A Southward Tide

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

Memories of Koi

Behind the Episcopal church of my youth is a walled memorial garden and a koi pond. The Neo-Gothic structure dates from the 1920s, a booming era for South Florida architecture and opulence. After Sunday service, the church served refreshments under wide palm fans and the twisted spines of guava trees. I savored the cheap orange juice and the sugar cookies we were never allowed to eat at home. Crouched on a stone bridge in a white  smocked dress with a handful of pellets, I fed my orange, black and white friends over the broken surface of the black pond. The fish bustled for a turn, slipping around and over each other in exuberance.These memories surface like bubbles of unbridled rapture. Childhood time is frozen, crystallized into eulogistic forms. Back then, were they just the fish I loved visiting after the constraining horror of Sunday school?

Sometime in my listless twenties, I found the garden again flattened by the midday sun, sweaty and bland. There were less flowers and the fish were like bullies, a grotesque ball of wrestling pythons. I had lost my wonder.

I return to this concept again and again. The lost wonderment of childhood, the “growing up” that damaged my spirit. While joy is not the sole property of the past, it is something we must recuperate. It is not our lost youth. It is our lost soul. We can leave no stone unturned or else we all die the quiet deaths of adulthood.

In the garden once again, I rest in quiet contemplation.The longer I sit in stillness, the deeper and wider the garden becomes till voices rise once again from the dark waters, koi older than time itself swimming calm circles around the lily pads. How many wide eyes have they seen from their vantage point below the surface, cherubic faces gazing at them with the wonder of a billion earth-bound years?

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The Polyphemus Moth and other important moments in literature

Every now and again, a book tattoos itself on my life. I  hark back to the first time I read Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell or Rider Haggard, Richard Brautigan, Notes from the UndergroundLady Chatterly’s Lover, Hernandez’ Piano Stories or The Master and Margarita. I filled journals with quotes. I thought, life will never be the same now that I know what literature has made possible, my perceptions shaded by the disclosures of fictional worlds. I recall the year, the mood, the mundane dramas of the period when I read such work, when Marquez murdered his protagonist, Santiago Nasar, in the first line of his novel or when Annie Dillard’s polyphemus moth began its infinite crawl down a winter drive.

I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in high school. A decade later, I remember two passages from her non-fiction account. In one instance, Dillard describes the histories of newly sighted patients, blind from birth, after the development of safe cataract operations – their wonder and confusion at the two-dimensional plane of color patches and textures where space, form and size are indistinguishable. Their perception seems akin to an acid trip. A twenty-two year old girl keeps her eyes shuts for two weeks. When she finally opens them, she “repeatedly exlaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful.'”

And then the next passage: the moth, the fateful cocoon brought prematurely to life by the hot hands of school children, born in a mason jar, its wings forever crumpled. Upon her memory is etched the image of the beautiful crippled moth hobbling towards its death down a cold long driveway. I still cry when I read those pages. It has been seared on my subconscious too. It pains me that she did not spare us her morbid image. I have my own horrors tucked away too – the corpse of the baby sparrow we snatched after its nest fell, despite my mother’s insistence that if we touched it its mama would never return, the beautiful subsaharan tortoise I named Henry dead on our hot Manhattan roof. All these things brought back to life by the polyphemus moth, our hearts burned by the same sad destiny.

Music and Writing

Things that help me write prose:

1. Music
2. Driving; music
3. Walking; music
4. Staring off into space; silence
5. Dancing; music
6. Music
7. Spinning, handstands, cartwheels; chirping birds

Things that help me write poetry:

1. Weird Mood; silence, tumbleweeds

And if the music is good enough, words pop right out of the sky, streaming in my head, colored sentence ribbons variegated like a bouquet of tropical things. I count on music to inspire me; the musicians do most of the work. For a recent short story, I listened exclusively to Chopin while writing and then the soundtrack of Waltz with Bashir to edit. Right now, Vampire Weekend’s new album. What inspires you?

Coyotes, Skunks, and Possums

Life is life wherever you choose. The moment you are alive and aware of where you are is the exact moment you become aware of who you are – I am Diana, alive and in good health (and even if I wasn’t in good health, I would still be: Diana, alive). Behind a veil of feelings and opinions there is the constant me. Life is life whether or not I’m sad. Life is life whether or not I have published a book. Life is life whether or not I actually believe what I am saying. Life is just life. The set of molecules that comprise me is the same set of molecules wherever I take myself.  I am no different than a rock. The building blocks are quasi identical, and in any case, irrelevant in the grand scheme. Rock, Diana, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, ideas in physics beyond my ken.

