Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sweetest Hangover: Ode to Split this Rock!

Don’t you hear this hammer ring?

I’m gonna split this rock

And split it wide!

When I split this rock,

Stand by my side.

(Langston Hughes)

Could have swapped spit

with the cute wild haired poet.

That’s how high I was, how happy.

He’s the one who sat up against me,

shoulder to shoulder at the open mic,

amid the expanse of open seats.

Who said I’m not coming onto you.

Said I’ve got a girlfriend at home.

He followed me to the Metro station,

said he didn’t. Still, there he was.

Me, I’ve got a poetry hangover.

If there’s a cure for this, I don’t want it.

If there’s a remedy, I’ll run from it.

I’ve got the sweetest hangover.

Not an ounce of liquor in my system,

no smack, no maryjane, this is the real thing.

Got drunk on Mark Doty & the murdered gay boy he brought back to life.

All sugared up on Naomi Shihab Nye’s mamool cookies,

still wiping away the powdered sugar, dates, nuts

from the clumsy front of my blouse.

Boozed up on Snookie Johnson’s wiley shit at the military recruiters’ office.

I’m no Diana Ross

singing some silly disco trash.

(That might be Regie Cabico,

but I don’t wanna say diva shit

when it’s not mine to be saying.)

I’ve got the sweetest hangover.

I don’t wanna get over

Sweetest hangover.

Intoxicated by Patricia Smith‘s smoldering self,

tingling with sex & sanity & righteous rage.

Martín Espada’s baritone repeats, resounds, rejoices in my head,

like I’m fumbling & stumbling en la calle San Sebastián.

Dennis Brutus, his real life story splitting real rocks,

not metaphorical Langston Hughes poetics,

nearly sobers me up…but not quite.

Poetry is what got me sloshed, pissed, got me hopped up.

Still poetry-drunk on the late subway ride,

a homeless woman asks for 75 cents.

Out of my pocket, three coins;

I place them in her soft palm.

As I do, she admires my ring.

I give that away, too.

She thinks I’m shitting her.

I tell her I want nothing in return.

She rummages her bags, intent on reciprocity,

so we engage in sweet Southern barter, sweet Southern banter.

Call it what you will: plastered, besotted, soused.

If there’s a cure for this, we don’t want it.

If there’s a remedy, we’ll run from it.

We’ve got the sweetest hangover.

For this imbibing

in politics & people & poetry,

there was a hammer ringing,

but no splitting headache.

Instead, we split the rock;

we split it wide.

Karen G. Johnston


Mark Doty read his poem, “Charlie Howard's Descent,” the actual STR reading can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28AYjytJHvE

Naomi Shihab Nye's poem, “Gate A-4,” is from the book, Honeybee (2008); she read it as her parting gift on the first evening of the festival.

Snookie Johnson is a character that Kenny Carroll has invented for his poem, SNOOKIE JOHNSON GOES DOWN TO THE RECRUITER'S OFFICE NEAR BENNING ROAD & STARTS SOME SHIT, which can be found at http://washingtonart.com/beltway/carroll.html

Martín Espada read marvelously his poem, En la calle San Sebastián, from his book, Alabanza: New & Selected Poems

Dennis Brutus is a poet from South Africa who organized to ban that country from participation in the 1970 Olympics because of the Apartheid regime. He was jailed for his actions, imprisoned on Robbin Island with Nelson Mandela, and had to break rocks as part of his imprisonment.

Patricia Smith is just plain kick-ass. More about her can be found at http://www.wordwoman.ws

Regie Cabico was one of the STR! festival organizers and ran the open mics with grace, humor, and no small amount of liquor.

I Am Not a Jew

My first father
sired three children.
Raised nary a one.

A different mother, the oldest,–
the only one to keep the Jewish surname –
is born-again Christian.
Go figure.

My older brother --
with whom I share
the same adopted Scotch last name
(not only cuz it was our new dad’s ancestry,
but his preferred drink of choice) --
he’s the most observant Jew
I’ve ever met.

Keeps Kosher,
keeps Shabbat,
keeps going to Israel.

