The language does this to them and to us: they are homeless (or bums); they shit; they suffer mental illness; they steal; they make their choices.
"'I'm not calling them homeless,' [Diamond Head resident Scott] Ballentyne said. 'They're bums. They'll scream and shout at the moon. They leave trash and (defecate) all over the place. Cars have been broken into and they've broken into houses, including mine.'" (SA, 7/26/15). "People make choices," a soccer dad said to me during one of my daughter's matches, as his wife and I were talking about homelessness on O`ahu.
According to the OED, the word "lessness" means "The quality of being less; inferiority." It's a noun. The suffix "-lessness" is more complicated, however. Homelessness, powerlessness, joylessness, agelessness: these words suggest more than lack; they also indicate a state of being. Less is more. Lessness lasts, because it refers to time. To say that someone is "joyless" is not to remark that you saw them for a brief moment, but that they exist within a state of lacking joy. There's an aggregation to loss, an addition that makes loss last.
Samuel Beckett's "Lessness" (1970) is the last quotation in the OED entry. It's a noun, but Beckett's prose piece is also verb, folding in and back on itself, suggesting infinitude. There are very few words in "Lessness," very few sentences. Yet these few words recur. As Philip H. Solomon notes, "Lessness contains
769 words (each of which will appear twice) but only 166 distinct lexical
items. They make up 120 sentences divided among 24 paragraphs varying in length
from 3 to 7 sentences each. Beginning with the thirteenth paragraph, each of
the 60 sentences of the first twelve paragraphs is repeated—randomly—in the
second group of 12 paragraphs." The more words recur, the more the reader recognizes that endless sentences could be constructed out of these words. "Lessness" could go on, and on, and on, rather like a Beckett character.
We hiked Diamond Head with family (and hundreds of tourists) the other day. The reward for this easy hike is a gorgeous series of views at the top: an expanse of blue ocean and a large swath of the leeward side of O`ahu, from Koko Head to the airport. On one hike a year or two back, I noticed a graveyard of hats beneath the look-out; it seemed comical that so many tourists had lost their caps, their floppy hats, their brims to the wind, and that these hats had come to rest but a few feet below us. This time I noticed something else. Closer to the road below than to the look-out were a series of camps: tents, blue tarps, nestled in summer's brown foliage (Diamond Head is only green in the winter, when it rains). A belt of homeless camps was ringing the old volcano. (See the photograph above.)
As we drove back down Kapahulu toward the freeway entrance next to the university, we saw a line of tents across from Foodland, under H1. Beside the tents, one of which features an American flag, we noticed bicycles, folding chairs, and other evidence of human settlement. All of these tents--and those in the triangular area across from Kapahulu--are placed on cement. The homeless have already been kicked out of parks, out of Waikiki entirely, and now live on this sidewalk edge beside and underneath heavy traffic. But the expansion of the notorious "sit-lie" provisions means that the precarious physical edge of the sidewalk is not nearly so precarious as the temporal edge. They could get "swept" at any time, and the provisions could be expanded to make their current "homes" illegal.
"He will curse God again as in the blessed days face to the open sky the passing deluge. Little body grey face features slit and little holes two pale blue. Blank mind." (SB)
"A 56-year old homeless man who would give only his first name, Oliver, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he used to live at Diamond Head but left because the other homeless people 'were too hard-core.' Instead, Oliver ended up at a rapidly growing encampment across from Market City Shopping Center after the city's 'sit-lie' ban forced him out of Waikiki about three months ago." (7/26/15) On page A16, where I read these very few words uttered by a homeless man--are they three words or four, if you take out the hyphen?--there's also a picture of a homeless man and a woman inside a tent, holding her dog. Above them is a larger photo of "Personal items scattered in the area of the Board of Water Supply property on the Ewa slope of Diamond Head crater near Collins Street [which] indicated the presence of a homeless camp earlier this month." In the photo, you see bike wheels, an old basketball hoop, a television screen, pieces of cloth on the ground, and items of clothing hanging from low trees. In other words, you see "trash."
The first quotation in the article is from Dean Harvest, vice chairman of the Wahiawa Neighborhood board, who took his wife to dinner "only to see a homeless man drop his pants on Wahiawa's main drag, California Avenue, and defecate on the sidewalk." Like Ballentyne (above), he alludes to his own disgust. Now, I don't know Wahiawa very well, as it's in central O`ahu, but if it's anything like Honolulu, there are very few public restrooms. Hardly any, if you don't count the restrooms on Waikiki Beach, an area out of which the homeless have already been pushed. "Where do they get water?" my husband asked, when I pointed out the homeless encampments on the dry edges of Diamond Head. Good question.
