Monday, November 8, 2004

At the Gym

Assignment:  Try to write a chant

Posture perfect, tummy in

Raise your arms tall.



Let your arms fall.

One, two, three

One, two, three

Count with me.

Left arm overhead

Bend to the left

Bend to the right

And pulse, pulse

With all your might.

One, two, three

One, two, three

Count with me

Now as before

But on the other side

Bend right

Bend left

Stretch it wide.

One, two, three

One, two, three

Count with me.

Weights in hand

Lift arms shoulder high

Then take them 

Out to the side

And open shoulders wide.

One, two, three

One, two, three

Count with me

Hold a weight at each hip

Bend your knees

Then pulse and dip

Hold the squat

And pulse and dip.

One, two, three

One, two, three

Count with me.

And so it goes 

We bend and stretch

Stretch and bend some more

Defying Old Age

Knocking at our door

Friday, August 27, 2004


If the child bites,
Bite him back.
It takes two wrongs
To teach what's right.
(Pray for us.)

If the man murders,
Put him to death.
It takes two wrongs
To teach what's right.
(Pray for us.)

But do two wrongs
Make a right?
Maybe yes and maybe no.
Maybe rain and maybe snow.
(Pray for you and me.)

Friday, July 23, 2004

Morning on Capital Crescent Trail - Washington D.C.

A roller blader
Swishes around me.
Close on his heels 
(Or rather, on his wheels) 
A bicyclist circles past, 
Cutting a wide swath, 
Followed by a jogger 
Lean and tall. 
Youthful, all – everyone 

Except me. 
Out of my class, 
Old and slow. 
Suck in stomach muscles 
Just to show 
That I too am fit; 
I too am hale; 
I too am worthy 
Of the Crescent Trail. 

Around a bend 
Yet another jogger comes. 
Approaches with jowls jiggling 
Like jelly. 
Jelly-jiggling jowls. 
And what’s more, 
He leads with his belly. 

Footfalls pounding, 
A woman on the run 
Pushes a baby stroller 
Fast in front of her. 
The boy child 
Buckled securely there 
Bounces in his sleep 
And dances unaware 
A wild fandango. 

Next: three hefty women.
Flesh-wobbling women, all three
Amateurs, at a glance I can see
Who know nothing of
Power-walking regimen,
But chatter and chatter,
Thinking it doesn’t matter
That their unsupported bosoms
Bobble and dance.

On this erstwhile railroad site,
I see now a tunnel loom.
Its bricks, black with age,
Prophesy age’s ultimate doom.
I shiver and look up high.
Are those vampire bats
Hanging there from ceiling’s arch?
Or is it just the absurdity
Of my imagination’s perfidy?

Back in daylight again,
I see that the sun,
Through leaves of the trees,
Is strewing lacy shadows
Across my path.
And the morning breeze
Cleaned fresh by last night’s rain,
Stirs a Muse of sorts
Within my brain.

O, Muse
Hark, then!
This shall I do:
I shall make a poem for you.
I shall write it now,
Without fail,
And I shall call it
Morning on Capital Crescent Trail

Good, Better, Best

(Thoughts upon reading Mother, Summer, I  by Phillip Larkin)

When young, she cringed at lightening

And thunder claps that rocked the sky.

While I, delighting in them so,

Longed for her to grow 

To love them as much as I.

Come with me, I would say,

To the window-lined sunroom,

Where we will watch Nature play,

And together see the flash and boom

Of God’s own fireworks display.

Lightening in jagged sheets

Illuminated the backyard trees.

Their branches swayed in wind and rain.

And I taught her to count the beats

Before the thunder crashes came.

So I would hug her tightly and say,

Oh, isn’t this such fun!

And looking up and nodding all the while,

She would give me her sweet smile.

So I thought my mission won.

Now she is grown and I am old,

And her story can be told.

I thought myself constructive.

She says, Not so.  Rather, destructive. 

Storms, to this day it seems, she abhors.

But not me, my love, I say with rue,

Not me you loathe, I pray.

