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

 

 

 

NOT ZEN, BUT NOW

Being present is easy when the blue sky moment is trimmed with green grass, when temperate breezes blow your hair back gently from your bright, clean face. You can hop off the worry train quickly in such minutes and hours. You can drop your baggage carelessly to the ground without so much as a glance towards where it lands, and feel your sneakered feet happy on some surface that may or may not be level. You can take the world and yourself exactly as it is, you are.

It’s jumping off in the dark that’s tricky, first opening your chest and reaching in deep for your courage and the faith that you’ll be welcomed by some surface, that you won’t fall and keep falling into some gaping chasm that opened in the earth while you were busy regretting and planning and being all sorts of things except grateful.

When the moment you are living in, the only one you have (which is all any of us have, ever), is a really shitty one by most measures, because you’re watching someone you love deeply (say, your child) suffer, and you can’t fix it, being present doesn’t feel like any gift you want to accept graciously, or at all.

We can know what we know, you and I, about the transient nature of pretty much everything; how all things pass and we are just temporary sculptures made of bits of stars and dust from dinosaur bones and the dreams of our ancestors. We can know all this and still want to do almost anything but be with the most painful parts of our existence.

And yet.

And yet, in time and over days colorful or washed out, through dark, thick nights and between joy sandwiched by crusty miseries, our capacity to sit with it all increases. It might be imperceptible for a long, long time, and then one day you mirror gaze and your jaw drops. There it is, your shiny heart, visible right through your tender skin, and it’s drumbeating and voluptuous, stretched out by all the exercise of crying and breathing and laughing and coping. It’s huge, in fact, and strong enough to hold you and everyone you care about, and even a few you don’t. Right about then you might remember that you’ve made it through absolutely everything so far, and even the thorniest ground doesn’t feel quite like a match for your deceptively tough lower body. Then you sit right there in that moment, and maybe you don’t feel tempted to pretend to be elsewhere at all.

And so.

And so you get up in the morning and pour a hot cup of something like tea. You drop in soy milk that turns the tannic liquid the color of hope. You wake your kid, even if she’s been up ten times in the night, and begin. You begin because it’s the only real choice, and maybe this day you stick around for more of the moments than you did the day before. You don’t zone out as much, or numb yourself as often. You don’t project, or regret, or try to edit what hasn’t even been written yet. You face what arises without censure, because you know and keep knowing you’re strong and wise and sober enough to sit or stand or slow dance with any given moment, be intimate with it, and then let it
let it
let it
go.

–Melinda Coppola

 

Per Annum

Every year, now, around my birthday, I feel a tug to write something, employing words to mark the privilege of completing another ride around the sun. This year’s efforts came in the form of a love letter to my life. Here, below, is an edited version, and though it’s all between me and me, I wonder if you can relate to this need or desire to mark the years somehow, to catalog your journey. Do you write a song, or journal? Do you collect things; a feather, cards, ticket stubs, remnants of days you rushed through, moments you think you’ll never forget, yet know you might?

Dear one,

Last Thursday, we woke to the beginning of our 57th year together. It feels like some things need to be said. Probably nothing I haven’t said before, but I find that I tend to forget things more frequently these days. You, too?

Look, we’ve had our challenges. We rarely seemed to measure up to what the world expected of us. I know that’s just a perspective, but then, so is everything else in life. Conjecture, presumption, supposition….call it what you will, but the truth as I know it is that there isn’t one single way to describe the truth. Everyone sees things their own way, depending on their circumstances, culture, upbringing, It’s the simultaneous bane and beauty of being human , I suppose. But there I go again, digressing. It’s something I’m really good at, at least on paper.

There were times I wished we weren’t together. I’m not proud of this, but I am really, really grateful that you didn’t give up on me.

There were times I belittled you, comparing you to other lives. I know this is a common thing people do, but I also know now it is extremely unhelpful. We get what we get, don’t we? It’s how we look at it, what we do with it, how we react to it, that matters.

