Collateral Sorrow

Art by Marina Powdermaker


It’s been a time of times, a steady landslide of uncertainties. Yes, the Covid, the shutdown. Yes, Bink and so many other adults with disabilities being home all day every day for many weeks, with all the usual programs and activities canceled. Yes, the mass suffering and loss that has accompanied this pandemic around the globe. Like so many others, I’ve been all over the place emotionally and mentally.

All that has paled, though, in comparison to another great big unfolding. Marina, a dear friend of mine, has been diagnosed with a rare and very aggressive cancer. Stage four. She lives in a different state, and I haven’t been able to see her.

The news about her condition came at about the same time everything began to shut down. In a dizzying 9.5 weeks she has been through a surgery that was far more extensive than she expected, dealt with the after effects of that with multiple pain medications that haven’t worked very well, grappled with treatment plans. Each subsequent appointment with specialists has brought grimmer news, with predicted possible life expectancies going from a possible two years down to months. Yesterday a doctor told her that if she opts for no treatment at all, she may only have “days to weeks.”

She had a chemotherapy port installed in her chest, but crippling daily and nightly pain led to more diagnostics, and then confirmation that the cancer has spread into her bones. Radiation, which can’t begin until next week, may help the pain but will delay chemo. The first available chemo appointment may be almost two weeks away. She’s been told hospice is not an option if she opts for chemotherapy. Can you imagine riding on this monstrous roller coaster, exacerbated by Covid complications that keep her from close contact with those she loves? If ever there is a time someone needs hugs and loving touch, this is it. Her beloved cats, whose affection has been balm to her, had to be rehomed due to her inability to care for them.

During this turbulence, Marina, who has given me permission to tell you about her, dipped into Laurie Wagner’s free offering of her Wild Writing course. Each morning for 27 days, participants received a video of Laurie reading a poem, and were encouraged to use the lines as a prompt for free form writing. I’ve yet to take one of Laurie’s courses, but I’ve heard many good things.

Marina is a multimedia artist. She’s never considered herself to be a writer. During the Wild Writing course, she wrote on the days she could manage it, and she’s shared some of her words with me. Such raw and achingly beautiful writing! I keep telling her I want to see it all on the page, and online, for everyone to experience.

I’ve been pretty blocked (understatement) in my own writing lately. It’s true that my main daily focus has been keeping Bink occupied and well fed and reasonably content. There hasn’t been a lot of time for writing, or editing. My bitchy inner critic has also been strident in her attempts to silence me, and I’ve let her. There have been pockets for painting and drawing, but those creations seem to be content with five or ten minutes of attention in between the cycles of care giving.

There is so much I want to say, about endings and beginnings and life and death and change. If Marina can pick up a pen and allow such fierce and tender writing to come forth in the midst of her great challenges, than I can certainly let some of my own wordy impulses break free and overwhelm the block. I can do this in her honor.

For today, just one more thing. Please check out Marina’s art HERE.
She does layered, amazingly textured pieces that, like opals, look different in every light.

Take good and gentle care of yourself, and maybe go call or text or write someone you care about. Tell them a specific something you love about them. The world and all her people need more love.

–Melinda Coppola

When all this is over…

WHEN THIS IS OVER

Bring bread,
chewy and warm,
wrapped in that red
checkered tablecloth
that always sings
picnic,

which is short for
happy family,
easy friendships,
peace and plenty
in our town
state
country
planet.

We never went on one,
a picnic,
not once in all our
together years

even though we had that red
checkered cloth,
and enough love
and hope
and time.

Bring bread, baby,
while we can still bake
and chew,
while we can still be
alive together,

while earth still
hosts the wheat, the rye,
the farmer, so trusting,
sowing seeds.

–Melinda Coppola

The Wisdom of Clouds

“ You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.”

Pema Chodron

CIRRUS

You are wisp, feet rarely touching dirt. Your gaze cannot be met. They call it lazy eye, but we know better. How could anyone expect you to hone a vision when you straddle a few different dimensions most of the time? Those who get impatient with you should try doing that pose and see how fuzzy every little thing appears. Focus is one constant in your Rolodex of epithets.

