Courtyard – A Moment


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Courtyard – A Moment


Two winters ago. Paris, daily rain for three weeks. Stolen passport, stolen money. But not lost, or scared, not really. It is Paris, after all.

The wait was long, for the passport. The French like to do things properly, and time moves in slower waves there; it is one of the countless reasons my love for the place runs so deep: my true nature is both slothful and awake, qualities that seem unable to intermix in the either-or of the United States. It is possible to be both sleepy and piercing, Godard proved it.

Grey skies that turned pinkish blue every evening, as the lights of the City refracted against the heavy clouds. Headlights were blurred stars, taillights the brilliant tips of embers.

That winter I had been married many years, none of them particularly happy, and as each passed there grew more and more polluted space between us,  tiny toxic rivulets carving intricate gulches throughout the landscape of our life. His life. My life. Joined, by then, only by the three iron threads of children. They formed, poor innocents, the dangerous bridge between us, and the bridge served as a mirror in reverse to our growing offspring: the more they grew and thrived, the thinner and more rickety became the passage between us.

Passport, gone. Money, gone. Concern or worry from my lover, gone. (No. Not lover. My husband.) It was his moment to unmask the years of rage, the years of perceived betrayal and impatience, even hatred, that had grown in him like a shadow turned, through its neglect, to something solid and corporeal.


Trip extended for the wife, which created anxiety but of course also joy: Paris! She was trapped in the web of embassies and papers to be filled out; she became friendly with the head of security at the U.S. Embassy, who on the last day told her she was “magnifique,” and gave her a perfectly timed wink.  A man at home with three children. A man at a home that didn’t feel like a home, waiting for a woman who didn’t feel like a wife but a series of necessities, unexamined promises, lists gone stale through repetition:
1. Save the vulnerable wife.
2. Save the vulnerable wife.
3. Have sex, never enough.
4. Fight about the children.
5. Fight about the wife’s constant lateness. The disrespect.
6. Fight about money.
7. Fight about money.
8. Just in case (6) and (7) were not covered in full, fight with more vitriol. Over $.
9. Feel guilt because – despite the debt – flowers, jewels, remembrances of any sort
have never been given.Ever.
10. Fight about not going out.
Which the wife now understands was never about
money, but the tedium of the wife. (Knife-pain, shivering lips, still, to write that
particular Truth.)

Now the wife is not a wife, and knows she has not been for many years. What is a wife anyway? Now the not-wife thinks often of the etymology of husband – from the Old Norse Hus, or house, and bondi, peasant, householder. And of course, Husbondi as Master.

Now the not-wife understands that she hates living in and owning a house, and keeps the days marked on her office wall until she can rent a studio in some ancient part of Paris. And she is certainly not a peasant, either in antecedent or taste. The Master element… this is more complex. Perhaps the now-not-wife was searching for a Master. Someone to lay waste to her appetites, her peripatetic nature, her groundlessness. Perhaps the now-not-wife wanted to slaughter (husbandry) the delicate ether of her half-embodied nature and become a woman, rounded and busy, unafraid to touch the Earth, beast of burden to Hus and Master.

Tame me. Slay me. Put your hands around my neck on Friday; I’ll join the corporate sisterhood on Monday.


It didn’t quite work out that way.
When I was in Paris that year we fought. By text, by email, occasionally by phone. I could feel the messages delivered to me. Not the messages sent through crude technology, but the messages of the invisible companions who have always traveled beside me, within me, and have been silenced to an alternating grief and bemusement at what their charge has (not) been up to all these many many years.

As he typed furiously the words
“You are a selfish bitch.”
“You only think of yourself.”
“I have lost hours of work trying to get a card/money/ID to you”
those Daimons slowly stirred, and their song, inseparable from action, woke me to the loneliness, the nothing-ness, of attempting to shape-shift my shapeless Self into little more than a sweet smelling mare in a well-kept barn.

The Daimons sent me a cruel gift, or was it a test? Both.
They placed my bodily form, tiny and freezing in the early winter twilight, at the very center of the Louvre’s Cour Carree, which still bears stones from its early life as a 12th Century fortress. The light lifted, the courtyard seemed alive from every angle, every height, as tourists took photos in the precious brief glow of the soft sun.

Sound. Light. Cold facades briefly blond-white before the coming darkness. Lovers. Space. So much space, but of the joining kind; I felt held close to the city and its most charming hour.

My phone lit up with many letters that formed just enough words that I finally understood. Despite Daimons and books and poems and travels and children, I am terribly slow to face the realizations handed to me. But that moment, I saw.. I felt.. I knew. I stared at the hard mean words and grew colder, deep in the bone.

I am sure many thoughts drifted about my frightened mind, but mainly they settled like small birds with tired pale wings on slender branches:

All gone.
Or really

With thanks to Anne Carson, without whose tangos I don’t think I could go on.




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This morning I listened for hours to Nina Simone. Sometimes it is too painful to listen to Ms. Simone. Too much pain, too much truth, too much prescience, too much beauty. She blinds one. And then forces one to see. And then blinds again, witchy and sexy and one of the sublime American soothsayers in this country’s entire bloody history.

During one electric moment with her audience, Nina said, “They are gunning us down. One by one. You know they are.” And a man shouted from the rows (pews), “We love you Nina.” And she said, and we all believe it, “I love you too.”

