Thursday, March 21, 2013


when i get real tired sometimes, i start to think too much, and then i listen to someone speak or watch a movie or hear that song that always gets me, and i think about goodbyes.

the trouble with goodbyes is that i used to be good at them. i used to be able to sense when they were coming, and i had the energy and awareness and connection and forethought to make the most of them, to prepare, to ceremonialize them into something worth remembering, something to write down, something to hold sacred and warm. i also used to be good at kissing, and writing punchy and sometimes decent poetry, and dancing. but like my film cameras and sketchbooks, those things are remnants of a past i remember fondly, while i dust them off to replace them on the shelf next to more books or under more bills. and those goodbyes, well, i've become afraid of them.

it all started when i fell in love with a girl who left all the time.

she had spent her life saying goodbye, had gotten used to it, had a well-worn hug and promise to call when she got in. then i found her, gave her my poems and tears and big, bleeding heart, and it was too heavy to take with her, so she stayed.

we kept moving, at least twice a year, in and out of student shanties, living the dream and making love out of the rest of it, and there were fewer and fewer goodbyes. i spent last week away from her, with our two little dreams, and it was a very hard place to be. now i'm tired, i saw my brother off at the airport this morning, then i watched a movie about brothers, and it's the end of the day, and i'm worried about the next goodbye.

my life is not in danger. no matter how many people pride themselves on risking it during my thirty minute commute in the morning, my life is pretty solid. fragile, indeed, but all parts point forth, and so it goes. i'm struggling though, these days, to figure out a grand goodbye, because to admit that it needs to be said would be to admit that something will end. there is a life in danger, maybe even ending, and this deserves a good hard talk, a true finale, a celebration of the good that was had. and from there, i don't even know where we go.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


jeni is dead. long live jeni.

the girls were dressed and matching and well-behaved and standing interspersed among the more serious adults in the congregation. the building was almost full. the sun streamed through several windows as the ceiling vaulted, albeit humbly and amid a few stains from incense or other offerings, toward something no one could explain, whether the sky, or heaven, or god, or a reason why jeni was no longer here.

i never really knew jeni.

but that's how things can go, sometimes, when you have 52 first cousins from 10 aunts and uncles, under a strong patriarch and matriarch, and then you move to another country before you turn nine, turn into a teenager, have your first kiss, fail your first date, pass your first football, learn what 'cancer' really is.

jeni had that special thing, that ability to disarm others with a genuine interest in what those others were about, and a seemingly boundless generosity that defied reason. when we had our first baby, two young kids out of wedlock (whatever that is) with a lot of ideals and not a lot of other stuff figured out, jeni was the first to send a matching knitted outfit for the little beast. she knew just what we needed, and, with whatever she had, she made it happen for us. i hadn't seen her in years.

jeni had another special thing: cancer. hers was leukemia, usually in her blood, usually fought off after many hospital stays and near-misses. ten days ago, her hospital stay was her last, the near was not a miss. jeni died at 4:48 in the morning, in the company of loved ones, at johns hopkins hospital in baltimore.

everything was fine in that half-beaten church in the middle of nowhere, maryland. loaded trucks rumbled by a few steps from the door. a cold wind refreshed the landscape. many people were smiling at the sight of loved ones they had not seen in so long.

and then the music started.

we cried. we cried so hard we shook ourselves and soaked our lapels and dripped onto the floor the salty proof that were were nothing but children against these things so unfair. others, perhaps those of greater constitution or those that didn't know her so well or those with their eyes not on the sons and brothers and mother of jeni, they could sing. and the music brought it all down. the girls were dressed in their matching black dresses, looking around at all of these dissolving adults, wondering at it all. what had happened? we had lost.

we had lost a strong, beautiful woman more giving than one could ever ask, stubborn and driven and unwilling to let things be anything other than right. we had lost jeni, the first of us, the oldest grandchild.

i had been in this church not long before, a year or two, dissolving in just the same way, about jake. jeni was jake's big sister. this is too much. too much for one family. too much in one go. too many times in one church for the same reason in the same suit stained by the same tears. the music started again as we followed jeni's casket outside, and i couldn't see through the tears to zip up my little girl's coat. it would be cold out by the grave. why did her own son have to carry her casket alongside her own brothers and husband? why was it so cold? why was everything so unfair? i could zip up my little girl's coat, tears or not, but jeni couldn't put a coat on her son. he was carrying her body to the cemetery. nothing made sense. nothing.

we made it outside, and i tried to sing, and i even made it through a few notes, and then i remembered that jeni wasn't here, and i squeezed my little girl's hand and pulled her along, little feet dappling the pavement among the trudging of older, grown-up, devastated children. you should have seen the nephews.

the monseigneur bumbled through further ramblings that had little to do with the pertinence or panache or power of jeni and her life and death, but all was not lost as a young pastor in love with his own words got up and made a lot more sense of it all. i could only wish for her husband to speak. of course, it would have ripped the rest of us apart completely. we laid her low. we sang. i dissolved and was, again, held up by my brother in the same cemetery where we'd stood just a year or so before. and now she is asleep, never to be hurt again.

as much as it is completely inadequate, the one thing that comforts me and my outlook on it all is the fact that wherever jeni may be, she is not somewhere where she can be touched by pain or cancer. she is warm. she is free.

long live jeni.

Friday, March 8, 2013


there was a survey out among students that spring, the usual class survey in which the graduates get named, alongside fan favorite teachers, as winners of the 'craziest hair award' or 'most likely to become a millionaire'. i was making my way through some final drawings in art class, the room transient amid the bustling preparations of our upcoming show, and a paper blew across the table. there were snickers. there were hushed glances and lookaways. i looked down at the paper, and saw that it was a creased, yellow photocopy so ubiquitous that week at school. it was the class survey.

i glanced at it because something about it caught my eye. and then there it was, my name, neatly printed and (ironically) spelled mostly correctly, next to the 'least favorite athlete' designation.

i was elated.

it is highly unlikely that heather mcleod had ever meant to make my day with the inclusion of my name on the survey, but she probably didn't know that i had never been called an 'athlete' before she did it. i smiled. i left the piece of paper where it was. and i walked through the door into the blinding pollen-thick sunshine just a step in the springtime blackflies. it felt like my birthday.

as these days go on and the sun makes more promises and keeps some of them too, nostalgia comes rushing back, and i get a bit stuck in it, trying to figure out how i've ever gotten here from there, and whether i've been good for it.

i would not call myself an athlete. kids ask me if i do sports. i respond with a perfunctory, 'sometimes'. they ask which ones. i tell them running and riding bikes. i'm not really good at either one, but i love them. i'm not a runner. runners consider themselves runners, pride themselves in it, look like it. i am also not much of a rider. for all of my time in the saddle and on the pedals over the last two decades, i have not gone very far. i know enough to know i don't know enough, and i love the way spokes ping after a wheel is fully tensioned or the way a top tube feels in my hand as i hoist a bike by its frame, but i don't go fast, i don't have any watts to speak of, and i think about bikes for more hours than i ride them.

anyway, it's about connotation more than denotation these days, and that's all about context. i just want to be physical. maybe that's what athletes want. maybe they just need to be in one moment and the next, as fully and quickly as possible, maximizing their presence in context, breathing through their skin, seeing through their movements. let's move.