For some who left

STAY

I want to dematerialize
and put myself back together
between his reedy young body
and the gun he stole
from his Uncle’s desk drawer
the night they
invited him for dinner.

I want to land hard
between her hands—
the same hands that
had just held
an acceptance letter
for the DC job of her dreams—
and the noose
she’d fashioned in secret
six months ago.

I want to hitchhike
way back to 1981 Vermont,
grab all those who knew him,
and beam us, every one,
to the edge of that Hawaii
volcano where they said
he’d jumped,
so we could form a human barricade
between his anguish
and that black hole.

I want to sing,
yell, cajole, say

It will get better.
It can,
I promise you

The world’s gonna need
you next week, next year,
you’re gonna leave a hole
that can’t be filled

and somewhere there is
someone who will
love you so much
you’ll be wrecked to think
you could ever have left
before you crossed paths

and someday
there’ll be a moment—
a car, a bike,
a wet road
distracted driver—
a child whose life
you will save

whose children
will cure cancer.

Please,
I want to say
don’t go.
Not yet.

Please,
let’s sit
and warm the ground
awhile.

–Melinda Coppola
#nationalpoetrymonth

Accepting Autism

Ten years ago, April was designated Autism Awareness month. April 2 is World Autism Awareness day. There has been a movement towards renaming both of these, replacing awareness with acceptance .

Robert Frost wrote,” Always fall in love with what you’re asked to accept. Take what is given, and make it over your way. My aim in life has always been to hold my own with whatever’s going. Not against: with.”

I don’t know many people who fight against the reality of autism. On the contrary, I know dozens of folks who have grasped their circumstances with both hands and shaped them into something meaningful, useful and beautiful. Affected individuals have found ways to educate non-autistic folk and improve the lives of others on the spectrum. Parents of children with the diagnosis have created organizations to assist with creative housing solutions, adapt recreational activities, and push legislation to protect our vulnerable loved ones from abuse and neglect.

I wrote the below poem four years ago. Today seems an appropriate time to share it once again.

Autism Awareness month is April,
World Autism Awareness Day, April 2
and, in case the day lacks color,
(as if any day with Autism in it could be dull),
the mysterious Namers-of-Days-and-months
have painted it a medium sort of blue.
I wonder who decided this;
and how it was chosen,
this perfectly ordinary second day,
and weighted with a long middle
moniker, like a fish
plucked out of the ocean,
tagged and thrown back
into what used to be
a perfectly ordinary fourth month.
And why a color? Why this one?
Does Autism look like blue
to outsiders?
Pondering this, I roll up my sleeves,
prep the tub for her,
the one who turned my life on its ear,
she who makes me laugh,
she who wears me out,
she who is a master of repetition,
she who defies reduction,
who is multi-colored, many-hued.
She who is unaware of your awareness,
who, if asked, would mutter “ Not interesting”,
she who needs help with a bath
but can take a thing
and spell it backwards,
report to the air/no one in particular
how many redundant vowels it contains,
and how her lunch reminds her
of Home on the Range.
She who hears songs in color,
who does not stay in her bed all night,
who is frightened of beads with holes,
she who knows if there’s a day to be aware of
it’s the fourth Friday in February,
which is called Ate Baby Kate, and that means bad,
and therefore must be worried about
many months in advance,
she who can sing whole CDs in order,
she who tells me thirty times a day
that I’m a girl ( in case I forget)
She who needs more than I have
who gives more than I need
who has more than you think,
who is more, so much more,
than you give her credit for.
And so, dear you-who-aren’t-aware,
please allow me to set the record straight.
Autism is multi-colored,
and awareness is every single day,
and no blue second day of any fourth month
will ever matter more
than your interest, your kindness, your respect,
your willingness to help us challenge
a world that would reduce anyone
to an assumption
or a label
in one color
on one day
within one month.

–Melinda Coppola

Literally

I suppose all parents have those first moments of recognition; the sudden realization that the world has pushed itself inside your child’s innocence, the bittersweet rush of comprehension that s/he will never be quite the same again.

Having a child with disabilities creates a different trajectory. Timelines are unpredictable. Those milestones that mark the development of most children may never appear. They may show up in different forms, or make an appearance years later than what is considered typical.

In my 28 years of parenting a child who carries several heavy labels, autism chief among them, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing many individuals who also shoulder that diagnosis, and they are just that–individuals. Though there are common clues that might alert the uninitiated, there is no absolute list of characteristics that defines them all. One of the more common hallmarks, though, is what the world calls literal thinking.

There are so many ways that language can be bent to suit our needs for expression. Idioms, metaphors, hyperboles and analogies come easily to those of us who have natural fluencies, but these rather abstract concepts can be baffling for many folks on the autism spectrum.