There were times, too many to count, that I was blind to our abundance, our cup spilling over with blessings. Now we live in a world that has perfected the art of showing and telling the endless and collected horrors and incivilities and the ways we harm each other, the ways in which we hoard while others starve. Now, it is impossible to ignore the inequity, and it feels criminal to imagine we lack a single thing, you and I, or that we should not be grateful and share generously. Perspective.

At nineteen, I knew my life would be one grand adventure. I’d travel, and give birth to poems and stories, and mother them with a loose and loving abandon. If you’d been clairvoyant, and told me I’d all but neglect my writing, for years and years, throwing it just enough scraps of food to keep it hanging on and hopeful, I’d have been horrified. I’d have told you, in no uncertain terms, how confused you were, and how unfaithful.

I could go on, dear Life, and on some more. I’m good at that, remember? But here’s the gist, here’s the heart of it: I love you. I love the way we’ve unfolded together, warts and scabs and miseries included. I loved our adventurous young adult years, and I’ve grown to love these plodding middle years, too. I love the way I’ve evolved; once a fearful, quirky teenager who knew she didn’t want children, and now a mid-life woman, quirky still, whose days are saturated with mothering, and it’s nothing like I imagined. Things so rarely are.

I love the patience and tenacity you’ve modeled for me, helping me grow my own. Also, Life, I am so grateful for the way you’ve pointed quietly to the journal, the keypad, over and over again without lecturing, allowing me to find my Poet’s voice again. I respect the way you just know we are going through the landscapes we must, with the company we need, at the times we should.

I will never abandon you, dear Life. I know we are in this together, for we are nothing without each other. And here I am , down on my sometimes achy knee, asking you for your hand. Here I am, promising, promising to make all kinds of love to you, with my whole self. Here I am promising to be true to you, which means being true to me, for all the days we may be gifted in this flesh, this venue.

Let’s be what you’ve always known we could be—a helper, a blessing, a teacher….and do what you’ve always known we can do—make poems, and art, and stories, and keep guiding a special young woman towards her own life, which will someday be untangled from mine. Let’s take the raw, rough dough we are offered and throw in yeast and punch it down and let it rise, punch it down again and trust it will rise, be transformed by the heat of all the fires and become something that will nurture, and nourish, and sustain.

Happy Birthday to us.

 

–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

Questions, Questions, Everywhere

 

When Bink was young, I didn’t know if she’d ever be able to ask questions. She had words at age three and four, five and six, but not in a conversational way. She didn’t point at things. Figuring out what she needed or wanted involved some combination of detective work, intuition, and guessing, the way it is with new babies. Could she be hungry? Well, it had been a while since her last snack. Did she need to be changed, or was she about to need that? ( She was very late to the toilet club compared to…well, mostly everyone). Did she want that toy she seemed to be eyeing, or could it be that her eyes were fixed instead on the fluttering leaves visible from the near window?

I got better at reading her actions and reactions. Her vocabulary began to grow. Still, no questions, no gesturing. I’d carry her to the various rooms in our home, finding assorted objects and pointing them out and saying their names over and over. When she got too heavy to carry, I’d toddle around with her and do the same thing. After awhile, I began to add the beginnings of a question. I’d point at something, try to get her eyes to follow my finger, and then say,” Wh, Wh, What. What is it? It’s a ….light! Wh, wh, what. What is the sound? It’s a …..doorbell! In front of the mirror it was Wh, Wh, Who. Who is it? It’s….Bink!”

Like many aspects of autism, the gaps in typical development were frustrating, and also fascinating. Bink’s inability to inquire about the world around her created an odd, passive dependency. I could never be sure what or how much she was taking in from anyone’s efforts to talk to her, or from overheard conversations, TV shows, or picture books. Weeks, months, even years later, I’d hear her repeat phrases or snippets of old conversation that told me she was absorbing more than most people thought she was. She didn’t observe others, but she did seem to be able to associate what people said with what they might do, sometimes. She and I developed an ability to communicate using pictures, gestures, and songs. I was her interpreter, filling in the gaps when kids and adults tried to communicate with her in the ways they knew. “ I think she wants….”, I’d say to them. “ Bink, Susie wants to sit close to you and play.”, I’d explain to her, while demonstrating this with my own body and a nearby toy.