I saw her a year before she died. Now, I am almost relieved she is gone, though she saw this coming with such clarity she would have been the least surprised of all of us.
This picture was taken yesterday, of course. Not 50 or 60 years ago.

I know only shame and anger about the United States. Then I think, well, Nina came from its haunted depths.

But her pain was shaped in large part by the forces depicted so crudely in this photograph. And she left.

All these words: tolerance, progress, peace, acceptance: empty. The words of a white world, blind to the reality of our history and history’s constant repetition, record on repeat.
Nina became ill with rage.
Or was it Sight?

The Best Farewells are Brief


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The Best Farewells are Brief

On an afternoon in July,
I read the following:
“Decree was granted early.”

For a moment
I imagined a telegraph,
$1.00 a word.

 The sexiest men
are always the most succinct.

And polite.
No one can say
he did not wait
and wait and wait,
Until the only thing left in him
was to fasten tight his boots
and wander into the cold clear quiet night.

And now I am crazy again,
he even said so this afternoon,
after I threw a tiny golden shoe,
at his retreating shoulders.
As it pivoted in the hot summer sky
the sequinned sparks became fire.

“What the fuck are you doing,
 you crazy person?”

Two days ago we made love and he said
“You are the missing puzzle piece.”

But now it is my mind that is all
a puzzle,
and sure to go missing
once again.

A Letter to my Teacher


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A Letter to my Teacher
The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing, to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.
— Keats, in a letter to his brother George, 1819

Dear Manouso,

A couple of days ago you gave a dharma talk. It was primarily about aparigraha, or the cultivation of intense focus that leads one closer to Realization, or at least a glimpse of it. In your singularly wry manner you mentioned the fact that your guru, Mr. Iyengar, believed that with disciplined practice and total dedication, it should take one about 3 and a half years to master the entire canon of the asanas. And although your students treated this statement with laughing disbelief, the idea of mastery, what it means, and perhaps more importantly what it does not mean, caught my attention enough that I have thought of little else since.

It is commonly thought that the creation of a ballet dancer, particularly a girl, takes a full 10 years, and these 10 years must have behind them almost impossible prerequisites of talent, correct character, shape of limb, length of muscle, resistance to injury etc.  When I think of the technique necessary for the speed, the lift, and the precision of ballet, it does seem true that Terpsichore more than stage mothers grant the gift of this art.

Here, however, is the poignant tragedy of dance, and, perhaps, almost all art: a girl at 18, perfectly trained, is ready to dance. But she cannot understand the secret meanings within technique; these are insights granted only with the passage of time, the softening and opening of the mind as it passes from the ecstasies of narcissistic youth to a slower pace that makes way, if one is lucky, for a comprehension and appreciation of the subtleties of art and existence itself. Such awakening is available only to an intellect that has the capacity for patience, for stillness.

Great dancers who have the luck and temerity to make it to “the end,” never later than her mid-40’s, often say the same thing: My mind understands now, and my body cannot express the understanding.

This is, of course, a parable for the manner in which we all live and age, no matter what the gifts of our life: first the coming forth, then the shading of color between the lines of character, personality, a life lived; then the fading away, often just when the colors seem their richest.

I think this is one of the exquisite jewels of the yoga given to us by Mr. Iyengar and, now, by you. Perhaps a practitioner, armed with great intensity, ego, vigor, physical capacity, can master the asanas presented in Light on Yoga, but the essence of the practice does not align itself with physical mastery so much as the far more difficult inward (some, myself included, would say spiritual) understanding of what the practice is, why it is, and in how many infinite ways it can be approached, no matter one’s age or health. In an odd way, the yoga you teach, as sophisticated as it is, and as demanding as it is of one’s physical and spiritual attention, is also the most open and embracing, despite its reputation for exactly the opposite qualities.

Yoga seen from its purely physical perspective is analogous to many of the arts that have a poignantly limited life. There are the inevitable failures of the body, even as sensitivity deepens. Taken as the truly internal practice it is, however, and the fading away of the body, of health, of the people in one’s life, finally of life itself: this is the vast, intricate tapestry of Yoga. And in this way, the practice you teach is an encompassing one, like an ouroboros: here is the body, what insight can we gain from it; here is the breath, what can it teach us; here is the departure, and what have we learned, truly, as we leave it all behind?

In reverence,
your student, R



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It is 1 day after the last day, but there is no last day, only, as the mathematicians say, the Lemniscate, the circular 8, fallen to its side, inescapable infinity.

And on the 1st day, which was 2 days before the final day of 2000,
they made love
almost before they met.

She, the seducer, because he was the 1st man, and then, somehow, the last man,
(marriage is contradiction to the pencil point of infinite regress)
in an abacus of men she thought worthy of capture.

They were 1, and then, logically, painfully, 2.
So she tugged the dangerous curve of
back to the steady road of 1,
and they married.

She, the wizard of increase,
he, the patient accountant,
never quite able to catch
the equation.

1 became 2,
but the 2 died
at 9 weeks,

and her heart threatened
to make them only 1/2.

1 again became 2, but no! After 6 weeks, the discovery of another was made,
and so 1 became 3, 2 boys of = DNA. But upon their glorious 6 month birthday, they, too, died, and so 3 became 1 once again, but the part of the 1 carrying the 2 began to curl into a 0, so despondent was she.

In the 6th month of the year 2007, 1 (the 2 of them hardly conjoined anymore, except, perhaps, at the wide base) finally became 2 for the 3rd time, and he was born on the 28th day of a late winter month.

