Why Breadcrumbs?

The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
​Where you are. You must let it find you.

— David Wagoner, “Lost”

I am here to let it find me. To listen, with you. That is enough, or should be, but I am not always as strong as my intentions. So I carry breadcrumbs in my pocket, just in case. I look for more, just in case. I share, just in case. Because someone else is always looking, too.

Wake, make coffee. Open notebook. If the familiar bogeyman shows up,
growling that there’s “Nothing” to offer, call the monster out, and offer anyway. Try memory. Try looking. Try a walk. Try a photograph, a work of art. An old story. Try typing in today’s date. Notice what happened on this day. Notice how you can, if you want, see flickers of all of history in a given day. Blake’s eternity in an hour.

 “Ladder in the Woods” by Claudia Dea on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. 

Gather crumbs: historical events, feast days, holidays you didn’t know about. Who was born, who died. Who did both and then was listed here before you ever knew them. Follow the breadcrumbs they left for you. Trust that they are there. Make notes of what you find. Not forever, just for a few minutes: 5, 15, 30. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

If an historical figure is involved, you may converse with them. Arrive not
at an end, but some beginning. Or a natural pause. Share the conversation
not like a lecture but like dancing in an open field. No explanation needed.

Go about the rest of the day, noticing how you are changed in a small
but meaningful way, from that small dance in that open space, how doing
so, reminds you of something vital, something about this wild, single life
that the machine would train you to forget. Be grateful for the change.
Repeat. 

This is all. A simple act of faith, connection, communion. Essential in
the unknowingness of it because the point is to be reminded back
to the mystery.

We are here to build the spaces that let us live inside it. We are 
here to welcome others to come in. To say, Here. Look. This
is where we are. In the presence of a powerful stranger. 

This is me, bowing to you, in this strange space. 
I see you. I honor you. Let’s begin. 

Landings

One small step, one giant leap. Magnificent desolation . . . Lunar dust like powder. It was no trouble to walk around, one said. Now the flag, now the rod. The surface resisted.

On this day in 1969, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, followed shortly after by Buzz Aldrin, while Michael Collins maintained a solitary lunar orbit. The world watched. Meanwhile, the mother of Vivian Strong, shot dead by police at fourteen, was grieving. It’s the age of the Cold War space race, also Stonewall. Demonstrators in the U.S. and worldwide call for civil rights, an end to war, racial justice, housing and labor reforms. The U.S. has been at war with Vietnam for fourteen years at this point, and it will not end for another six. Millions dead, scorched earth.  It’s the age of the Biafran war in West Africa, The Troubles in Ireland, a Lybian coup underway, the Weathermen gathering in Chicago, the Rozariazo in Argentina, the first U.S. draft lottery since WWII about to begin. John marries Yoko and Chicago Police officers shoot Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, among others. Medgar, Malcolm, King: all have been assassinated, now. Blind Faith rocks Hyde Park, Franco closes the border, The Stones release Let it Bleed. In a talk to teachers delivered that year, James Baldwin opens with an acknowledgement of the moment at hand. Let’s begin, he says, by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.  The following is a morning meditation on this moment and its lasting relevance to ours, culled from readily-accessible details about the Apollo 11 mission.

One small step, one giant leap. Magnificent desolation, one remarked.
Lunar dust like powder. It was no trouble to walk around, one said.
Now the flag, now the rod. The surface resisted. It got only two inches in.
There was fear the flag would topple on camera or fly off. It did neither 
in the moment. I am not sure where it is now.  Salute, phone call, prayer.
Then a sixty-meter walk, photographs. Core samples collected: here’s soil,
plus rocks. Three new minerals discovered, later found also on earth. Now
a plaque. We come in peace, if not in peacetime.  There was a speech prepared
in the event of disaster; the ritual would mimic a burial at sea. Each, of course,
had their own, If I should die–

Meanwhile, one orbited the moon alone. Not since Adam, he said, regarding
the extremes of his solitude.  Although, it’s worth noting that accounts of Adam
suggest he was surrounded by a kingdom of earthlings preceding his arrival, not
to mention sunlight. 

The return was fraught, there was a long list of disaster scenarios. It landed
upside-down, for example, but there was a plan for this. Then came quarantine, 
then the parade, prayers of thanksgiving, cheers. 

It is possible to be awed, as Abernathy was, by a magnificent achievement,
while simultaneously enraged that it was pursued while other relatively simple 
requests were denied. Care for the sick, shelter: for children, fathers, veterans, 
grandmothers. Food, some relief for the caged. Some end to the caging of bodies. 
Some recognition of the unnamed dead. To ask, voice hoarse with rage and grief,
who commands this mission, who makes this leap? Just as it is possible 
to frame a gorgeous picture of a newborn and place it on a distant desk, 
in a corner office, to profess love and mean it, but never change a diaper,
never walk a wailing body back to peace.

