Natura Illustratio

Nature is a picture book
of wisdom and example,
an illustrated guide
to how we could
arrive, and live,
and die.

Take, for example,
a leaf in spring.
It draws from mother tree
the energy it needs
and not a drop more,
grows to the edges
of its vibrant
green potential
without once demanding
bigger, more, better.

The leaf in summer, deep
green and selfless,
offering shade and sustenance
without complaint
to the winged
and the crawlies,
the scamperers and
the two leggeds.

Leaf in autumn
clings until
the time comes
to let go,

and then it drops
without struggle,
allows itself
to be ushered downward
in gravity’s tender care,
right on time,

content to rest under snow,
yield to dank invitation
to become fertile carpet
warming earth,
no misgivings,
no regrets.

 

–Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

 

Rocking the cosmic swirl

Rocking

It comforts me to know the old
couple across the street
just celebrated fifty years

in the same house. Fifty together years
with the home they perhaps chose
to be new in together,
a threesome of sorts,
their bodies joining brick
and hardened earth
settling and cracking
and pressing together,

adding more spackle
and grout
and laughter

with a child, then three more,
adding rooms
to contain the growing
and the mirth
and the tears
of those who were
fledged,
now gone.

When my soul grows weary
traversing tightropes—
such fast-paced, overloaded,
know-too-much times—
I look across the street,

to the wise and wizened pair
who are ever so busy
slowly rocking, in their old chairs,
on the porch,

and it consoles me to witness them,
soothes me to consider
the old ways of houses
and their people,
and the history of aged dwellings anywhere,
the ways these wood and stone
talismans seem to lean into
a wind or two that can elicit creaks,
groans even,

and their occupants
maybe know
they are being held up
by sagging floorboards
and crumbling plaster,
and the roof is losing shingles
fast as hairs on their heads,

yet they rock, and nod,
and smile
as if to say

where are you rushing to,
and don’t you know
all things fall apart.
We do, too,

so why not sit awhile,
give the swirling
sediment of your ancestors,
and the greening pollen
that falls from the trees
like stardust in the daytime,
a place to land.

See how the wind marries the light,
begets little particles of evidence
that you’re alive,
that others have been, too,
and ragweed and dander,
detritus of the whole cosmic swirl,

touch down on your arms,
have little dances
before they settle there.

 

–Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

So many ways to say it. Be Here Now.

 

 

 

 

 

Between

Opening the red door to a new spring day.
my feet greet crumbs of last year’s leaves,
dotted with recent, light green pollen
all swirled into the little cove, entry
that guides me into and from
this place, this home,

and they rattle a brittle kind of music
together, new and old,
crunchy and soft,
before I even lift a sneakered foot
across the threshold.

There it is—a word, a season, a sound;
threshold, May, music,
and my mind goes to all the beginnings;
friends welcoming grandchildren,
my niece with a new Master’s degree,
and last eve, baby bunnies
shaped like promise
against the lovely, later dusk
in the front yard.

A poem, a sign,
seasons bumping up against
each other, and my mind
goes to all the endings;
one woman struggling with reason
in the wake of her husband’s suicide,
another, across the world, daily grieving
her young daughter,
who would be nearly eight now,
taken by a disease deemed too rare
to fund research for a cure.

Endings, beginnings, the seasons
tireless with their lesson plans,
and somewhere between
the celebrants
and mourners,
the rest of us keep forgetting
to be alive while we live,

and the wind keeps
reminding us—
breathe, breathe,
this too shall pass,
you too,

so be urgent with this
moment, press your face
into the grass,
let the musky earth
fill your senses,

get dirty
get wet,
leave the laundry
for another day.

 

-Melinda Coppola

Many Singularities

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stephen Hawking,
having passed away
a full fifty one years
post predicted demise,

has left us trails,
breadcrumbs.
Not random,
because nothing is
haphazard as it seems.

Rather they are beaded,
strung together
on some
holographic ribbon
run through holes
patterned in multiverses
of black velvet,

and I’m already poeming
a proposal
that each patient,
upon a presumed life
shortening diagnosis,

be presented with
Stephen’s curriculum vitae
and
for good measure,
a collection of verse­­,
(the non-rhyming kind),

to further impeach
the arrogance
that moves mere mortals
to issue proclamations
of allotted time,

as if anyone could ensconce
one star from its constellation,
give it nothing to reflect
back or upon,
and foretell its singular light
in years.