18 months slid down, or over, the slipstream of love, marriage, time,
and 1 girl came to them, and then they possessed, for a brief handful of happy years, what every symbol loves: mirrored symmetry.

2 boys
2 girls
2 dogs
2 cats

As in all good fairytales or equations that cannot be solved, even on a scroll that has
no end
and no beginning,
the mirror contained a crack, a flaw, a number overlooked.

She saw it, but did not see how
the mirror would shatter, and turn her mind to bloody ribbons –
she reached through the singularly complete reflection, over and over
and over again,
rather like a tall autistic child counting out her secrets in a corner of a lonely room.

She almost died, her mind decayed, and somehow out of the rotting
less than 0
issued forth 1 child of complete and total perfection. Check. Mate. In 9 months of play. In the sheering of her brain,
the child’s mother had granted every perfect wish:
1 health
2 beauty
3 great intelligence
4 the will and charisma of a queen

Love was a flood, swollen and rushing madly from her breast, her heart, the ruin of her brain.

The ruin was patched by:
12 months of therapy
200$ dollars every 60 minutes
1 quieting yellow pill
1 mellowing pink pill
3 astonishing red pills, that plugged the holes, and did a little extra on the side.

1/3 heart/brain surgeon
1/3 contractor (body, soul, brain, no job too small or big)
1/3 drug dealer, and you are lucky if you get a good 1. She did.

It is known, now, that if enough atoms are
then the chain reaction that results makes everything else,
as those who leave like to say,
“too little too late”

The story became a skipping record
and love, which all sadhus say is
does have an expiry date after all.

Mine was Solstice, 2017,
21 days into June,
450 days, give or take a 10 or 2, past the smoldering chain reaction
that even practiced habit cannot bury forever.

17 Years
6200 Days
1 Marriage
5 Children, 3 Living
1 little embryo
3 dogs
3 cats
2 Lawyers
4,000 Days of Love
4,001 Days of Fights

You do the math.

— for Alexander, the love of this life, and probably all the others too.
May you find great joy tremendous peace and exquisite love in whatever number of days come after The End of these, Our Days.



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avidyasmita raga dvesabhinivesah klesah
 – – Patanjali Yoga Sutra 2.3

“Lately, it’s all contradiction
 Lately, I’m not here
 Lately, I lust over self
Lust turn into to fear”
Kendrick Lamar, Lust

Today I am 44. When I turned 40, I went through the familiar dread and dismay many people know with the arrival of that arbitrary yet mysterious number: youth is dead, officially buried by some cruel cultural agreement that the only thing left for men is sophistication and wealth, for women a gracious turning inward to make room for her smooth skinned, more energetic young cohorts. Unless, of course, she insists on being noisy about career, sexuality, beauty, misogyny and children, in which case she is either a slut (cougar – a more wretched epithet could hardly be imagined) or a shrew. Today, especially, in the wordlessly tragic days of Trump and his henchmen, it seems men are encouraged to rage against the dying of the light (or rage against anything, really), while women should keep their fight squarely centered on an expanding waistline or missing a Botox appointment; we elected, after all, a man who freely calls women disgusting pigs and thinks nothing of raping the cute ones… but boys will be boys. And girls will be girls, until they are 40; then they are old.

When I turned 40 my inner world was transformed into a depressed charred landscape. I went through what one can only call a catastrophic, near-death breakdown. The collapse was due to many internal weaknesses, but certainly part of it was due to exactly how much I lived in tune with our obsession over youth, over the new and forever fresh; I was past my expiration date. I knew, too, that my marriage was somehow dissolving, or that perhaps it had never known solidity to begin with: my world became a mirage, an illusion that I saw, with my newly acquired antiquity, as delusion. People with greatly unrealized potential might suffer this turning of the decade more acutely than others, although success brings with it untold problems of its own unique nature. How, I often wondered during this time, did a dancer like Wendy Whelan cope with being ever more soulful in her dancing, while surely her body had begun its subtle show of cruel betrayal? A famous dancer once said, “Now my mind knows how to dance, and my body cannot.” A beautiful summing up of a life lived with intensity and discipline. What, though, of the rest of us, those who could have danced, but somehow always found reason to sit on the sidelines?

Those myopic questions occupied me for a couple of years. Now I don’t care. Today, when I began my day, I knew it was my birthday, but for several hours I couldn’t remember my age. Not out of the senility that is sure to come, but out of indifference. I am a middle aged woman. And that fact, or more accurately that label, has no meaning to me. The sad attachments to beauty, lost years, the ideal of who I was meant to be remain, but they are more and more blurred, like a Pointellist painting left in a soft rain. This morning I woke up in a small casita in Northern New Mexico, my beautiful, deeply troubled 7 year old daughter sleeping at my side. “Gift,” I thought, and then drifted back to sleep, vaguely wondering how she, not I, will weather the difficult months and years ahead.

My life, seen from quite literally any angle (in the so-called developed world, at least), is a sunken wreck. My health is faltering with deepening asthma and auto-immune issues. I’m about to lose my health insurance and wander into the desert of Trump’s poisoned maze of non-coverage. In just over one month I will be divorced, and the home to which I am moving, a sweet little Victorian bungalow, is a pathetic mess, having been half destroyed by a corrupt contractor.  The city in which I live is toxic to my health, and causes my asthma to be ever worsening, but my estranged husband and I were never able to settle on a place more conducive to the healing of my struggling lungs. I am in terrible need of water, of damp air, of air that doesn’t carry with it every particle of dust picked up from hundreds of miles around. I will be a single mother who knows a little bit about a lot of things, and almost nothing about the things that make up the practicalities of life. Money. Career. Material ambition. Living on the fucking ground. How does a woman who has her entire lived with ghosts in the ether or shadowed and lost souls in the ocean’s depths, suddenly live on the dry cracked Earth?

