimes, a word will become available, something more solid to grab hold of.

“Aqueduct” is one of those words, from 1983 or ’84. C. lived on a pretty, quiet street with her mom and older brother. Her mom and my mom were pregnant with us at the same time, and there is a famous-in-our-family photo of me and C., age three or so, looking miniature in a giant armchair, each of us holding a book and looking seriously at the camera.

Our move to Massachusetts meant a somewhat rural existence overtook an urban one. It was disorienting to say the least, and I felt lonely in my new fifth grade class. On a visit to see C. and her family in the eastern part of the state, I remember just two things: Her brother had painted the walls of his room black, and I learned a new word.

Down the street from their house — I think it was a dead-end — was an aqueduct. I’d never heard of an aqueduct and had no idea what it meant. C. explained to me that there was water under the ground. You’d think that at age nine or ten, I would have known this already, and maybe I did. But there was something about naming it, and her description — vague and mysterious — that lit my imagination.

I tried to picture it, this water. Was it flowing, river-like? Was it a lake, so many feet under? We were actually *walking* on water, I thought to myself, as we crossed the field.

Deep underground places where water flows freely. No wonder the notion appealed to me; even then I was looking to tap something inside of myself. My dowsing rods were my voice and my pen: I literally sang and wrote, sometimes bringing myself to tears whose source I couldn’t name but that I knew had to do with God and my deepest self — perhaps one and the same.

– – – – –

This morning, I looked up the definition of “aqueduct,” and saw that for more than thirty years, I’ve been misunderstanding this word. From Websters:

“a conduit or artificial channel for conducting water from a distance, usually by means of gravity”

or

“a bridgelike structure that carries a water conduit or canal across a valley or over a river.”

It turns out that all those years ago, C. and I were not walking on water after all, at least not in the way I’d so vividly imagined it. Yes, there was water beneath us, but the aqueduct itself was created not by nature or mystery but by a human feat of engineering. The aqueduct was not below ground, but above it! And just like that, “aqueduct” loses some of its former cachet.

What this newly clarified definition doesn’t change though, is the quest. The way writing remains a form of listening for something inaudible; just as you’d hold a divining rod in your hands to find untapped wellsprings, a pen moving silently over paper is feeling its way to some source, something that makes it vibrate with truth. You know when you’ve touched it, for something in you has found sustenance.

And in this way, maybe the writing is in fact an aqueduct — a container, a bridge to channel and cross that which flows beneath the surface, unseen and unguided.

When we write, we find a way to guide the invisible upward, where we can drink from it and bathe in it. Your words, your memories, your underground springs — these are precious resources. May they be of use, to you and to the world.

14/30 Poems in November: Refuge

woods
The woods haven’t always
welcomed me but today
they did.

Strangers haven’t always
greeted me kindly but today
they smiled hello.

Once, I would have been afraid
of this hiding place.
Today, I sought it out.

Once, I’d have been terrified
of dogs running
in my direction.

Today, I opened my hands
to their tongues,
stroked their heads.

In another lifetime,
I fled to the woods
for survival.

I failed
to save my child,
my sister. Never again.

Today, once again,
the woods were refuge,
now of a different sort.

A place to touch
into peace. A refusal.
A pause. A quiet roar.

14/30

**

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A Day of Mourning

Photo: Jilbert Ebrahimi

Photo: Jilbert Ebrahimi

Today is a day of mourning.
Whatever you are feeling, feel it.
What happens next?
The honest answer is: I don’t know.

Today we cast our gaze backward
and see how far that gets us.
Or we fix our eyes on the steep climb ahead,
when there is also this road,
only this road our brothers have braved
and our sisters have sung,
this road soaked with the blood
of my blood and the bones of my bones.

Today, anything goes.
We remember the night of broken glass,
the night of red overunning all of our maps,
the night of disbelief and yes,
this is real, this is really happening.
We are not the first
nor will we go down as the last
ones standing up for and against
the walls they threaten to build,
the ones my child told me
can’t get all the way to the clouds.

Today we take one day to mourn.
Maybe two or three or four,
maybe we channel this grief
and disgust into the kind of courage
that reminds us never
ever give up.
Maybe.

Today is a day of shame.
We voted and it was not enough.
Our fingertips grazed the glass ceiling
but our white clothing served to remind us
that it was a white woman’s fight
and this, there is no forgetting
or forgiving.

The demagogue will sell you down
the river and the river will deposit you
into polluted oceans that connect us all.
I am ill. Today I am ill.
If I say, none of the right people
will read these lines,
then who are you, and who am I?

Today is a day of mourning.
Of lament. Of memory the body carries.
Of frozen silence and blazing fury
and give us a minute, can you just
give us a minute?

Today is a day to turn off the news.
To feel whatever you feel.
To kneel before no man
and to heed the call of your own heartache.
Stay — please, please stay — inside
of your own skin, your own body.
Be safe there.
Be safe.

9/30

#30poemsinnovember

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.