When I was just past thirty, I wrote a poem about my father. It took an Honorable Mention in a contest sponsored by The MacGuffin literary journal and judged by Diane Wakoski. I gave him a copy of the journal after it was published, and he acted like he always did when he didn’t know if he was being subtly criticized or if he should be flattered. I told him to be flattered.
“Little old ladies” (his term) always loved my father. And I think that’s how he found some of his treasures. Maybe that is where my trunk came from, now that I think of it!
A Scout Truck Grows Older
The only time my father did not bury
himself with obsolete and imperfect things–
rice-paper widows with old iceboxes and documents
to give away to someone who cherished them
for their age–was when he loved a ‘sixty-four
gray-green Scout, still toddler-new and shiny.
I took this as an omen of better times;
not knowing he wanted to see the decay of beauty.
My father and I travelled long and alone
in that truck that was not really a truck–
no caked mud flaps, corroded door frames,
three-year-old garbage under cab seats.
In January he cranked its heavy plow,
flexing the biceps of the Scout’s compact body.
It whined and startled from the weight
of Kalamazoo’s heavy winter, my father
pushing it on and on way into dark.
That summer he steered us bouncing across
the spongy edge of Long Lake, passing closest
when breath-near the bottomless drop-off.
I imagined the truck tipping and me
with no orange life jacket to endure
the cold whirlpool, those obsidian depths.
But we spun on, tilting, along that damp sand,
crushing the last fishtail-smelly driftwood
and snail shells that lake would ever spew out.
The Scout began aging–coughing and slowing.
When it held enough soiled shirts and rusty tools–
things not new, too common to call antiques–
I was too grownup to dress in boy clothes
and pretend to be my father’s son, loving
the feel of destruction beneath our wheels.
The MacGuffin 5.3 (1988): 18
I couldn’t find an old photograph of the truck. I realized I don’t have many photos of those years.
I’m not sure if my dad’s truck was #1 or #3 in the ad. I remember running away and getting out to the garage and seeing the Scout sitting there. The world looked exhausting from the garage, so I hauled my little laundry bag of clothes into the truck and fell asleep.
Remember MaryGold? That doll from the cover of Doll God? The doll you named?
Yeah, her. That doll. Here she is with my daughter’s cat. Notice how she has a Mona Lisa smile on her face. But in the photo below she’s scowling. How does she do that?
The reason I am bringing her up is that I’ve lost her! I tore the house apart last night looking for her, but all I could find was her muddy pantaloons. I know this sounds creepy, but I feel responsible, as if I might have done away with her. Why else would I find one article of clothing, but she is nowhere to be found?
I did get a nice plaque in the mail from the people at the New Mexico Book Coop that sponsors the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards, but it would have been nice to share it with MaryGold.
Throughout September, I will be “running” a poetry “marathon” for the Tupelo Press 30/30 project. By donating in recognition of my efforts, you will be supporting a fabulous independent, nonprofit press.
I promise to write a poem a day for 30 days. Since it took me decades to cough up not even twice that for my first poetry collection Doll God, you can see what a feat I am trying to accomplish.
To help preserve poetry as an art, it’s important to support the independent presses and literary magazines. These are the places that publish nearly all published poetry today. It hasn’t been a positive era for them. I’ve seen many lit magazines close up—and when the presses go out of business, we often don’t even hear about it.
Every dollar you donate will go toward the operation of the press, enabling it to continue publishing beautiful books that would not get picked up by large commercial publishers. You can read the daily poems, as well as the bios of this month’s poets, and donate here.
As incentives to donate, I am offering the following:
For a donation of $10, you tell me what subject or image you want to see in a poem, and I’ll write that poem.
For a donation of $20, I will dedicate a poem to you or someone of your choice.
For a donation of $40, I will send you or someone of your choice, a signed and personally addressed copy of my book, Doll God.
For a donation of $55, I will send you or someone of your choice, a signed and personally addressed copy of my book, Doll God, and I will dedicate a poem to you or someone of your choice.
For a donation of $100, you get two copies of Doll God and two dedications!
Remember that if you donate $129 for a Tupelo Press subscription, you will receive the 10 free books of their current series.
