Bedfellows – A Perspective on the Passage of Time. A short post while battling pneumonia. How the sources of warmth evolve with time.
under the weather lately
I’ve been sleeping in the guest room
and letting my old black dog
sleep on the bed all night
his muzzle is going gray
and he seems to appreciate
the softness on his old bones
in the mornings, when I slip out of bed
he cracks open one eye
to see if I’m going to chase him off
there was a time in my life
when I’d leave a beautiful, five-foot-tall
brunette asleep in my bed
both are warm
both hog the bed
A Joyful Circle – the Final Lineage Poem. And so we come full circle in this series of Lineage Poems. Like medieval astronomers who took the earth to be the center of all things, so does our ego create the illusion that this individual life is the central point of reference in the infinite sweep of time and generations. Past, future, and at the fulcrum, this single life. And I suppose it couldn’t be any other way, however flawed this cosmology of self.
As I write this, I’ve been down for two weeks struggling to recover from pneumonia. It’s honestly been a frightening time. In an earlier post, I mentioned that my only brother died a short time ago, of lung disease as it happens (https://oldbonesnewsnow.com/2022/03/19/sunrise-and-sunset-the-wheel-of-life/.) So losing the ability to breathe triggered both fearful memories and simple animal fear. Just today, it finally feels like my breathing is softening, and the air is beginning to flow.
And also just today, our next grandchild has begun the long, messy, painful, risky and extraordinary process of pushing into this world.
A joyful circle. I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it
And I pray that I will have many, many, more to experience
Little boy, I weep with joy at the prospect of meeting you!
Two closing poems to bring this home, the first from several years ago
in the wild untended fields of my heart
sits an old man. the day is late but warm
and the low-angled light spreads like butter
over the tall grass. his beard is white
gone beyond gray, and his hair, long and thin
shifts with the wind. he wears a multicolored vest
stitched with threads of silver
and his boney white feet
sit bare upon the land
his hands, held still on his long legs, bear the scars
of a lifetime of choices -- he sits beyond judgment
beyond expectation -- he’s been waiting
for a very, very long time
he breathes as I breathe
his blue eyes are clouded now
from having witnessed a life
while in the distance the witches’ voices
rise in round to the beating sound of his heart
he has always known this song
has always known all
of the songs
we are each of us sorcerers
all singers of one single
And a final word written very recently
they say it’s our habits, habitual tendencies
that are reincarnated, like a wind
blowing through a window left open
in a newly constructed house. and this
makes sense to me – I haven’t suffered enough trauma
in this one life to be as confused as I seem to be
so I must have swept these old wounds
into the womb with me, an intangible blanket
of familiar mistakes to keep this newborn warm
now, as I stare down this narrowing hall
I pray to whatever powers there be
to allow me to direct more precisely
the next go-round
when the last breezes blow
and this basket of bones finally fails
may only one thing pass into the next life--
may I carry forward only
the tender warmth of my fingers
as they touch the cheeks
of those I have loved most in this world
and only that
May these words be of benefit to all sentient beings
Sunrise and Sunset – the Wheel of Life. The 9th Lineage Poem. So we near the end of this cycle of Lineage Poems. We began with the roots of ancestors gone long before I was born, but embedded in my every cell; visited and said goodbye to both my father and my mother; welcomed the addition of a new line through marriage; and celebrated the advent of a new generation in the birth of my beloved granddaughter. Now, we turn to the inherent cyclical nature embedded in the fabric of the generations.
Last year I buried my only brother Joseph, and shortly thereafter learned that our son and daughter in law are expecting a second child any day now, a boy this time.
A death and a birth, a brother and a grandson
I haven’t met him yet
just been told he’s in transit
waiting, biding his time
in the warm, purple
amniotic dark. our oldest son
told us that his son is expected
in the spring. I clearly remember
the morning my wife’s water broke
rushing to the hospital, becoming
a father for the first time
I called my older brother
eager to share the news
but he was unimpressed
just last month I spoke
at his funeral, his ashes in a box
at the front of the room
and there it is, one leaving
just as another is beginning
and in between, such drama
and beauty, love and pain
and none of it endures - none of us
I wonder if I’ll still be here
when the son of my son
snaps open his eyes
at the shock of squeezing
into this hard cold world
I hope so, though I know
in truth there’s no way
to protect him
I’d dearly love the chance
to die trying
A Joyous Day – Gift of a New Life (8th Lineage Poem) Nearly three years ago, this lineage began a new phase with the birth of our granddaughter Sawyer. Honestly, I never expected to care much about grandchildren.
I was wrong!