I don’t remember exactly when she began to form the W’s. I know it took a long time. Years. The questions, when they came, were repetitive. Often, they still are. In fact, is not unusual for Bink to ask the same question during phases that last months, over many years, and multiple times a day. But I’m getting ahead of myself, as I often do.

Bink’s delivery gradually expanded from vocalizations directed at nobody in particular, to words sometimes uttered in the general direction of a person. Years later, there were more words, scrawled on a napkin that she’d leave on the table where, perhaps, someone might find it and be able to decipher it. Later still, there were typed lists. Many of her questions, now, involve why someone said a certain thing to her (or did something in her presence). It can be a challenge to explain why a certain teacher said a particular sentence on that second June Tuesday in 2003, or why her now deceased grandfather played a certain game with her when she was two years old that she didn’t like. The notion that he may not have realized she didn’t like the game is foreign to her. Doesn’t everyone just know what is happening in her head? Do others have different thoughts, feelings and preferences than she does? These concepts can be pretty advanced to those on the autism spectrum.

These days, Bink is a veritable fountain of questions, mostly about her past, and most of them are directed at me. “ I don’t know”, or “ I wasn’t there” is not a satisfying answer for her. I know she uses the answers as a learning tool, and so “ I wasn’t there, but I can guess” is my default intro to an answer that I hope will help her understand.

In a recent post, I shared some of the rituals and routines that punctuate life with Bink. Her Friday questions list is one of them. She types up a list of ten questions, titles it according to what is in her head, and I answer them as I think the named person or thing would answer them. It sounds convoluted when I try to explain, but this is part of the rhythm of our lives at home now.

If something is troubling her about why a certain instrument sound happened on a particular song on a specific CD, there may well be a list of ten questions for me to answer the way I think the song on the CD would answer them. Her Occupational Therapist, the one she loved and knew in 1997, used Jello animals during sessions. Bink has probably asked me about this two hundred times. Why did that OT use those animals and no other OT did? No iteration of my answers has satisfied her curiosity. There have been many lists of questions for Tina, the beloved OT who died long ago, typed out for me to answer them the way I think she would answer them. Maybe someday Bink will be able to accept an explanation that you or I would find eminently reasonable, and then she’ll close this particular file in her head. Until then, the questions will continue, asked and answered slightly differently.

I admit that the questions list is often a challenge for me, and something to fit in between all the other things that demand my attention. Yet, I remember myself as Bink’s  young mother,  twenty years ago. I imagine she and I, meeting today for tea. “ What do you mean, too many questions?,” she might sputter, eyes wide for emphasis. ” Do you know what I would give to have my little Bink ask a single one of them?”

I’d have to be humbled, and tell her she’s right. I used to just hope and pray for that which sometimes overwhelms me now. I know Bink’s questions are a banner of progress, and a reminder that she is always learning and growing.

Indeed, if my young mother-self were sitting with me now, I’d reach across the table and take her smooth hands in my older, weathered ones.  “ Keep the faith,” I’d whisper. “ She’s going to surprise you and delight you and make you very, very proud.”

–Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

MORE AUTISM AWARENESS: RITUALS

AUTISM AWARENESS MONTH: DAY 18

Routines and rituals. Don’t we all have them? Under the best of circumstances, they can add order, meaning and beauty to our lives. For many people with autism, they go beyond that, offering comfort, safety, structure, and learning opportunities. Life with Bink is rich with these practices and observances, ranging from daily to weekly to monthly. Many of her practices are entirely her own, needing no interaction to complete. Some involve me and Super Guy. I enjoy some, tolerate others, but over time I’ve grown to appreciate their place in our offbeat life. 