Stephen, leaving breadcrumbs,
round clues to square
the life he left behind—
two wives, three children,
a dozen maps with two sided arrows
pointing to where
we came from, where
we might go,
a dummies guide to
how to flourish
despite, or with, or even because of,

also left a hundred doors
open to the curious among us,
which should mean everyone,

and he gave language
to the way an atheist sparks
a deeper appreciation of God.

It’s all in how you label it;
accident, plan,
gift, curse

it’s all up for grabs in a universe
where everything is sacred
or nothing is.

Melinda Coppola

What is the definition of a poet? I think we are interpreters of everyday sights and sounds and interactions, enabling more people to experience the sheer miracles that surround us and live within us. Stephen Hawking grasped things most could never comprehend, yet his named theories and observations captivated millions. He was a brilliant physicist, yet also a poet in his own way.

 

Deliverance

Remembering my father

1.

The night your own
difficult breath awakened you, your lungs
spent from trying, and you sensed your heart,
that grieving well, slowing almost imperceptibly,
and your legs and arms refused command or
even suggestion to rise or sway
or go into the spasms you’d become
accustomed to, and your eyes opened only
slightly and your vision went grainy                                                                                                                                                                         like the silent films you remembered in some
distant part
of your collection of impressions, and the pain,
your pain which had become such a familiar presence,
first a nemesis that kept you riveted on the joints,
the muscle fibers, the mechanics of inhalation and
bladder control, then a graduate course that taught you
the location of your liver, your spleen, taught you the
intimate ways of the dying body, the ways of dying
with cancers; one, two, three kinds of cancers and kept
you faithful to your medicines;
two every four hours of the blue
one pink in the morning, the small white which accompanied every meal
when you could eat, the large ones, difficult to
swallow, that you could never remember
the why for…

2.

Did the pain lift and the light blur as you finally
let go the idea you’d ever, in that sad old body, heal?
As the resistance dropped, did you see them all at once,
the welcoming angelic beings as they opened
their ethereal arms to claim you? Did they come
together, in a circle, or did they grace you one
by one, enfolding your brittle bones as they reached
inside to help you glide out? Did you,
I ask, feel that peace as golden light flood
your dimmed perceptions, did you
groan before you let that last, stale breath escape
your windpipe, did it feel, as you left
like sweetest relief from a too-tight shoe?

3.

On your deathday, as we grieved, did you scan
the paths your travels had worn, did you revisit some
moments longer than others, did you regret?
Did you send comfort in each
sympathetic call, touch, hug, did you
make sure the children still laughed and
did you lift us up and sweep
away any traces of old
anger, unfinished business, that we might
remember you pure and silver, the flash of humor
in your Albanian eyes, the sage advice, the
bad jokes you carried in your well-worn pockets?

4.

We are all assigned an entrance and an exit,
or maybe we choose the exact moment and
the circumstances of our stay.
I waited out long nights and in between
the ordinary moments of days full
of toil and pleasure, greeted you at long
last in my own quiet heart finally echoing
all the questions, the answers glowing
in the dark, having been there all along,
like stars.

-Melinda Coppola

Barry of the Wind

The Names Project, AIDS Memorial Quilt

Have you ever dreamed someone alive again, someone long dead, whose memory visits rarely? Have you seen the watery shine of his eyes, smelled the shampoo lingering in her hair?

I’m talking about a dream SO real, you feel like you’ve stepped over the line between this reality and another, but your feet are firmly planted on some kind of hard surface. It feels like anything but dream state.

Recently, an old friend came to me this way, under cover of darkness. I could clearly hear his even, slightly nasal voice. I could reach out and touch that black jacket he always wore. It opened a thirty five year old box of memories, and I’ve been pulling them out and examining them from new angles, with older eyes.

In the early eighties I worked for a time at a health food store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thirty year old Barry was one of my bosses there. He was a slight, redheaded, soft-spoken guy whose flat affect belied a wicked sense of humor that took me some months to appreciate. Over time I became friendly with Barry outside of work, and when he moved to my Boston neighborhood, we’d get together at night sometimes, and walk and talk.

Barry loved the wind. We used to enjoy walking across the Longfellow Bridge that connects Cambridge to Beacon Hill. There, breezes seemed common, and sometimes they escalated to whipping gusts that would blow our jackets open and leave us unsteadily defending our relationship with gravity. “Can you feel it?” he’d say, “ Can you feel the power and the energy in the wind?”