"Flatness endless little body only upright same grey all sides earth sky body ruins, Face to white calm touch close eye calm long last all gone from mind. One step more one alone all alone in the sand no hold he will make it." (SB)
I arrived in San Francisco sometime in 2006 for a conference, but stayed in an off-site hotel. I was at the door by 7 a.m. (damn Hawai`i flights), but there would be no room for me until 3 p.m. I'd had no sleep. So I started wandering around, and found the convention hotel. It was Hyatt or Hilton, I can't remember which, and took my breath away when I entered and was reminded of photographs of large stupas where skulls are stored from the Cambodian killing fields. I went to the back of a very large lobby and lay down on a black couch. I was there for a while, when a hotel employee loudly asked if I were staying in the hotel. I said no. He told me I was not allowed to sleep in the lobby and needed to leave. I walked out into the bright air of San Francisco and saw homeless men (mostly) sitting at polite distances from one another on nearly every downtown street. They were legion. Pedestrians were walking by, purpose in their step. Those seated on the ground looked at the pedestrians, but the pedestrians' eye level was higher, full of need to get somewhere.
The median price for a house in Honolulu is 3/4 of a million dollars. Twenty two new condo towers are sprouting in Kaka`ako, which is the city's warehouse district. "Howard Hughes has also made clear their intentions to build luxury units
that, at least in some cases, will raise the bar in Hawaii. One in the
works is a penthouse property listed at $80,000,000 (yes $80M, not $8M),
which will have its own heliport." Of course, not all units will cost $80 million; many studios will go for a mere $1-2 million. "Along with this smart development you get the best of nature's treasures
as well. Soft, enveloping beach, the infinite blue ocean, wide green
parks - they're all within your reach now. No climbing once again into
the car every time you need to just get out for a while. Kakaako’s new
development is built around easy access to every aspect of life."
I stood on the corner of a street in a busy provincial city in Cambodia; across from my corner and down a side street a bustling market was buzzing with activity. I saw a monk in saffron robes doing his rounds. He entered the shops behind me, or was greeted by a shopkeeper who gave him some money. The system that supported him depended on his vow of poverty and the acculturated generosity of the retail class. They had their work, and he had his. I'm fascinated by the wandering mendicant, whether that monk or Francis of Assisi, who wandered Europe, unrooted and poor. Their poverty is chosen, but real. Theirs is not the idea of poverty, but the thing itself.
“To love God and neighbor is not something abstract, but profoundly
concrete: it means seeing in every person the face of the Lord to be
served, to serve him concretely. And you are, dear brothers and sisters,
the face of Jesus.” (Pope Francis, Address during Visit at the Homeless Shelter “Dono Di Maria,” 5/21/13)
"True refuge long last scattered ruins same grey as the sands. Never was but grey air timeless no stir not a breath. Blank planes sheer white calm eye light of reason all gone from mind. Never but in vanished dream the passing hour long short. Four square all light sheer white blank planes all gone from mind." (SB)
How to reconcile a spiritual admiration for the poor with political rage against those who force people into poverty? How to love the mendicant but want to raise the tent-dweller into an economy where it's possible to have a roof over his or her head? How to understand the virtues of having no possessions (except the omnipresent bicycle, perhaps) with the evil of taking away the possibilities for living in some comfort? How to (re)create communities that care for their dispossessed citizens? In the Star-Advertiser article from which I've been quoting, the words of Councilwoman Kymberley Pine shine through, as she talks about her Ewa district, even as she creates her own "us and them" equation: "'Church members are involved, everyone's involved to lift them up and get them the help that they need. The people in my district don't treat them so horribly as elsewhere because so many residents have been there themselves.'" She even offers some analysis of the problem: "'Each time the homeless get moved hey get more violent. Their stress is high because they're constantly worried about where they're going to get food for the day.'"