The answer is woven, intricately, into Practice. Meditation, asana, pranayama, prajna (insight), can lead one to a more and more insular world, or it can open one’s mind to the limitless quality of non-self, of actions made without all their usual attachments and agendas. Raga is the Sanskrit word for attachment; it is the true heart of practice. Why practice if not to engage with the deepest shadows, the most difficult patterns of one’s attachments, including all the beliefs we take to be concrete truths, and are in the end as solid as an eroding fresco.

It is evening. The grasses outside my window glow yellow in the clouded twilight; there is a storm to the South. It is my birthday. I’ve told no one, I’ve spoken to no one except my daughter. She just said to me, while I was writing the paragraph above, “Mama, will I die when I’m a teenager?”

I turned and looked at her.
“Look at me,” I said.
“No,” I said. “You will not die when you are a teenager.”
“But I could,” she said. “I could.”
“Oh, but you won’t. I know,” I lied.
Then I said: “You will die when you are a very, very old woman, filled with wrinkles like great-Grandmother.” She laughed when I said this.

“And when you die, you will be ready.”
“So I have time.” She said this as a statement, not a question.
“You have time.”
Avidya means ignorance. It is one of the fundamental blocks to practice. Without seeing the ignorance of the mind, one never sees the mind’s attachments. I suppose my attachment to my daughter, to her confidence in the exquisite Great Forever of existence that all little children have, spurs me on to cultivate a continued ignorance in her life. And, I suppose, my own.

As I grow older, and wander blindly into this new, strange territory of my increasingly alien life – solitary, stupid toward the simplest facts of daily needs – my practice, my willingness to engage with raga widens and deepens.

But the whisper remains: Do you remember? Do you remember the days when there was no gap between your body and the Infinite? Do you remember speeding down the highway with a stranger, or stargazing on LSD, or hitchhiking to Prague? Thinking, I cannot imagine Death; it is what happens to others.

The beauty of illusion and the speed of youth and the false connection of the body to the endless river of life…life…life and yet more life: it leads to such pain later, as the attachment is revealed to be a trick. Why wish it upon my daughter? Is it because I still yearn for it myself? Perhaps.

More likely though is that a human life has a trajectory, and it is a trajectory of limitless joy followed by limitless suffering, and then the slow, slow stepping away from the whole damn show. At 7 we are the shining star; at 40 we might grieve the departure of an audience. For me, at 44, I am content, for a moment anyway, to just watch the stagehands take down the set.



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I am looking at pictures of Palmyra.
The astonishing before
the devastated after.
If Palmyra was a ruin –
uncut jewel in the palm
of time –
what is it now?

The agora has been raided, again.

Palm trees looped the city
like a dancer’s arms
the smell of lemons
drifted to the theater
and the chorus lifted
its curtain of sound:
and warning –

Upon my curled legs
a small child sleeps,
lashes long as a peacock’s
tail, fine and glistening
with fever.
It is midnight.
Her breath steady
as a tidepool
and her small body
(all scuffed knee and rounded belly)
is a living shadow of Love,
Divine and Perfect
as a memory.

I read this:
our skin, the flesh underneath,
is imbued with stardust,
and once a child arrives
in her mother’s womb
it is the same: cells within
cells, so the blood remembers
what the mind cannot.

Within the dead
shines the deathless particles,
a passage
through time
and the secret arc
of history:
Aramean to Greek,
Roman to Arab,
mother to child,
to star
to ruin.

– – – for Khaled al-Asaad

The Age of Abandonment, in notes


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The Age of Abandonment, in notes

About a week ago I came to Paris. The world is an implosion: as the atmosphere thins and the sorrowful trees grow desiccated, weary of reaching, we do the same, mirror to mirror. Humanism is dying before it was fully born, and democracy seems to have been a brief experiment as we now return power to the powerful, poverty to the poor. Le Pen, Trump, Turnbull, Duterte, Maduro. There is a club to which only the murderous, the greedy, the obscenely wealthy and mentally pathological can belong, and we have anointed this club with the title “World Leaders.” All will fall, is falling, has fallen, the tenses only a pause now.

About a week ago I came to Paris. As my flight took off I learned I had no money in my account, my credit card was frozen, and I had not a Euro to my name. Fear. But I worked it out, sort of. The day after my arrival, which had been spent haggling with Western Union and banks, I could not get out of bed. So strange to be jet lagged. But I am never jet lagged. I am often, however, sick.

Not this sick. Fever vomiting dehydration a visit to a hospital IV fluids IV pain meds headaches so intense I cried out to my children, I knew I would never see them again. A sleepiness like death. No. A sleep of death, not rejuvenation, for I’m not sure how many nights, partial days were lost, are lost still. I miss my children. I want to hold their fuzzy heads, even the brilliant one, the one who rejects the holding and so most needs it.