I left the health food store for a higher paying job after about a year, but Barry and I stayed in touch. My tiny basement apartment on Irving Street was a short walk from his favorite bar, Sporters. Sometimes he’d stop in on his way there. Self-defined as happily wanton , he was always excited and hopeful for a rendezvous. This was the beginning of the eighties, and Barry was gay.

I’m not sure when he began to get sick. One evening we planned to bridge walk, but he called and said he had the flu. After that, there were sore throats, and later, an odd rash. Though he still frequented his favorite bars, he was often tired. He began to stop by less. I felt like he was avoiding me.

The early reckoning with what was being called Gay Related Immune Deficiency (or GRID) was in the news. Stories and guesses, educated and not so, swirled in the air. People were scared. Barry told me his former roommate had declared he’d remain celibate until someone found a cure to what some were calling the The Gay Plague. “I can’t do that,” Barry told me, “but I’m trying to be safe.”

John, a friend his, died. I didn’t know if they had been lovers, and I didn’t ask. On what would turn out to be our last walk across the Longfellow, we stopped in the middle and he said “ Can you feel it? It’s John. I think he’s in the wind.”

I suspect Barry was in denial, and he stayed there as long as he could. One night I awoke to a knock on my window. When he came in, he looked as thin and pale as I’d ever seen him. I didn’t address it. I think I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. Truthfully, I was afraid in general. Nobody was certain what was causing this mysterious illness, or exactly how it was spread. He sat down on the floor of my tiny, sparsely furnished studio apartment. I didn’t want to do anything to make my friend feel shunned, yet I was a floor sitter myself, and that day I stayed perched on my futon.

I might have offered some water or a snack. I don’t recall those details, but I remember the way he looked at me. I remember thinking that his serious expression wasn’t hiding one bit of humor anymore. “I’m having night sweats.”, he said at last. I wasn’t versed in the various symptoms that were possible with GRID infection, but I sensed a finality in his words.

Barry went back to his suburban childhood home shortly after that, and took up an uneasy residence in his old bedroom. His parents ministered to him. I visited there twice. The first time, he called me over to his bed and furtively handed me the key to his Boston apartment. He wanted me to get his stuff out. I knew he meant anything that his parents might view as incriminating. They did not acknowledge his sexual orientation, preferring to tell everyone that he was simply shy around women. I felt rather heartsick for him, imagining that a loving and complete acceptance from his parents might have meant the world to him then.

“Of course I will.” I wanted to be reassuring and nonchalant and as cool as the wind Barry loved. I wanted to be in that minority that seemed to stay grounded in the face of this frightening collection of symptoms that was taking lives with no regard to age, race or class. I wanted to be part of his support system, without question or judgment. I donned rubber gloves in his apartment, though, and threw them away afterwards with the rest of the things I gathered. As I dumped the bag in a trash bin, I felt a small, creeping shame.

A few weeks later his family finished clearing out the apartment. Next time I visited him in his childhood room, I brought the three packages of Sunny Doodles frosted cupcakes he’d requested. He’d been pretty vigilant about his healthy diet and supplement regimen for as long as I’d known him. It seemed he was giving himself permission to let go and enjoy what he could, while he could.

Shortly after that visit, Barry went into the hospital. I saw him there only once, when he was conscious but just hanging on. He had tubes in his arms and an oxygen mask on his face. AIDS had replaced GRID as the name for the devastating collection of symptoms showing up in increasing numbers, especially in gay men and some drug addicts. It was still fairly early in the epidemic, though, and there were elaborate precautions taken by hospital staff. Some visitors wore masks. I touched his hand but kept some distance from him, and then chastised myself for being fearful. His only sibling was there, and she took me aside at one point and thanked me for coming. She also bemoaned the fact that her parents still refused to acknowledge what was really happening. Again, my heart broke a little—for him, for her, and for a world that stoked such prejudice and erected sad barriers between people.

At Barry’s wake, his parents were impeccably dressed and stoic in their posture, trying to greet each mourner who filed past the closed casket. His sister was weeping in short bursts. After people paid their respects to the family, they gathered in small groups in the corners. I recognized some of them as Barry’s friends that used to come into the store. There was a group of men in Hawaiian shirts, laughing and talking as they shared memories. I guessed there was some special meaning to the shirts, and I also wondered if any of those men had been his partners.

