Poems for Tragedy and Grief

July 21st, 2012

I’ve reached that point where all I can do is shake my head and wonder what the hell is wrong with people. I’ve reached that point where I question the virtue of grieving publicly from the sidelines. We don’t, actually, all share in this tragedy. Not by a country mile. I have nothing to offer or add that these poets haven’t said better anyway.

“Most days I long for perfection, for everyone to be safe.
Maybe the only perfect thing in life is longing.

Praise this beautiful, terrible world where we are opened
and crushed, where the kiss comes from a mouth that bites.”

– “The Diver,” Marie-Elizabeth Mali


July 24th, 2011

I’m back to where I was in March after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, searching for words but this is so much harder. This isn’t a natural disaster, this isn’t some horrible thing that happened, this is a horrible thing that was perpetrated. Committed. Chosen. Planned. Done. A human action, a human choice. It’s inexplicable and yet here I sit banging words together like rocks hoping to light some spark of understanding.

There is no understanding and there are no words. All I can think of is something I read after Leiby Kletzky was killed: we live in a fallen world. Most people are basically decent, but we live in a fallen world. Is that all there is then, by way of comfort? That we live in a fallen world but that most of us, most of us, do our part to hold up our corner of it? It is all we can do and yet it’s never enough, is it; the world remains fallen, remains imperfect, and those shining young people remain dead and it remains inexplicable and words fail, fail, and fail again. It’s all such cold comfort.

In March, as radiation leaked from reactors, there were songbirds outside my window. Today, as divers search the waters around Utoya Island for the bodies of those still unaccounted for, there is my dill plant being devoured by ten caterpillars and if we’re lucky half of them will become butterflies. The world forces itself upon me. Even today the fallen world forces its small beauties upon me and I accept them with both greed and guilt but very little resembling grace.

There is no grace in this. There are no words for this. All I can come up with is butterflies. It will have to be enough for today but surely it is not.

Songbirds and nuclear reactors and the horrible beauty of the world

March 14th, 2011

How does one write poems in the middle of something like this? What good, really, are my words now? How do we make the words meaningful in the face of disaster – although, if we are already following the injunction to “write as if you are dying” the words should never be trite, the words would always be weighed against the horrible beauty of the world.

The horrible beauty of the world. I have refilled the bird feeder and the blue tits and the great tits are back, swooping down from the branches of the willow tree, pecking at the feed sticks, flitting away – those bright little song birds I am so happy to have lured to our patio. Meanwhile, entire villages are wrecked and gone – entire villages of the dead and missing. Radiation is leaking out of several reactors – and how does a sentence like that even exist? – leaking poison and here I am watching my songbirds – that’s the horrible beauty of the world, that these two things exist at the same time, that it is our duty to see both of them, to take them both in.

Stare at the horrible images. Watch the songbird out the window. Hold these two things simultaneously in your heart.

Even a lone wolf breathes the same air as the rest of us

January 11th, 2011

The soul, he said, is composed
Of the external world.

– Wallace Stevens

Even a mentally unstable person is influenced by the culture around him; perhaps especially a mentally unstable person is going to be influenced by the tone of the culture around him. Perhaps he is the canary in the coal mine. Just because a suspect is thought to be mentally unstable does not release people from the responsibility of their own words and actions and the way those words and actions set a tone in the world around us.


January 9th, 2011

Throwing words around as if they do not bear the weight of their meaning is like flicking matches around a dry forest as if they do not bear flames.

Listen to this sentence. Say every precise word: Somebody shot a sitting member of the United States House of Representatives in the head and in the process shot and killed a nine year old girl.

Can we all stop pretending that we have not brutalized public discourse and dehumanized our language beyond all recognition now?


January 21st, 2010

I am uncomfortable “asking the universe” for things. I am uncomfortable with the idea of “the law of attraction” and “manifesting your destiny.” I am downright suspicious of The Secret. I know that many people, including at least a few people who read this blog, swear by the law of attraction and can point to situations in their lives when the law of attraction seemed to be fully at work in their lives. I read blogs; I’ve seen it happen, too.* Certainly on some level the law of attraction makes some sense: if you are negative and unhappy and grumble about your unhappiness, joyful people probably aren’t likely to hang around you for long whereas other grumblers will find in you a partner in unhappiness, reinforcing the negative trend. Certainly if fear holds you back from trying to start your own business, from quitting your job to travel around the world for eight months, from tying to publish your poetry then you will never start your own business, travel the world, or publish poetry. I get it.

On the other hand, suggesting “without exception, every human being has the ability to transform any weakness or suffering into strength, power, perfect peace, health, and abundance” seems to me to tread perilously close to suggesting that those who are lacking are lacking through some fault of their own. As if social forces don’t exist. As if class structure doesn’t circumscribe opportunities at every turn. As if crushing, grinding poverty of a type I can’t even begin to imagine wouldn’t dictate a person’s every action. As if there wouldn’t be things that would stand in the way of somebody “manifesting abundance.”