For any of the above donations, including the subscription of 10 books, please remember to click or write my name in the honor field. Then email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know what dedication or subject you are interested in. If you “earned” a copy or two of Doll God, please give me your mailing address and to whom you would like the book(s) addressed.
Again, you can read the daily poems, as well as the bios of this month’s poets, and donate here.
If you decide to help keep Tupelo Press publishing its amazing variety of books, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!
Wish me well, please. It starts tomorrow, and I’m nervous as can be!
If you are not able to donate, the other poets and I would still love for you to read our first draft work. I love feedback. Every day, I will post a link to that day’s poem over here so feel free to critique or pat me on the back (or the head, if you think that is more appropriate after reading the poem), encourage me, tell me what you like or what you don’t like. Or tell me a funny story or something completely unrelated that the poem reminded you of ;). Or just say hi in your own incomparable way so that I remember there is a world outside poetry. Gonna be an intense month!
One more thing: by November 1, I plan to take down all September’s 30/30 posts.
My husband always drives the car when we are together. I like being the passenger because I look into every window that has a curtain open or shade up. I don’t really want to visit the house or the business. I just want that quick exciting glimpse into some place I have never been. Then a story or character description flashes through my mind before I look into the next window!
Another way I know that I’m a snoop is how fascinated I get by even the most distantly connected ancestors on my family tree. When I see an antique photograph or locate a document or bit of information for the family tree, I get incredibly nosy about the lives of the people involved.
For instance, I noticed that my great-great-grandmother’s brother’s middle daughter lost her mother when she was 6, and I began imagining what it was like to be a 6-year-old in 1900 whose mother has just died. I found out through a newspaper article in 1902, that their house burned down that year. In the article it said that the oldest girl ran the household and took care of the kids. In 1902, the oldest was 14, so she would have taken on those duties at the age of 12. That means that the middle child had her mother “replaced” by a 12-year-old sister. All the ramifications of that began to set up a storyline in my mind.
It gets worse. I am addicted to reading other genealogy blogs where I get fascinated by the lives of other people’s distant relatives.
When I read a novel, I am taken away on an enjoyable experience, but when I read a memoir I am satisfying a craving for spying. Am I Gladys Kravitz, spying at Darrin and Samantha’s window on Bewitched?
Whenever my wife and I return to Jamaica to visit our family and friends, we like to begin our day by waking up early to see the sunrise and walking on the beach. As the soft sun appears above the horizon, I will wade into the warm tropical waters and perform a peculiar and private ritual. In brief, I lunge into the gentle waves, clasp together the palms of my hands, and splash the ocean waters as high as I possibly can.
This motion produces hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of tiny water droplets, flying every which way. Each airborne droplet sparkles under the rising Caribbean sun, yet the duration of this chaotic ballet of droplets is but short- lived. This transitory constellation of water droplets falls back into ocean in the blink of an eye.
I confess that I never tired of performing this strange aquatic sacrament. But why?
Perhaps the ephemeral droplets are a poetic reminder of my mortality, for on a geological time scale, the life of one man is like the lifespan of a single, fleeting droplet.
In the alternative, maybe I am attracted to the unruly geometry of the airborne droplets, for with each splash of the waters, I produce a unique and inimitable choreography of dancing droplets.
Or perhaps the flying droplets are a collective symbol of the inherent limitations of our knowledge, for just as I am unable to take a precise census of the innumerable droplets, we may never be able to fully understand the unceasing dynamics of human conflict and the role of law in promoting cooperation.
But, often times, knowing our limitations is a good place to start. I may not be able to count the entire constellation of droplets at any one time, but perhaps, by narrowing my gaze to one droplet, I could develop a simple and testable model to find an approximate measure of her trajectory and lifespan.
There is no moral to this story. It’s just about one man’s sense wonderment amid the beauty of the water droplets.
Enrique Guerra-Pujol is a law professor, an indiscriminate reader, and a struggling writer. His main areas of research are the evolution of conflict and cooperation and the application of Bayes’ Rule and other mathematical ideas to law. In addition, his extracurricular interests include bird-watching, rafting, star-gazing, and the arts, especially literature and the cinema.