Phobias

Any object can become a fear object:
a needle, a flower, the dark.

One of the books I keep on my nightstand, within easy reach of my morning-coffee perch, is The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano. There’s a prompt for every day of the year. Four out of five times I may read the prompt and go, “Huh. That’s cool,” and move on, and I keep checking. While not all prompts will resonate at a given time, all are technically doable, and there’s a wonderful variety. It is from this book that I developed the habit of checking to see what happened on this day in history when I’m looking for a practice exercise, and also of checking Craigslist for ideas. It’s a gem with a beautifully simple format. Today’s prompt is to consider the theme “phobias,” which is something Aimee Nezhukumatathil does so interestingly in her poem, “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.” That sounded like something I could do today, so here it is.

Any object can become a fear object:
a needle, a flower, the dark.
Not the car exactly but riding in one.
Those figures that look human, but
aren’t. Thunder, of course, and lightning.
My grandfather, anticipating this fear, would
announce, when a storm came, Angels! They
were bowling, he told us. 

Some fear books; others, amphibians.
I sometimes have nightmares about steep
slopes. Time itself, the mirror, ridicule. I
can’t help but think these go together. The
confined space. Knees, even. Whole groups
of others: men, women, beautiful women,
teenagers, children, clowns. The ill, and
doctors. Touch itself, the color white, the
color black; small and large things. Death
and dead things; the figure 8. Weight gain,
paper. School seems like an obvious choice;
I hadn’t considered the color purple. Sleep,
holes, speed.

I read the list, impressed with the specificity
of options. Admiring, even, but I wonder,
what is the word for this ever-present knot,
this constant quaking from the inside out,
easier to hide than to still? When small, I
was not afraid of most grownups, only of 
having to become one, because while it
was clear that there would be expectations,
it was not so clear what they were. A common
concern was driving, how it was that my mother
could remember every turn, mostly, to all the 
endless places we went, and still get back home.
It saddened me to know that when my turn came
behind the wheel, I would probably disappear.

Unless! I brought breadcrumbs to leave a trail,
but consider Hansel and Gretel. They were careful,
but the birds ate their intentions home. The fire
of the oven, waiting in the dark woods, this is
what kept me in knots, the way I could stumble
and be cooked alive. But it wasn’t on the list, 
so maybe I dreamed it, as with other things,
Just butterflies, the growns would say, as though what
was happening was the flutter of iridescent wings
of a colony of new-transformed lives, ready to 
fly from this body’s own dark.

How We Celebrated Tiny Flames

We didn’t think about squandering, then,
and it never once occurred to us to save.

Remember when we shot our breaths 
out of ourselves, laughing
at the last loud fart? We couldn’t stop

And we sprayed gasping iridescent drops 
into the air like water from the spray 
nozzle of a garden hose, just for dancing.

We played chase like being hunted was a game,
like capture was a cartoon scene, we fell down
laughing. Wait, we said, I need to catch ––
like it was slow feathers falling from the sky
to be cupped in our open hands

––And remember, how we painted with it, too?
We blew our canvasses across car windows, 
fingertips tracing: here a smile, now a cat,
heart.

And sometimes it was smacked from us, as when we
fell back off a ladder or a swing, but the trick
to waiting was knowing the metaphor and trusting 
that if the next breath could be knocked out

like a ball from a basket, it could also come 
swishing back at the next run up the court,
catching nothing but the nets of our wide-stretched
throats.

We didn’t think about squandering, then, 
and it never once occurred to us to save 
any of what we spent so freely, those fortunes 
that we took for our inheritance. We had no way 

of knowing, then, how easily they could go. Really,
it takes only a certain amount of pressure, 
applied across a certain length of time, 
but how could we have begun to measure 

what we had yet to grow the strength 
to apply?

We couldn’t, not when 
time was what we flew threw, 
roaring our laughs 
like lions 
until they ran out.

Under All the Stars I Cannot Name

What would the world be like, if more people walked around proclaiming their shortcomings in the face of grand ideals?

On this day in 1923, poet Wislawa Szymborska was born. A winner of the Nobel Prize who once observed “perhaps” two in a thousand people like poetry (“Some Like Poetry”), she is celebrated for the way she explores the layered mysteries inherent in everyday experiences. 

