Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 15: Pat Anthony

There have been times in my life when I have pulled my car hastily into a parking lot and yanked napkins and a pencil from the glovebox to scribble a poem down before it evaporated from my head. The ten weeks between my taita’s diagnosis and her passing come to mind: a whole series of lamentations was conceived on the well-traveled streets between my aunt’s house and my apartment.

My elder child turns sixteen this weekend. My younger is a teenager now, too. I try not to get nostalgic about the days when they were small enough to fall asleep in my lap. I was exhausted then and could just as easily fall asleep with them, weighted down by their milky warmth. I’m exhausted now, too, and only a little bit from missing the time when it was easy to solve their problems for them just by meeting their basic needs.

I love the adolescents they’ve become as much as I loved the babies they were. But parenting is like one long series of fleeting moments dragging you through their timeline, alternately endless and the length of a blink, a chronology of fatigue punctuated by bliss and terror.

I can’t imagine I would ever trade it.

Tonight’s poem, “For Little Hawk” by Pat Anthony, reminds me of the holiness of ephemeral moments and of how much we miss when something larger than ourselves interrupts them. I hope, fervently, that we will reach some comfortable medium of immunity and stability by later this year. My ambitions are not grand, but sometimes, honestly, when I look at the world around me, they feel immense.

For Little Hawk

I stop the car to write
            how it’s been six months now
arms aching from the weight
            your sleeping little boy body
                        this cradle of absence

my shoulder bowed yet
            from the curve of your head
my lap waiting for the spill
            of your blanketed legs

Then we breathed each other
            my quick inhales fragrant
            with your milky exhales
                        your gentle settling into sleep

Now I press my fingers against glass
                        this air between us laden
                                    green walnuts
                                    chattering squirrels

                                    the lot of us at risk
                        of losing so much

we mask
            squares of cloth
                        straining  
                        cataracts
            threatening to breach

larval we twist inside
                        colorful chrysalises
suspended
            by a single strand from
                        which we thought to anchor
            before the dizzying spinning
                        thinned the sheath
                                                translucent
                        the struggle within
you
            trying out first words today
me
            holding back my own
love
            across an unsocial distance

But here along this road
            where I’ve stopped
                        beside melons split open
                        their bloody hearts raw and dying

I just wanted you
            to know how much I miss.

***

Pat Anthony writes the backroads, often using land as lens to heal, survive, and thrive while living with bi-polar disorder as she mines characters, relationships, and herself. A recently retired educator, she holds an MA in Humanities, poems daily, edits furiously and scrabbles for honesty no matter the cost. She has work published or forthcoming in multiple journals, including The Avocet, The Awakenings, The Blue Nib, Haunted Waters, Orchard Street, and more. Her latest chapbook, Between Two Cities on a Greyhound Bus, was recently published by Cholla Needles Press, CA. She blogs at middlecreekcurrents.com.

The Year of Living Pandemically

During first period on Thursday, March 12, 2020, one of the sophomores in my English II class looked up from his phone and said, “They just closed.”

He was referring to one of our peer schools, an institution with whom our school shares a lot of cues – such as when to close down during a global pandemic.

Over the previous couple of weeks, all of my classes had begun with an anxious conversation with my students about Covid-19. They were the ones anxiously asking questions, and I was the one doing my best to answer them in a reassuring way, debunking myths and providing the best information I had about the virus and what we knew and what we still didn’t. Oddly, I was not, myself, feeling their same sense of worry. Yes, I knew things were serious, and yes, I was fairly well informed of the news (the accurate variety), but also? I have a brother who lives in Hong Kong, and so I’d already Continue reading “The Year of Living Pandemically”

12 Days of Seasonal Earworms Worthy of Your Love (Day 12)

Today was Christmas, and it was good. Mellow and relaxing, for the most part. Fun, at times. Most of my favorite aspects of Christmas — the Lebanese food, giving my loved ones gifts, not doing any work — were all in effect. There were video calls with my family members I couldn’t see in person. There was some socially distant and masked-up visiting from across the yard for a few minutes with others. It was, on balance, a good day.

But I cannot deny that it was weird.

The weirdness comes from not having the usual big to-do for the holiday with my enormous extended family and a generous cadre of friends dropping by throughout the afternoon or evening, all full of laughing and telling stories and eating and drinking together. Nope, that’s not really happening this year. But it’s okay. Subdued, but not bad. This way is necessary, and it’s also temporary. I think, I hope, next year will be different.

Some of my friends and cousins who work in the medical industry have already gotten their first doses of the covid vaccine, so that’s good. And while there’s nothing but absolutely bonkers nonsense bordering on mildly terroristic narcissism coming out of the upper reaches of the government, the larger horizon still provokes optimism.