So logically, where I exist geographically is irrelevant. And yet, I am a big fan of Los Angeles. Because I love: the ocean, palm trees, broken down warehouses, spanish-style stucco homes, korean food, skunks and all the things that roam the hills like coyotes, mountain lions and snaggletoothed possums (we have those in Florida too). I am still a creature of heart. I follow it blindly, hoping that one day my spiritual buddha nature catches up with me and fixes me to a rock to write poems and stretch in dawn’s cold fog.

The Christmas Gift

Of all the presents I received this year, my favorite was a bright yellow raincoat with fleece-lined pockets. My aunt said she had lost her mind while shopping; she was cushioning the blow for what she assumed would be my disappointment. But just the contrary: it was as if Christmas had been distilled into one single moment, a childlike delight at a discovery of the thing that I had been imagining for some time (a raincoat) and its  superior counterpoint in reality  (the yellow raincoat). A rush of other joys came upon me – the elation of tropical rainstorms, the memory of yellow slickers I wore in Brittany as a child, and even a vision of myself at the windy helm of some future yacht.

My favorite book of Roland Barthes is the slim volume Camera Lucida. With a masters in film studies and a particular bent towards the documentary image, this has always been my kind of text. I’m also a sucker for the morbidly sentimental (read: he discusses dead people a lot). Though the book is light on theory, Barthes does posit a duality in our reception of the photographic image: the studium, call it the biographic information, the explicit and implicit meaning structure, and the punctum, the detail that holds our attention and pulls us into the world of emotions or synesthetic memory.

Instances in reality, be they fleeting sights or sounds, encapsulated moments, sentences, or facial expressions, can create a similar punctum, piercing through the substratum of ordinary meaning. And for me this Christmas, the triumph of the holiday season was a yellow raincoat, glistening with all possible future rains: a simple gift became a multitude.

Friendships of a Different Kind

The first days of college were a period of great possibility. We had finally arrived, survivors of parental dysfunction, high school theatrics and the ragged adolescent investigation into selfhood and drugs.

From across the country we had travelled, all different colors and sizes and textures, drawn together like pilgrims at the pinnacle of a spiritual quest. The University of Chicago. Within the fifteen block perimeter of this cathedral campus were stone dormitories, eating halls suffused with that particular Aramark smell, a classics building and humanities library, a radio station with a beaten up couch, an underground maze of corridors and basements – clandestine repositories of erudition – an old lap pool with its hexagonal tiles, muddy lawns under blooming canopies, snow drifts and icicles in winter, mosquitos and humidity. We congregated at the overheated student center, in beer bars with black painted floors, and on the back stairs of student apartments with their crusted windows and clanging radiators.

We trudged through the four years, forming friendships unlike any others we had known before or would know after. As teenagers, arriving fresh from the nest, we imprinted to each other like baby birds. Except we did not know that then. We could not possibly realize how unique college would be in the course of our lives.

And four years seemed like forever. But then it all came to an end, tapering off ever so slowly. Senior year. Countdown to commencement. Some of us were voracious planners – interviewing, assessing, paving small pathways toward a larger goal. Some of us just waited, a light anxiety fluttering in our hearts. We were beginning to disconnect from each other, to draw inwards. Some of us left our significant others and bade farewell to the minor friendships.

First we graduated. Then came September 11 and afterwards, our twenties continued for one long decade. We struggled through the process of maturation as we disassembled the staggering passions of youth.

Some of us walked this pain together, moving to New York or San Francisco or London or China, choosing similar careers and exploring fresh avenues together, reformulating and reinventing our friendships, strengthening them with each passing of the year.

Some of us died young.

Some of us drifted apart never to rekindle our former bond. We had each mapped a different route to cope with this thing called life, which in no way resembled what we thought life would be when we were eighteen years old and shimmering with the thrill of beginnings.

Maybe for some, our twenties buckled to cynicism as we realized that reality could not be manipulated like a teenager who constructs his own universe. But certainly and hopefully, some of us realized that within this staunchness of life was a different kind of joy. Now some of us marry. Now we have little children too. Some of us settle down to career. Some divorce. We stand at the dawn of another great era, another realm of simmering promise, albeit different in kind.

Youth on the Odometer

If my past were a wide white highway
snaking down South Florida’s coast,
my memories would be the telephone poles
where I pinned adolescent fantasy,
mile markers gauging far-off wishes:
a strand of hair tangled in my bikini strap,
the aspiration of kilometers ahead.
And that translucent sky under banded rain clouds
was a dream I hoped to catch before sleep.

