A Southward Tide

Poems, essays and excerpts. A favorite quote or two. An observation. A compendium of imagery. A dream analysis.

Coming Home

It’s been almost three years since my father died. The passage of time is terrifying. It blinds. It mutes. It forgets. Yet every time I fly home from wherever I’ve been, I pass the space, the rows of chairs to the right of security check, where he always sat, waiting for his daughter to return from college, then from New York, then from God-knows-where, I travelled so much to run away from things.

My husband waits in the pick-up lane, car turned on, sometimes he’s smoking a cigarette by the curb. It’s actually faster that way — pick up and go. But Dad always parked and waited inside the airport, right where the limousine men stand with their dry-erase signs, right where I could see his face light up when he saw me. He was always early to things, maybe twenty minutes, maybe an hour. He always went the extra mile.

Every time I fly home, I pretend he’s still there. Using my powers of imagination, I see him for a brief second. Sometimes I chose what age he is, younger with his wild mass of black hair or the years right before the cancer, a bit too thin, the warning sign we all missed, silver hair, receding but still wild. The image is fleeting. It breaks my heart a little each time. But still, I say, “Hello Dad, I’ve missed you, it’s good to be home,” and he responds, “Salut, ma cherie” and kisses me on the cheek.

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Kriya and the Eternal Quietude

I’ve been meditating. At first sporadically, then regularly and now sporadically again. I believed once I became a regular meditator then the desire to go within, to experience the soporific bliss of the quiet mind, would never leave me. I believed I would never stray from the path of spiritual enlightenment. But challenging my mind to shut up has proven to be much like physical exercise, on/off and sideways in binging frenzies. I wish it were not so. I wish I enjoyed routines and was less of a commitment phobe. Or that I was an early waker, a start-the-day on the right foot person, someone who did not forget important diurnal details like being grateful. I also wish I was less susceptible to my emotions. So be it. I am nothing but what I actually am.

We’ve started a bi-weekly group meditation practicing Kriya Yoga. On Mondays we meet at a yoga studio, the door open to a landscaped courtyard. In the dimming purple light, we enjoy the tired squawks of the island’s host of green parrots. On Thursdays, we meet at my mother’s surrounded by hundreds of my father’s orchids. Over the stereo comes the voice of the guru directing our breath and focus – up along the chakras, through the crown of the head, the base of the spine, mantras slipping softly through the blabbering particulars of the mind. Somehow this brings it all together and forgives my daily discrepancies. In the group, my meditation practice thickens into subtle shades of oblivion. Each time these friends and strangers coalesce with mats in hand, I am amazed. Why do they keep coming? Somewhere in the space of silence we become threaded together.

My father was a classical music aficionado who had also filmed some of the great performers and conductors of the past century – Karajan, Arthur Rubinstein, Menuin. In his last days with cancer, a friend threw a private concert in his honor at our house, with a harpsichordist, cellist and contra-tenor. At dinner, the contra-tenor asked my father what the most beautiful performance he had ever heard was. Later this contra-tenor would sing a cappella at Dad’s funeral. My father answered that it was the sound of silence in an ancient 10th century monastery, monks in genuflection, heads bowed to the great final prayer.

Love is Ever a Fickle Friend

Love is ever a fickle friend –
he brings me pretty threads to lend
then points to me the broken seam.
My rosy cheeks aflame, I teem
with shame. Please forgive me Love,
I meant to wear the other glove
but somehow slipped into the stack
those panties from a while back –
I could not resist another wear
But why indeed, Love, do you care?
They graced your body time before,
old hems you once stitched and more.

Love is ever a fickle friend –
he traces circles with a pen
on inked skin he sketches dark trace
then quits the draw, deserts the space.
Body penned with strange design –
Love once here leaves me behind.
My figure cold in deserts deep,
upon my form your mark does keep
everlasting grief – Please go soft
the needle’s prick bears me aloft.
Though up on barren hillsides dwell
the unrequited love you quell.

Love is ever a fickle friend –
he offers tattered cards to send
of all the tangled cities known,
desolate streets we walked alone.
I hand them out for all to see
for Love reminds me nothing’s free.
To love but one or many more
costs forever the familiar shore.
To love many or just a few
we abandon option to renew
and by the crumbled ramparts stroll,
city obscured by love’s cruel toll.

Love is ever a fickle friend –
he gives me reason to pretend
that all along I played charade.
And now subtle memories fade
into the shade of moonlight cast.
Love – you always moved too fast
I caught you only with a glance
the timeless twirling of lost dance
or twilight on horizon’s cut
my dreams astir in instinct’s gut
but earthly bound as humans, we
can’t know you, Love, eternally.