CUMULUS

Fascinate me again, you multi-layered being. When I have you figured as a mountain of fluff, pretty yet inconsequential, I can blink real slow and you flash-forward darker, heavier. If you were embodied you’d be a person of substance, radiating a hefty beauty. I want to think I could hold you, but when I try, you move right through me. Or is it me, moving through you?

STRATUS

Stay low to the ground. Earth is delighted to allow you to bounce off her surfaces. You told me, once upon a time, that it is better to shower bits of yourself across the whole of life. Don’t wait until you see a form you can slip inside. When you have a little energy, toss it up into the sky and let your offerings partner with Brother Wind. It’s a hop, a skip, and a jump to eternity if you travel this way.

NIMBUS

You made me cry. Or rather, you evoked tears in me. You were snake charmer, and man, could you wheedle and cajole that ropey trail of wetness from my eyes and heart and soul.

It wasn’t all sad. Despite what you said, life never is. I believe in tears of joy

even now.
even now.

A single day is at once ephemeral and eternal. It’s all in how you cast your view.

–Melinda Coppola

Prospecting for Grace

Praise

The faithful sun,
generously stirring
energies of Earth
and atmosphere,
coaxing every green thing
towards the rising
song of spring.

Parents
walking with their children
outside, smiling
and laughing, nodding
at neighbors
out washing their cars.

Quieted streets
yielding their usual
ruthless noise
to melodious birdsong,
squirrels rustling in the brush,
the wind whistling
in the still bare branches.

Moon, conducting
the rise and fall
of seas everywhere,
the call and response,
organic and lyrical,
in all bodies of water,
even ours.

Every incremental sign
that goodness and hope
are alive and well,
seeding us with patience
through this reckoning time—

There I’ll set my gaze,
invite my pen to praise
all that.
Praise all that.

–Melinda Coppola

The Uninvited Guests

What a time! We are seeing and hearing wide ranging effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on, it seems, every populated part of our planet.

In our corner of the world, Bink’s autism and accompanying dependence on schedules has collided headfirst with current realities. Every activity in her life, from her weekday program to her favored leisure activities, has been cancelled. Much of the structure she counts on has fallen away. Anxiety and perseveration, already frequent visitors in our home, have announced their return. They brought lots of luggage, too, apparently planning to stay awhile.

Will we get through it? Of course. Many have far worse situations. This is, however, a particular kind of challenge for Bink and others like her. She asks many questions, and fully expects me to have the answers.

Longing

to help you know
in your bones, child,
in your bones,
this will pass.

This will pass and
I’m longing
to have you know
we will again be free
to dip in and out
of those beloved scrawls
on your wall calendar—

horse riding,
and art class,
the candy and craft stores,
restaurants,
swimming at the Y,
and your weekly volunteer job
neatening the bins
at the toy store,
pricing stuffed animals.

You will
once again
return to your day program
where you may even welcome
those groups
you do not love.

I know in my bones,
which are just older versions
of your own,
that this will pass by,

all things do,
and we will re-rise,
rise again,
grateful and eager
to push forth into the
too-loud world,

carrying earplugs
and fidget toys,
your soft pink ball
of yarn.

Until then,
my frightened
full grown child,

I will be here,
right here,
to answer your questions,
daily, hourly,

No,
this won’t for last 100 days.
No,
this won’t be for your whole life.

Yes, we’ll go out walking
today
and tomorrow,
and every day.

No
this won’t be forever,
No
I don’t know the day,
the hour
it will end.

Yes,
the power will stay on,

this will pass.
I’m longing
to help you know
this will end.

—Melinda Coppola

Communicable


PROPAGATION

I’ve taken to humming
in the produce section
while caressing the plums,
sneaking sniffs
of the cilantro,
eyeing the lemons,
audacious in their yellowry.