My book club just finished discussing The White Tiger. Balram, the main character, talks about being trapped in “the Rooster Coop.” The Rooster Coop – an insidious combination of social control, class structure, violence, poverty and fear that traps people in “perpetual servitude;” social and cultural traditions that are reinforced from without and from within. “The Rooster Coop,” Balram muses at one point, “was doing its work. Servants have to keep other servants from becoming innovators, experimenters, or entrepreneurs. Yes, that’s the sad truth, Mr. Premier. The coop is guarded from the inside.” I thought the metaphor of the Rooster Coop was brilliant, brilliant and sad because I look at the world and see Rooster Coops. There is joy and wonder and abundance, but there is a whole lot of cruelty and injustice too, and I am uncomfortable with a world view that doesn’t take social structure seriously, that doesn’t take injustice – human-created, human-perpetuated injustice – seriously.

I am uncomfortable ignoring the reality that the pure stupid luck of the draw doesn’t have a lot to do with my abundance, with the chances that present themselves to me, with the freedom – the luxury – I have to pursue them. The socio-economic status I occupy, that I occupy by the luck of birth and the coincidence of marriage – colors everything. I’ve written of this before. I do not mean to suggest that people are locked beyond all hope in certain circumstances; of course people can do better, rise above, shine, get lucky, work hard, break free. But I find it disingenuous to suggest that the circumstances of our birth and the social forces at work in our lives don’t tilt the playing field even in the matter of the law of attraction. I am extremely uncomfortable with that.

I am uncomfortable with the law of attraction because it strikes me as yet another way in which the world is unfair, but in a manner that allows us to overlook that unfairness. In a manner that makes it easier for us to overlook the social structures – conditions of race and class and gender and institutionalized corruption and inter-generational poverty – that are at play every day and that are already easy enough to ignore. Things that are very real and cannot be manifested away so easily.

So here is where I admit sheepishly that I asked the universe for something this month. In my own way, I think I asked the universe for something. Something that I got (these are the more coherent thoughts I promised). In thinking about this workshop, I did a few things differently. Who’s to say I wouldn’t have gotten in anyway? I mean, I would have sent the same five poems, written the same awkward cover letter. But I did kind of ask the universe for this thing.

Where does this leave me, cynic that I am? I guess it leaves me thinking that the law of attraction might work in my personal, small life.** But the world is big and the injustice is real. And I am still very, very uncomfortable suggesting that “without exception, every human being has the ability to transform any weakness or suffering into strength, power, perfect peace, health, and abundance.” That’s too simple. Too close to upper-class privilege. Too comfortable.

I’m still uncomfortable with all of this. I doubt I’m going to start “asking the universe” for things on a regular basis, unless it’s to ask the universe for a little more social justice a little more quickly, please. And then to go the barricades.

* As a social scientist, however long out of the field, I’m compelled to suggest here: it’s impossible to prove that people wouldn’t have gotten what they wanted even if they hadn’t opened themselves up to the law of attraction since they only live one life and can’t go back and see what would have happened had they behaved differently in some way. Correlation does not mean causality and all that.

** Or it might just leave me thinking that correlation does not imply causality.


November 4th, 2008

Small Boy is sleeping at The Farm tonight – he spends Wednesdays with his grandparents anyway – so that I can stay up late and/or wake up early to watch election returns come in (the earliest poll closings – parts of Indiana and Kentucky – occur at midnight Swiss time; Florida, Georgia and Virginia will come in at 1 a.m. these parts). It’ll be sad and lame to be sitting up alone watching polls close. I used to live in DC and somebody was always having an election night party. The best was probably the one held by Chuck Schumer’s then-Legislative Assistant because it was chock-full of policy geeks. Charles Dickens would appreciate the sentiment that it was also the worst election night party because the year was 1994. In 2000 we finally gave up and broke up the party when it turned into an all-night “Florida Gore! No, Florida Bush! Wait, too close to call. We’re putting Florida back in play!” fest but even then my best buddy and I wound up trading phone calls for another hour after arriving at our respective apartments. Tonight it’ll just be me and the quiet Swiss night.

These are the times I remember how much my life has changed. These are the times I feel in the very soles of my feet that yes, I really do live in Switzerland. How strange it all is sometimes.

I voted. Again.

November 3rd, 2008

After having already voted by Federal Absentee Write-in Ballot, I received my official ballot from the District of Columbia. Some quick research at the Federal Voting Assistance Program website indicates that I should go ahead and vote my official ballot even if I have already voted the write-in ballot; my “local election official will ensure that only one of the ballots is counted.” Okay, if you say so. Here’s hoping my second ballot won’t invalidate the first. Though I have to say, I vote in the District of Columbia which is as safely Democratic as it’s possible to get (if you don’t want to read the whole article, the take-away is that out of 399,127 registered voters in the District, a mere 29,622 of them are registered Republican), so Barack Obama doesn’t really need my vote to get those three Electoral votes.

I’m also assuming that by following the directions on the VFAP website I am not committing voter fraud by sending in two ballots.