Born on the cusp of covid, she’s always had a bit of “stranger danger” and, of course, this extended to me – kind of still does. Yet we have our own profoundly goofy relationship founded on funny faces, silly noises and mutual surveillance.
She is brilliant, exceptionally verbal and, of course, beautiful. Her blue eyes are stunning, and her crooked grin is simply beguiling.
(I feel very strongly that it’s not my job to post pictures of her on the internet, but below are two that I feel do preserve her privacy.)
I’ve born witness now to the birth and growth of two sons and a granddaughter, and I still have no idea where these exceptional creatures come from, how their intelligence takes root and blooms.
This is the great mystery and the gift of lineage.
I am forever in love
her small voice rising
in the dark above the crib
a morning murmuration beginning
spinning, rising, a flock
of freshly hatched words
translucent and damp
where did she come from?
this spontaneous consciousness
this ascending double helix
of intelligence - pulsing, spiraling
wave upon brilliant wave
of innate wisdom, elaborating
her sweet song, a spark
radiating across the endless space
of possibility, coming now
to crack open the darkness like a star
like the first soft light
of this brand new day
Equally astounding is how quickly a child engages, learns to stand, to walk and to step into a tomorrow of her own.
after a lifetime
of insisting on my own importance
here I stand, in the shadows
the clouds roll in
and evening pools in the valley
she takes one step forward
and then another, venturing
to the very edge of the world
this world that is now hers
and hers alone
Shadow People – When the Lineage Merges and Generations Fade. It’s rather easy to look back, to be the receiver and say that “she contributed this, he offered that.” And then children emerge, and very soon you can sense it all begin to flow away, of everything beginning to pass.
When small, there’s a sense of “mine” in one’s children — “my son, my daughter.” But this is a terrible illusion.
In fact, we are theirs.
As Persian Poet Khalil Gibran said in his remarkable poem, “On Children,”
But a downstream lineage requires an injection – a partner, a husband, a wife to be inserted into this stream so it can flow onward. And right there begins the obsolescence. Suddenly it’s apparent that you no longer matter quite so much, even it takes time for this to sink in,
that you’re rapidly becoming little more than an old story
someone your child might recall years from now
and, if you’ve been very fortunate,
And while this is natural, it does bring with it the opportunity to love in a completely different way. This is not the love born of biology, nor is it a love shaped from an accumulated lifetime of shared experiences.
This is a love born of learning, of tolerating (in both directions, of course,) of getting to know, of bumping against each other, of embracing, of creating new shared experiences, and ultimately, heaven willing, of standing together to support the launch of the next generation.
Lineage. True Lineage.
they begin as shadow people
appearing only for a moment
then fading, leaving only a name
a story to be laughed about
in temporary orbit around this child
you’ve birthed and fed, the one
you’ve poured your life into, saw fall
and stand again, then mature into the rich
three-dimensional life you see before you
who one day brings home another
and suddenly you sense
that this just might be
the one that takes root in the rich soil
of your son, the one he now turns to
before you, the one who clearly holds all
of his new secrets, the one who’s ear hears
all of his dreams
and though you try to be happy for him
and for “them”
you can already feel yourself
beginning to thin, to lighten, to lift
ever so slightly above the floor
where they now stand together
can feel yourself darkening
and spreading up the long wall
as the sun drops low in the sky
stretching the day’s last shadows
which even now are beginning to fade
as day inevitably progresses
This Father’s Imperfect Love – Sixth Lineage Poem. Writing an honest poem is a profoundly private act. Making the decision to share that poem publicly is anything but. This is especially true if one is writing “about” a friend or family member who’s still alive to read it (bearing in mind that all we can ever write about is our experience of another person– it’s all we have.)
Looking over my work, it’s clear that some of my poems may never see the light of day. I sort of have a Hippocratic oath about my poems – “first, do no harm.” And I guess there’s the rub – continue to slice close to the bone without causing embarrassment or harm to another.
So, here I turn and begin to look at the Lineage that descends from us rather than comes down to us. When our boys were born, I was so buried in career that there was no room for anything creative. It was only when I finally cried uncle and turned in my travel bag that a lifetime of suppressed creativity began to stir.
Consequently, I don’t have any contemporaneous work that touches on the joy, the mystery and the profound confusion that comes with newborns and the brilliance of little boys.
Instead, here are two pieces I wrote as the guys entered late adolescence, as they began to have a life that was increasingly invisible to their parents, as they left our family home for the world
I can’t protect them, but did I prepare them?