Love is ever a fickle friend –
he clangs the church bells to no end
In rose-hued nave we say ‘I do’
then to the disco crash the few
bearing testament this dim hour,
flee the witnesses grown sour.
But on the floor stay Love and I,
feet shuffle to a tempo shy
one million years to eternity
as I shall not forever be.
Yet ever young, Love shall reside
alone without me by his side.

A Solitary Thing

At first,
it was foreign.

The better part of a year
it took to become part of us

and we became accustomed.

We plotted:
what medications
to bring to the bedside,
what broth,
what puree.

We measured:
steps down the hall,
sunlight,
temperature.

We found a fragile balance
in this no man’s land

and while it slipped into
the clicks and clangs,
we rested in the forgetting.

But eventually it became more than us;

more than our imagined credentials,
more than the pats and hurrahs
we gave ourselves,

more than the sympathy we were
bestowed for fighting a battle
not our own.

It became foreign again.

And we lamented the years
spent forgetting
and getting on with things.

Though the system kept running,
the broths and purees,
the tray with its colored days,
the blankets and slippers,

we took to whispered tones.

It was no longer ours,
but his alone –

a strange solitary thing.

Lucky Stones

As a young adult, I wore a boxy Liz claiborne purse, gray or light tan with a thin leather cross-over strap, filled with pencils, erasers, flavored lipgloss and a few lucky rocks. I had collected a gray skipping tone, the size of a big grape, and a smooth hematite. I was shy and when I felt challenged, my fingers would turn over the stones in my bag, infusing me with providence and power.I was an animist; my stones had souls. I cannot quite remember when I grew out of them but it was not an obvious transition. In high school, I shoplifted crystals from nature stores at the mall. In college, I collected frogs.

Finally I abandoned the needs of childhood to ground myself with physical objects and instead retreated to the colorful recesses of my mind, where fantasies trumped the day. For years now, I have hedged on reality. Even when two beautiful children have presented me with magic beyond human imagination, I have maintained my own dream life, a foot-out-the-door of this world, a vague morass of happiness and drama where no decisions need ever be made, just possibilities, endless possibilities.

I have my own versions of lucky rocks, ideas that help me get through it all: moving to Los Angeles or even better, Bali, irrational crushes, careers I could never pursue, hobbies that remain out of reach and things I have no intention of acquiring. At my wedding, I felt terrorized by my own uncertainty not so much because I lacked in love but more because I lacked the ability to live within the compass of regularity. Happiness was something for people that understood what this game of life was about, I reasoned.

Yet as I pursue mindfulness,I must let go of the notion that something outside of myself, be it a rock or a distant dream, fulfills me. And for a dreamer like me, this is bittersweet.

Labyrinthine Way

I must have had a thousand feet to walk
your hollow lanes, like licks of fire that stalk
the harvest hay. Through your maze I beat wings
like moth to the flame. City of past things
too narrow to name, city of avenues
too wide to cross, city of endless queues:
I left your ant farm with its bird’s eye view.
I left the old block. I long walked my due.
Streets swept anew past the seconds I fled
cause time swallows fast, fresh feet tread my stead.
Farewell far city of brick memory,
my soles still imprinted with your fiery
mark. Upon cobbled stone, I’ll rest my feet
and watch as the masses flock to the heat.
Now in vaulted hall I stake the last stay –
lead others down your labyrinthine way.

The Old Maids (Excerpt of new short story)

I saw her once after her brother died. She lay on the bed like a deflated bag, her legs like two sticks sticking out from under the comforter, her skin paper thin except on her feet where it was thick and cracked,  her unclipped toes curving painfully inwards. The room smelled like rotting flesh. It was not quite the smell of death which I remembered when cancer had starved my father. It was the smell before death, the smell of bedsores and soiled sheets, the smell of old crackers and cookie crumbs caught between the corners, the smell of molded milk in brittle teacups and all the dusty porcelain pillboxes with their painted spaniels. Old age merged to illness merged to death and with it, a litany of smells. 

When I entered, only a faint recollection traced across her eyes, which opened momentarily under the weight of drugged eyelids. She had been lost for some time, Richard had warned. 

“Tante Brigitte, it’s me.  It’s Marie,  your niece,” I struggled for words, “I’m so sorry…”

“Sorry for what?” 

“We were so sad to hear about Uncle Maxime.”

“What’s wrong with Maxime?” a heavy eye pried itself open.

Her brother Maxime had died three days before. He was in his late eighties and had been hospitalized for months. No one was particularly surprised but it was still sad. He had died alone, before Richard or I could arrive. The nurse told us he had been calling for Brigitte in the throes of death. He was confused, not remembering that his sister had been too feeble of body and mind to hold his hand during his final hours. 

“He’s gone, ma Tante.”

“What do you mean?” her eyes rolled to the side.