There were some people from the health food store, and a High School teacher who remembered Barry from fifteen years earlier. I watched Barry’s sister leave her parents to move deliberately around the room and greet each person. She took the hands of many people in her own, and looked into their eyes. When she approached me she squeezed both my hands and asked how I was doing. Shocked at her selflessness and her concern for me, I remember fumbling over my words, trying to find the right ones and feeling an acute lack of maturity and grace.

Barry popped into my mind here and there for some years, certainly as AIDS garnered more attention. Precautions were outlined for everyone as the master immune compromiser began to show up in more segments of the population. The news told us that researchers were working feverishly to find ways to wipe out the virus and to mitigate symptoms in those already infected. I knew by then that I could never have acquired the disease with casual contact, and I held on to regret for my former fear and doubts. When the wind kicked up and tugged at my jacket and whipped my hair around, I tried to feel Barry in the rush of energy, but he never came.

After awhile, memories of him and that time faded a bit. Several years later I ran into an old health food store co-worker on the street in the Boston financial district where I was working. He told me that he and several friends approached Barry’s parents and told them they were making a commemorative patch for the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in Barry’s name. His parents wanted nothing to do with it and even asked them NOT to put their son’s name on it.*  My heart cracked a little more that day.

I am not sure why Barry visited me in a dream. Perhaps enough time has elapsed that I can now offer my young self some compassion for having a level of fear during that time. Maybe, it’s the right time to honor the memory of a young man who loved the wind, a gentle soul who left us far too soon.

–Melinda Coppola

*Barry’s name IS on the quilt, in cotton candy pink letters against a pale gray background. I think he would have approved.

 

It’s a Good Thing

The View from Here

Hello from my couch, where I’ve been planted for the majority of my waking hours for the past twenty five days. Who’s counting? I sure am. I’ve been following doctor’s orders post-surgery and elevating my right foot anytime I am sitting down. This is an improvement, since last week I was gifted with permission to stop elevating it while in bed. This can only be a good thing.

I left my most recent post-operative doctor visit with another gift, though I’m hesitant to label it as such. I said goodbye to the big awkward cast that had covered my right leg from just beneath my first two toes up to about an inch below the knee. In its place I am sporting ( Ha! Tongue so in cheek) a heavier and even more awkward black boot-like thing. It has noisy and strong Velcro strips that multitask beautifully, keeping the boot in place while playing catch-and-hold with large quantities of cat hair.

When I tell people I have a boot now, most assume I am doing what people do in boots: walking. Nope, I’m still diligently keeping any weight off that right foot, awaiting my next X-ray in fifteen days ( but hey, who’s counting!). I think that next picture will determine whether I’ve grown enough bone underneath the plate and screws to allow me to begin walking a bit in the boot with crutches. If things aren’t looking optimal, it could be two more weeks after that before the floor shall know the whole two-footed weight of me. When that time arrives, it will be a very, very good thing.

This has been such an interesting journey so far. I guessed there would be lots of rest, time to read and catch up on the House Hunters type shows I enjoy, and time to create art and poems and essays. I supposed it would be hard for my daughter who is so used to having me as her primary caregiver. Some of that has happened, but there have also been some interesting emotional day trips.

Chunks of memories have risen from the depths, some painful, others pleasant and enlightening, but all inviting me to re-examine the stories I’ve told myself about people and events from the past. As a Yogi and an introvert I’m no stranger to self-examination, but my hours of couch sitting invite a deeper dive. It seems my advancing years have allowed a kinder, broader perspective, and this, too, is a good thing.

Another side effect of this experience: I’m finding a deeper understanding of what it feels like to be dependent on others for basic self-care. I’m becoming acquainted with how isolating it can be to spend day after day indoors, at home, with no ability to get up and take myself somewhere.

I’m remembering all the friends and acquaintances and family who have had long recuperations from accidents and joint replacements and serious illnesses. And those who never did recuperate. I wonder about their experiences, and I see and feel the ways I could have been more loving, more present, more helpful. It’s not regret that fills me, but rather gratitude for the lessons and for the chance to do it differently in the future. This, then, is a good thing.