The mayor's spokesman wrote this to the newspaper about homeless encampments. Note the focus on optics: "'The city has been highly successful at removing encampments at a lot of highly visit places where there used to be a lot of complaints when Mayor Caldwell took office in 2013, such as along Kalakaua Avenue including at the old Hard Rock location, the zoo, the sidewalks, and more, along the Ala Wai Promenade, at Pawaa In Ha Park, at the Moiliili field, in Chinatown, in city parks all along the leeward coast, in Ala Moana Beach Park, at the Hawaii Kai Park and Ride, at Haleiwa Alii Beach Park, and numerous other locations all over Oahu.'" He adds that "many of the most visible areas have been successfully addressed."
"Little body little block heart beating ash grey only upright. Little body ash grey locked rigid heart beating face to endlessness. Little body little block genitals overrun arse a single block grey crack overrun. Figment dawn dispeller of figments and the other called dusk." (SB)
To be visible is to be a problem. To be invisible is to save the city from complaints, whether by tourists or by local residents. To be visible is to be dirty, a shitter, a thief. To be invisible means that "we" don't need to worry about any of that. This is a sorry binary indeed. But even if you "buy into it," in good capitalist metaphorical fashion, we've reached a tipping point. Invisibility is not an option; there are too many homeless/houseless people. Their "lessness" no longer denotes an individual lack, but a proliferation; their lessness is moreness. Beckett was right to highlight the endlessness of lessness (which works better in his translation than does the "Sans" of the original). But this is not simply a question of semantics.
What is the median price of homelessness? of mental illness and addiction and the PTSD of veterans on the street? What is the median price of seeing the poor among us? or the median price of hiding them on Sand Island (one idea) or at the back of a valley somewhere? What is the median price of our semantics? or of our desire to get to the grocery story or the coffee shop without witnessing someone else's pain? What is the median price of our silence, either when we see a poor person on the street or when we permit passage of legislation making it illegal to sit or lie on a sidewalk? What is the median price of sidewalk?
To be "responsible" is to be accountable, to do the right thing. I try to be responsible as a teacher, a parent, a citizen. In the absence of functional institutions, responsibility feels more difficult these days: national and local governments abdicate their responsibilities; the university is an increasingly chaotic place to be. While some institutions are falling apart, others grow like cancers (prisons). We can try to push our institutions from within, demand that they bend toward responsibility, but that effort involves more patience than most of us possess. So I'll take the word apart and start there. The first two of the word's four syllables are "response." Our responsibility is to respond to what we witness. There is no act of witness without our believing this to be a first political act. Where we go from there is too often a mystery. But let's begin by turning our ear toward the voices we need to hear. You won't find them in the newspaper (the headline reads "Too Close for Comfort") You'll need to get closer than that.
Samuel Beckett, "Lessness." http://www.samuel-beckett.net/lessness.html
Eternity: for all its invisibility: we gaze at it.
Intelligence is not enough to enter into the mystery of God, but what is needed is "contemplation, closeness, and abundance."
As I climbed Lulani Road on my bike the other day, I saw the first dead cat. It was lying beside a truck on a driveway where I once saw a litter of tiny kittens and picked up the runt to move her away from the road. I heard music from a radio (did it come from the truck, or the house further back?) There were people somewhere nearby.
The cat had been dead for a while, I thought as I took the picture and got back on my bike. Had it been moved there from the street? Had it suffered? Why was the anole so interested in the cat's body? The leaf?
Soon, I saw other dead animals: a toad, a couple of birds. Flattened on the black asphalt. But it wasn't until I got back on Kahekili that I realized that my day's meditation so completely focused on death. I saw my second dead cat, huge with bloat, on the grass beside the highway. More birds. The ride had taken on a weight that my rides do not usually assume. I saw a man carrying a girl on his shoulders, and said "excuse me!" as I went around him. At the moment I did so, one SUV next to me smashed into the SUV ahead of it. The man with the girl kept going. From the front, as I turned around, I could see that his face was impassive and that she also lacked visible affect. I asked the driver of the first car if I'd caused the accident by creating a distraction and was told no.
I crossed the intersection across from the local sewage plant and headed home. Then I saw the third cat, small, long-haired, dead beside the road. He looked very like one of our new kittens, Thurney, except that Thurney's face has more white on it, with a round black spot on his chin.