Ditto go figure.

Me? I used to say
I’m the most Jewish goy
you’d ever meet.
The highest compliment in college?
I keep forgetting you’re not Jewish.

Now, you ask?
That’s not my path,
not my point
on the odd continuum
of Wasby progeny.

I’m Unitarian Universalist,
with Buddhist tendencies.
more than prayer,
is my schitck.

Though my politics
are nowhere near
middle of the road,
I guess my faith is.
Somewhere between
support for killers of abortionists &
support for walls around Palestinians.
Somewhere between
only one chosen people &
only one Father God.

Still, Pesach –
Passover for your Gentile types –
remains head & shoulders
my favorite religious holiday.
I love the story of liberation,
I love the horseradish.

I love that there are Souls on Fire,
that Judiasm encourages believers
to rail against God.
Given what this world dishes out,
anything else would be farcical.

I love that the red-Commie rabbi,
who oversaw my brother’s conversion,
told him it was okay to be agnostic:
he would be joining a long & proud line
of Jews who question God.

So I guess you could say --
and you wouldn’t be wrong --
though I am not a Jew,

I am Jewish.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Albert Einstein Memorial

This is my favorite place in all of Washington, DC. It was the first place I went after I arrived in DC on Thursday for the Split This Rock! Festival: Poetry of Witness and Provocation (which was kick-ass, in and of itself).

I spent an hour sitting with this bronze larger-than-life guy, offering to take photos of the few tourists who found their way so that everyone in their group would be in the picture, writing, trying to find a sunny, comfy place to sit since the wind was so darn cold.

This place is special to my kids, too. The first time I took them to it, we arrived around midnight via train, they were SOOOOO wired, so we went to the statue. Of course, it was dark. It was April, so the temperature was comfortable, even that late. Both were ABSOLUTELY convinced they saw Albert actually move. Then, a few years later, we discovered that the statue talks back to you, if you are standing in just the right place.

At the risk of over-using the concept, there is a sacred energy in this little courtyard with the scent of boxwood wofting about. I think the statue amplifies it (the sacred energy, not the boxwood), but I'm guessing it was there before, and is made more so by the gathering of people to this lesser-known monument on the National Mall, quite close to the Viet Nam Memorial.

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Offered Nonetheless

In the crush of winter air,

my humble bow

to the oblivious universe

otherwise unnoticed

except the 15-month old

tottering cheekily,

peering boldly,

through café curtain.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Season of Shooting Stars

We lay upon acorn-strewn lawn

still vibrating with the day’s early scatter

of gravel under reckless pick-up truck,

dumb-happy golden retriever in the back,

all nose and tongue and tail.

On the other side of that long orchard driveway,

we slept between lichen-covered farmhouse

and ancient privet hedge that topped out

at the same height as my grandfather’s buzz cut.

Our bodies splayed upon grass that had been day-green,

but was now a hue mixed by rural night:

something darker, moister, not wholly unrelated,

but something altogether different.

Not so much sibling, as first cousin.

Like we were: evenings without curfew or bedtime.

In the midnight air, crazy cousin confessions,

so yeasty we kneaded them into rising goose bumps,

so tantalizing, we shivered from spine and skull;

we owned that and every moment.

She was daughter of an unstable farmer,

beauty queen looks, commensurate depth.

Me: daughter of one who escaped,

pudgy, plain, curious about the world.

Like strawberries in June,

or corn on the cob and fireworks,

I thought there was a season for shooting stars.

We’d spend those warm August nights

in hand-me-down flannel cocoons,

watching for what came every year,

like clockwork, like fruit-bearing trees.

Flat on the ground, the privet our new horizon

the oak loomed with its back board attached too high

unless one of the uncles lifted us straight up

for the slam dunk, ball back to earth with loamy thud.

Deep sky yielded flaming lights

over the Lower Place,

over Grandpa Ralph’s across the way,

over our heads.

Way over our heads.

There was a time I was convinced

I stood a chance of plucking –

all on my very own --

at least one luminous streak

from its cosmic fabric.

Could capture it in my favorite pail:

sun-paled mint green plastic,

discarded Tupperware,

the rim melted on just one side.