It’s a low, soothing thing,
the thrum of air
over vocal chords,
nearly a buzz,

and I am almost
a bumblebee,
hovering over color,
circling the end caps

as I admire
the mottled plantains,
the papery shallots
with their secret,
chambered cloves.

Outside the store
there are doomsayers
on every sharp corner,
the shattered remains
of a national normalcy
cutting feet,
drawing blood,
speculation,
and despair.

Even the sunlight
serves only to magnify
the sparkle of
all that broken glass.

The lines in the parking lot
seem repainted every night,
with more space
between the spaces,
to keep the usses
from door-dinging
the thems,

but inside
the flamboyant vegetables
nestle up to their neighbors,
fragrant fruits
and bags of nuts
coexisting,

and there I’ll go
humming and hovering,
covertly cross pollinating,
to propagate
a kinder world.

–Melinda Coppola

Harmonious Discord

This morning I walked early,
mismatched garments
layered to repel a cold, spitting rain.

I’d pushed his baseball cap
down hard
over the knitted ear band
I bought to share
with her, which she
most emphatically rejected
for not being soft enough,
or pink.

Featherweight Bean jacket—
the one that lifts me to frequent
if silent praise
for its tireless rebuff
of even the most bitter winds—
warmed me companionably,
its soft arms moving along with mine.

This walking time—
tucked carefully into the space
between my early rising
and her wake up song,
before the gentle time to get up
directive I save for him—
has become sacred
in my other-centered life.

Rounding the first corner
of the favored route,
I looked down
and had to laugh
at mismatched gloves,
one pink and hers,
one turquoise, mine
by default,

and the shoes, laced oddly,
partially, with big gaps
between eyelets three and six

to nurture the well worn feet
whose dorsal surfaces
are temperamental, and
wavy as the sea.

The thought
and the smile
bubbled up together:
I am a walking exhibition
of my pieced together life.

This quilt of a family:
The daughter
with all her needs hanging out,
her talents slowly
coming to light
in explosions of art
and word
and song.

The man who adapted
to both of us,
stepping in, a little
closer every year,
to father her.

The felines,
who sleep tirelessly,
rising long enough
to eat and coat us
with their fur
of many colors.

Middle aging me,
holding it all together,
multi-hued patches of love,
bits of colorful string,
a plush batting of hope.

An ode
to harmonious discord
is not such a bad thing to be,

Said I to self
out walking.

–Melinda Coppola

BEGIN AGAIN


BEGIN AGAIN

“Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Begin again is the dry brush dipped into water. The soft tip touching dark blue, then medium green. The hand holds it steady over the welcoming canvas for a moment, then escorts it down to the wide, white surface.

She knows this first brush is delighted to be employed in this way. She is certain that each tool and supply she will be guided towards will co-create the picture that wants to bless the canvas with form and color.
—————————————————————

Begin again is the woman opening her purple 2020 calendar book with excitement. She is looking at the weekdays, the squares and numbers and day names that make up those blocks of time. She does the math, deducts the hours she will spend giving care, the appointments and commitments she has already made. She subtracts an approximation of the many miles of driving she will do, transferring loved bodies from place to place. What is left? What is possible? She begins to block out the writing time. Four minimum hours a week, six even better.

Whispers of worry float into her mind and cloud her vision. The scribbles already residing in the blocks on her calendar pages seem to expand as she gazes down at them. Will she be able to keep sacred those chunks of time she will set aside? Will she stay focused, or will she allow everyone else’s needs to usurp that free-ish time?

Those are the old patterns, she tells herself. In 2020, she must allow the writing to become one of the priorities. Set the minimum hours and let the pen form the word WORK in the possible spaces her calendar provides. Honor the time for writing as she would her other must-dos. The books inside her need to gestate and be born.
—————————————————————
Begin again is pink and lavender, with streaks of pleasing gray. Begin again is sweet and just a little spicy. It feels good in the mouth. Begin again wants to marry All is Well and settle happily inside her chest.

