Tender

Raccoon, bread, apple by Bink


Tender.

Unless I am speaking of meat,
which I mostly don’t,
the very word owns its ness,
as in,
what is tender
evokes tenderness,
and what calls that forth in me
is that which I am drawn towards,
or s/he whom I draw close,
or want to.

Draw close,touch,
be connected with, and to—
it’s like a song whose notes
sidle up beside each other
and seem happily married,
or a poem that dances
smoothly,
word to word,
meant to be silken,
not rough and chopped
like this one.

Tender.
Tenderness.

Decades ago, as a young mother, I joined a playgroup with the odd name of Warmlines. I was lonely in my complete consummation with motherhood, and with my baby. The group name continued to strike me as odd, until recently.

I am thinking of the people in my awareness that are hurting, that are celebrating, that are lonely, and tired, and scared. There are mothers whose adult children have complex special needs ( like my Bink) , and they are trying to hold their ground in choppy waters, and I so get this and I feel connected to their pain. There is the friend from a writing group who has recently been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. I’ve never met her in person, but she is a sister of the pen. I can only hold her image in my heart, and pour small offerings of caring into her hands, her mouth, as I trek through my days. There is a friend whose brother has mental illness, and his dangerous behavior pulls something from my depths which reaches out to her. There is my dear Aunt, recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, and my beautiful friend M who mourns the loss of her mother.

On the celebratory front, my niece is blossoming in her first independent teaching job, living in her own apartment. One of my Yogabilities™ students is in a new day program, an art program for adults with disabilities that encourages her immense talent and will also market her work. My own Bink is creating rather wonderful art in an afternoon class nearby. She also began horseback riding a year ago, and she has exceeded my expectations with her interest and ability.

There are so many more, people I know online, in person, people I know of through friends or family, all dealing with the sticky stuff of life. When I think about them, I visualize myself floating in a kind of emotional outer space, connected to each of these people, who are also floating. There are slender but strong ropes growing out from my body to theirs, or perhaps they originate from each of the others and find their way to a temporary home in my heart. The ropes are purple, and there is an energy pulsing through them; the energy of connection and compassion. That’s when it hit me. Warmlines. Tentacles of caring, linking us to one another as we journey through life. So tender, so very tender.

–Melinda Coppola

Our small eyes

Perchance

Perhaps nothing begins
or ends,
not exactly.

The field mouse knows
the tall grass
to be her world.

We say
morning comes,
and yet
it is always
somewhere,

just not in the very front
of our small eyes.

The trees are wise.
They know everything cycles,
seed to sapling,
strong trunk reaches skyward,,
and wind-felled trunk
becomes home for owl
and mushroom,
then fertilizer for forest floor.

Last night
something gentle
grasped my hand,
and I turned towards my partner
who wasn’t there.

Perhaps death
is neither end
nor beginning,
and that
which we name loss
is just a shift
beyond our modest
range of vision.

I want to think
my father came to visit,
or one of my grandmothers.
just to reassure,
just to say,
in Albanian—
which they wanted me to know—
just to say
It’s all going to be alright.

 

_Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

Love is a Rendering

Love is a Rendering

 

Telling you how I love you
is like trying to find things
that haven’t been said
about the ocean.

My hands prefer to paint it—
affection, water—
sweeping, striped backgrounds,
turquoise and deep
salient greens,
silvery whites frosting
every liquid peak,

and there’s the sky
hovering above the seas
like a mother,
cooing and cajoling
smoother, smoother now.
You mustn’t tip the boats,
or dunk the sailors.

On the shore, wild
coastly rocks, and
the dark of cast-off
tree limbs
adding interest and balance
to the composition.

Further inland,
I love you like new snow
frosts the grass,
like blue melds with ebony
to make the nocturnal sky
sing midnight,

like the way those
ensuing wee hours test
the nerves of first time
campers
in their thin tents
along random pieces
of the Appalachian trail,

but fear doesn’t win,
dawn always triumphs,
breaking their sleepless faces
into chapped grins
as they whisper
I made it through I made it through
nothing will get to me or you.

 I love you like that.

Our word is song,
lilt, flow.
Our word is comfort,
as in I knew you
before you were born,

before you were separate
from the great meld
of souls waiting to enter
their chosen bodies,

and someday,
when I need to go,
please don’t say
you lost me.

Know, instead,
that I live on,
around you
and beside you,

in your first
waking thought
as you chide the cats
for meowing before dawn,

and as you rotate the dishes
just the way
you know
they told me to do

and as you bless your gums
by flossing frequently,
and gratefully,

as you pull
all the way over,
leaving the phone
in the car
so you can stand and stretch
and take in the sunset.

That little rustle
you’ll barely hear
could be autumn leaves
swept along the dry ground
by the wind,

or it could be me
whispering
be present,
be present.

 

–Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Receiving the darkness

The word solstice was born from the Latin sol ( sun) and sistere ( to stand still). 

 

Solstice, winter

This darker interlude
could be a meditation,
a reckoning with the deceptive
nature of time.

The exacting practice
of being present

is to show up
for each round moment
as if it were everything.

This is what might save
me, or us—
the stilling to receive
each bundled particle of time,

and if we get really quiet,
and keep the flame behind
our closed lids
fixed on the darkness
before us,

we notice it is leaving
at the instant it arrives.

In truth
there is none such transition,
no arriving, no departure.

It is all a single stroke
of paint
on the mortarboard
of existence.

 

“ It’s all the same f—-ing day, man.” —Janis Joplin, sage disguised as an addict with a glorious set of vocal chords.

As a child, I noticed the shortened daylight only well after the length was returning to the days. Think late January in the northeast US, when the sun slips away almost a full hour later than it did when winter knocks proper on the door. Once I recognized this pattern in myself, it became metaphor for oh so many things.  If it’s mostly always getting lighter just when I notice the dark, then surely I can and will sing right through.

-Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

 

Natura Illustratio

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

–Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

 

Rocking the cosmic swirl

Rocking

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

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

adding more spackle
and grout
and laughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

–Melinda Coppola

 

 

 

So many ways to say it. Be Here Now.

 

 

 

 

 

Between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

-Melinda Coppola

Many Singularities

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melinda Coppola

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

 

Deliverance

Remembering my father

1.

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

2.

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

3.

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

4.

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

-Melinda Coppola

Barry of the Wind

The Names Project, AIDS Memorial Quilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Melinda Coppola

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