In a profound sense, it’s no longer my affair
as you pass the salt
I notice how your mouth
always tips on the edge of a smile,
but I’m distracted by the thought
and as we talk, your curly hair
bobs up and down (you know
I'd like you to cut it – but not really)
what I really want
is for you to somehow find a way
to protect yourself. and while desert
is being served, I’m preoccupied
with sheets being pulled over faces
on a dark road I don’t recognize.
so, I can barely clear away the plates
while maintaining this pleasant conversation
in complete dread, as I am
of a decision you might one day make
the one I won’t understand
the one I will never, ever understand
They learn to stand as children, then turn to you as men, and then they go.
And there it is.
for a son
I’ve been waking in the night
grinding my teeth – some feelings
are so close to the bone, so fragile
they can’t support a whole stack of words
like my denial that you will be leaving
in the morning
like my fear that I
failed to teach you to fly
The Gift of an Exquisite Love – the Fifth Lineage Poem, on Valentines day no less! We were eighteen years old, in our freshman year of college in a small town in Michigan. I’d borrowed the money from my girlfriend (a long story) to take her out to an old-school, no-alcohol coffee house called “the Troubador” in Kalamazoo Michigan.
The room was full of cigarette smoke, and we were with three other couples, all there to hear a band who’s name I’ve long forgotten. Between sets, we all ordered coffees and the talk was fast and loud. She was seated directly across the large round table from me. Thinking of nothing much at all, I happened to look up and straight into her impossibly large green eyes.
And I was done for. I fell in love in that instant, and have never stopped loving her.
The Gift of an Exquisite Love
A love that I’ve never relinquished. A love that has sustained me now for over forty years.
These poems were written a very long time ago
Each one came as a completed poem
Each was a gift
The Gift of an Exquisite Love
I felt myself break
I felt myself break
and drift back
and back, and down
to settle here
on the deep green floor
of your eyes
And the second, once that gifted love had begun to breathe.
the soft, soft sleep of dawn
I awoke this morning
to the brush your lash
on my neck
like a light
on the still darkened stage
of our bodies held tight
and heavy and warm
in the soft, soft sleep
A Mother’s Love, A Son’s Regret. Looking back, it’s clear that I’ve written more about my father than I ever did about my mother. Fathers and sons I suppose. But she was also the quieter, smaller one of the two. I always had the sense that she chose to hold herself close, always to defer.
September 11, 2001
We drove her from Florida to Chicago on September 11, 2001. The world had suddenly erupted in fire and all flights had been cancelled. We convinced Hertz to give us a van and we drove for three days across a silent, empty America. Her dementia was pretty bad by that point, and she repeated over and over and over, “Where am I going?” “Why do I need to go?” I didn’t have a good answer then, and I guess I don’t now.
A Mother’s Love, a Son’s Regrets
Margaret Ruth lived in a nursing home in Chicago from 2001 until her death in 2004 from simple old age. I’ve posted before (link immediately below) about my sadness that I failed to attend properly the end of her life, allowing her to die alone in the night when it was pretty clear that it was her time.
I own that regret. But there’s also the regret of perhaps never having really known her. So here are two pieces that speak to missing the life of one who loved and raised me. Perhaps I could only see this as I creep into my older years myself. First, the mystery of seeing off one who once had been the entire world.
When the World is Lost Forever
we stood in a circle around the grave
some read poems while some
chose silence. the funeral director
placed her ashes in the ground
while the redwing blackbirds sang
among the corn. we'd always assumed
that she could fly, but then we
were only children, and eager to cling
to childish things
A Mother’s Love, a Son’s Regrets
And second, upon seeing her in the nursing home, a shadow of who she’d once been and wondering if (or perhaps knowing) we’d missed something essential over all those years.
old woman, what have you done with her?
she was here when I last looked. now
there's only you, a remnant, your mind
approaching the capacity of experience
cycling back upon itself, the tape skipping, catching
rewinding as we speak. your face has been chiseled,
deep lines cut into spotted flesh surrounding pools
of sadness in your eyes.
I can see into the depths
of that water -- here rest the old ones
in images black and brown, a diminishing succession
of farmers’ wives standing resolute at the arms
of sitting dead husbands. here are young brides
with radical curls, high collars and narrow waists
holding round-faced war-babies smiling at the camera.
here is a mother reading soft words to soft children
in light fading into dreams—ah Margaret Ruth
we were for each other
and we never really knew
The third in a series of Lineage Poems: Welcomed by the Land- A Father Returns Home. My father left Hancock County Ohio after the war and barely looked back. But when he died in 1986, there was a plot waiting for him there. A farmers’ cemetery tucked among the cornfields, rows of family names eroding into nothing up a small hill. Later, my mother would join him there, but this poem is about his journey home. And the Redwing Blackbirds in the fields, and the ribbon of asphalt leading there. About an Oldsmobile, and the memories of a boy, now a no longer young man.