My arrival at the group will be a minor miracle. Venturing out of my four walls into unfamiliar territory is like asking me to fly to the moon. The past few days have been spent rehearsing in my mind as an actor would walk through a forthcoming scene in a play. Being a glass half-empty type of person I spend my life constantly expecting the worst, but it still came as a slap in the face when the worst actually happened. I won’t bore you with the details because I no longer feel the need to tell everyone about my catastrophic life. Finally things all caught up with me and I am receiving treatment for anxiety. I hope the relaxation group will play a major part.
I am on the number 5 bus, after many hours of pondering, poring over bus timetables, taking practice rides in the car, and walking to the hospital. So many decisions to be made, and I feel incapable of even deciding whether to drink tea or coffee at the moment. My mind tries to think logically; if I walk, I am more in control of things. I know how long it takes me to make the journey, so there is no doubt what time I need to leave the house. The bus trip needs to be taken in two parts and will take just as long as walking, but I will be able to sit on the buses and not get hot. I could drive. I know where to park when I get there and it is only a ten minute drive on major roads with no tricky right hand turns into busy traffic. Everything is such a worry; there’s no rest for my mind at all. Who would have thought the treatment for anxiety would be so scary? In the end my decision is made for me. Since I find my car boxed in by visitors to the local park, there’s not enough time to walk and the bus is my only option.
I rush to the bus stop and sit by the window, then mentally count off the number of stops as we progress along the tree-lined avenue. No one sits beside me, so I can ignore the worry of having to ask them to move as I get off the bus by the town hall. That was the shorter journey, and I change to the number 5 bus to complete it. There are fewer people on this bus, the sun shines through the windows and I try to remember to keep breathing. As the bus slowly progresses through the town centre to the outskirts, I take the official looking letter out of my handbag, noting again the time of the appointment and where I am to enter the building. Somehow the actual going in is on my mind more than anything else, as once I am inside there will be no turning back. All the time I am still outside, I can decide to turn around and go back to the safety of my home. I have control.
I recognise the road we are on; it leads into the hospital grounds. I prepare to leave the comparative safety of the bus.
Going into the hospital is, in the end, no problem at all. Everywhere is clearly labelled and signposted. I am gently shown into the relaxation room and told where to sit. Did I really think they would make it difficult to gain entrance to a group designed for people suffering from anxiety?
On entering the relaxation room a quiet, steady background sound permeates the interior–the constant low sounds of water flowing and birds gently singing. It comes from a CD player on a shelf by the window. Panic rises along with my temperature. This sound of water might make me need the loo, and I have no idea where it is. I sit there, unsure whether or not to remove my coat, and if I do, where should I put it?
Welcome to my mind, the place of constant turmoil, one decision after another, worry piled on worry until it all topples over like a pile of laundry constantly overfilling the basket.
The sweat trickles down my top lip, and casually my tongue pops out from the corner of my mouth, mopping up the salty liquid. It’s no good, my coat will have to be removed, and I can feel everyone’s eyes on me as I struggle to get my arms out of the sleeves while remaining seated. Standing up would be one step too far at this stage; it would make me fill more space in the room and draw even more attention to myself.
Suddenly I notice a bubbling sound coming from the corner of the room, a kettle is having its own little panic attack on the table as it reaches boiling point. I want to rush over and switch it off, allowing it to calm down, but it automatically stops itself after a while. I wish I had one of those switches inside me.
I risk lifting my eyes, noting with some relief that the other occupants of the room all seem as mad as me. We’re all wearing clothes that could have come from a dressing up box at a nursery or the reject pile at a charity shop.
Worry, worry, worry. When will this group start? Looking around the room out of the corner of my eye, I see: twitching limbs; fingers scratching naked arms; tapping feet; crossed legs flapping uncontrollable; a horrible sense of loss of control.
‘Hello everyone, here we are then, and first it would be good to introduce ourselves–just our first names. I’m Tom.’
I don’t hear anyone else’s name, struggling to remember my own, saying it under my breath again and again until it comes to be my turn to speak. What is my name anyway, and who am I?
