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November 2018

Paying Attention

AC476616-2E83-4694-B0E4-F908CC423C99It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

(“Praying,” by Mary Oliver, in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver, 2017)

At lunch a few days ago, a friend said, “Look, you have four hours in a car. What do you do? You don’t want it to be dead time. You want it to matter.”

He’s right. I want to pay attention.

When I pull back the curtain on the single window in our hotel room, a rectangle of cool blackness fills in. There’s a sheen of water painted on blacktop, tree limbs shellacked with ice, a dusting of powdered snow on car tops. On the ridge above me the lit squares of apartment windows tell me someone’s home. Dreams flicker in the night.

I want to pay attention.

A man leans against a car, huddled against the cold, smoking a cigarette. A lonely car passes on an elevated road, taillights winking. A light pole leans in over the car park as if to say, all is well, light dispels the darkness, and then straightens, dutiful and mum.

All is not well, I know. Sidewalks are broken, paint peels. Walls crack and cars rust. Weeds push up through cracks. Light wanes. Houses sit abandoned by roadsides. Rooms sit empty during long days, waiting for their people to return. And a million pines and oaks and maples stand in the chill air, waiting, Spring deep in their veins. Sometimes I think you can hear even the inanimate groan for redemption.

Yesterday, in a moment of weakness, we bought doughnuts and while eating too many sat and watched a conveyer carry the unglazed holy ovals through the waterfall of sugar, yet a bearded worker plucked a few off the line and without emotion threw them away. My wife, who is tenderhearted toward even the inanimate, said, “Why is he doing that? What’s wrong with them?” What’s wrong with everything, I thought, a decidedly true yet too sober thought I did not share. Malformed and misshapen, I continued, following my rumination, born in sin and broken. All of which is a lot for a doughnut to carry, too much metaphor for dough.

I want to pay attention. I’m not beyond making much of a few small stones or weeds in a field. Or lights in a window. Or a doughnut.

On my desk: a leather wallet, fitted to me, made by Toyo, a leather worker, now 20 years old and rich with the memory of his Arizona shop; a collection of essays by E.B. (Andy) White, on the cover of which he sits on a hard bench tapping loudly away on a typewriter before a window open on the Atlantic, salt in the air and licking his keys; a small folded card with the handwritten name of Amber “It was my pleasure to tidy up the place,” the letters full and round and leaning back on their heels as if to say “do you have a problem with that?;” a coupon for one dollar off at a local restaurant, at the thought of which I feel my son who is 2000 miles away nodding behind me, knowing me and my ways. Reading glasses staring at me. A black rectangle I have just put to bed. Virgil Wander, a book that carries the scent of Lake Superior and rusting factories and a musty theater. Car keys splayed out, my house key inviting. A keyboard missing the number two button. And an index card bearing a verse that ends with “the upright shall see His face.”

And so we shall, at the thought of which my melancholy lifts as light dispels darkness. I rise and look out the window again. New, unblemished snow covers the ground, and the light pole leans in and says “behold His face” - a promise which holds my attention.


By a Thread

IMG_0350Lord, I curl in Thy grey
gossamer hammock
that swings by one
elastic thread so thin
twigs that could, that should
break but don’t.



*

I do nothing. I give You
nothing. Yet You hold me

minute by minute
from falling.

Lord, You provide.

(Denise Levertov, excerpt from “ Psalm Fragments (Schnittke String Trio),” in The Stream & the Sapphire)

While I have downed a Lake Superior of iced tea in my six decades of life, the amount of hot tea I have consumed would, I estimate, barely fill a bathtub. Mostly I drink hot tea when in Africa, where ice is as scarce as gold. Everybody’s doing it there, one of the better legacies of colonialism. Here, not so.

But today I awoke with a scratchy throat and, after a nap, told my wife I would take some hot tea on the veranda. Well, we don’t actually have a veranda, but I liked the sound of that word, “veranda,” which I read is not of European but Hindi descent. That’s exotic and makes up for the fact that I am drinking hot and not iced tea. Besides, piazza is a stretch; patio, too pedestrian.

My wife brightened at the thought that I would be drinking hot tea and were he here my son would join her in her gladness. Somewhere, a trumpet sounded. She began to educate me on the finer things involving tea: the cupboard with its many kinds of tea, including Russian tea (“heartier,” I think she may have said), Five Roses (South African), and so on. She bid me smell that Russian tea, and I did, unscrewing the lid of its container and dipping low for pass, a sniff.

“I’ll just have this,” I said, reaching for the English Tea. Black. Pekoe. (I need to look up “pekoe.”) I need to start somewhere. On the blue packaging it said “good anytime of the day,” which is a surprisingly optimistic statement for the English. I can’t really believe them, yet I’m in.

On the veranda where I write, a single leaf just sashayed its way from twig to earth. Why did it decide at this very moment to let go? What wooden thread snapped? Then another, yellow; another, red. The backyard is like a brilliantly trashed urban back alley, overflowing in color.

“This is a big lemon slice, so we can share it. If you like lemon in iced tea, you’ll probably like it in hot tea.” And yes, I allow as I probably will. If I like tea, that is, which I don’t much like, hot that is. I watch the teapot. The cat watches me. I don’t look at her. I know what is on her mind.

Our copper teapot has long lost its whistle. Now, it just makes an airish sound, like me trying to unsuccessfully whistle through my fingers. Or a novice trying to play a saxophone. It’s lost its music. It soldiers on.

“I think I’ll have it without sugar,” I say bravely.

“You won’t like it. Try some honey.”

I agree honey sounds good. Besides, it may be good for my throat, which is the only reason I’m drinking hot tea. That, and the veranda, just the thought of which makes me smile.

The honey is reluctant. I tip the bottle up and squeeze, harder than I think I should have to. A drop appears, stretching slowly toward my waiting spoon. It’s taking its time, I think, and yet I fill two teaspoons, dive them under the tan-colored liquid, stir, and turn toward my wife. I tell her I am going out on the veranda, tea in hand. To write, I say. Something will come to me. I take a few books for inspiration. It feels very righteous, even if I haven’t even written a word. She reminds me to put the honey back in the ziplock plastic bag, and I do, cautioning me that I should make sure it is completely sealed because “if even a tiny corner is left unsealed, an ant will find it.” And I imagine a scout ant not believing his good fortune when he sniffs the stout honey smell wafting from that corner, the message he will bear for his queen. Yet not this time.

The cat is still watching me, trying to catch my eye. I see what she’s about.

The sun just dropped below a cloud, rooflines outlined against a graying sky. Red maple leaves are piling up. The window opens, and my wife’s head pops out.

“Are you praying?”

“No.” Well, maybe I am. Or want to be. Or should be.

“Can I ask you a question?” Please ask me a question to take my mind off the blank page staring back at me.

It’s our inexpensive intercom system, floor to veranda. I crane my neck up to meet her smiling face. We talk. We don’t resolve a thing, really, but I enjoyed the talk and think she did too.

The sky darkens. I think of all that lies in front of me this week and all that drags behind me, and I begin to feel the weigh of left undone and still to come.

The window opens again. “I have another question,” she says, smiling. And I think, so do I. I like questions.

Someone is blowing leaves, with no regard for their kaleidoscope display. The cicadas have begun. The temperature drops. The gossamer hammock invites. So, here at dusk, I give in, rock in its grip, do nothing but be held by a heavenward thread that will not break.