Bink has a volunteer job at a wonderful store in a town nearby that sells books and toys. This was a giant leap for her. Though she adores colorful toys and fun activities geared towards a much younger crowd, the things that go along with having a job—taking and following direction, limiting breaks, staying with the task at hand, and persevering through non-preferred duties——are real hurdles for her. She has done well, though, gradually building up to a few hours there. Her one-on-one staff, S, is a patient, gentle woman who brings her own parenting experience along with her. Bink loves her and I frequently thank the stars above for the gift of her on our doorstep each Tuesday. The owner and staff at the store are also incredible. They consistently come up with a list of things for Bink to do, ensuring the variety she so craves.

One Tuesday at the store, Bink spotted a collection of small plastic packages with images of horses on the front. She used to have weekly horseback riding lessons, but that was snuffed out when Covid arrived, and we’ve no idea when this marvelous activity will return. She took note of the horses, and a few days later she mentioned the toy in her very typical way.

Bink: I wanted that thing.

Me: What thing?

B: The thing at the toy store.

Me: What was it?

B: The magical thing.

Me: You have money you have earned from your chores. Do you know if you have enough to buy the magical thing?

Bink: I don’t know.

Me: Well, when you go there next week, maybe S can help you figure out if you have enough money saved to buy it. We can put some of your money in your purse so you can pay for it.

Bink: I am not supposed to play with the toys.

Me: Well, you can look for it when you are finished with your work for the day, and buy it if you have enough money.

Bink: I am at work.

Me: OK, well maybe we can make a separate trip and look for the toy.

Bink: OK.

A few days passed. We had the welcome opportunity to have a caregiver come for a few hours on the weekend. Bink loves to go out places. Walks, stores, anywhere. Since Covid, the options are limited. The toy store does have a careful health protocol, and she is comfortable there, so we agreed that would be a good destination. I made sure she had some money in her purse, and off they went.

A few hours later, she returned with a small plastic package containing that magical thing. It was a little horse figurine made of plastic. I helped her open it, and she trundled into the next room with it. A short time later, I saw the empty wrapping in the trash. She’d put the little horse in my home office, which is where she deposits things that she wants to get rid of.

Me: You don’t like the horse?

B: It doesn’t work.

Me: Well, it’s just a little statue. It’s not meant to move or anything.

B: It doesn’t work.

Curious, I pulled the wrapping out of the trash. The words on the plastic wrapper were quite clear. “Blankety-blank brand horses come to life!” Aha! A major clue.

Me: Honey, did you think the horse would move?

B: I wanted to see it come alive.

The words that came to mind immediately? Deceptive advertising! Those words slipped out against my better judgement, so I tried to explain the concept, but my sentences twirled off into little question marks in the air around my daughter’s ears. So I did what I often do. I grabbed one of my handy responses, the kind that often feel like a feeble excuse for the shortcomings of the mainstream majority:

Things don’t always make sense. People are confusing.

Sometimes it feels like hefty chunks of days are spent struggling to explain to my clear-eyed girl that the world is full of people who don’t say what they mean and often don’t mean what they say. That sometimes it is considered OK to say and write things that aren’t true, especially if it makes people feel better or makes them want to buy something. That many things we’ve come to accept as perfectly fine, aren’t fine at all. When I view events and people from Bink’s perspective, which I often do, the myriad contradictions and unnecessary noise seem quite nonsensical. My head starts to feel like a spinning top, and I want to crawl deep inside myself where it is much quieter, and stay there a long while. Literally.

Notes from a Parallel Universe

I’ve written a fair amount about life with my adult child. As I plod ever so slowly towards creating a book about the journey, it occurs to me that the pace at which I’m working on that is in sync with the overall pace and rhythm of our life together. Bink will turn 28 this weekend. I’m not one to fixate on the differences between her development and that of a “typical” young adult, but the anniversary of her birth seems to stir things up for me. From that churn this poem arose.

The View from Here

You say
you just caught glimpses
of your child
as he sped past toddlerhood,
towards those labels
that mean everything
and nothing: child, tween,
teen, young adult.

Glimpses, you say,
as if it all tornadoed past you
while I stood stupefied,
hands in pockets,
by the side of some dusty cow path,
a perpetual look of dull
surprise on my unremarkable face.

Truth is,
over here our lives
are nothing like that.

We have plodded along
like turtles in the too-hot sun,
she and I,

pausing every few feet
to rest, to allow her
a few attempts at integrating
the latest sensory assault,

which could have been a wind
shaking the branches too fast,
or the distant sound
of a jake brake on a downhill semi
from a highway half a mile away.

Her needs are special,
which means our shimmy
is your slow dance,
our milestones
seem like simple addition
to your kid’s calculus.

I’m used to it,
adept at appreciating
the kinds of beauty
that decorate this life
that chose me, and her.

It’s not the pace of it all
that leaves me sweaty
and gasping for breath.