–Melinda Coppola

FISHING

Perched on the frost hardened bank
of the wide, cold river,
eyes intent on the rushing water,
dark and high,

I notice the greenish
brown river grasses,
rooted hopefully in their muddy beds,
in a permanent lean
as the current pulls them forward,

and my eyes train between the reeds,
strain towards that bottom
where I might glimpse gray,
or mottled brown,
perhaps a shape
unlike rock or branch,
something undeniably fish.

It’s late,
and wearily, determined,
I step into the freshet,
tossing pail and net aside,
boots sinking into the thick
organic carpet
lining the raging stream.

Now bent-kneed, hunched,
all my senses joining
with the forceful rush of water,
I feel things pressing, jostling,
knocking on my rubber clad calves,

and I’m shivering, such a
cold day for fall, wondering
if I’m delirious or
if perhaps the catfish,
the crappies,
the brown river trout
have finally
come to call,
and

are they taunting,
or urging me to name them,
call them forth,
lift them from the frenetic fray
into the bright relief
of their afterlife?

I plunge my hands
into the frigid waters,
grabbing at any shape
I think I see,
pulling out stones loosened
by the swollen rush,
and hunks of half-composed leaves
still attached to their rotting branch,
and,

gloves now soaked,
I am tossing handfuls
of dubious treasure
up onto the hard earth

when,
hands numbing
from the icy wet,
my eyes go to an odd form
amid the shiny tangle
of cast off debris
trembling on the bank.

It’s a little crayfish
on his back, caught in the clog
of dirt and stone,
tail flipping uselessly
towards the white underbelly,
claws open,
the bright sun
turning tiny, stunned eyes
to shiny marbles
and

my purpose becomes tenderness,
compassionate curiosity
as I reach my wet gloved hands
under his small dark back,
scoop him from the tangle,
and right him
to meet the earth.

He pauses, stance wide,
lifts his impressive little claws
up and out
as if to say
come no closer,

and then he’s off, eyes
still fast on my foreign face,
tail flipping to scoot him
backwards into the river.

Peeling off those soggy gloves,
warming my freed and icy hands
with steamy exhalations,
I sense the little crustacean
returned to his wild waters,
watching from the depths,

and I want to
imagine him grateful
for the wake up call,
full of new appreciation
for his river, his claws,
his small, powerful tail.

I suppose I’m projecting,
because that’s what we
humans do,
dripping our fears and
hypotheses all over
the plants and animals
around us,

pulling poems from their hunt,
their flower,
stories from their mating rituals,
always seeking ourselves
in their purposeful, focused lives.

I am sated, spent, complete,
gathering my empty pail,
my soaking gloves,
heading for home.

–Melinda Coppola

Brown Girl Hair Has Left the Building

Bink loves girl hair. For the uninitiated, this translates to long straight hair hanging down, on a female of any age. Preferably, the hair should be visible equally on the right and left sides of her head.

I’ve had long brown hair for 25 of my daughter’s 27 years. At one point, it grazed the small of my back. Bink loves reaching for a lock of my hair, especially when she gets up in the morning, when we part and reconnect during the day, when she is feeling anxious, and before she goes to sleep. Brown Girl Hair has even become my sometime moniker. Superguy has been known to refer to me as BGH (for short) in his texted or emailed communications with Bink, or when he addresses me in a birthday card.

In addition to being Brown Girl Hair, I’ve also been identified as Gooey Oyster. That means soft, smooth, silky hair in Bink’s world. Through no fault of mine, she loves raw oysters. And, to her sensibilities they are smooth and silky soft, like my hair. So she’s used the Gooey Oyster identifier along with Brown Girl Hair for some time.

Bink would prefer my hair down all the time, but my life is rather active. When I am cooking, cleaning, exercising, teaching (or doing) Yoga, caring for the cats and many of my other miscellaneous occupations, it is much easier and more practical to tuck it all up into a quick bun. This has led Bink to write, “You are not bread.” on napkins and leave them around the house for me to see, or to record into her tape player, ”Mom should not have a bun because she is not bread.”