WEEKDAYS

There is the morning wake up song, delivered at 7am sharp. Each day’s song is different, and though they are short little things, I make ‘em up on the spot. Recently, I heard her singing in the next room. It took me a few minutes to realize that she was singing the morning tunes I’d created through the years (and on the fly)! Insert shocked-face emoji here. They were probably in order, too—something she’d remember but I would not.

EVERY MORNING

First, there is the dream journal, a wide ruled notebook set aside for just this purpose. Bink’s scrawled entries might be the thought that just entered her head, or perhaps they are indeed fragments of dreams. That’s a mystery, as it probably ought to be. She scribbles, and I read it aloud. Super Guy is an acceptable stand-in if I’m not available.

A short time later (but within fifteen minutes of her rising), there is a question or comment she texts me. (Bink is actually better with this than she is with face-to-face conversation.) She likes my response to be delivered via brief iPhone video. Sometimes, she asks a question about something current, like why we are not going on a vacation. More often, it is about something from her deep past. Example: “Why when I moved towards Miss S_______, Miss L_______ said sit down in a clementine cheese boy voice?” That might’ve happened ten or twelve years ago, folks, and I wasn’t with her when it occurred. It certainly does keep my creativity sharp coming up with answers to these!

DURING EACH DAY

There are the four household chores she’ll complete with wildly varying degrees of attention and accuracy. She marks each off with a check on her chore chart, a hand drawn thing we devised to help her learn the value of contributing to the household and earning money. There’s a choice of ten chores. Like any of us, she prefers some to others. The vacuum chore is perhaps the most challenging. Though she doesn’t have to do a lot of it to earn a check, there are many steps to the process. There is lugging the heavy vac from the broom closet, delivering it to the area that needs vacuuming, plugging it in, turning it on, and bringing the sweeper to an upright position. Then there is the requisite focus involved. She needs to first remember the purpose of vacuuming, and then to notice whether the random bits of guinea pig litter are actually gone after she moves the machine back and forth over them. Vacuuming is not a favorite task.

Other chore choices are more to her liking, including making her bed (an imprecise effort to turn the clumps of covers into a smooth layer, covering as much of the bed as possible), getting the mail from the mailbox, and helping to shop for food. Emptying the dishwasher used to be something she seemed to like, though that has been changing. Our not-very-old dishwasher has mysteriously failed to clean the food off the dishes about every third or fourth cycle. She hasn’t seemed to notice if there is food caked on the plates and the utensils, and though we oversee what she does, a few food encrusted utensils and a plate or two made it into our cabinets. Now, that chore has the added responsibility of looking to make sure the dishes are actually clean, which means we need to define clean vs. dirty and reinforce this every time. That’s an interesting thing about autism; there can be an extreme scatter of skills and understanding. Bink can often spell a word backwards, but shampooing her hair is an elusive task. She can remember the day, week and month someone said something to her that upset her, but she needs to have a rule to enforce attention to the actual cleanliness of the clean dishes.

Back to the chores list: she is such a rule-bound sort, and this means she is pretty obsessive about completing the chore chart. If daylight is waning and she hasn’t earned those four checks, she’ll tell us, with a certain urgency in her voice, that there needs to be another chore. Since she requires assistance with some tasks and oversight with all of them, on a busy day it can sometimes feel like a chore for all of us to get those checks recorded on her chart!

EACH EVENING

There is the daily recap, again in her scrawl, in a notebook designated for this purpose. The things she writes are almost always limited to what she ate during the day, and one memorable activity or outing. If someone has said something to her that she didn’t like, or in a tone she felt was harsh , that will make it’s way into the narrative as well. She wants me (or Super Guy) to read this aloud to her, but with no questions, please.

Next, after teeth are brushed and she is ready to get into bed, she wants an oral recap of what she did that day. She also wants to hear about what will happen the next day. This must include a reassurance that she’ll have a treat. ( Think tasty little snack, preferably sweet). There will be somewhere between five and fifteen nose binks and hair feels during this little ritual, depending on her anxiety level. This whole process has proved difficult when a caregiver was with her at bedtime, because she couldn’t know what had happened that day or what the next day would hold, so Bink accepts this good night ritual only from me. When I am not available, she just goes straight to bed.