Totally unrelated PS: Best Halloween picture ever.

Hockey Mama

October 20th, 2008

I grew up around ice hockey, grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago skating on outdoor rinks back in the day when winter was winter. My father was president of the hockey association; my mother was variously treasurer and secretary. Later my father coached the high school team and also a young adult league. My older brother played hockey from the time he was five or six until he left for college; after college he played in an adult league and coached high school hockey for a few years. Ever the little sister, I played hockey myself for a season, but this was back before a lot of girls played hockey and I was the only girl my age in the league. Not on my team – in the entire suburban league I played in. There was another girl two years older than me, her name was Annie, but in my age group I was it.  After one year of having to stand alone in the hallway while the boys changed in the locker room, of getting checked and knocked down because girls don’t play hockey, I retreated to the stands and the occasional stint in the scorer’s box. But I grew up around hockey.

My mother was a hockey mom. She went to every single hockey game my brother played in for a dozen years. She drove him to practice and car-pooled his teammates and served early dinners and reheated leftovers so that everybody got to eat. She kept his skates sharpened and his equipment aired out and always knew where the hockey tape was. She huddled in warming houses with the other hockey moms and drank cup after cup of bad vending machine coffee. She stepped in as time-keeper and score-keeper when somebody went missing in action and she was the unofficial record-keeper for every team my brother ever played on, keeping track of minutes played and goals for and against and goals and assists and penalty minutes for entire teams of exuberant boys. She cheered and yelled and taught me the phrase “cherry-picking.” She was a hockey mom extraordinaire at a time when nobody cared about the hockey moms.

Since the day Small Boy put on skates last winter and I guided him around the rink by holding his hands as I skated backwards, I’ve been looking forward to this winter, to this year when he would become old enough to start the hockey camp, to being a hockey mom. Hockey school started on Saturday, so I am officially a hockey mom, at last, and I cannot begin to tell you how annoyed – irritated and angry and cheated – I feel to become a hockey mom at a time when the phrase “hockey mom” is associated with someone with whom I have no desire whatsoever to be associated. So please forgive this brief forray into American politics, but I’m feeling the need to reclaim the phrase “hockey mom.”

I like cities. (Most NHL teams, by the way, are found in cities, as are most theatres and opera houses and ballet companies and baseball teams. It just kind of works out that way.) They are vibrant and exciting and give people opportunities to follow their dreams. I like small towns. They allow people to connect more deeply with each other and to look closely into the fabric of their own lives and dreams. I like that I can decide which one fits me better. I am a hockey mom.

I live at the foot of the Swiss Alps and yet I think Yellowstone National Park is the most beautiful place in the world. I believe that geography does not define love of country. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that a blistering slapshot from the point is the most beautiful thing in sports. I am a hockey mom.

I have enough faith in women to allow them to make the most personal decisions about their lives without paternalist outside interference from people who know nothing about them or their circumstances. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that starting a family through in-vitro fertilization is as special as starting a family through sex and I believe that the children of in-vitro fertilization are magical. I believe that the decision to seek fertility treatment is a decision a couple can only make for themselves and I believe that treatment should be available. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that embryonic stem-cell research has enormous potential and that couples who undergo in-vitro should be able to donate embryos to research if they so desire. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that reasoned disagreement is the engine of democracy and that reasonable people can disagree reasonably. The operative word is reasonable. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that the overwhelming majority of global warming is the result of human activity and I believe that the majority of statistical findings support this belief. I am a hockey mom.

I believe in the scientific method and that science is a method, not a subject. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that Wayne Gretzky played a type of hockey that the rest of us could only dream of. I am a hockey mom. 

I believe that wild places like ANWR matter. They matter simply because of what they are, not because of what they can give us. ANWR isn’t about the energy we could harness. Places like ANWR, places like Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park and the great network of American parks, are about setting aside something rare and wonderful and preserving it simply because it is rare and wonderful. It is about knowing that there is still something wild and mysterious left in the world. Wild places matter. They matter because they inspire us and teach us. They make us whole. They heal our wounds. They let us dream. They call us to glory and if we listen they teach us the liberating magic of being wholly who and what we are in that moment. They show us, however briefly, a world outside of ourselves. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that while one of us is oppressed none of us is free. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that the world – that new things, new people, new places – can only be approached with an open mind and an open heart. I am a hockey mom.

The word “cosmopolitan” is not derogatory. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that knowledge matters, that facts matter, that expertise matters, that “elite” means highly skilled and that highly skilled people are not, by definition, bad people. I am a hockey mom.

I believe that I am but one of many, that our diversity is our strength, that the sum is greater than the whole of the parts, that we stand together or fall alone, that an open hand is more powerful than a closed fist, that generosity is strength, that I am less when you are suffering and that I am strengthened by your joy, and that greatness cannot exist in isolation, for even Wayne Gretzky needed a team to play on. I am a hockey mom.

I voted for Barack Obama and I am a hockey mom.