Proof that someone, somewhere, somehow,

had acquired the magic meteor,

had burned the bucket before,

probably hand singed in the bargain,

and set her imagination on fire.

(cc) Karen G. Johnston

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Narrative of a Friendship Late in One Life

Today marks the yahrzeit of John Brentlinger. One year ago today he died. One year ago yesterday I said good-bye through his comatose haze. I do not know the Mourner's Kaddish, but today I wish I did.

One says metta for all sentient beings. Can one say it for a someone who has died?

John, may you be safe and protected. May you be peaceful and happy. May you be healthy and strong. May you have ease of well-being and accept the conditions of the world.

This compilation is a series of "letters" I wrote to John as our friendship began to take root. I never sent them to him. Something about the friendship between us inspired writing of all sorts: these "letters," a series of poems (a few of which John was aware of). It seemed a fitting way to mark this day by posting this.

Narrative of a Friendship Late in One Life

Diagnosis & Response

When I first read about your diagnosis in the church newsletter, I cried. For several days, not constantly, but each time I sat to meditate, each time some stillness entered my life. I did not know you – still do not – in the sense we had never spent time together, hardly exchanged words in person, and yet we knew that we orbited the same precious atmosphere. How is it that we knew this? It remains a mystery to me when I try to put words to it, though inside of me, it makes perfect sense.

So I cried, sometimes small tears, at least once weeping that brings on a rocking back and forth that I do to try to self-soothe. As I remember that particular rocking, I can still see the late spring light coming through the attic window. I see that light and myself rocking, but can’t quite feel it. Makes it sound disembodied but I was not. Maybe just the memory is.

I cried for you, because lung cancer is such a scary phrase. All couplings of words that end in “cancer” live on the continuum of doom, but I think those that start with “lung” and “ovarian” have a special place. An infamous place.

And I cried for me because, it turned out, I had a story line running in my head about how our lives would meander together at some point in the future, that it would happen of its own accord, because we had found we were kindred spirits. It would just happen and I didn’t need to make it happen. And as one of my spiritual tasks is to live into letting things happen, rather than making them happen, I thought I was doing the right thing.

But here was this diagnosis and my chance to “let” it happen was being stolen – really it felt like the chance for any friendship was being stolen, decimated. I felt robbed – which goes to show how self-centered I am, that I hear about a cancer diagnosis in another person and I feel robbed.

I think it was one of those moments, in front of my altar when the idea came to me. I might lose the chance for a friendship, but not the opportunity to connect to this precious gem of a man and to offer some light in a time likely dark and heavy for this family. I decided that I would write out quotes and poems and stories and send them, send a plethora of them, send them written and printed on bright colored paper, not send them all at once, but send them daily, so that there was this sense of abundance, perhaps a joyful anticipation each day that mail arrived at your house.

I am so glad that these gems have not only brought you light (in the form of laughter and reflection), but also that it has brought us together and resulted in our date for coffee later this morning.

Maybe Early October

I saw you in between services, waited (not really patiently) as you spoke with Brenda. I just wanted to say hello, because when I see you, I light up (I think it must be visible on the outside) and though I didn’t have anything in particular to say to you, I wanted to say hello. I just wanted to be closer to your orbit. I waited patiently, I’m not even sure you knew I was standing there as long as I did. Then you interrupted your talking with Brenda, you turned and said, pointing to me as if to introduce me, “This is one of my angels.”

You couldn’t have made me happier in that moment. I mentioned to you that in a few weeks that I would be doing a sermon and I hoped you would make a point to come. You said you would.

I wanted you to come because I felt inspired by you, by who I thought you were, and by your sermon on traveling. And once the sermon was nearly finished, it turned out that you lived in several places in the sermon I had just been writing. At first, the sermon seemed to want to be about the difference between helping professions and activism, but too much judgment came out in between each line. Thankfully, the sermon found its true message – not all writing does. As I’m sure you know.