Like most people, I had to put a pause on so many of my usual holiday traditions this year. But not all of them. The 12 Days of Holiday Music here, for example, is something I love doing and had no reason to halt. And just as I begin the series each year with The Waitresses’ “Christmas Wrapping” for its personal significance to me and for the comforting sense of routine (or ritual?), I think I’m going to end the series with a repeat song that I first included here in December of 2014, because it’s special to me.

“The Week Between” by John Roderick and Jonathan Coulton is one of my favorite holiday songs ever. It’s mellow and sweet and a little melancholy all at the same time.

When I was a child, Christmas was everything. Toys, delicious food, the end of my father’s unbearably long working hours until the next holiday season, and a party with my extended family, which meant cousins to play with as far as the eye could see. A very special tradition we had was that we always spent the night at each other’s houses on Christmas night, thereby extending our holiday for yet another day. We would stay up late and tiptoe into the kitchen after our parents went to bed for a “midnight snack” — usually cheddar sliced off an enormous block of cheese and Coke in six-ounce glass bottles. We played board games. We told each other scandalously funny jokes. We played with toys and watched movies and tried to see how late we could stay up. We almost never made it to actual midnight at that age. I lived for these times.

But once all of that was over, and we all went back to our own houses, to play with our own toys and siblings only, with no more excited wrapping of gifts, no more days spent cooking food in preparation for the holiday, no more anything much to look forward to until my birthday in March…

Well, I would inevitably fall into low spirits. One year my dad explained to me that I had the “Christmas blues,” the let-down once all the festivities were over. And this persisted for several years until I was old enough to start insisting my family do something, anything, to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

So. Flash forward a few decades. The time between Christmas and New Year’s is now, honestly, just about one of my very favorite weeks of the year. I have some time off before school starts up again, and the hustle and bustle of orchestrating a holiday for my family has also been accomplished. Everyone is home and just hanging out. People drop by for little visits, maybe, something low-key, or they wait until our annual New Year’s Eve bash (which also will not be happening this year).

I can devote time to creative projects and reading for fun and watching movies and sleeping in and whatever else. It’s one of the very few truly relaxed, free times I have as we put the subconscious stress of the holidays behind us and look forward to new beginnings.

The line in this song that has always resonated with me the most, that made me love this song so much, is in the chorus: “In the week between, all your drunken uncles and cousins’ cousins are on the scene…” (Not that I’m a fan of drunken people in general.) Ever since I was a child and all the way until just last year, that special time with my cousins is so much of what I love about life.

And then there’s the next line: “The week between, New Year’s resolutions in conversation with last year’s dreams.” I mean, that’s just poetry. And it’s exactly how my mind pivots from one year’s ambitions to the next, and that, too, is comforting to me, a far horizon folding itself toward me as I stand on an ever-hopeful shore.

So. Enough rambling for one night. I’m going to go fix myself a snack of very soft pita bread, hot enough to melt the butter I spread across the inside of its pocket. Maybe some sliced cheddar, maybe share a Coke with my husband. Text back and forth with my cousins, pictures of our kids. (They miss each other, too.) Then get into bed and read a new book.

I hope your winter holidays, if you celebrate any, have been just what you needed this year, or that you at least have had a moment to enjoy the calm, that you’ve had some calm to enjoy.

Now, enjoy this delightful song.

In Which I Give A Virtual Reading For Spider Road Press…

So in case you’d like to see me reading one of my stories online, you can now.

Last year I wrote a flash fiction called “Mother” which placed in the annual Spider Road Press flash fiction contest. They even nominated it for Best Small Fictions. (This year’s contest is going on now, by the way, until June 1st, so do enter a story if you’ve got one that fits their guidelines.)

And this spring they’re posting online readings of flash fiction from their authors, and today my story went up! I hope you’ll take a look.

Have a great weekend!

12 Days of Seasonal Earworms You Need Right Now (Day 5)

Okay, I get it. Not everyone loves the holidays. Not everyone enjoys hanging out with their family. In fact, some people cannot even with the holidays because they’ve successfully managed to more or less escape the pandemonium and strife of the families they came from, and having to go back during the holidays is stressful.

Friends, I see you — and your relative nightmare. This mildly inappropriate earworm is for you.

Monday Earworm: Gerry Rafferty

Monday Earworm has returned! I don’t know about you, but I had a kinda tough September. Between work and school stress and a hip flexor injury, I’ve had a somewhat hectic time of things. But that’s okay! Because things are finally starting to feel a little less bonkers. So here! Have an earworm!