Jackie lives with her son in Brighton, England. After leaving school at 16 in 1974, she continued her education recently, studying at the University of Sussex and gaining a degree in Community Development. She now does what she wants to do which includes writing, researching her family history, watching Brighton & Hove Albion and enjoying her life.
Watch for another Honorable Mention story on Friday!
The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the breeze warm, gentle and perfect. It was a take-your-kids-to-the-park-for-a-picnic kind of day, not a go-to-the-doctor-with-four-children-who-can’t-stand-waiting-rooms-any-more-than-you kind of day. It was a summer day that begged changing goals, ambitions, and schedules into a book at the park and a nap. It was a perfect day. I didn’t know this was the day my son had died.
We drove to the doctor’s office. I read Doctor Seuss to children and People to me. They called my name. I shared a threatening look of discipline with the children, leaving them behind. I hoped the doctor would move quickly.
There’s a problem with the stethoscope. We’ll get the doctor. A distant fear creeping toward me ready to grab my throat and shake every fiber of my being until I no longer recognized life. I didn’t want to know this was the day my son had died.
Sometimes it’s just a game of hide-and-seek. Let’s look again. A grimaced face, furrowed brows, and deep sadness in his eyes–unprofessional, but compassionate. A knock at the door. Your children miss you; here they are. Six people in a room made for one, crowded with dread so thick I wonder if we should slice it and hand out the pieces. It’s unspoken, yet the doctor and I know.
An announcement of an opportunity to check with an image, the innocence of childhood excited to see, a shout of celebration, a hidden painful glance from the doctor pretending to look at his shoes. We begin to walk to the room where it will be confirmed.
A quiet pronouncement, youthful giggling, questioning, not understanding. I’m sorry. My daughter stops, her sensitive spirit catching a shift, she looks at my face, reads it and cautions, What’s wrong Mom? I can’t. I don’t. How do you speak the words?
I say them somehow. I hear those awful, wretched words, and watch the world shift. The faces crumble, the tears form, the arms wrap around. It is the circle of life and death, and the sorrow that chases it. This is the day my son has died.
Regenia credits her love of writing to wonderful children’s literature that filled her childhood, a black metal Underwood typewriter with an unlimited supply of paper, and an inspiring high school English teacher who’s only comment on her essay was, “You really have talent as a writer”. Besides her love affair with the written word, Regenia enjoys adventures with her six children, husband of 25 years, foreign exchange students, and the family dog, Daisy. Regenia is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Akron and Notre Dame College of Ohio, where she teaches undergraduate English, Public Speaking and Newswriting classes. In addition, Regenia serves as a Local Coordinator for Academic Year in America (AYA), matching up high school aged foreign exchange students and host families. Regenia attempts to chronicle her diverse, and sometimes crazy life, on her two blogs found at regeniaspoerndle.com and ayaexchangestudents.wordpress.com/.
Watch for another Honorable Mention story on Wednesday!
In every generation there is a vitality that did not exist in previous generations. This vitality, this burning heart fire is what makes us great or greedy, good or bad. For me the fire in my heart was not realized until I was in the fourth grade. Growing up in Covington, Kentucky in those days was no different than growing up in any other small town along the muddy brown Ohio River. Only a mile across the river, Cincinnati was the home of those fantastic Royals, led by Oscar Robertson. And the home of America’s first professional baseball team, the Redlegs. The tall buildings and bright lights were just over the suspension bridge, which most people pointed to with pride, declaring it was the original model for the Brooklyn Bridge. Covington had then and still does a melancholy feeling. As if leftover ghosts from the Underground Railroad still existed in the damp, dark, hand-burrowed passages of the hidden tunnel—a tunnel dug in a desperate effort to gain freedom from slavery by escaping to the North. It was a secret tunnel dug ages ago, but all of us kids knew where it was and we knew the ghosts were there. The ghosts also walked the alleys and quiet places of the town at night. Sometimes in the heat of summer you could hear calliopes from riverboats and see reflections of spectral images gliding north toward precious freedom.
