Here’s your Ash Wednesday story. A mother carries her tiny daughter With her as she gets ashed and the Girl, curious and wriggly, squirms Into the path of the priest’s thumb Just as the finger is about to arrive On the mother’s forehead, and the Ashes go right in the kid’s left eye. She starts to cry, and there’s a split Second as the priest and the mother Gawk, and then they both burst out Laughing. The kid is too little to be Offended, and the line moves along, But this stays with me; not the ashy Eye as much as the instant when all Could have been pain and awkward But instead it led to mutual giggling. We are born of dust and star-scatter And unto this we shall return, this is The Law, but meantime, by God, we Can laugh our asses off. What a gift, You know? Let us snicker while we Can, brothers and sisters. Let us use That which makes dark things quail.
Today’s remarkable vision: a woman in her bridal dress Walking purposefully along the street. This was enough Of an amazing sight by itself, but the determined stride, The intent look, her I am going someplace, and I am not Worrying about how I look, even though I know you are All looking attitude—that got me. I mean, of course you Wonder where she was going, and where she came from, And why she is alone, and if this is a just little aberrance In an otherwise tightly plotted day, or if she was hustling To catch the bus, and where is the entourage you usually See flanking a bride, the cheerful best friends, the joyous But slightly jealous sisters although they would never say Such a thing even to each other after a few bottles of beer At the reception, or even perhaps the groom, where is he? I was caught in traffic and sped right along and only later Did I think should I have stopped, and offered her a ride? I mean, what if she was hustling to the actual ceremony? What if her Ford broke down and the groom was forlorn? But I have a lovely bride of my own, and I am on the one Bride per groom plan, which I renew every morning with A deep and amazed glee, so I hope the bride on the street Made it to wherever it was she was headed, or whomever. The whomever is a lucky soul, seems to me—a bride who Has the panache to stroll along unconcernedly even as she Knows full well folks are gaping; that’s a bride with brass.
Walked out to the car this morning to find a small brown Bird deceased on the windshield. A young song sparrow, Neither naked gawky nestling nor chesty feathered elder; A sort of a teenager, I guess. Cause of death not instantly Evident, nor did I spend time determining its gender; no, My brain got stuck on the teenager part. It’s so fearsome, Being a teenager. Everything is ten times louder. They’re Braver and stupider than any three older people; they are Three people, most of the time. This is discombobulating In the extreme. But we have no sympathy for them. We’d Prefer to forget we were them; we deny that we ever were. You know we do. If we wrote our histories we would skip From twelve to twenty, from generally bucolic childhood, At least fitfully, at least while finding refuge from trouble, To beginner older idiocy, which itself takes a decade or so. We get so impatient with teenagers. We want them to leap Past stupid. But stupid is a great teacher, isn’t it? Flailing At least teaches you what alleys to avoid, if at all possible. We have no mercy on them but they are in a thunderstorm, And probably it seems like it will never end, and we whine That they are wet yet again even after we advised as re wet. And how wet we were too, brothers and sisters, how moist And soaked and sopping and bedraggled we were, not even Fully feathered at the time, trying to figure out how to soar, And where to soar, and who, if anyone, would soar with us; And if we were blessed we had parents, maybe parents who Loved us even, but so often they just stood and sermonized As we fell out of the nest, frightened and thrilled and lonely.
Novels that rattled and moved me in the last year or so include Anthony Doerr’s terrific World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner). It’s the best novel I’ve read since Gilead. Like Marilynne Robinson, Doerr achieves a shimmering consistency of tone; it’s one of those books that you finish and then shake your head in quiet awe.
I was pawing through a shelf of books the other day When out fell a note from my late brother in his tiny Adamant wry inarguable crisp half-cursive-half-not Handwriting, and just for an instant I saw and heard Him at his desk, in his study, his mustache bristling, Black coffee half-cold, the burl of his body wrapped In the arms of the chair that held him for thirty years, A chair as big as a horse and twice as heavy. I heard Him, I tell you, I did, and I saw him, half-shadowed, Scribbling notes: his philatelic pursuits, notes for his Class next week, notes on a book he was going to do About Benedictine spirituality . . . then I was only me By the bookshelf again. But for a second I was in my Brother’s study, watching him. It was late, everybody Was in bed, but not him, as usual he was up late with Coffee. He was wearing a sweater. The scritch of his Pen. His shoulders like boulders. The dim procession Of his books, organized by genre and author. He died Three years ago. But I saw him, absorbed, thoroughly Attentive, scrawling notes. There’s way more possible Than we think possible; possible turns out to be a verb. I don’t know how else to explain things like this. They Happen all the time to all of us and we hesitate to gape About them publicly because the words sound like pap, Miracle and epiphany and vision, you come off as nuts, A religious goober who talks to owls and addled saints. But you know and I know that this happens. I guess we Will always understandably be hesitant to chat about it, Which is fine, as no one enjoys being labeled a goober; But once in a while, like here, we should admit that it’s Real, and it happens all the time, and it’s scary and cool. That’s all. Once in a while we should gently say what is.
By purest chance I was out in our street when the kindergarten Bus mumbled past going slow and I looked up just as all seven Kids on my side of the bus looked at me and I grinned and they Lit up and all this crap about God being dead and where is God And who owns God and who hears God better than whom is the Most egregiously stupid crap imaginable because if you want to See God and have God see you and have this mutual perception Be completely untrammeled by blather and greed and comment, Go stand in the street as the kindergarten bus murmurs past. I’m Not kidding and this is not a metaphor. I am completely serious. Everyone babbles about God but I saw God this morning just as The bus slowed down for the stop on Maple Street. God was six Girls and one boy with a bright green and purple stegosaurus hat. Of course God would wear a brilliantly colored tall dinosaur hat! If you were the Imagination that dreamed up everything that ever Was in this blistering perfect terrible world, wouldn’t you wear a Hat celebrating some of the wildest most amazing developments?