So today is my mom’s birthday. One song I always associate with my childhood is “Right Down the Line” by Gerry Raffery because I knew from a young age it was a song that was really special to my parents. They’re still going strong at 46 years of marriage (well, 46 years as of October 6th), and since I know my mom loves this song because it reminds her of my dad, and I’ve always loved this song because it reminds me of my parents’ happy marriage, well. If I were musically coordinated enough to play the piano and sing at the same time, this song would be high up on the list along with almost everything from Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes and Fiona Apple’s Tidal.

Here you go.

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To Me…

At the school where I teach, which is non-sectarian, our character education mission is guided by four core values: honesty, responsibility, kindness, and respect. While we try to teach and model all four of these all the time, each year the school chooses one core value to highlight with special emphasis. It’s a four-year rotation, and this year the focus is on respect.

Last year, I was awarded what is essentially Teacher of the Year. (It was a glorious shock, let me tell you!) But part of that means that this year, I was invited to speak to the entire community about our core value of focus. Since that’s a big audience — approximately 1700 people — the largest I’ve ever addressed, and my stagefright was intense, I fell back on a skill that comes naturally to me: storytelling.

And since it went well, I’d like to share my remarks with you.

***

Good morning. Thank you for inviting me here to speak about our core value of respect. This morning I’d like to tell you all a story.

When I was seven years old, my mother and my grandmother began teaching me how to cook. My grandmother, whom I called Tita because that’s the Arabic word for Grandma, would come over to our house every Saturday, and she and my mother would spend the day making Lebanese food. When I was seven, they decided it was time I start learning how to do it, too. Now, learning to make Lebanese food is not a quick or simple process. There are no written recipes involved, and it takes most of the day; for example, making a batch of pita bread takes about five hours.

And while we made the food, Tita and my mother told me stories. I learned about how our family’s recipes had evolved over the generations, brought from Tripoli and Zouth-n-Kayek, from Bekfiya and Beirut, then to San Antonio and finally to Houston. I learned about the many people in my family who’d made this food before me and what their lives were like. I learned Tita had not had to measure a single ingredient since the age of twelve because she’d made cooking for her large family a big part of her life’s work.

And while I mixed ground lamb and onions and pine nuts to make kibbe, or stuffed grapeleaves and yellow squash with lamb and rice, I learned I was part of a rich and beautiful tradition. In learning to make this food, I came to understand my place in my family, in my culture, and – I thought – in the world.

One Monday morning, I decided to take some of the delicious Lebanese food I’d made to school with me for lunch. At that time, schools didn’t worry about food allergies, so my second-grade classmates and I all traded food in the lunchroom every day. As soon as everyone sat down at a table, the negotiations would begin:

“I’ll trade you a ham-and-cheese for your cupcake.”

“If I give you my Cheetos, can I have half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

Things like that.

Well, I’d packed my Wonder Woman lunchbox that morning with some of my favorite foods, foods I was proud of, that I had made myself while participating in my family’s heritage. I started with the cookies. I asked, “Would anyone like a ma’amoul? No? I also have graybeh.” They looked at me like I was speaking Martian, not Arabic. So I switched to the English names: “How about a date finger?”

There was similar disinterest for my entrée, spinach pies. These are warm hand-held pies made of soft bread and filled with spinach and onions and lemon, and they were my favorite lunch. I’d brought two because I was sure someone else would want one.

Most of the reactions to my lunch ranged from unkindness – my classmates calling my food weird and gross – to polite distaste. They declined to sample any of it, much less trade me their Oreos for it, even though none of them had ever tried these foods before. And I felt torn: on the one hand, it looked like I was going to get to enjoy it all myself without having to share it; on the other hand, my seven-year-old sense of identity had become wrapped up in this food, in the communal process of creating it, and in what it meant to be Lebanese and to be part of my family. This food represented my culture, my accomplishments, and who I was as a person. So when my friends said my lunch was weird and gross, it felt like they were saying I was weird and gross.

Now, I mentioned that some of them were polite. They didn’t insult my lunch, but they didn’t want to try it, either. Politeness looks like respect, but it is not the same as respect. If you look up respect in the dictionary, you’ll see it means “to consider something in high regard.” To respect someone or something means that you think that person or thing is important and has value. If you look up politeness in the dictionary, you’ll find it means “marked by an appearance of deference or courtesy.” Some of my classmates politely declined to share my food, but it felt like they didn’t want to share in my experience, in who I was.

I did have one brave friend who, after she saw me eating my lunch, decided she would try it. She asked me if she could have a graybeh, which is a thick butter-and-sugar cookie with half a walnut embedded in the top, and I gave her one, and she liked it. Then I broke a ma’amoul – which is a sweet crumbly pastry filled with spiced dates and rolled in sugar – and gave her half. She liked that as well. She even had part of a spinach pie and declared it to be “actually pretty good.” She shared her chocolate bar with me, too. That one friend showed me respect by appreciating what I had to offer.