WEEKLY

Each Friday afternoon, Bink presents me with a list of ten questions that she wants me to answer. Here’s the catch: she wants them answered as if I was a different person (or thing!). On the list she specifies who or what I should channel when I answer.

This can be as straightforward as Questions for Ms. K________, answered by Mom the way she thinks Ms. K________ would answer them. It can be as obtuse as Questions for I Had a Little Overcoat sung by Raul Malo, answered by Mom the way she thinks I Had a Little Overcoat sung by Raul Malo would answer them. Yep, that’s a song, folks, and a specific version at that. And so I do my best to answer each question as I think that former teacher might answer them, or a particular version of a particular song might answer them, and I leave the completed questions and answers, typed up neatly, on the table the following Friday, so they’ll be there when she returns home from her day program. If she isn’t attending her program that Friday, she wants them to be on the table when she wakes up.

I have many, many lists of these answered questions in a file on my computer. Sometimes, there are multiple volumes of questions for the same person or thing. Forty two Volumes of questions for Miss E_______, for example, or twenty eight volumes of Questions for Old P_______________ Road basement.

Why do I do this? I’ve discovered, over the years, that she learns a great deal from these questions and answers. They help her begin to understand things from a different perspective, which is no small thing for someone with autism. Miss K_________, Miss E_______, and any number of others have perplexed her with their words and actions. They are no longer around for her to speak with, or if they are, they typically have neither the time nor the patience to answer these questions, especially when they are repetitive.

She doesn’t understand some of the things that happened in that old basement in that former house. Why were there toys stored down there? Why didn’t she play there more often? These things stay with her and can cause her a great deal of anxiety and discomfort. She wasn’t able to articulate most of her fears and curiosities when she was younger. Now she can express some of them, and her weekly inquiries are a tool that allows her to consider and absorb more about the world around her. Over time and after many, many repetitive questions and their answers, she is beginning to grasp concepts that you and I take utterly for granted. People are all different, for example. Sometimes, they get angry, or impatient, or sad. Songs can come in many versions and be sung by many different artists. Basements are places people store things.

Saturday night, there is the new chore chart we’ll put up on the refrigerator door, which is also when she receives her pay for completing the previous week’s duties.

There is the Sunday selection of a recipe that she will make with me or Super Guy. This is usually a stew or soup that she will take to her day program during the week for lunches. There is the grocery shopping to buy ingredients for it, and then the actual cooking.

MONTHLY

On the last day of each month, her whiteboard calendar gets wiped clean, so it can be recreated for the coming month. Here, we list all the things we can know about in advance. Her activities, days off, and appointments are written out in erasable colored markers. This is an important thing for Bink, who is calmed by knowing what she can look forward to. It’s also an opportunity to review coping strategies, for those scary things like medical and dental appointments.

On the first of each month, there is the CD that Bink will make with Super Guy. This consists of ten songs that she will have preselected, and he will burn them onto a blank CD from iTunes. She’ll make artwork for the cover, and give it a creative name like Bumble of the Genevieve or Yellow Sunseed Girl. In the last few years, she’s favored titling these CDs with a female name and a fruit. Apple Cara, for example, or Cherry Dianne. We have dozens and dozens of these gems. The girl loves her music, and she will be able to sing a CD from memory, in order. When she is swinging in the backyard, she’ll generally be out there just as long as it takes for her to belt out a whole CD, and not a minute more.

There are other rituals that aren’t quite as prescribed. Upon eyeing a yellow car when we are driving, she will half yell/half sing the word Duck! The color of the vehicle must be just the right shade, though—not every yellow looks like a duck. Another car ritual involves her spotting a license plate with triple or quadruple numbers on it. They must be in a row, not divided on the plate. Then she’ll proclaim what she has seen. “ Triple eights!”, or, “ Quadruple fives!”. Interestingly, she is not saying these things to engage the driver, does not particularly care whether anyone responds. She just needs to blurt out her findings, and seems quite pleased with this.