I know the city. I arrived here, about a week ago, already knowing it with a fair bit of intimacy. City, I said, be my mother. Heal me. Light of spring awakening the secret beehives in the Jardin du Luxembourg, heal me. This pain, can it be prayed away? Can it be walked away, cried away? Music, then. Dvorak and Bowie and Denk playing Bach; Schubert quartets and the new Kendrick, the older Kendrick, the swoon of J.Cole.

It is difficult to be very, very sick in a city that is not, despite one’s most ardent wishes, a home. It is difficult to be so very ill all by oneself, to take the pain and cradle it, soothe it, reject it accept it breathe with it or against it; there is no one to remind you, except early Bob Dylan, that it is “life and life only.” Buddha does that too, but then I will pray, or cry, and turn Buddha into an idol, and he will disappear from my life. I don’t care if I turn early Bob Dylan into an idol; he disappeared from my life when he started making Victoria’s Secret ads.

I came to the city to study. To engage in spiritual practice with my teacher, Kia Naddermier. I adore her. I thought I needed this training, this Ashtanga Yoga training, more than anything else. But now I am a convalescent – yes of course like Proust, would you not think of Proust, to be sick and slowly wandering the boulevards of the 6th? I thought I would be practicing for days Ashtanga asana and kriya with a beautiful sangha.

Instead, I got this training.
I arrived in Paris about a week ago. All I know is leave-taking. My husband, who used to be my lover and has been my best, often only friend, for more than 17 years, is no longer my husband. My children are a fury; I am turning into a Mother, as opposed to mama. I always thought, somehow, I would be mama, and they would be my bunnies, safe under my soft, my infinitely soft touch. Money, home, health, my best girlfriend, who wrote me off as a hopeless bitch about a year ago.. sex, time, youth, family, Barack (fucking Barack, where are you? Stop accepting 400k fees for opening your beautiful mouth and fucking come back to us), love love love love love love

love gone pain here. love gone pain here. And here. There? No, further down. Neck. Here?  Yes, there, and lower, of course, always those low, still points, now untouched unseen just…gone. And Christ, even the italics, they’re just… me. Singing out loud on the sidewalks, talking to myself in print.

It is the age of abandonment. Everywhere. For the poor for the sick for refugees and migrants for the thirsty the hungry (why does no one speak of South Sudan?) for fine, cultivated minds, for women for the sensitive for lovers for lovers who conceive a baby and can’t afford to birth that baby for the young (here’s your Betsy DeVos, stupid and greedy as they come – enjoy, little ones, kissing goodbye your right to an education not owned by a fucking corporation), and may the gods help the old. And may the gods help all of us, because damn it may be this fever or this pain or this solitude but all I see when I open my eyes, or at least try to open them, is a farewell party.

And now I am tired and this was supposed to be brief. Brevity is not one of my strong points, a fact to which my ex-husband and his attorney might gladly testify. Maybe if I could just shut the fuck up, in my head, on this page, in the company of les autres, I would still be married. Maybe I’d have friends.

Somewhere does that world exist? For all of us? For me, for the mothers in South Sudan, watching their children die as their milk dries and the diseases come and the flies thrive; for those languishing in Duterte’s camps, for those to be deported by a man so stupid he governs by text, for the hipsters who ruin neighborhoods and for the solitary wealthy and for imprisoned black men and for their mothers and their lonely little daughters, does it exist?

Feet quiet upon the tired Earth
Hands down
Hands down
guns down
fingertips soft
bellies as full as they need to be
not more
and certainly not less
there is music
Can you hear
the whisper of Apollo
and the 9 muses
not Heaven
a softening
along those suture lines
even the Earth has them
that softening
is a song



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When she was four her mind perceived little, and so later, as a girl, then a woman, her memories of the youngest years were mainly absent, more collage of dream than story. She knew there were happenings, and for some period, to her, as her woman’s understanding transmuted all childhoods to myth, she saw her tiny body as having been alone, alone for enough time that time itself stretched, and sometimes she did not know if she had always been alone, or if it had been a minute or a year of nebulous danger.

After Miriam died, she went through her studio apartment, unpacking and then quickly reassembling handcrafted walnut boxes that fit together like well made Matryoshka dolls; “nesting,” she thought to herself, as she realized that the names “nesting” and “Miriam” ran in almost comically opposite streams. Miriam was her great friend, her protectress; she was a small lonely girl’s perfect template for dress, (wrinkled rose silk caftans that she herself would split up the middle, second hand cashmeres that smelled of cigarettes, tiny bracelets on tiny wrists that gestured, constantly, outward, as if reaching); for movement (soft, deliberate, iron moving like water); for voice, for conversation, for hair, for the needlessness of truth if something better were at reach.

Miriam drank. And took a cabinet full of vitamins, “for the skin and for the liver,” she would wink at the young almost-baby girl staring up at her. The child thought her mother had sent Miriam to her from Heaven, or at least from the expensive au pair company some of the mothers of her few friends used on the Upper West Side. But by the time she was nine she understood, she never could remember how, that Miriam was just a babysitter, and had sat for many children in the neighborhood as she submitted poem after rejected poem, went through lover after discarding lover. And so Miriam fell to earth, and the girl began to treat her with the same distracted contempt one might possess for an old, once furiously loved doll. This was an alteration in their relationship, she remembered (with blushing clarity), that made Miriam smile with some kind of secret tenderness the girl found both strange and off-putting; by the time she herself was dating she had no use for Miriam or her silks.