I want to paraphrase something my wise friend Christa Forster once told me, which is that all the things which make up who we are – our memories, our traditions, what we like or value – these things which make us unique and special are all golden. And when we share what matters to us with each other, we share that gold. And when we accept other people with an open mind and an open heart, when we celebrate what makes each other unique and special, we become richer. Just like my friend in second grade who discovered a whole new cuisine she liked eating, when we respect other people by accepting them, we gain a richer understanding and appreciation of them and what they have to offer, and also of the world.

Thank you so much for your attention today. Have a wonderful school year.

Monday Earworm: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

My dad with one of his cousins on a street named for a president.

Earlier this summer, while I was in Maine attending an absolutely amazing writing retreat, my parents were in Lebanon. It has been a lifelong goal of my father’s to go there, to see his family there, to see the country his people come from. He was born here in the States, but he has always wanted to go over, and this year he finally took the chance to do it. He and my mom went with a handful of close cousins and a really big tour group.

part of the Lebanese coast

 

 

For my father, this journey was a dream come true. He is a passionately religious man, so he loved that they visited numerous shrines and historical holy places of various faiths. He is intensely devoted to his family, so it was wonderful for him to experience it with his wife and cousins. We are deeply rooted in our Lebanese heritage, so going to see the country and its shores and its many important sites, and to eat its food at every meal and to attend a sahria at night and to spontaneously break out into dabke at lunch with many of the other tourists, was glorious. Two of our cousins occupied the presidency a few decades ago, and so to meet the current president was a little bit of a treat.

They also went to see a Kahlil Gibran site, of course. How could they not?

We asked them to send us photos. Dad sent us eleventy jillion photos of temples and shrines. Here’s one.

I’m happy for my parents to have made and enjoyed this journey, but what their experience taught me is that chasing one’s dreams — as hokey as that sounds, let’s be honest — is a worthwhile pursuit. Seeing the fruition of his dream inspired me to believe a little more confidently in my own.

Dad planted a cedar tree in honor of his grandfather, who immigrated to the States about a century ago. My parents have played a small part in helping Lebanon’s cedar reforestation efforts.

Mom standing next to some cedars so you can see the scale. These are pretty big trees.

I’m a hybrid author, as you may be aware. I’ve been published in a variety of ways, including independently, traditionally, and through small presses. One thing I’m still hoping to achieve, though, is agented representation for my literary fantasy novels. They are the biggest and broadest literary endeavor I’ve made to date, and I want to go the full traditional way with them if I can. And this week, that first novel is headed out my electronic door to agents. Wish it good luck, will you?

But it’s Monday. I’ve promised you an earworm.

This is probably my favorite Tom Petty song of all time, and I’m not gonna lie, the video reminds me a little bit of The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton.

What dream are you running down right now? Share it in the comments, if you would, so we can all wish you well on your path.

 

Poem-A-Day: Justin Jamail

I come from a ridiculously large family. There aren’t very many writers in it, and even fewer poets. Besides me, I’m not sure there are any other academically trained poets in our branch (meaning immediate to five generations, from my great-grandparents’ generation to my children’s) other than my cousin Justin. His first book of poems has just come out — and you should absolutely go out and get a copy now, I’ll wait — and he will even be reading in Houston on May 21st at 7 p.m. at Brazos Bookstore. So, you know, if you’re in the area, come join us. He’ll also be reading in Montclair, New Jersey, on April 25th at 7 p.m. at watchung booksellers.

(And if you’re in my family and reading this and know who else among us is an author of literature of any sort, then hey, please let me know.)

In the meantime, please enjoy this marvelous poem by Justin Jamail. Every time I read it I enjoy it even more. Remind me some time to tell you a bunch of stories about him.

***

The Book of Praise
.                – after Sidq Jaisi

My God! This line has no peer – truly
it is not the beginning of a poem but the rising
of the sun! Such felicity, I am sure, cannot
be humanly acquired – the creation itself
is less astonishing. We must have a new calendar
for who now could do anything with pride
beyond the scope of this monument? Yes, yes,
it is true, and the volta of this sonnet, is it not
like the shaking of the earth? Oh, but our joy
now is equaled by grief for our future selves
who in a few moments must endure the end
and by pity for our ancestors who could not
have known the extent of earthly perfection,
though they deceived themselves and felt glad.

***

photo by Amber Reed

Justin Jamail is the author of the book Exchangeable Bonds and his poems have appeared in Hanging Loose, Ladowich, The Hat, and many other journals. He is the Deputy General Counsel of the Metropolitan Opera. He grew up in Houston and now lives in Montclair, NJ.