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

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

HOME

The past few days I’ve had home humming in my head and heart. Not my physical dwelling, but rather the whole concept of it: home. It’s a loaded word, to say the least. But I rarely say the least… at least not with pen to paper.

Recently, Super Guy and I visited an animal sanctuary. It’s a magical place with paths and paddocks, ponds and portals; little homes on posts, myriad small barns and shelters and cubbies and soft, warm sleep spots, bowls of food and bales of hay. It’s home to creatures of all sorts who were victims of the transposed violence and dark dysfunction that can live within the human psyche. These animals were mistreated by their previous owners, and the sanctuary provides a place they can heal and perhaps begin to trust again. To paraphrase an old, old song. I wondered as I wandered. What shifts, great and small, could occur that might eliminate or drastically reduce the need to rescue animals from human abuse and neglect?

Here, in this home in the woods, are cats, dogs, horses, donkeys, pigs, bunnies, llamas, goats, sheep, chickens, ducks, geese, doves, peacocks, and, variably, many other expressions of God. These creatures may be one-eyed or deaf, missing a leg or broken winged, living with chronic illness and/or suffering from post traumatic stress – more and than or–  from the inhumane treatment of their previous owners. And, in this place, they are finally welcomed home.

As I walked the paths of the sanctuary with my creature-loving partner ( oh, how I love this about him!), together we greeted the rescued residents, pet the ones that allowed it. I took in the smells and sounds and sights; colors and textures and strange juxtapositions that are foreign to me, to most of us—creatures so different, living together in apparent reasonable harmony. Possible, perhaps, because all are well-fed, well-housed, respected for their particular needs for space, freedom, and safety…places to burrow in? And I thought, too, of the larger world we, who speak this human language, call home. A world full of rules and laws, customs and traditions, that we have created for ourselves, and continue to create. Lately, we hear a lot about the unpleasant effects of some of those laws, rules, customs: strife and anger and injustice and poverty and violence perpetuated, human against human, with sad justifications like:

different
– not as s/he should be

not like me and mine.

Or, sadder still,
That’s just the way things are … .in the Middle East, in the inner city. In that culture, those religions.

And
-That’s what comes with being black, or brown, or female, or poor. That’s just the way it is.

That afternoon, at the animal sanctuary, I walked in step with a wondering that felt more urgent than sublime. What kind of world might it be if all people had a safe and comfortable place to call home? If all people were well-fed, well-housed, respected for their individual needs for space, and freedom, and safety? What might happen to the imbedded acceptance of those justifications for human-to-human violence and subjugation? And, how much might such a world reduce the need to rescue animals from abuse and neglect?

We are all connected. No matter how hard we may try to ignore this, personal action, positive or negative, ripples outward into families, communities, countries, and our larger home, Earth. What are we willing to give up, or change, or invest in, that can move us towards a time and place where Earth -our home– is a sanctuary for all?

-Melinda Coppola