There are Buddhist exercises that ask you to consider your own death, regard your own corpse, and bear the image with equanimity. Look long enough at these cats and their stillness ceases to remind you of the violence of their deaths by the road. The road, if you attend to its edges, devotes itself to death. Everywhere, there are shrines by the road to traffic fatalities. Some shrines come with photographs of the deceased; we learn their high schools, their sports teams, their family names. The weathering of the markers measures time's passage since they were first remembered at (or near) the place where they died. On this day I didn't need to sit on my cushion; it was as if the road were meditating for me.
The dead cats are not Vermeers; they lack the distance paint would offer. The photographs only hint as such distance--at least for me, as I took them. While the photographs have made a pattern (three dead cats on a single 50 minute bike ride), pattern is often as much accident as it is structure. As my husband says, "that's just the way of the world," meaning that I simply saw what always happens. But seeing what is there already is one way to define an education.
Muriel Burbery has her closeted intellectual concierge, Renee, write about a Dutch still life: "It is a still life, representing a table laid for a light meal of bread and oysters. In the foreground, on a silver plate, are a half-bared lemon and a knife with a chiseled handle. In the background are two closed oysters, a shard of shell, gleaming mother-of-pearl, and a pewter saucer which probably contains pepper." She describes her reaction as "an esthetic blackout. I no longer know who I am." Renee, who is obsessed with Beauty, embarks on a long discussion of the meaning of the still life, finding ultimately that, "In the scene before our eyes--silent, without life or motion--a time exempt of projects is incarnated, perfection purloined from duration and its weary greed--pleasure without desire, existence without duration, beauty without will. For art is emotion without desire." It's been cleansed of the artist's desire and offered to the spectator as a kind of vaccination (a dead virus that activates the body's response). Desire comes of all manner of infections (ambition foremost among them), but art heals the infection. We receive beauty in its purity, not its toxic but alluring stew.
Yesterday, Radhika's cousin marveled that small children talk about objects as if they're dead. Art, Renee would add, is what takes the dead object and gives it life, by way of the viewer's eye. But you need the object and the painting of it; over the course of several bitter pages, she dismisses Husserl's phenomenology. We don't create the world, except insofar as we can see that it exists outside our perceptions of it.
Richard Rohr writes in Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi: "the false self does not surrender without a fight to its death." Consider that the still life has survived the death of itself into art. But I still want to know what to do with the cats, the toad, the birds on the road. I know that their deaths were likely caused by cars driven by people who weren't paying enough attention, especially during the recent heavy rains. These cats are not art (nor do my photographs make them art). My response to them is very different from my response to a Vermeer. They do not open me up, these dead cats, at least not in the way that a work of art does. Insofar as I feel a surge of empathy, it mixes with disgust, horror's grace note. They are more complicated than beauty.
In Barbery's book, the event of the still life is followed by that of a remembered camellia. Her epiphany about beauty cedes to one about another person's survival. She'd given the name of the flower to a young man killing himself with drugs; later, he returns to say that the flower, and its name, had saved his life. Beauty mitigating pain again. Her communication of the word is as powerful as the flower's beauty. By the time the young man returns, the flower is dead, but not its name. (I hear a Keats' poem revving up in the near distance.)
To offer up a name is an act of generosity. It brings the speaker closer to her listener. This closeness is important to mystical thinking. Pope Francis writes: "The image that comes to me is that of a nurse... healing wounds one after another, but with her hands." Renee dies at the end of the book as she tries prevent a homeless person from wandering into the street; an oncoming van hits her. She has reached out with her hands. She doesn't know what people will see when they bend over her broken body. "But inside me, the sun." Only a novelist can imagine a character's dying perceptions, write for her, "And then I died." Could she do something similar for a cat? Maybe Murakami could, but that would be fantasy.
Closeness precedes pattern, does not promise it. If grace (as President Obama put it) comes arbitrarily and by accident, and if moments of caring prove fatal because a character acts before she thinks, then perhaps to find pattern in these events is too much to hope for. They are accidents, not rules. They are moments without superstructure. The Pope, like Renee on the subject of universities, attacks thinking that isn't infused with feeling: "Faith passes through a still . . . and becomes ideology. And
ideology doesn't share. There is no room for Jesus in the ideologies:
his tenderness, love, meekness. And the ideologies are rigid,
Yesterday, I drove home the back way from Kāne`ohe, along the route where I'd seen the dead cats. They were gone, the grass by the highway freshly mowed. Everything was clean and trimmed. I was safe in my car. It was as if habit had closed back over the eye of exceptions disguised as pattern. Evidence of death had been removed by the road crew and taken into memory. I'm reminded that the term for "still life" in French is "nature morte," or dead nature. I had seen it so.