And so when Miriam died she returned, filled with regret and shame for the absent years, to the familiar apartment, mostly unchanged since those days of raw earliest girlhood. She saw the studio, finally, for what it actually was: the tiny abode of a solitary woman with exquisite taste, little sentiment, and an apparently unending love for fine, beautiful books. Every book, and there must have been close to two thousand lining the shelves in perfect, dustless rows, was a hardcover, its encasing paper as crisp as it had been upon arrival from the printing press.

There was no couch. Three old and highly polished cane chairs surrounded a Moroccan blue-tiled table, low and glowing like precious lapis. Under the table and chairs lay an old woven rug, thin and silken and fine, depicting the leap of the great Monkey-God Hanuman to Lanka, preparing his rescue of Sita, whom the viewer could just see in the lower left corner of the faded thread. She reached down to touch the fabric. It felt cold in her hand.

Under the one large window, facing East, was a small double bed, perched on a platform of bamboo. The sheets were old, the white not quite white anymore, but the cotton was pelt-soft, and when she lay her cheek to Miriam’s pillow she could smell the faded perfume and, she was convinced, some variant of medicated sickness and age. Next to the bed sat a table that was a small match to the larger one, covered in the same blue tile that her uneducated eye could not distinguish as either precious jewel or mere stone. Books piled high: a history of the sonnet, a French guide to reading Stendhal untranslated; a perfect hardcover of The Red and the Black in English. And, incongruously, two gossip rags, picked up, she wondered, by a sympathetic visiting friend bringing flowers or, frighteningly, by Miriam herself as she became too tired, too sad, to keep company with her great printed companions.

Her fingertips moved like fireflies over a small set of champagne glasses, a decanter with an exaggerated, arced neck both phallic and swan shaped, the stopper the thinnest raw crystal she had ever seen. There were no more vitamins, and the refrigerator was empty. Above the glistening blue-glass countertop she opened a pale grey shelf. On the lowest shelf was a large black box of chocolates, wrapped in cream ribbon, from Jacques Torres, and, next to the elaborate, elegant box, a round antique tin, out of place with its chintz-shine, filled with envelopes, medical bills, unopened letters and packets of paper, photos, the odd paperclip.

She took down both, carefully, as if she might be caught. She opened the chocolates as slowly as she could, and she thought of Miriam’s elegant, wrinkled hands receiving them from a nervous old friend or sympathetic employer looking at his watch. She lifted the box and inhaled the sharp, dark beans, the cocoa, the sweet cane sugar, the almond ganache; on one she smelled lavender so strong it was as if a bath oil had implanted itself deep within the small bark-brown skin of the truffle. Spice and salt, a long caramel dipped in coconut. The encasing silver foil. It was beautiful. And she knew Miriam had never seen it or cared. She slipped the box in her purse. Later, she might give it to her lover, and watch him eat, and watch the spell fall over him like mist. She smiled, her smile now almost identical to Miriam’s tender, secretive round red lips.

In the back of the small closet she found the silk dresses; in later years Miriam had apparently begun to wear thin wool sheaths as well, which seemed foreign to her. She could not imagine her babysitter, her keeper, in anything but those swaths of taupe or pale pink silks. She took one, the one she most recognized, and slipped it around her neck, like a scarf, like a noose. It encircled her blue veined collarbones with a coolness that grew quickly warm, then almost hot, as she next reached through the dying light of day to the dozens and dozens of perfumes, oils, and scented waters on her small walnut dresser. Chanel, Dior, Joy de Patou, even an unopened Banana Republic lime eau de toilette – all the usual scents one could buy at Sephora or Barney’s or duty free. Mixed in with them were the strange, nameless or unrecognizable oils and hard waxes of musk, ylang-ylang, pure rose, crystal bottles from out of the way narrow apothecaries in Dubrovnik. She had never fully believed Miriam’s stories about her travels (“The year I spent in Mongolia, learning how to ride without saddles or reins;” “I once knew an old, old man who had survived the carpet bombings in the jungles of Vietnam. We became great friends when I was working at a cafe in Auckland. I was with him when he died and he gave me an amulet. But I’ve no idea what’s in it because he had me swear on every honor not to open it..”). Perhaps she had been too cynical even at the age of four.

Rarely did Miriam read aloud, except for little poems by Milne, which acted like a sweet soporific during tantrums and those nights when she was too exhausted to sleep. Miriam told stories instead, which were either true or not true or perhaps a little bit true or perhaps mainly true. Or were made true through the telling, the transmuting whisper to the small ear of the small girl, falling asleep in her arms. Miriam used to rock her in her long, El Greco thin arms. Her mother had never rocked her, and never would, so Miriam’s arms were, to her, the wings of grace, and peace, and the deepest sleep.

She left the apartment abruptly, as if called. Outside the spring air was lit with an elongated sunset, and she knew not far away the oiled waters of the Hudson, the restless waves of the Atlantic, were lit with the dark, dancing rainbows of passing light. Like Miriam, she loved light that danced, she loved anything, actually, that moved.

She walked with the sunset, and then she walked with the dark, and then she walked with the settling night, starless, of course; she walked with the city as it woke to the night, and she marveled, again (how is it possible, the magic remaining with the repetition) at the living body of the city, how its breath changed with the hours, with the seasons, and how it seemed to writhe, constantly, both with and against itself. The City. Miriam told her she had lived everywhere, but the City was her home, even if she had no home there, even if she was gone for three or four or five years. “It’s the only home,” she would say, petting hair damp from a bath. “You will know. You already know.”