Sometimes, well-meaning people have been critical of my parenting or of the ways Super Guy and I sustain these oddish practices. Some have implied that we coddle her too much, or that we oughtn’t acquiesce to routines that may seem childish.

There is a saying that goes something like this: When you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. There is no one-size-fits-all description of a person on the spectrum. That said, all my experiences and understanding point to something universal: the world is a really confusing, challenging place for those who are wired differently. Things that you and I just naturally absorbed along the way and take quite for granted can seem foreign and nonsensical for Bink and others like her. She learns differently, in her own time, and repetition is key.

The rules that go with rituals and routines form a safe space for Bink. Within the comfort of the boundaries they provide, and with gentle and patient responses to her different ways of questioning, she is able to understand more about this confusing world.

Of course, Super Guy and I won’t be here forever to help her through things. We are here now, though, and we have a weighty responsibility to do everything we can to prepare her for eventual life without us. Our rituals and routines, rather than holding her back, have been an important part of her successes. They can change over time, as she changes. Eventually, the rituals may well be things she alone participates in, to calm and ground her. I find no negative in holding on to a coping skill that harms none. The more she understands about the world around her and the people who populate it, the better her chances for a meaningful, safe and comfortable life. That’s what we want for her. She deserves nothing less.

–Melinda Coppola

 

NAMED

Someone asked me

 

What is your name?
To name is to make known,
to specify, enliven, color in,
to make dimensional.

My surname: Verdant. Given name, Green and Round.
Given by me, to me. Green Round Verdant.
Or is that what I long to be?

My name is often She. She plus Who.
She Who Sings, She Who Creates, She Who Loves.

Define me, please, by what I love,
If you must define at all.

Being Gemini feels like
a delicious excuse to be myriad things,
many Shes, and so I introduce
She Who Flowers
She Who Avoids
She Who Storms.
She Who? She Who Knows
She Who Knows Much
She Who Knows Much about Little.

My name is Skin, warm and well-used,
mapped with roads of veins. Rivers of stretch
mark the spots where I expanded
to include more than I ever
thought I could, maybe
more than I should, so perhaps,
this She is named Adaptable.

Almost Crone.
That, too, is mine to claim.
She Who Softens into Aging, She
Who Welcomes the Amorphous Opening Nature of It.

That last one should be illegal, far too long.

Hungry. My name is Hungry for What?
Am I Too Hungry? My name is
Tell Me The Shapes of Your Hungers.

Yesterday my name was Tight.
Not Good Enough.
Not Enough. Never Enough.
My name was I Have Nothing Worth Saying.
May I Please. How May I Please?
May I Please, Please.

Towards tomorrow my name is Santosha,
short for
May I Be Content.
May I Be.
Content.

 

–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.

 

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.

 

The Poet Says….

Allow me to share a poem that debuted on the Songs of Eretz Poetry Review this morning. This is the third of my poems to be published there in the Last week. All three are eligible for the Readers Choice Award contest on the SongsofEretz.com    Voting begins March 1!

 

The Poet Says This is How You Should See

 

A prism is lifted to the sun. Imagine
a million nuances of color and shine,
fractal languages of symmetry
resting perfectly
between breaths or heartbeats.

The artist knows the power of spaces,
without which there would be no means
to shape the eye’s longing.

Musician has this same knowing,
gleaned through the eardrum’s
oscillations: there is no song
without pauses
between notes.

Someone in your diaspora of friends
will die tonight, and in the moments
between last exhale
and the doctor’s legal declaration,
a poem is written on the window
in frost. It lingers

only as long as two pairs of eyes can see it,
and if the heart that goes
with one pair can hear it,
a song will be born,
and if the soul that goes
with one pair can see it,
here will be a rendering
in charcoal, or paint, or crayon.

This is how life continues;
The poetry between things
must draw the attention
of some realized aspect of God,
like you, or you,
and your near-desperate desire
to interpret the miracle
becomes the language, the love, the soil
from which
something else can be born.

–Melinda Coppola

The Goddess of Every Little Thing by Melinda