A Sermon with Feet

It was a good sermon – good in content, good in delivery. As I am finding, now that I have given more than a few sermons, people want to share with you how they were moved or, sometimes, offer unsolicited advice. This aspect of sermon giving is a double edged sword for me, one that leaves me uncomfortable. I understand and want to feed that dynamic of being moved by someone’s words, of sparking off them, of expressing gratitude. I feel a bit uncomfortable being the focus of that gratitude, both because I feel modest and because I hunger a little too much for the compliments. Anyway, I am curious about how my words move people, so I listen to what people are willing to share with me.

There were two positive comments that stood out for me:

“A thing happens to women in our 40s. Our voices get stronger. Your voice was strong in this sermon, even stronger than just last year, when you gave your first sermon.”

“You really get him.”

The former is from an older (well, to me, she is older; to you, she is younger) long-standing member of the congregation. It was kind and unexpected.

The latter was also unexpected and filled me with great joy. Isn’t it wondrous that just four words can do that? As you know, the second comment was from your wife. Even now, it makes me so happy. I could spend the time in figuring it out – but I think I won’t. I’ll just let it be.

Make, not Let

At one point, I sent you an email and said that I would love to get together with you sometime for coffee or conversation. I felt hesitant, not wanting to intrude in your life, knowing you were tired and likely busy with all the things attendant to having lung cancer and seeking recovery.

You responded somewhat strangely, perhaps vaguely and the date I proposed didn’t seem to work for you. I took this as a clue that I shouldn’t pursue it too strongly. I let it go.

Then at the sermon on Sunday, you said, “Let’s find that time to get together.” That opened the door for me. But do you know what pushed me through? The source of my current romantic confusion/heartache – David. He is a computational biologist who is currently working at MIT on cures for childhood leukemia. I have told him about you, about my connection to you, about the spiritual meaning it holds for me. I do not know if he knows this because of his work, or from the time he once volunteered for hospice, but when I said that your doctors are so impressed with your recovery, he didn’t seem convinced. He said, “Lung cancer doesn’t have a cure. It’s mostly 6 -12 months from diagnosis, a few who make it a couple of years. But there are always those one or two who recover and for no reason we can figure out. And that always gives hope.” His tone made it sound like a fool’s hope, but true nonetheless.

I knew that I had to make a date for coffee with you then and there. I emailed you that evening and when I didn’t get a response, I called you a few days later on the phone.

Our First Coffee Date

What can I say about this luscious 80 minutes with a near stranger who couldn’t be more familiar? How thankful I am that you had the energy to drive, to sit and stay awake in our local vegan coffee house! How you made this effort for me, to be lucid, to take on meeting a new person who was, as far as you were concerned, known to you already. What have you seen in me to make it worth your while, your heavy effort?

Maybe it was easier because it wasn’t meeting someone new. It was renewing an old acquaintance. I’m not a believer in past lives, but maybe we share some energy from the same approximate region of Emerson’s Oversoul.

I like that idea.

The flow of conversation – even with your hesitations and attempts to mask memory gaps – was fluid and reassuring and striking and sonorous. Why is it I felt at such ease? Why did I want to share bits of each part of my life? Delivered two of my poems for you. (And gratefully accepted your single critique, which voiced the only discomfort I had with a line in the poem. It is changed now and each time I say that line, you are there.) Told you of my latest romantic quagmire. Drew you out, getting to hear stories of your quarter century of trips back and forth to Nicaragua.

Your question of me about politics – I didn’t get it at first. I got stuck on it being so close to the November election. I wanted you to think I was radical, not some soft liberal, so I voiced my blasé opinion that it wouldn’t matter if the Dems took Congress. But you didn’t want to know my analysis of encroaching fascism (I said it like I had been the first to name it – I am amazed and embarrassed by my arrogance).

No, you wanted to hear the story of how my 10 year-old daughter sees sexism and racism and privilege in advertising and questions it, because politics is personal and deep and that’s how I’ve raised her. I had trouble telling the story to you because it’s so deep, I forget it’s there. Deep. Organic.

Like I think you live your flawed life. Like I live my flawed life.

And that was our first date. Let us hope it is not our last.