But her memory. From those years, her memories were scant and filled with blurred impressions. Miriam did not say those things. She is saying those things to Miriam, in her death. Yes? How is it possible that she remembers nothing, except the alone-time, but knows about the stories, Miriam’s hands, her silks? Her legs grew tired, and the further she walked from Miriam’s apartment, from her secret block in the heart of the West Village, the more confused her mind became, memory mixing with wish, wish blending with stories told to her second, third hand. She knew her Miriam. She knew that she had been alone (for how long?), and she knew that after the aloneness Miriam came. That is all she knew.

After crossing into Alphabet City and then heading North, and then West again, she made her way, exhausted, into a tourist bar by the Park. She sat at a darkened booth and took out the old strange tin. As an afterthought she took out the chocolates as well: if she fed them to her lover later that night, she wanted them to be new, and to smell like Miriam, not the tired leather of her purse.

Gently, as if handling a relic of infinite value and delicacy, she removed the tin’s bright top. She sifted, gingerly at first, and then with more force, through the envelopes, the trinkets, the poem fragments, the letters (one was from Auckland, she vaguely noticed), the small packets of bills, reminders, bookmarks from Paris and Quito. She was looking. Suddenly it was upon her, the hideous fact of her looking. Her search was a greed, and she was looking for something that she knew already was there, but some part of her mind – the stupid part, she thought – had to see, had to see proof of something never to be proven. Her hands dove into the tin, and the tin, she was sure, grew deeper with her reaching.

She got up, her legs restless, her face on fire, her body hot from the layers of silk woven like thick waves around her neck. As she rinsed her face in the bathroom, she gazed, hard, into the bright mirror. Her eyes were blue, “dolphin blue,” her first lover used to say. But as she looked she was sure they had turned the black of a moonless sky. They were the eyes of ink and earth. It is a trick of the mirror she thought, or it is a trick from Miriam; Miriam with the white Irish skin, the black Russian eyes. That, she thought, is a problem to be solved later or not at all.

As soon as she returned to her place at the table, three watered vodkas pushed to the side, she pulled up, her hands like harpoons, the prize that had for hours eluded her. Two photographs. Two photographs of similar shape and age, both shredded slightly along the edges, the images the faded-orange color so unique to family portraits of the 1960’s and early 70’s. She smiled, her lips red, and the men around her looked up from their drinks and their phones, suddenly alert to the double-presence of beauty and of danger. Her neck smelled of roses from Madagascar.

The first photograph was of her. Just her. Her mother had never taken a picture of her, and she had no idea what had happened to the silly school photos, the fake trees or swirled purples in the background. Had she ever had a school photo? But she knew of this photograph, this one proof of her small girlhood. She only knew because Miriam had mentioned it, casually, just before their last gathering. She had wanted horribly to see it, but she dared not reveal such need, such ache. As if, she thought now, as if Miriam did not know; she was simply waiting to be asked.

She did not recognize herself: wild blond hair to her shoulders, eyes huge, far apart, not blue like a dolphin, more blue like an empty sky that sees no rain. Hungry eyes, small mouth, a mouth unsmiling, eyes fearful, eyes of poverty, eyes of want. She grew up, she knew, on the Upper East Side. She went to the park with her Miriam. She played dress up and had dolls from Madame Alexander and stiffened Steiff teddy bears. One Christmas her mother’s boyfriend presented her with a dollhouse twice her size, to the embarrassed satisfaction of her mother and her own confusion over her somehow reduced place in the family. Were they rich? In the photo, she looks like a child from the woods of West Virginia, and even her striped turtleneck looked second hand.

She had always been told that she had been a beautiful child, and now she could see it. But the beauty was rooted in deprivation, in hunger, in some sort of nameless want. Is that still beauty, she thought? As she looked at the photo of herself/not-herself she went cold: there is nothing here, she thought. Nothing to be found, or seen, or admired or even loved. A beautiful hungry child. And that, she thought, is the most common thing in the world.

It was the second picture for which she had spent her life waiting, wishing to prove, to know, to see, and then to hide or burn. Could she burn it?

It was a photograph of her mother, taken about a year before her one, regretted pregnancy. She knew this photograph existed but she did not know how. She knew even less how Miriam came to be in possession of the image, or how she was so acutely assured she would find it in Miriam’s apartment. What does the mind know, anyway, she thought? Useless…

If she was a beautiful child she had only her mother to thank. Her mother was beautiful in an inhuman manner; it was a beauty that was the defining disruption and dictation of her life, and could never be otherwise. In profile her brow arched upward as if in permanent, questioning contempt; her nose was slightly sloped but thin from the front, and her eyes were wide as an alien. Or an angel. Or, as her lovers used to often conclude, a demon. Her mouth was as large as her jaw was delicate, and her lower lip looked permanently bitten, even a bit raw, and when she smiled her teeth glistened in perfect small rectangles. Side to side, forehead to jaw to neck to breast, she was only symmetry, a symmetry simply unseen and unknown among human beings. Women were usually not envious when they met her: they simply stared, surprised, stunned to silence. Only later, much later in the evening, or the next morning, hung over, sad, would they look at their own freckled skin, their stomachs soft from children, or one eye slightly smaller than its mate, and feel an ugly sort of shame, and her mother’s image would be a spell of remembrance: “you are not this you are not this you are not this…”

Her mother’s eyes, however, had a wry, mean glance, and this more than anything kept her beauty from being dulled to unmoving sculptural perfection; her sharp gaze, like an animal of odd intelligence, made her beauty something fluid, and, to those who lived close, something frightening and loveless.