Sometimes, a great poem can work as a blueprint for a much-needed ritual. In “Under a Certain Little Star” Szymborska explores the ritual of apology in new ways. What would the world be like, if more people walked around proclaiming their shortcomings in the face of grand ideals? It would have problems of its own, of course, but I can’t help but think that it must be a terrific improvement over a world where false certainty is celebrated as strength, apology maligned as weakness, and people are expected to be walking billboards for ideas and ideals, instead of as fallible and ever-changing creatures of flesh, blood, and dreams.

So today, I’ll be using Szymborska’s poem as a blueprint for enacting this ritual of apology, in celebration of the tremendous fallibility and impossible mystery of being human here. 

My apologies to tenderness for vowing I could do without,
and to fasting in general for my terrible performance.
May joy not be annoyed with my stalker’s watch.
May those disappeared dreams forgive me 
for pretending not to notice when they were 
kidnapped.

My apologies to space for not taking what was offered 
and appearing unintentionally ungrateful,
and to gratitude for so often making it look like a grocery list and not a flood.

Forgive me, misery, for still caring about the smell and chew of a fresh loaf of bread.
Forgive me, tender skin, for all of these oven burns, now scars.
My apologies to some great concertos I’ve never listened to, 
and to those that moved me deeply, for not sitting still.

My apologies to the cold woman on the hard bench, 
for savoring these blankets in the morning, 
for returning to them with coffee, and lingering as long as I am allowed.
Pardon my reckless heart its sudden leaking breaks.
Forgive me, solemnity, for laughing in the house of death,
forgive me, composure, for my melting face.

And to all the birds whose names I never managed to learn–– trees, too,
all those branched beings I claimed to love but did not plant, to the plants
I claimed to want but did not water, or watered too much, or kept in the wrong pots,
choking.

To domesticity, forgive these blood-soaked fangs. Faith, please notice
when I lose you, how I am always losing you; please come looking when I do. 
You can find me by my gait, like someone trying not to limp on a broken bone.
Bone, forgive my insistence on walking through your break.
Pride, forgive me when I can’t control the limp. 
Endure, hunger, that I may continue to move, just to feed you. 
Patience, don’t blame me for pretending we were sisters even when I didn’t return your calls.
My apologies to all those hopes I inadvertently inspired, which I could not answer.

And to love, for everything. 
And to honesty, for the way my eyes so often grow heavy when you speak. 
I am beyond excuses, sinking in the pit of my own making. Don’t hold it against me, words,
 for crying so much about wishing I had more to give, and then, 
when you give all you have, for guarding you in silence 
like a dragon over captive virgins he may not know.

Blessing the Torn Sky

A few hours ago, I learned it was Lucille Clifton’s birthday, and thought immediately of her beautiful “Blessing the Boats.” Then I knew what to do with what I was meaning to notice, from yesterday’s time at Balboa Park, which is right near San Diego’s airport, where the planes fly very low.

May the sky
that tears above us
every ten minutes
with the next landing
hold you still
in its infinities, barely
contained. May you notice
the webs noiselessly repaired
in the shade-giving tree. 

May you hold the noise
and feel its impact, understand
what it means to live
in the time of tearing skies
and then turn your ears 
to the hush of leaves against
leavings, expanding in chorus
above you and to the hawks
overhead, and then to the drums
beneath the tree down the hill. Watch

––the dancers in unison and each 
their own, leaves singing the leaving 
of an ancient dance, remembered
in chorus in ways that it may never be, 
alone, in the place you go first to notice
the dead 
        before they are named. 

May you see
​             the bird on the low, long branch,
how violently its blood-red breast sways 
with each new tear in the still-aching
sky. May you study like these near the drums,
those songs that time and distance and generations
of death would have killed by now if they had not 
recognized, first alone and then in chorus, 
how the only way to mark the days of 
separation by sea and torn sky
is by gripping what moves beneath you

as you grip what moves through you, as
the same song, the same flight, holding
first until you can move into it, even as
you notice each fresh wound, tearing a 

body you once thought eternal, prone to 
capricious moods but never injury, and 
may you know how something new happens
now, even if: the wound is real and yes, it is

another man with a sword, eager to pierce
the next heaven, and you know what this
is because flesh won’t forget, insisting against
its own small space, on dancing eulogies in 
concert 

with the still uncounted souls waiting
here, beneath this torn heaven, for the next 
sign, and may you trace it, holding the line and
waiting to carry it, may you wait and hold, listen

and then cry out when the time is right, as the hawks
above have been doing ever since you arrived, finding
in the act of swaying with each pointed arrival, each
still-dripping wound, some way to recognize, 

even as you feel each cut from your crown 
to your feet, how none ever sever you from it. 
May you hold your hands up, open to 
these wounded forevers, 

and sway.