It’s my head spinning
as your children date
and learn to drive,
go to college,
get married,
have babies,
buy a house,

flying so far from your nest
you can’t squint enough
to make out the tiny dot
their bodies make
as they soar onward,
commanding the skies.

–Melinda Coppola

Me and My Shadow Go to Market

It is May 2020,
still early in
The Covid Times.

We take ourselves to the market,
by which I mean
our whole selves,
me in my layers of
self-consciousness—
the run of the mill kind
that most of us don
without thought—

she baring all, as usual:
no pretense, nothing to hide.

The market rule
in the time of virus:
No touching anything, honey,
except yourself or Mom.

We’ve gotten good at this one,
practicing since mid-March,
and so we go,
in service to our shopping list,
following the one way arrows
like breadcrumbs,

and her singing beams
a Disney-flavored sunshine
up and down the aisles
even through her mask.

She pauses in front of the dairy section,
(which means I pause, too)
halts her sunbeaming mid-song,
and announces to the floor,
” Mommy it looks like I have to pee.”

No beats to skip,
for we are well prepared,
the purple handled pee jug
bagged and ready
in the backpack,

nestling up against
the toilet paper,
flanked by two packs
of antiseptic wipes,

and into the bathroom we go,
my shoulder managing doors,
finding a stall, hooking
pack to hang,

pulling out
that magnificent portable
receiver of pee
that makes all outings
seem possible,
conquerable.

We navigate this
like so many other things,
my thought out plan
for safety and practicality

backlit by the simplicity
of her needs,
which aren’t so much special
as they are honest,

the whole thing shined up
by my gratitude, in recent years,
that she can name the feelings,
usually in time to stay dry.

We are each engaged
in familiar activities:
she is peeing
and I am musing,

wondering
and marveling
at what the world could be
if we were all more like her:

free of innuendo,
honest to a fault,
unable to fathom
marching to any beat
but our own.

–Melinda Coppola

LATELY

The ground seems foreign,
new roots and stones anchored
in the middle of familiar paths,

and my feet stumble more,
much more.
Are you stumbling too?

Such heavy air,
a downward press
on the shoulders
makes it hard to look up,
check out the sky.

I can’t speak for you,
but I feel your heart
even as we give each other
wide berth, passing
in the park and on the streets.

I can see your eyes
above your mask,
watch you avert them
long before I’m near.

If I turn on the news these days
it’s to study faces,
listen hard
for all that isn’t being said.

I can avoid the headlines
but still I feel your heart,
see your eyes looking left
or looking right

even as we all dwell
in the center of things.

Can’t we stand still
and see each other eye to eye?

Can’t we soften
just a little,
abstain for an hour or a day,
make a Sabbath, a Shabbat
of not doing the things we do,

not lowering the blinds and turning away from the street where life is happening,

not doing the things that almost seem required of late, that almost seem normal,

not heaving our personal pain onto the steaming pile of angst, then grabbing handfuls of it without looking, with our noses blocked, and throwing it at each other?

As if that helps.

As if that does anything
except maybe keep us distracted
for a moment or a year,
keeps us from breathing
into our common humanity,
allowing movement inside,

letting things rise and break free,
rise and dissipate.
rise and come into the sun to be named
and nourished, or released.

–Melinda Coppola

Medicament

Medicament

This morning’s waking,
tight and tender to the touch,
felt like neck ache,

and all along
the spine of this day
my heart climbed and slid,

ridge-riding
the grief and uncertainty
of these past months,

pushing up towards
bone-like pinnacles,
vertebraic protrusions
of more bad news—
illness and violence,
economic cancer,
people hating their neighbors—

and then
the intentional slide
over cushiony discs
hydrated with hope,

into valleys lush with
stories of great kindness,
dotted with golden gifts,
small sweet buds of peace
that can only bloom
with softened expectations.

Now at the tailbone
of a long sixteen hours,
no Downward Facing Dog
or Bridge Pose can save me
from this hunched pecking
at the keyboard,
almost desperate
to whiplash out a poem
or some semblance thereof.

How many ways
can we find
to harm each other?

and

Aren’t there an equal
number of ways
we can lift and hold,

tilt a hurting person
towards the light,
say

Look—
the way your cheek curves
towards your chin
is poetry.

And

You, over there—
talking to your cats
with your eyes alone,
see how they respond
by blinking back, slowly?

And

Old man, I’ve seen you
water your plants
with deep, unquestioned faith
that they’ll leaf and angle
towards the sun—

and isn’t that grace,

and aren’t we all,
every one of us,
a cure
for someone’s
unease?

–Melinda Coppola

Dragonflies

Image by Rona Kline

Image by Rona Kline

As I write this, my dear friend Marina lies dying in a lovely room inside the oldest house in an historic and pretty New Hampshire town. A wonderful woman who worked with her in the local general store has taken her into her home. Hospice has set her up well with a hospital bed that adjusts in many ways and keeps moving different parts of her body to prevent some of the pain associated with not being able to get out of bed.