In the photograph her mother was wearing an unusual gown designed by Charles James. The skirt billowed out in circles upon circles of cream and lavender silk, with an overlay of the finest chiffon that one could barely perceive in the faded light. Her gold hair was swept up in a complicated chignon, and instead of a tiara, as other women in the background wore, the top of her head was crowned with a ring of jeweled flowers so delicate they looked real.

Whoever took the photograph had clearly asked her to turn around: most of the image captured her back, the swiveling tiny, corseted waist, and the strapless cream silk bodice of her complicated gown. The camera had caught – “captured, at last,” she thought – her mother’s huge laughing smile, her arched cheek, her heavily lined eye, as she turned her head around just enough for the photographer to press, to click, to steal, the briefest moment of her strange, mysterious, and long life.

It had been a costume party, she thought. It must have been. The late 1960’s. A Charles James dress from the ’30s. Her hair done up like Diana Ross. She stared. Her mother, free. Her mother… a winged creature, cruel and oddly devoted. Her mother, empty of love but free, and the freedom somehow replaced the love. At least until that time, was it a day? A year? Ten minutes? The alone-time, and then Miriam, and then she, the winged mother with the cruel laugh men loved, was gone.

She remembered a story. At least, she thought she remembered it. Was it a story? Or was she seeing for the first time? Miriam had told her, she was sure. Yes, she was sure it was Miriam, and that she was not seeing this in the photograph. Or perhaps she was seeing it in the photograph and it reminded her of what Miriam had told her? Her eyes blurred, and an ancient, patient tear emerged from her weaker eye, and that tear was quickly followed by others, and her face became like a map, where one could point, and say, “Here, this river is created by solitude. And over here, one finds a tributary created by canyons of false friends…. the territory is beautiful, isn’t it? The land is soft, the water is flowing, flowing, down into the gorge of neck and breast. The rivers will not dry now, not for a long time, now that the sight has opened and the clouds have gathered.”

Here, then, is the story: “Your mother, my child, have you ever seen her naked?” Miriam was quiet, but serious in a way the child was unused to, and she became cold, her little fingers, nails filthy from the playground, turned blue. “Have you not, my dear? It is so strange, to not see one’s mother, especially a mother as knowing as yours, undraped and revealed. You must see her. My love, you must go to her, when she is in her dressing room, and you will see. Look for the spine first. Do you remember that word? S-P-I-N-E? Yes? Good. Look for her long, long spine. Notice, if you can, how much longer it is than most ladies… Have you ever noticed that? It is not her posture my dear, that makes her spine so long. You must know this. Because I love you, you are my treasure and my keep, and one day you will not have me, so you must see, even if you are too young.

Find your mother’s spine. And look. Make sure she does not see you. Her anger… her quick body… make sure you are quiet and unseen. I know you are already very good at that. Practice, and then find her.”

Her mother, she knew, did have a dressing room. It was carpeted, and it was a place children were not allowed to enter. Neither were their babysitters… how did she, how could she know?

She is certain that one night, before the time of the aloneness, she found her mother. She crawled, quiet, and, she was sure, invisible, to the edge of her mother’s dressing room door. Her mother was sitting at her large white vanity, brushing her hair, over and over and over, not looking in the mirror. Her mother, so beautiful, so far away.

She found her mother’s spine. And she looked. And then, she is fairly certain, she looked away. Quickly. And blinked and blinked. Slowly she turned her head, and looked again. There were two small cracks next to her mother’s spine. They looked so painful, so raw she wanted to cry out, as if she could feel the cracks in her own body. There were droplets of the reddest blood slowly seeping from the cracks, and, just beneath the drops of blood, what looked like pure translucent white feather tips. As she looked, her mother’s spine seemed to grow, and the feathers were not tips anymore, but looked as if they were growing, or emerging, she did not know, how could she, such a small little child, a child with so few memories. She is sure, now, that she looked away again, and that when she looked back her mother had stopped brushing her hair, and was staring, with cool eyes, huge and dark, into the mirror that reflected back to her a small child on hands and knees at the entrance to her chambers.

After that came the alone-time. And then the arms of Miriam. Of this, she was sure. She looked again at the picture. Her mother’s smile. The gown. And she could not tell, through her tears, if through the dress there were two tiny spots of blood. The photograph was old, one can never be sure of the truthfulness of an image.

Or a memory from smallest age. Or, for that matter, of a story.




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Sticky note. What a horrible name for an awful product: busy yellow square, not even large enough for a haiku, made only for the distracted, modern mind, and for lovers who don’t speak and children who feel harassed with the work and weight of a world that does not even yet see them.

So here is a note, thought out in a streaming elegant calligraphy, the ink thick and black from a Waterman pen passed down from a great-grandmother who wrote short poems between endless chores and handiwork. Hidden, hidden like happiness.

The thought is a reminder, like a sticky note, but because it must last a long, long time, perhaps for eternity and beyond, the notations containing the thought (language, and whatever is behind the language. First force, a bringing forth) must circle the mind like a kite with a tail, or an ouroboros, bringing the self into the self that is not a self but something greater and something empty all at once.

So simple, the reminder is the content of all the world, the soul emptied like a vessel, waiting for Grace:

Do not call him.