Tell Me Something, Good

Sometimes the world shifts and lets you notice a thing that you’ve been technically seeing all along, plain as the air you’ve been breathing and equally invisible.

One day it occurred to me that I could not remember the last time I had wanted to talk to anyone.

I had been talking plenty, whenever the situation called for it. I had mostly enjoyed these exchanges, even when I dreaded them in advance. My pause came from realizing that I could not remember ever once being in a silent state of restful solitude and thinking that it would be better if I were talking. Sure, I wondered how various people were doing; I wanted them to know that I thought of them, but these feelings have to do with love and connection and not the desire to utter any actual words. I had to really ransack my mind looking for an example of a time when talk was the thing I desired. Still, I couldn’t find any. I am an introvert who fears being something else, namely an alien ill-suited for life here. This seemed like an ominous sign.

Never? I wondered. What an inauspicious thing to observe in oneself. I immediately red-flagged this newfound awareness as the sort of thing I should probably never say out loud to another human being (The irony!). To be introverted is one thing, but surely this new awareness indicated some sort of solitary leanings in the extreme, possibly pathological. Perhaps some dark secret had been hidden and missed all along.

But then I realized something else. It was also true that I could not think of a single time when I was in a resting solitary state and I suddenly thought that I would like to write. (Not once? I wondered, checked. Nope, not once––not since childhood, anyway).  

I love writing like the desperate love anything––as in, it feels like misery but I would not want to live without it. I could think of plenty of times where I had to write, or decided to do so in order to fulfill some obligation, and other times when an impulse came knocking and I answered the door. I had often looked forward to long periods of imaginary uninterrupted interludes during which I would be writing, even though I had never actually thought, while resting, anything like: This moment would be greatly enhanced if I were moving a pen along a page. 

And yet, I could think of no examples where I had ever regretted writing (but a few where I regretted hitting “send”). Considering conversation, similar themes emerged. It was never the talking I regretted (except when it took me from writing for too long), only what I did and did not manage to say.

“Wolf Concert” by Tambako The Jaguar on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Sometimes the world shifts and lets you notice a thing that you’ve been technically seeing all along, plain as the air you’ve been breathing and equally invisible. I did not dislike any available forms of communication: not speech, not writing, not dance, and not song. All were needs, and I had been prone to dreading each of them in particular ways. 

Words are so hard to deal with, and the dealing is always such a burden. Like hearts, like loves, like babies and bodies, and water; and bodies of water; and loving hearts; and the burden of carrying each one around, holding its beating insistence, its incessant demands; its relentless flooding of life into limbs and everywhere else it goes, in all the ways that are always so impossible to explain. 

Words are such a chore. I might put them off forever. All I ever want are those quiet, fluid, indefinable spaces housing the soft rise and fall of one beloved’s breath beside me; the weight of an open palm on my knee, and possibilities only tasted and never adequately described, by lips pressing into a sleeping head under my arm. All I ever miss is never words, but the sound of quiet breathing in the same room, its implied command a simple one, and as easy to follow as my own next breath. Like, Shhhhh. Like, Wait. Hold. Don’t Move. Here.

These words, these words, give me some. Let me give them back to you. Even though we both, by now, should recognize them for what they are: crude and heavy, the burdensome hot-mess cousins to the queens and kings and holy babies we are trying to sing about. Still, you work with what you have, and sometimes these are the only available tools after the quiet-by-your-side-breaths stop, and the weight of a hand has vanished, and a body fails to contain the parts that are relentlessly flying away.

Some Night at a Window

Naked feet on bare floors, elbows on the sill,
hands cup the lines of a jaw,  mirror

connecting the stars above the babbling towers 
whose shadows cloaked our daylight,
beyond the reach of 

hands cupping the lines of missing faces. Eyes 
reach anyway, holy useless as first songs
and the first games in the garden, 
out and out with the tops of our artifices
but not always the endless lines
of bodies in skies 
where the children of gardens 
still hide in the dark folds where invisible stars become

— and a new one, here 
        — in the quiet depths behind these sigh songs,

the lines of ourselves slipping,
and no names yet for the unborn
when we never named the dead

     — in the depths behind these breaths, 
reaching lines toward letters, 
ever into some beginning,
say the word.

Big and Little: a Reunion

You announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce. 

BIG
I held you in my arms and breathed against the silence. Then, when you were speaking, you announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce. 

When you were speaking you announced, Tell me a riddle! and I held you high above me toward the stars. Here is how to croon what I am learning to announce, of wonder: here is Venus, now Orion; there a satellite, now Mars.