Muriel Barbury, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Europa Editions, 2008.
Pope Francis, Encountering Truth: Meeting God in the Everyday, Random House, 2015.
Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, Franciscan Media, 2014.
All families are word problems. This seems especially true when you drift into the exurbs of kinship: those cousins once or twice "removed," or "step" grandparents. There's an odd arithmetic to it: siblings come in halves or steps, some parents are single, while couples come intact (addition) or as exes (subtraction). And there's the difficulty of blood, so often presumed to denote "fullness," and adoption, considered a different kind of addition, post-subtraction. There's the birth father who is more a telephone buddy than a dad, and the dad who married into parenthood. The math is emotional, but we often repress our emotions into number and portion. The "closed" adoption is not a simple equation. Nor is the "open" one. Family is one math problem to which there's no solution, only remainder and--too often--division.
Math was always painful for me, but not for my father, who enjoyed helping me with my homework. He loved word problems. When I took the GREs the first time--before I decided to skip the math section altogether--I spent at least half the time allotted for the math section sussing out a word problem about baseball. Because I love baseball, I enjoyed this problem, was patient with it, so patient that I had hardly any time left for the rest of the test. My scores came out exceedingly low, but I was proud to tell my father the story of how I figured out that word problem. I no longer remember the content of that problem, only the joy I felt at solving it.
Here's one of the word problems I live with: what do I call the mother of my daughter's sister?
One reason I love this problem is that there is no answer to it in our language, or any I can imagine. She is not sister, not in-law. While she's "aunty" to my daughter, she isn't to me. She's fallen between the dictionary's alphabetical cracks. When I state the problem to friends, their brows furrow and they come up with possible nomenclature, but these are words already used for other relations. For now, she's the "other mother" in a family whose bonds are genetic and adopted. My friend, Dennis Etzel, Jr., whose mother "came out" in the 1980s in Topeka, Kansas, has "another mother," but she's different again.
When we arrived in Kathmandu in December, 2004 to adopt our daughter, we were told by the local facilitator that she had a sister. He informed us one hour before we drove to the orphanage to meet our daughter, who'd appeared to us in a tiny photograph, dressed in red, stern, looking away from the camera. Her sister, we learned, was one year older, and was being adopted by a woman in Miami. I remember the pit-fall of that moment of recognition. It would not have mattered to know earlier, because Nepalese law forbids the adoption of two children of the same gender, but that hardly made the news easier to absorb. The US embassy asked after our daughter's sister, too; when they saw the report of two girls found together, two girls whose photos resembled one another, they'd put two and two together. The report was as detailed as it was almost certainly fictional. Found by a road. Taken to the orphanage by the authorities. The facilitator seemed to know more, and what he seemed to know was disturbing, but he never filled out the impressionist picture.
On our second trip to the orphanage, which was bursting with children (Nepal was in the midst of a civil war), we met our daughter's sister, briefly, in a stone courtyard. She had big dark eyes and wore a dirty frock. Her name then was Nirmala. It had been Rita, and would be L. Radhika's name had been Sarmilla, L would later tell her mother. We gave her something, I don't remember what, and I tried to let her know that we would see her again, that Radhika would be ok with us. Did I say all that? Who knows. I only remember the intensity of the effort to express something, anything, in the face of this little girl's loss of her sister. I'm the only one of us who remembers this moment. Was I the only one there? Where was my husband? What memory withholds bears affect, though sometimes we can't locate its particular name.
And so these two little girls (then 3 and 4) from Nepal ended up in Hawai`i and in Miami (and from there to Walla Walla, then Seattle, and now Chicago). We heard from L's mother V that her daughter was very worried about Radhika; as her older sister, she felt responsible for the fate of her younger sister. So my husband made a video: here is Radhika on her tricycle; here is Radhika kicking a ball; here is Radhika's room; here is Radhika's brother; here are her parents. We sent the video off. And then they came to Hawai`i' another year we met in San Francisco, then in Walla Walla, and for the last two summers, south of Chicago. The intensity of coming together, sandwiched in time by months of infrequent contact.