I board the airplane to see my parents. They live far away and long ago And some years into the future; you never met such wry time machines In your life. Sometimes they will be about to pass the marmalade when Suddenly it is late 1941 and they are in college and kissing on the train; But then as you slather your toast it is 1967 and a war wants to eat their Son or 2012 and they are at that son’s wake or 1929 and a father comes Home without his job, or it is a week ago, and do you think that Federer Is the finest tennis player ever, or Laver, or Don Budge? It happens that Fast. It’s unnerving and glorious and confusing and perfect and I would Sit with them every afternoon, if I could, and say tell me tell me tell me, Tell me every moment of your whole lives, don’t leave me here without Your grace and humor and the extraordinary gleaming jar of marmalade From which come all your stories. Next year in Ireland . . . says my mother, And my dad grins, and I want to kneel and beg the Lord for this moment Again and again always, the inarguable yes of their bodies, the resonance Of their endurance, the hunch and hollow of their shoulders, the reverent Geography of their faces, the lean song of my father’s hands on the table.
I gave a rambling talk recently and a long line of teenagers came Up to speak to me afterward and it was instantly clear that every Single one of them wanted to ask me something while ostensibly Asking me something else, or say one thing while seeming to say Something else. I was so instantly moved I could hardly stammer Any sort of answer. I tried hard to hear what they were not saying Aloud but were saying with remarkable courage. It takes startling Courage to be a teenager, you know. There are so many theatrical Personas to try, but masks and disguises can get stuck. Or you get Trapped behind walls that begin as protective but become prisons. One kid in particular stays with me. He’s tall and shy and nervous. He says How do you deal with rejection? and somehow I instantly Get it that he does not mean essays and stories and poems and how You handle people saying steadily bluntly no to your insistent yes! He’s asking me about hope and despair and lovers and heartbreaks. He’s asking about the girl or boy he adores who does not love him. He’s staring at me. The other kids wait politely. I want to reach up And cup his face in my hands as if he was my son, but you have to Be honest with kids, you cannot merely bloviate and issue arrogant Pomposity, so I tell him you have to learn to be neighborly with no. You are going to see it every day and you might as well be friendly With the concept. Someone else’s no doesn’t actually kill your yes; It only means that someone else’s yes is still out there waiting. You See where I am going here? There’s more yes than no, is what I am Trying to say. I suppose that’s what we mean by faith. Faith’s a big Word, bigger than any religion. It means yes where everything sure Looks like no as far as you can see. Am I making the slightest sense Here, son? I actually call him son. The other kids must have thought I was being avuncular but for a brief moment he was indeed my son, And yours too. We shook hands and he held only my hands just a bit Longer than the usual thing, which I took to be some sort of a prayer.
Called the cemetery this morning to begin to plot What happens to my mom and dad after they die. Yes, I just wrote plot. My parents would smile at That. They are not afraid. They have lived so wry And well. They survived wars and four dead sons And savage diseases, and they still reach for each Other here and there. I have seen it. The cemetery People are so very helpful. Discharge papers: that Is the first thing. The cemetery will donate a head Stone free of charge. And the casket liner. I admit The casket liner was not on my list of stuff to talk To the cemetery folks about. Plenty of room, says The cemetery lady. Yes, your mom will be buried With your dad, no charge. What do we engrave on The stone? The specific words? In loving memory, Usually. That is standard. Can you edit the words? Well, I suppose so. Within reason. There are space Concerns, of course. I suggest you talk to your dad And mom and brothers and sisters, and agree upon What it is you would like the stone to say. I would Like the stone to say grace, and sinewy, and young. They were so young when they married. He did not Expect to survive the war. Their first son died—his Name was Seamus. Can you find room for Seamus On the stone? Mom nearly died, too. But she is too Tough to die at thirty. A hundred and thirty, maybe. Can we say endurance, and prayerful, and compose A poem about how they like their tea, and who gets What section of the paper first, and how they never Ever forget a birthday or anniversary? Can we copy Their meticulous undamaged handwriting? Can you Show the note of her laughter, and the way he never Misses a day with the crossword and how he is right Now bending over the tomato plants to be sure he is Not about to water the tiny shy frogs who live there?
I was, no kidding, a visiting writer in a kindergarten recently, And the children asked me many wry and hilarious questions, Among them is that your real nose? and can you write a book About a ruffed grouse, please? But the one that pops back into My mind this morning was what do poems do? Answers: swirl Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind. Open Recalcitrant jars of honey. Be huckleberries in earliest January, When berries are only a shivering idea on a bush. Be your dad For a moment again, tall and amused and smelling like Sunday. Be the awful wheeze of a kid with the flu. Remind you of what You didn’t ever forget but only mislaid or misfiled. Be badgers, Meteor showers, falcons, prayers, sneers, mayors, confessionals. They are built to slide into you sideways. You have poetry slots Where your gills used to be, when you lived inside your mother. If you hold a poem right you can go back there. Find the handle. Take a skitter of words and speak gently to them, and you’ll see.
You can snarl and rage and roar and snipe at thugs and liars, Sure you can, and right you are for doing so, and you maybe Actually enjoy letting the lava soar out all righteously, right? But even so, there are lies inside you like viruses. You know What I am talking about; we don’t need to go into any detail. And we have been too familiar with a little thuggery, haven’t We? Not battery: You’ll say, rightfully, that you are innocent. No: I mean the times you knew about assault and battery, and Did zero. We just stood there. We pretend to be fascinated By something else that just happened to be happily elsewhere. We turned our heads, so it looked like we just hadn’t noticed; We can surely be excused if we didn’t see it, right? Right?