I patted her hands, frail bones like dead birds. She would pass soon, I thought. Probably like her brother: drugged, demented, in solitude and fear. The sad fate of a certain kind of elderly person, marooned by their own choices, each twist and turn of a life balanced on self propulsion, dangling like a broken filament until all that remained was a blank ceiling and the vague recollection of a nurse wandering in and out of the room, the steady hum of painkillers and the ultimate arch of death rattling through their lungs. 

Freedom is Bought With

I was twenty-three years old when I broke up with a long term boyfriend in Cairns, Australia. Six years together, I felt dead, suffocated, spit up and rehashed. On the great Australian expanse, I was walking in a cage. I thought it was him.

After the cataclysmic breakup, I travelled south, alone and against the advice of my family. Previously vegan, I started smoking cigarettes and living off ice cream and beer. I lost weight. I tanned brown. Somewhere along the Gold Coast, I hitched a ride out of some crappy backpacker town. It was a long road to wherever we were going next, maybe a day’s drive. The driver’s name was Pip. He had red hair and was kind. I cannot remember the others but the station wagon was full. Pip drove through a straggled eucalyptus landscape, a pale orange earth, snakes sunning on the strip. Sometime after dark, we pulled into a rest stop. It was dangerous to drive through the bush at night, animals on the road, kangaroos smashing fenders, cars in ditches, no ambulances for miles and miles. Pip fixed up a hammock above the picnic bench. Underneath, I rolled out my sleeping bag, a feeling of giddiness in my heart.

No one knew where I was. Not my family, not my friends. I was thousands of miles from the last memory of me and for the first time in my entire life, all the expectations, all the stories and lies disappeared. I was relieved of myself. Under the southern hemisphere sky ablaze with stars, a feeling of total freedom crystallized and with it, concurrent, at the exact same moment, I suffered the loneliest feeling of my life.

The following morning Pip took me aside and asked, “Are you okay?”

“Why?”

“You have barely spoken since we left town. But last night, you were so happy sleeping on the bench. You even smiled.”

“I just broke up with my boyfriend of six years,” I told the half truth and he seemed satisfied. Truth was, it was not the boyfriend that was breaking my heart. It was life with its gaping mouth and awful truths: freedom is bought with self. The freedom we crave is the freedom of little deaths. We pay with pieces of ourselves – the triumphs and failures, the dreams and delusions, even our loved ones, even our names. And without me, what else is there? Freedom is a feeling best left for the gods.

Where do the Balloons Go?

Today I saw an deflated aluminum balloon land in the surf. It wafted down slowly until it was an inch above the ocean, swayed to and fro by a skimming wind. Finally its aluminum skin was gripped by the fingers of the sea and wrenched to the bottom of the breaking wave. How will circumstance make use of this aluminum intruder -how long will it roll along mountains of underwater sand before wrapping itself around a sea fan? A clown cluster floats into the sky, long filaments hanging behind to catch the wings of eagles and rubber to choke the great leatherback sea turtles.

I wonder if they all land in the ocean. Do some have enough gas to last them to the upper limits of the stratosphere? Do they just explode? Where do all the pieces land, the torn Spongebob faces and Happy Birthday letters?

I read recently that our world’s helium supply is dwindling. In thirty years, we will ration balloons to the rich only, fifty dollars for a single Thank You balloon, twenty thousand dollars for an MRI. What will the brave new world bring?

My one-year-old celebrated his birthday with a three-foot wide aluminum balloon. It’s still hanging about the playroom bouncing dutifully when his chubby fingers pull its string. The smile on his face is so wide, it is worth an uncertain future.

The Temptation of Eve

On rare occasion, I attend church. This Sunday morning, a young blond man educated by hard-bound textbooks from his local evangelical college, tertiary sources at best, gives a passionate sermon on the temptation of Eve by the serpent. He does a good job. He really does. But for me, it is not enough. It is never enough. These literal interpretations are unsatisfactory; the biblical stories are elusive, deep pools of meaning that leave much to be gleaned, much unsaid, and yet the sermon only offers one possible explanation. I wonder, could there ever be a scenario in which Eve refuses the forbidden fruit? Attempt the experiment a billion times over and she will always say yes. Why would she not? She is like an innocent child yearning for adulthood. At fourteen years old, I made a series of life decisions which put me on a path of certain destruction. But to do it all over again, I would always pick the forbidden fruit, I would always choose the fall, I would always seek the promise of greatness down the dead ends of the midnight hour. Only in our older age do we covet innocence, do we seek back the serenity of the garden.

These are some thoughts I have during the sermon.  How did Eve have a choice? Original sin represents the first act of free will. Eve fell before the fall. Eve fell at birth, the first millisecond that her brain began making neuronal connections, her impeccable genetic material coding itself into human form.

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