And everything we shared came out in singsong, and every note within it came out true. Teach me spaghetti by the moonlight, drink a spring song. Everything contained a season; it was you, in this loving cup, now brimming, lands the chorus of a soul; long bent on new receiving, long past dying in its hole. Would you wait and listen for the riddle I would tell, beyond the point of speaking past this silence of this well?

Where I have fallen will you find me, if I give you certain clues; will you listen if I play now, every verse of these late blues?

I’m finding now a riddle, and I’d sing it if I could; but I’m out of rhymes, so share here: once, man living, cut for wood.

What’s tall when young, short when old, and can die in a single breath?

This is the end of the time when we rhyme.  But wait!  Consider these words. Another puzzle goes like this. I kept it for you: Consider a fork in the road. 

A stranger in a strange land arrives at an intersection: East or West? One will take you to your destination, the other to hopeless despair. At the fork, two men. Each knows the way, but one always lies. What to do?


LITTLE
Remember how we used to play the guessing game?

Animal, vegetable, mineral: over time, like this: whenever the seahorse, during the age of the narwhal, from time to time, the tortoise––sooner or later, a ferret.

From time to time, a gem squash as long as an English cucumber. In the meantime, this heirloom tomato, and all of a sudden- Rutabaga!

At this instant, taste the snap-peas, until zucchini, okra, chives, until adamantine and agate, since granite, garnet, jacobsite.

Before, until now. Ever after, return. Again!

BIG
Back to the crossroads question, and the two men. Remember this: ask either, “What direction would the other say?”  Whatever you hear, do the opposite, and you will be on the right path.

Whatever you hear, take my hand, in this silence, where I’ve fallen, show me:  Laugh!


LITTLE
[laughing]

Again!

“Baby elephant” by Georg Sander on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license. 

Action/Reaction

Consider this breath, the sound
behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note.

If a scream erupts in a forest, and no one hears it
—or if none of the hearers can connect 
the substance of the scream to the face 
of the wounded, whether because 
these hearers are out of sight or otherwise unable 
to perceive how a body nearby could be capable 
of keening like that, or because the hearers are not 
in the habit of connecting the nuanced arrangement 
of particular human features to the nuanced arrangement 
of particular human sounds, when considering a  
particular cry of distress after shutting eyes tight
against any witness— did it happen? 

Same question may be posed 
with other variants. If the cry was piercing 
and potentially recognizable but muffled 
by the presence of a sudden hand 
against an open mouth, does it count?  
If the moment of the cry coincides 
with the collapse of the known world 
and the known world in question 
was once synonymous with the depths 
of the forest, did a cry even happen, 
if the place that it would have 
poured into was suddenly gone? 

Now consider other variables. 
If access is granted, but no one is told, 
does the person at the gates no one was trying 
to approach after years of denial get to shrug, 
raised eyebrows, and claim innocence––based 
on, well, I didn’t say they couldn’t. . . 

Get to: what does this even mean? A body gets 
to do what it will do until acted upon by an opposing 
force. Except in the case of survival. Except in the case 
of protection of children. A body will persist until 
it can’t, and in persisting, adapt to certain givens 
for the sake of survival. As in, this door is locked, 
this knob will burn your hand, this exit will get you 
shot. If someone on the other side unlocks the door 
quietly in the middle of the night, hides the key 
and leaves it closed, is it to be considered open?

Alma Thomas, Grassy Melodic Chant, 1976, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Define: cry. Which sounds are included?
Define: pains. Which count?
Define: life. Which forms are we talking about here, 
who is screaming––and who has stopped?

Where do these faces go when they leave us?
Here’s a better question: why do we keep 
insisting that they are ours?

If someone shuts their eyes against some 
never-ending light, can they be considered 
a witness? If someone builds a dam across a river 
of time, can it be stopped, and what is the name 
for the resulting body? And if someone removes 
a dam and the river moves again, now altered 
in shape, is the dam still real, or has it been erased?

If eyes trained on sky notice wild promises in stars, 
do these vows have any bearing once obscured 
by the light pollution of the empire’s cities?

If breath denied fails to void the depth 
of inhalation, what do you call the sound that follows?
The rising, leaning, lilting unsparing hallelujahs of 
nobody knows, the forever-present notes that no hand 
grants and no thief can steal, reaching back to some original 
promise, in the first splitting of atoms, when it was 
discovered that the matter they contained was mostly 
open spaces for the vibration of shimmering notes, 
haunting the seeming solids behind the spectral gates; what is this?

Consider moving. Listen. Consider this breath, the sound 
behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note. 
Sing.

About the artistAlma Woodsey Thomas, now a renowned figure of African-American art history, had her debut showing at the age of seventy-five, after a thirty-five year career of teaching art to D.C. junior high school students.