If "does she know you?" is THE question to someone whose parent has Alzheimer's, then "do they look alike?" is the first question everyone asks me about the sisters. Definition 12 of the word "family" in the OED reads: "A category or group of musical instruments which share the same basic method of sound production." When my daughter asks her dad if the purple flower is a daisy and he responds that it's "in the same family," we're talking about similarities. While I realize the inevitability of this question--the nicest thing anyone says about family on facebook is "you so look alike"--I don't find it very interesting. Our culture has institutionalized family into likeness, both where it exists and where it does not. Yes, there's the family nose and even a family sense of humor. But only the first is genetic, especially when my son's jokes are so like my husband's, and my daughter's sarcasm reminds me of my mother's acerbic wit. Then again, the first definition of family in the OED has to do with servants. Go figure.
I look like my father and his sister, Gretchen; increasingly, I see my mother's features in my face, as well, and hear her laughter when I talk to our kittens. Sometimes I even make what my grad school boyfriend called her "mother noises." Her sense of humor became mine, though perhaps it softened a a bit in me. I acquired her anxiety, though hers was constant, mine explosive and intermittent. She became depressed, but denied it. I couldn't deny it, because mine was worse. But growing up I felt alienated from my parents, not like them in any way. My mother was too insistently practical and rigid, my dad too quiet and detached. Where the puzzle comes together in my middle age, it was in my younger years a jigsaw scattered over a large floor, with little hope of solution, fitting together.
And so there are two girls, one now 13 and the other 14. They are both short and in constant motion. Radhika plays soccer, her sister volleyball (despite her size). They are both spirited. They play like puppies. They play with their brother and without him. When I came into the room the other day, he was leaning over to pull out a thorn from L's foot. Gently, slowly. He also pokes his sisters, teases them. She was leaning over to make his hair into a crazy pig tail the day before in the park. L rebels against school; Radhika adores it. L warmly offers hugs to everyone; Radhika does not. Radhika can be sardonic; L is softer, more distractable. Neither one of them likes to read. They are both fierce, in their own ways. "Description" is also a word problem: how to get it all right. Bryant says he hates that the girls are separated; I say it's good they're in touch. Those are the scales we work with. Imbalanced, but. (In Hawai`i we end sentences with but.)
After a couple of early visits from my father's sister's family to spend time with us in St. Louis and in Alexandria, Virginia, we saw them at only the longest of intervals. My mother distrusted family, spoke critically of my father's sister (a very kind woman), didn't get along with her parents or her brother (there was also a short early visit from his family, which included an adopted daughter). Later, my aunt told me that my father had come to see her and said, "I'm ok, I'm ok," then disappeared for some time. It was my mother's doing, of that she was certain. My aunt forgave my mother, but she didn't refrain from telling my mother's daughter the story.
To the extent that international adoption is an oft-maligned institution, it's due to trauma. That trauma exists before the adoption, when children lose their parents and extended families, and are placed in other institutions--the third world orphanages our kids spent months in--and then moved across the world into new cultures and languages and families. But the critiques often devolve on those who adopt these children, and are made easier by the frequent corruption involved in such adoptions. Our children don't suffer the kind of racial trauma than many international adoptees do: we live in Hawai'i, which is predominantly Asian, and L lives in Chicago with a family of Indian Guyanese origin. But clearly, it's not easy to get your feet underneath you when so many questions hover over your history, questions that are likely never to be answered. Denise Riley, with whom I once shared lunch in London, said she found her birth mother not because she wanted to find her genetic origins, but to learn more about her history. The irony was that her mother then expected her to care for her, based on that problematic origin. Word problems are also a hermeneutics. Genetics is as much a mode of interpretation as it is our make-up. In other words, it's as made up as it is determinative. But made up things--fictions, interpretations, desires--do often determine us.
I moved five thousand miles away from my parents. I'd gotten to know my dad better, and discovered in him the kindness that my mother had always spoken of. "He's a saint," my mother would say, but like many saints, he had seemed far away. He came closer in his later years. Before he died, he made sure to close his accounts lovingly. My mother grew ever more difficult, tried to "disown" me at least once or twice, then succumbed to the long forgetting of Alzheimer's. That disease oddly brought us closer. If "closure" is indeed to be desired in our emotional lives, then she and I closed our accounts without too many losses. The difficult story had a happy ending. Or that chapter of it. Time feels different now, more enclosed. Family deaths do that; they alter time. Our maps shrink. We stop getting lost and turn to a GPS. It talks to us in a funny accent, but gets us where we're going. We hope.