A mere six months ago, Marina was celebrating the purchase of a little house in New Mexico, old stomping grounds for her. She envisioned growing old there while making her art and reconnecting with the culture in an area of the country she has long loved for its people and its wide, open skies. She planned to move there this month, just after celebrating her solo art show at The Newton Free Library the first week of June.

Covid 19 would likely have postponed the show, as it slowed or halted so many things. The pandemic burst into dominance at the same time that my friend had a scan that looked very suspect.

Her journey has been fraught with suffering and pain as the diagnoses and prognoses grew increasingly dark through the weeks. She has had deep sorrow, and also joy and gratitude and acceptance. I’ve written a bit about this already, and it isn’t actually what I’ve come here to the page to say.

We humans can be so apathetic about being incarnated. We act as if we have unlimited time, as if each day isn’t positively bursting with beauty and grace and opportunities to bring meaning and comfort to at least one other being.

Many of us are quite good at identifying what we don’t want and don’t like. We tend to focus on those things, and it can feel easier to blame the ensuing feelings on outside circumstances. We seem to expend enormous energy tearing each other down.

Though I am a great advocate of the practices of presence and loving kindness, I’m far from immune to the easy drop into anxiety and despair. I can make an impressive list of Everything That Sucks as fast as the next person. I can bemoan the ways in which Other People are directly contributing to the pain and suffering of the larger world and to my own little sphere as well. I can list twenty ways the shutdown has created enormous distress and anxiety for families like ours that include an individual with special needs.

The pandemic and cancer diagnoses are among the teachers that remind us how little control we actually have over many of the circumstances of our lives. Those same professorial forces can illustrate our superpowers. We all have them. Most days, I think, we can choose to do and to be in ways that can make an enormous difference to all living things—people and animals and trees and flowers. We can choose to be present with each other, to listen deeply and hold each being with respect and regard and learn great things that can alter the ways we treat each other and our earth.

Each life is precious. Life itself is an exquisite gift. Everyone has a story, everyone carries pain and joy. We are all works in progress, weaving tapestries of our memories and experiences. No two will look the same, and we have so much to teach each other.

My friend has stopped eating and drinking, and she is mostly nonresponsive now. I know that she’ll graduate into the great love that surrounds us and created us. She knows this, too. “Look for the dragonflies,” she told me a few weeks ago. A few days after that, “Look for dragonflies. Especially the unusual ones.”

Dragonflies represent transformation and adaptability and wisdom. They are associated with water, that magical, life-giving, shape shifter element that adapts to every container and circumstance. My friend has had one tattooed on her left arm for quite a long time, now. I didn’t tell her that I’ve never felt a strong pull towards them. I know that is about to change.

–Melinda Coppola
Post Script: Marina Powdermaker passed away in the first hour of Sunday, June 28, 2020. She was two months shy of her 59th birthday.

Time, Place, Classroom

WHEN

The world gets so noisy. Too many voices
straining, pushing past their natural limits to be heard. Our small ears can’t discern provenance or factuality. Reactions quicken, turning knee-jerk, protective.

WHERE

There is the place where trees thicken into extended families, root systems entwined beneath the earth. Look for the leafy canopy that forms an arch. You’ll know it when you arrive. There are plenty of seats to be had, and no prior coursework is required.

WHEN

Class begins just after the tree frogs cease their urgent croaking. If you prefer to tell time mechanically, it’s around 3am. The instructor will sweep in on a dark, cool breeze. Plan to sit awhile. Class ends at chorus call, when the winged ones stir and lift their beaks to sing the dawn into being.

WHAT

The velvet hour, the lull between cacophonies. Your professor is the apparent silence. You’ll be asked to get very still. Open all your senses, and train them towards the slightest movement or sound or scent. Your assignment: to glean the evidence of life happening all around you. It is in the soil beneath and the trees above. It’s in the air that hangs or wafts or hurries by. It hums steadily in the space you thought was filled with quiet.

Listening is sacred. Listening is a practice.

Listening is a sacred practice.

I marvel at the way it is possible to hear what we already know in someone’s else’s words, when we get quiet enough for long enough. When that happens, things can suddenly sound new and full of meaning and promise, and this is what we do for each other, when we show up and open our ears and hearts, the ears of our hearts. When we
press ourselves into the present exactly as we are, wounds and all, open to a new way of being and seeing.

Consider the way we can make a gift of our listening when we give our earnest attention to others, especially those whose lives are quite unlike our own. By truly receiving their words, we can be a mirror through which they can see their own humanity and beauty reflected. We can give each other new vision and energy and this, too, is what we’re here for, to show each other, again and again, what might be possible.

Listening is a sacred practice.

–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