The summer after my tenth birthday I broke into the tunnel and explored. The cool, dripping, moss-covered passage, blanketed in darkness for nearly a century, called to me with a promise of freedom and I answered the call. I walked where no one had since the Civil War. With the mighty river coursing above, I moved fearlessly through the dark. After awhile I could feel the great desperation and fear of those who had dug the tunnel, and they bore into my spirit and stayed with me long and hard as I grew up. To me they seemed to offer a warning: “Look what had to be done for our freedom. Nothing less. What will you do for your freedom? Stay here, like those who were afraid to cross under the water, and you will never have it.” I was just a kid and the message was not quite clear. I was too simple to understand, too unaffected to know. As the years passed I never went back to the tunnel. But I felt the ghosts and their influence was great within me.
By the time I was nineteen I was desperate to get away. The ghosts of freedom had stoked high the fire in my heart. So on Christmas Eve, just two weeks after my birthday, I joined the Navy. Three days later and for the first time in my life, I was aboard a jet, strapped in, scared and sweating despite the cold December snow outside the window. The plane gathered speed and left the runway, carrying me North above the dirty ice-caked river. Carrying me to freedom? In reality carrying me to the Naval Training Center, Great Lakes, Illinois. I still remember the fear on that freezing, dreary gray afternoon. I was more afraid than at any time in my life. Only the ghosts sustained me. “What are you willing to do for your freedom?”
Late December in Illinois was much the same as in Kentucky. Everything was hard frozen, dirty gray and cold. The Naval Training Center was a collection of sooty, peeling, white wooden buildings, leftover from the Second World War. Old steam-heated buildings, well past their prime, with skins of frost on their warped wood-framed windows. Cracked and peeling paint covered the doors and walls like the dermis of an old leper long since resigned to death. No spit- and-polish Navy Pride, just a winter way station on the road to Vietnam. Oddly enough I felt ghosts here also. Not spirits in desperation but of it. They carried a fear and stink of wars long ago fought. Salt spray and fiery North Atlantic combat. These were spirits of unforgiving conflict and loss. I could sense them, hear them in their anguish, but I was unable to understand the message. I couldn’t yet realize what I would do for my freedom. So I trained with 71 others and grieved the absence of my family and friends. I ate, worked, slept and even breathed Navy. If the training center was not a proud place, I was becoming a proud seaman. Like the ghosts of this place, I was headed for war.
My war was not to be a conflict of cruisers and battleships. No destroyers hunting submarines on the high seas of the North Atlantic. No cobalt-blue shipping lanes of the tropical Pacific. No dolphins riding my bow wave through the vast clear sea. I was headed for the dirty brown water and deep green jungles of Indochina. Headed for the sweltering heat where every insect knew the taste of human blood. A place where the desperation of the oppressed was matched by the desperation of the oppressor. A place where every day spent outside a body bag was counted as a good one. A place where every good day meant 24 hours less to spend in hell. But I did not know these things until later. I could not even have guessed what I would do for my freedom.
Sam (the Marine in hat) and Mike in Phu Bai
A little levity before the serious work begins
Mike Durr is originally from Independence, Kentucky. He attended Holmes High School, University of La Verne, and University of Southern Mississippi. A member of the Department of Defense for 21 years, Mike is also a former High School Science teacher and Nuclear Security Training Supervisor. Currently, Mike lives as a pirate in either Florida or Bocas Del Toro, Panama.
Watch for the Honorable Mention stories next week!
Four years before my brother ended his life, my grandfather and I held mass in a tiny kitchen in upstate New York. The sweet tang of simmering sauce offered the opening rites. The three-gallon kettle he had commandeered from work held the holy water that would bring forth our salvation in the form of tender white noodles, our Eucharist. When he twisted the knob on the chipped white stove we began.
“Things keep changing in this world. One day I hope they get it right,” he said, stirring the sauce.
“I hope so,” I answered, grating cheese and savoring his service in our hot little cathedral.
“You see, you’ve got to waste not to want not. Your generation . . . you’re always throwing things away so you can buy something new.”
I nodded in agreement. In two months I would start the tenth grade. I carried a scrap of paper in my back pocket with my shopping list—sweaters, jeans, new shoes. Typically I wore mine until they had holes in them. I felt around with my toes and panicked. Maybe later I would get a steak knife and discover a hole above the heel.