We've taken this word problem and created of it a family. This "other mother" and I have become friends and--during our brief weeks together--co-parents of a kind. While we work at this, the kids slip into family mode seemingly without effort. The first time L and V came to visit and I took them and our kids to the airport, we were heading back over H3 when Radhika started crying. She stopped, and then Sangha started weeping. They only stopped sobbing woefully when I got them home. There's less weeping now, but I have little access to the questions the girls ask each other, or those Sangha asks about his birth family in Cambodia. On occasion, over dinner as we did recently in Chicago, we start talking about what we remember and what has been forgotten. That's a genetic thread of its own. History, and its ruptures, take the place of the supposed truth of origins. The adoption story is a different genre from the biological (or "natural") one. It's hard to tell because one's audience so often doesn't get it. The visa problems, the travel plans, the delays, the coming into a large room in an old palace and seeing your daughter holding the hand of her didi and then taking her into your arms, a smelly child in dirty blue jacket, her sandals broken in winter. How she became sister to her sister, who also became sister to a brother.
We tell such stories to make them inevitable. And ordinary, as love is.
A wisdom to embrace, a courage not to forsake:
grace is what we don't deserve. Vows are not vows until they're spoken; even the
music was from Austin. Through
the narrow valley we saw a single white windmill turning. The bank of
lipstick ginger in an orange light is best recalled;
photograph betrays its light as lack,
slowly closing lens of
tender ecology of love has drawn us together, tests
us with its empty geometries.
Put down your pencil: thistest is done.
We have so short a time, the president says,
“we just try to get our paragraph right.”
Then indeed are we . . . a peculiar people. A
gecko walks across the back of a shoji screen, looking
like the afterlife of itself.
Families excoriate or forgive; the bomber expresses remorse. Our
narratives are clean, even where they angle off and drop like
half-built bridges. Look close enough at the calligraphy of fern on
your palm and you can harm no one. It's the ordinary that absolves
us. Yourself excludes only
what it cannot see through. What distinguishes us from him is the
dropping of the “y” before “our.” We
look for signs, but that's a language covered by spider webs and
flies. There's no reader and nothing to be read, only soul's mystery,
his and ours. The soul sends
out its politics in thin and sticky lines, forgiving its victims
before it eats.
O let the spirit of truth dwell with me, and then little matter
for any other comforter. What
is what is not matter. To describe what I hear--thrush
and weed-whacker--is to de-matter this morning's minions. Minions!
the little boy on a boat sang out. Is she your minion? my daughter
give us dominion over. Reduce
us to the dust that stands in
as last matter. Mother. To
mend is to matter. Nell would rhyme mend with rend, but the rending
first. After her death, we're left to remember, re-mend. What remains
is ardor's aura, a difficult wake. Her Ireland need not be ours, but
it is unimpeachably green. To meditate on matter in your tradition,
for an awkward fit. But the awkwardness is material, brown plastic wedge
under a door that props it open. Don't kick it out; the
slamming shut is loud sound.
What perfect lovers! How wise! How sweet and delightful! A
bare point marks warning, indicates
high volume without content. “We enjoyed you,” the woman said to
her mother's killer. What's
the mark for that? A mark is not a symbol, like a flag, but an
invitation to act, or pause, or stop. We advise against exclamations
as too full of sentiment, preferring full stops, or semis. Yet
“take down that flag!” marks time; stop history, revise and
reclaim it. To forgive is to
mark time as release, leave the burden of hate to himself alone.
To forgive is to stick
a pin in the balloon, pull air into one's lungs and breathe. Let him
who is without breath know what it means to have it. Let
air be the mark of solace we cannot see or hear past the still
door of the church.
My books include Aleatory Allegories (Salt), And Then Something Happened (Salt), Memory Cards & Adoption Papers (Potes & Poets), Dementia Blog (Singing Horse), Memory Cards: 2010-2011 Series (Singing Horse), A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry and edited collections on John Ashbery (Alabama) and on multiformalisms (Textos), the latter with Annie Finch. Tinfish Press recently published Jack London is Dead: Euro-American Poetry of Hawai`i (and some stories), which I edited (2013). My newest book is volume two of Dementia Blog, "She's Welcome to Her Disease" (Singing Horse Press, 2013). Tinfish Press can be found at tinfishpress.com