Was there a tiny seed of adulthood in that shallow breast,
navigating her beat-up beginner’s car?

My youth was wasted on an odometer.
Life came at the next stop:
Exit One to Miami,
down to the Keys,
90 miles to Cuba.

Fifteen years later, I drive down I-95
under a same slivered sky.

But now my day is no longer a distant destination,
a seventy-two hour drive, forty Marlboro Reds,
and twelve Diet Cokes later.

Today I don’t pin fantasy on metal finger rows,
speed limit amped to 110 mph,
psychedelic exhaust trailing behind.

My lane is wide and white.
I’m not ashamed to drive this slow vehicle, watching mile markers
lounge a road snaking between aerial ramps
as the purple clouds boil.

February Forest

Behind black silhouettes of trees lies a soft wool –
You wish to rest your eyes there a moment,
and pull gray knots of yarn over your lids,
relax your pupils on purls of dead moss and fairy down

This pale-hued palette is a slow fall to sleep,
a crepuscular swaddling cloth,
like the oval taste of lemon sherbet on your tongue
or a forgetful fleece lost in the counting.

Occasionally a bramble pricks your retina
your winter eyes water but you pay no heed
because now your mind is edging its way under covers
It needs a nap too.

Buzzards

After high school, I vowed never to return to Palm Beach, a thin sliver of island that reminded me of all things lost in the cranky cogs of adolescence: wide-eyed jubilance, minnows and unconditional parental love (Later I learned their boundless love was not as mythic as teenagedom suggested. But that took decades…)

The tropical sun was reserved for holidays when I could loosen the vice grip of New York City and laziness became art: poolside reading, Dad’s cooking, twelve-hour sleeps. Over cocktails, I hated it here – how fake, weird, racist, stupid, greedy the inhabitants, how soporific the lifestyle. Couldn’t you just roll over and die in the blaze?

Then on the eve of my thirtieth birthday, a conspiracy of fates shipwrecked me. Moored by family illness and eventually love, I stayed, bought a house over the bridge and had some kids of my own.

Time rounded those reactive edges that tugged me to and fro, that trapped in the dooming treason of choice, the youthful delusion that life is anything other than the reinforcement of habits.

And slowly, the world unfolded before my eyes.

The buzzards float along the currents of the winds, hundreds of feet in the sky. In late afternoon, they swarm on buildings that edge the Intercoastal, covering the mirrored windows with hunched bodies. Actually, they are no more buzzards than butterflies, but rather two species of vultures: the turkey vulture and the black vulture. The former is the larger of the two with a red face and beak, while the latter has a smaller wingspan, a gray face and beak.

Egrets peck through the palmetto grasses and troops of white ibis with hooked bills hang out on the curb of my neighborhood. Often bobbing alone on buoys, pelicans sometimes fly in formation along the crashing surf.

By the glittering blue of the Intercoastal, a hawk beats its wings above the water where old timers on fold-out beach chairs cast their lines, reeling in whatever they can hook, snook if they are lucky. Every evening the sky blooms purple and neon pink; the moon rises over the ocean. And in my garden, hibiscus flower, three types of gardenia and some sweet almond vines.

The two Vanda orchids hanging from my front porch remind me of my father. His grave is shaded by banyans in the old cemetery. Above him, the buzzards circle.

I Want to Live a Simpler Time

I want to live a simpler time
and a simpler place
where stoplights are flags waved at random
across a plaza of crisscrossing horses

I want to journey a hundred miles by carriage
where ruts of mud splinter wheels
and dandelions in the fields
they grow for the picking

I want the priest who marries me
to have a garden
and a mistress
and a son

I want the boat that floats my ashes out to sea
to have a high wooden mast
and a lass upon a widow’s walk
measuring time by the ocean’s setting sun

I want no man to know the mysteries of my soul

Alas I live not in a simple time nor place

Instead the plaza has green and red soldiers
that flash their lights in combat
at compact cars and buses

at the sailor’s wife with her Italian lover
and the preacher pawning fortunes by telephone

and at me barefoot and lost in the midnight lane
street lamps alighting my soul for all to see

my time is an intricate intersection

a tangle of crisscrossing wires
like inside out carcasses
I cannot recognize my end from your beginning

and mystery is a windblown dandelion
wafting upwards for us to watch,
stopped static in the plaza
by a red soldier waving his flag of war.

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