Hatless Courage

I think you came to the poetry service that I co-led over Labor Day weekend. I didn’t read any of my own poetry, but I read aloud the poetry of some wonderful others. The theme was Love, but not sappy love. It was called after a line in one of Adrienne Rich’s poems: “toward a new kind of love your life has never allowed“.

I think it was at this service that I saw you take off your hat, show your bald head. I was embarrassed how, earlier, before I knew of your diagnosis, I had mentioned that you had your hat on, you took it off, and your shock of white hair was gone. I didn’t know what to say. I wonder what I did say, if you remember my reaction, which was probably not especially graceful. I fear it might have been “John, your beautiful hair is gone!” like my appreciation to your hair was the center of importance. I wonder how many times you encountered – still encounter – reactions like that. Not unkind reactions, but ignorant ones. Because at that point, I didn’t know about the cancer and didn’t guess it either.

Anyway, it was after that I heard about your diagnosis, understood what had happened to your hair, and cringed in self-recrimination.

Then there you were, as I read poetry about Love, and your hat was off as you sat in the pew and I felt such love for you and your courage to sit hatless in our holy house. I think I wrote you a card and told you so. A card (I hope) or an email (at least). I hope it emboldened you.

Thirty-three Years Difference

Thank god you are as old as you are. If you were thirty years younger (or even 20, given my proclivities) I would have a wicked crush on you. And that would mess things up, I’m pretty darn sure of it.

Be as Miserable as You Are

I haven’t seen you around much and though that’s not so unusual, I sensed something was up. I don’t really have a true sixth sense, the way my friend Hanneli does, some kind of special key to a different plane of existence. So when I get one of those feelings, like I know something that isn’t rationally knowable, it’s usually just a sublimated wish. Like the thousands of times I have become smitten with someone and said, “Oh, he’s the one…” Wrong. Just wishful.

But I called you tonight, which felt forward, fearing intrusive. I called, put on a casual voice like it was okay to be calling. Asked, “Is John around?” when Sandy answered the phone. Sure, just a minute, who’s calling? Her friendly, welcoming tone when I said my full name put me immediately at ease. Somehow, I have entered your circle. I am welcome. I guess it’s my angel status.

I ask, “How are you?” and you say, well, it’s a long question. Then you say, it’s a short question with a long answer. I already knew, even before the how are you, it wasn’t good news. How could it be? Yet I feel like a bubble has burst, the one you have tried so hard to inflate around you and all who are near you: the bubble that you might be able to lick this thing that really no one licks, just endures.

You say you are fatigued. I know there is more. Do I wait for you to tell me or do I ask? I should wait, this is your life, this is your death, but I can’t. I don’t feel like it. I ask why, I ask if you know why you are so fatigued. And when I do, it’s not me setting the pace and you being dragged along. It’s our pace and so we talk.

The damn thing has invaded your spine. Two weeks ago you found out. New course of radiation. Trips to Boston. Both which wear you out. Your son from California is here today. I know one had been up from North Carolina for the last big holiday a month ago. I wonder what your relationship with these children, grown adults still older than me by at least a decade, is like – what it was like before the diagnosis. What, if anything, has changed.

You apologize for being the bearer of bad news. I chide you for such a worry. I understand that perverse dynamic: the sick, who are living it, become caretakers of those who must only listen to the news. It has the potential to be transformative, but too often it is a burden and is tiresome, spiritually and physically. I do not want to be this kind of person in your life.

You are tired. Friends are taking care of you. Food is taken care of. You are trying to read and rest. The bed is now downstairs. A sure sign, no doubt not lost on you, but is it spoken aloud? Dare I say it? And the point would be?

My offer of food declined, I say stalwartly that I will re-up my letters. I say you can read them if you are inclined, disregard them if you so choose. Sweetly, and truthfully, you say you are always inclined to read my letters. If we had been in the same room, I would have blushed.

You say I am welcome to drop by. Really? I am so pleased at the invitation. I say, I will come on Friday. That I don’t care how miserable you are, you needn’t put up a show for me or apologize for having bad news. You can be as miserable as you like, I wouldn’t have it any other way, or else I won’t come. You laugh, but there isn’t much umph in it. That’s okay. Sad, but okay.