“Back when I was a kid, if you didn’t take care of things, you just didn’t have anything.” He sidestepped towards the cupboard. Heaps of mismatched glass bowls tottered precariously on the thin bowing shelves, chiming like church bells when jostled. “It’s that way with everything nowadays. You tell everybody your business. Words are precious, you know.”
I scooped the cheese into the serving jar. It fell like snow from the spoon.
“You say everything that’s on your mind. Everybody’s got to know how you feel.”
“Seriously?” I looked right at him.
He went to check the water. Small whiffs of steam floated up from the pot, apparitions. “Some words are sacred, like I love you. Those words are for matrimony. You don’t just throw them around anytime you want.”
He stirred the sauce again. You could taste the air as he pulled meatballs from the electric skillet and tapped off excess sauce, bowls chiming in sweet melody.
“What do you mean by that?” I wrinkled my brow. Surely, he couldn’t be serious.
“I haven’t told anyone I loved them, except for your grandmother, in all my years. I love you is for marriage. It’s sacred.” He smiled and stared out the window, thinking of what? His worn, thin wedding suit draped across his neck?
My jaw dropped as the blood rose in my chest. What was going on with my priest? “You mean that’s it?” My voice raised half an octave as I spit out the sentence. “You don’t tell people you love them? It’s wasteful?”
“Actions speak louder than words,” he said, with grim finality. The water began to rumble. “Talk is cheap. If you say the same thing over and over it loses its meaning.” He ripped the top off two boxes of ziti and dumped them into the pot.
As he stirred the wild water, sweat poured off the brow of his ruddy Irish face. He was my father, son, and holy ghost. This was the man who took me dress shopping before recitals, who slept on the floor at age 63 so my brothers and I could share the only bed in the house. He was the man who walked three miles in the summer sun to borrow a car to take us swimming, who bought me a pair of Reebok sneakers when he worked as a dishwasher in a school because he couldn’t afford to retire. He was the man who looked down tearfully and said, “It’s just alcohol,” when we returned, pale and somber, after a meeting with my mother. I caught his gaze and said, “Grandpa, we know the truth. It wasn’t just alcohol.”
I reflected on all our times together—the walks to the store, the pancake breakfasts, the weekly kitchen sermons. He had never once told me he loved me.
He continued to alternate between stirring the pasta and spooning meatballs and sausage into iridescent serving bowls.
“But that’s wrong!” I blurted, fist clenched, pacing. I had never challenged the service before. “You have to tell people how you feel.”
“You’re just a kid,” he said, glaring.
“Well, you’re wrong,” I repeated. “I get all that other stuff about waste not, want not. But you have to tell people you love them. One day you may be sorry and wish you’d said it more.” A shiver ran down my spine as I uttered those prophetic words.
He spooned a noodle out of the water and popped it into his mouth. “One more minute,” he said, stirring the water again. “When you’re my age you can talk about what is and isn’t right. Until then, you just remember what I said—waste not, want not.”
“You remember what I said. One day you’ll be sorry.”
He looked up at the clock then walked over to the sink with the colander. ”Move on out before you get burned.” His tone was gruff and loud.
He always shooed us out of the room whenever he drained the spaghetti, worried he might burn us with the steaming pot. I obeyed and walked to the doorway. We didn’t know right then that we would all be sorry, that four years later we would see how profoundly you can be burned even when you’re not in the kitchen, that we would spend our Sunday mass in a dimly lit funeral home instead of the kitchen, language swallowed whole.
Later that night, as we got ready to leave, I kissed my grandfather on the cheek, peered into his eyes, and said, “I love you.” He patted me on the back and smiled. “Waste not, want not.”
Lisa Ellison lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with her husband, Mark, and two cats, Smokey and Beulah. She has a life long love of writing, and currently co-facilitates a mindfulness based writing group with her wonderfully supportive literary friends. Lisa volunteers as a pro-bono therapist through a local non-profit agency. Her poem “Furious Houses” was published in the Winter 2012 edition of the journal Blooming in the Noise.
Watch for Third Place Contest Winner Mike Durr’s story, “So It Happened Like This,” on Friday!