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.
“I have been even as a man that hath no strength, free among the dead . . . Shall thy loving-kindness be showed in the grave?” —Psalm 88
Some days I feel as old as father Abraham, doddering father of a teen-aged daughter who last week attended her first “real” concert, at the crowded Aragon Ballroom in Uptown. When will my own days feel real again, the frozen clock hands begin to turn again? When will this chemical burning in the veins stop, and hope, perhaps, be recompensed? I wear this long wool coat against the cold that hurts me, covered with two scarves, my face covered to avoid any feeling of cobwebs, with their every thread feeling like a tiny razor blade slicing the skin. There is no ounce of benignity in this feeling. Maybe that is why the winter mask, last week found at Target, most accurately resembles a terrorist accessory, all black- hooded with eye slits. Were I to wear it, I would appear on campus like an ISIS recruit, no doubt a proud servant in his mind, clouded by the violence of the mission and sentence he honors. O the necessary horrors, those airstrikes occurring in the body’s battleground, leveled at the cells. If I were to wear the black hood, guise of a hangman (not the one hanged), I fear that campus security would target me, bucolic space locked down in emergency protocol. That’s all I would be: self-terrorist, strapped with the various wires of my sickness.
Christ knows how we loved her. Now there’s just that field Where the light is still Blown like a first leaf. It is a fir tree. There is only one life On earth. Love must be here, And dying. Everything must be here. One summer she watched the grass. In the afternoon we sit in the car By moving water. She shuts her eyes. She will live forever. If I must go Let it be like this River with a woman watching it. Already There is nowhere that river is not.
There are more urgent things to do than dig Around thirteen astilbe plants. But I’ve Had all my sins forgiven. Pinks and reds Clarify in the sun. Bees whirligig As bodied angels might: they dart and dive At flower-spires, tending what earth soon sheds.
A plane flies over, low, jet engines screaming, Obliterating thoughts. (Planes are routine Here, near O’Hare.) Things are as they have been Once quiet’s back, but they’re more real-seeming. Things are as they have been, but now the bees Look less angelic, more like predators— Like weapons from some video game’s strange wars Controlled by players safe from enemies.
I push the pitchfork deep into hard ground, As if both feet and my full weight were needed And innocence could thereby be expressed. Things are as they have been. Real wars abound With players . . . Well, I’ll get the garden weeded, However far it is from sabbath rest.