So I will see you in a few days, man who has become this dear friend.

Driving on Interstate 95

I sent you new notes with new quotes on vibrant paper, planning to visit you a few days later on Friday. Inbetween, a few days away with my kids – off to Mystic, Connecticut. On Thursday night, as I was driving on Interstate 95 South, from New London to Fairfield, a poem came upon me.

Already dark, we were heading to friends to have dinner at their home. All I could do was drive on, keep one hand on the wheel and use the other to write what I hoped was legible scrawl of words that might become lines sometime. It’s actually something I’ve become decent at, was inspired to perfect after reading a wonderful poem about the very act of writing in the dark so as not to lose a dream image.

And so in a state where it is not legal to drive while talking on your cell phone without a headset, I paid attention to the letter of the law, not the spirit. And wrote. Wrote legibly. Wrote legibly about you. Wrote about you and this latest cancer. This one in your spine. This malignant lace.

Memento Mori

I am unsure. How to go about this death thing has me a bit stymied. I have always, as long as I can remember, been at ease talking about death. Long before I began working with kids with murdered parents, dead parents, grieving living parents. Before two of my clients in the homeless shelter died. One, an overdose of heroin. One, frozen to death on the sidewalk under the watchful, and inept, window of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Long before my two uncles suicided, one by shotgun and one by yet another drug overdose.

It just doesn’t scare me. Which is to say, it does scare me, but not talking about it scares me more, makes me more uncomfortable, makes me ill-at-ease, makes me feel as if I am being complicit with some dangerous secret.

I grew up with enough of those that I try to steer clear.

So I wonder what it will be like if I send this latest quote to you, this one from Alice Walker’s “Living by the Word.” Will it feel like I am not being the good cheerleader that everyone is supposed to be, rallying behind life in the face of overwhelming odds? (And then shunned, kept out, because I didn’t play along, didn’t play by the rules?)

Or will it be a sweet release, the festering sore let free of its insidious pus, painful, but relieving? The truth spoken, unafraid, named and therefore, not so threatening, not so menacing?

Or will I join a hearty (perhaps even brazen) company of men and women already sharing your orbit, already conversant in substantial care of you? Good people already fluent in Memento Mori : “the constant awareness of death; acceptance of mortality and dedication to life regardless”

May it be so.

Three Newspapers

How can such ordinary objects hold such sinister anticipation? In conversation with a mutual friend, who knows you a little less than I do but whose partner knows you much better, I hear that he tried to call you yesterday, that your voice mail was full. He did not know of the latest occurrence and so I told him. Him, whose own mother has been battling cancer for three years and is hosting dinner parties, from whom he just returned after a holiday in Florida with this new partner, his fiancée, who met you years ago in Nicaragua and is on her way there now.

Like you are supposed to be. Going to Nicaragua tomorrow, January 4th. According to Tom, you are expected there, no one there in the southern climes of Florida-on-the-way-to-Nicaragua knows that you are sick again.

So I went by today. Had planned to go yesterday but it didn’t work out. Went by expecting (hoping?) to see you, not really giving much attention to the comment about full voice mail.

When I arrived, there were three newspapers in the box. Four days’ worth. No mail in the letterbox, but that’s not a surprise. No mail in three days due to a planned holiday (New Year’s Day) and an unexpected (in my opinion, unwarranted) one to mark Gerald Ford’s funeral.

I knocked. No answer. No car in the driveway. I pushed at the knob; the door opened. It does not surprise me that you leave your home open. I called out your names: “John? Sandy?” Nothing. All in meticulous order. No break in. No sign of what would turn out to be the emergency unplanned trip to the hospital, though I’m not really sure what the tell-tale signs of that would be.

I brought in three now-sinister newspapers, left them on your couch. A note in my handwriting, with my name and number at the bottom, perch atop, wondering what comes next.

Monday, March 3, 2008

ain't that sweet?

Ain't that sweet? My friend, Roy, sent it to me. (http://returntothecenter.typepad.com/the_center/)