I’m not trying to bum you out, dear reader. This is not grim, not at all. I know I’m really lucky to be so temporarily disabled. I know I‘m among the privileged few world residents who have access to great medical care and procedures that can and will improve my quality of life. I’m not depressed, I’m not particularly bored, and I’m not spending much time at all feeling sorry for myself.

What’s clear to me: this forced period of limitation comes with gifts. The greatest of these may be a deepening compassion for others in similar and often worse circumstances. And this is a very good thing indeed.

-Melinda Coppola

From the First of November, 2017

Because sometimes it takes a whole month to write it down.

I type with hands that are redolent with garlic, onion, and freshly grated ginger. Today contains a chunk of time for cooking, with hearty stew for him, and Indian spinach rice, spicy, for her.

I walk and sit and rest and work with a heavy heart, weighted near equally with sadness over my cousin Philip’s sudden passing and with the aftermath of a terror attack in NYC. From both those stews, I pull the same saturated question: Is this the new normal, then? Will my peers, other cousins, friends, siblings, begin the dying times now? Is terror on the streets a new given in these not-so-united States?

This is not the self-portrait I want to create. This is the real and Wednesday me, though, as I slosh through to-dos with a heart that is stretched out from carrying big sacks of sad.

And yet, and yet. Perhaps my jiggly, overstretched atriums and ventricles have ever more room for loving, and accepting. Compassion for all beings, or as many as I can find my way towards/ forgiving and embracing and

that Voice, the one that doesn’t belong to me, the one I know I am a part of, soothes low and smooth with notes of

It will be OK. This, too, shall pass.

There is much work to be done here. Tikkun Olam, heal the world you got, baby, and it is good and honest work of heart to hands, heart to words

written
and spoken
and sung.

–Melinda Coppola

Dear November

 

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Dear November,

It is a month of tributes to poetry, 30 poems in 30 days in some circles. So, being a bit amiss, Miss Construed, I write a letter instead.

You are special to me, 11th month, in your own glorious, necrotic, achingly beautiful way. I mean, each page in the book of numbers we call calendar, each page, is rich with grief and pleasure, memories of arrivals, and departures, and years of holding on tight while the New England leaves were letting go. But you hold more in your numbered boxes, 30 in all. More happy, more sad, more than some moon cycles combined. Letting go, dear month, is not as easy as the fall flora would have us think.

For starters, one tiny towheaded boy arrived to two Albanian immigrants in Roxbury, MA. It was your 28th day, year 1926. Do you remember? He came up amid hardships, I was told, the kind that I have never known. He came up against violence, I’m told. That I did feel, and see, echoed in my own book of numbers. And from that,

One grown woman, ( that would be me) who thought herself ready, pledged herself to one grown man, who seemed to need my care and want my heart. Your 4th day, year 1989. Does that tickle your memory? There was audience; most invited, like Love, though a young Fear and his wisp of a friend, Worry, also slipped in. Towheaded 1926 dressed up as balding-headed middle age and walked me down the aisle. I matched my step to his. Too fast, I noticed. I sped up anyway. And from that,

1992, your day 15, gave us a child. She was not the only pregnancy, just the only one to make it out of me alive. Did you have a hand in that, November? She was perfect, and there was joy. 1926 and 1989 seemed pleased.

Things got broken along the way. Things often do. 1926 finally learned to let go, and pieces of him became soil, and leaf, and flower. 1989 fell hard and cracked wide open. There are scars, but they are tough and fibrous and have served me well as I raise up one fascinating young woman. She has been, well, sort of dissed by this time and place. She is called dis-abled, she is dis-affiliated with what society calls normal and her very being dis-allows anyone else’s notion of what she should be. A few who claim to love her have so dis-tanced themselves from her that they have essentially dis-appeared. She, though, has dis-assembled my expectations of motherhood, sometimes in the most delightful ways. She will dis-abuse you of your understanding of how words are used, if you let her. She is dis-arming, full of surprises and an innocence that shines. She also dis-tills my meaning-of-life questions in a way my poems never quite do.

And so, November, old friend, you have grown big in my small incarnation. I celebrate you well, the way I wish we all rejoiced when someone dies because we are happy for their soul, because we know they have graduated from the toughest school there is. I salute you and bow down to you for gifting me with the ability to love beyond measure, to mourn and wail and clutch grief way too tight, and then to breathe deeply and let go like the leaves you coax to their next fertile phase, the ground growing rich under your sanguine discipline.

-Melinda Coppola