We have been known to negotiate. “Hair down?” she’ll ask. “I’m cooking,” I’ll respond, perhaps for the fifth time. “Hair down at 4:40?” she’ll say, with an edge of faint hysteria in her voice. “I’ll put my hair down at 5 o’clock.” And so on.

I’ve loved hosting long hair at many points in my life, and other times I’ve tolerated it. Snarls happen easily, and the high-quality conditioner and combing in the shower precedes the two hour drying process. No hair dryer, except for the bangs. I’ve no time or patience for the tedium of all that hand-held noise, and it’s not good for the hair, either. There’s also the impracticality of having my long—albeit soft and shiny, gooey oysteresque—locks hang down and hinder my free vision or motion. Worse yet, it can inadvertently get dipped into a pool of mystery goo on a counter, or catch some errant cat food as I bend to clean up after our messy felines. Sometimes, I’ve found myself feeling tired of the process required to maintain all that girl hair.

I’ve broached the topic of Cutting It many times with Bink, who has reacted with a variety of expressions of displeasure, anxiety, and horror. When asked what she loves about her Mom, Bink will inevitably say, ”Her brown girl hair/gooey oyster.” I’ve often joked that, if I cut my hair short, my daughter would be in the market for a new mom.

She grows older, though, as do I. Signs of flexibility and maturity have been showing themselves in the past few years, particularly as Superguy and I push the envelope more. We are, after all, in the service of helping her become more independent, given that there will come a day when she will have to live without us. (Deep, heavy sigh inserted here. Topic of another blog post, or another fifty of them.)

I’ll be fifty-nine in a few months. I’m keen on decluttering my calendar and my environment. I have never been more aware of the need to make room for the things that really matter, like good health, and quality time with beings I love, and for the book that needs to gestate inside me. A new yen to Cut It Off began to make itself known in the past month or so.

Cue new consult with Superguy and Bink. “No,” she said. “Not above the shoulders,” said he. I reminded them gently that, despite evidence to the contrary, my hair belongs to me. And I was ready to cut it.

“It won’t be super short,” I assure them. “But I am getting it cut. I will let you know when it is going to happen, and everything will be OK.” And, you know what? It was.

A few days later, just before Christmas, I walked into a hair salon I’d never been to and plopped down my 25% off coupon. I told the lovely lady wielding the scary looking scissors that I was ready for a change. “But, not too short. And, I’m not a high maintenance type. I’m not going to put products into my hair and spend time in front of the mirror blow drying my mane into submission. And, I still need to be able to put it back, or up.” And then I let go. Kind of.

That afternoon, I picked up Bink from her day program wearing my new ‘do. She’d been warned, and after her name was called she peeked anxiously around the corner to assess the damage. Then she trundled towards me and put her hand up to touch my shiny, freshly-blown-out hair that would probably not look that stylish again until or unless I visited a salon.

“It’s still Gooey Oyster,” she said, and my heart got all melt-y and began to drip big blobs of love and appreciation all over the Pergo floor. My girl was doing her best to find a positive in this situation that she’d been dreading for years. Though Superguy and a few select others would have some sense of what a big deal this was and is, only I knew the true magnitude of that moment in the lobby of her day program. It could so easily have gone a different way; and it didn’t, because she is amazing and wonderful and she is growing and changing and she defies expectations more often than I probably give her credit for.

Bink is used to it now. She informs me at least daily, ”You’re not girl hair but you’re still gooey oyster!” Only twice has she wondered aloud if I’ll ever have girl hair again.

I do feel inclined to tell you, reader, that my hair is not actually short in anyone’s estimation except Bink’s. I had about six inches cut off, which leaves me with layers that end below shoulder level. It’s easier to manage this length, for sure, but I also feel benefits beyond shorter drying time and fewer tangles.

Bink’s willingness to bend and her ability to adjust to this big modification of one of her major comfort items leaves me feeling hopeful and proud, and lighter in more ways than one.

–Melinda Coppola