Oh no! she hurries to attest,

One thing I always knew:

For me you ever tried to do your best.

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Pinehurst Days

Time has given my girlhood a rosy hue, dimming all but the most pleasant memories.  All, that is, but the memory of Tom Collins' big toe nail.  

His name was really Edwin Thomas Collins, but we called him Tom.  He was smarter than all of us, but never worried about making A's.  He was fun, in an odd way.  I guess today I would say his humor was laconic, although I hadn't even heard of the word then.  Sometimes, because of his initials, we called him "Et Cetera."  To us it seemed such a good joke, but Tom grew tired of it.  "Cut it out, guys!" he would say.  

He lived on Pinehurst Avenue, my street, as did Chata and Gwenny, and Jane Ann, Dorothy, and Theodus.  We were all friends, but my two best buddies were Chata and Gwenny. Another boy, "Junee," short for Junior, lived there, too -- a momma's boy.  He didn't go to Kelton Avenue Grade School, but attended St. Edmund Academy, and was not considered one of us.

Chata lived right next-door to me.  Her name was really Fanelle, but her dad, who had worked a job in Mexico for a time when he was single, had nicknamed her Chata, which means pug-nosed in Spanish.  Our houses were so close that our front porches were within arms-length of each other.  On warm evenings Chata and I, elbows resting on the window sills, talked together from our bedroom windows, discussing the events and solving the problems of our little world before going to sleep.  Gwenny lived directly across the street from us, and the three of us were inseparable, walking together to school, home for lunch, back after lunch, and home again at the end of the day.   

One morning late in May of 1943, Miss Clee Walters, the eighth-grade teacher, said, "Edwin, (at school he was Edwin, not Tom) I have to congratulate you.  In checking through the class records, I find that you are the only student who, in all eight years so far, has never once been absent or tardy.  The school year will be over soon, and in all the years I have been teaching at Kelton, no one has ever had a perfect record before.  We all share in your honor!"

I remember that Tom didn't look up, nor right, nor left, but contemplated the tip of his shoe, which he held out in the aisle.  Shortly thereafter the bell rang, dismissing us for lunch.  We walked home and were due back by 1:00 p.m. Tom didn't join us on our walk back to school at 12:45  that afternoon, but I don't recall that any of us noticed.  We often hurried back after lunch on our own schedules.  At 1:00 p.m. promptly, the bell to start afternoon session rang loud and clear in eighth grade Room 103.  Our beloved Miss Clee Walters sat at her desk before us with a worried air.  She was plump and grandmotherly, and we adored her, and she us.  But today she looked troubled.  

"Where's Edwin?" she asked.  (None of us knew.)  "It's after one o'clock.  Oh dear!  What do you suppose has happened?"

We didn't know, and we began to worry, too.  Eight years' attendance record was on the block.  At ten minutes after one, Tom meandered in and took a seat at his desk.

"Oh, Edwin!" Miss Walters said.  "You've broken your record!  Almost eight whole years and now you've broken it!"   We thought she was going to cry.  I felt like crying, too. 

"I had to trim my big toenail," he said.

"Your TOENAIL?  Oh, Edwin!"

Later, walking home, I said, "Hey, Tom, why were you late today anyway?"   

"I really did have to trim my big toenail," he said.

Hopes dashed, record tarnished, fame aborted!  Thus, for want of an untrimmed toenail, did he deprive us all of the glory we might have shared.   

Wednesday, March 17, 2004


Last Thursday, on my way to the ballet, I passed a homeless woman, and, wondering whether to give her money or not, did nothing, but decided to put a dollar or two in my coat pocket to give her upon my leaving The Benedum.  In this way, I would not have to open my purse to her.  By the time the ballet ended, though, she was no longer on the street.  The next day, feeling a vague guilt, I sat down to write my “10-minutes-per-day” and decided instead to make up the homeless woman’s story and write it from third-person point of view, through her eyes.

As to dog-face, from somewhere in my memory, when I sat down to write, came a snatch of phrase (Jo-Jo, The Dog-Faced Boy,) the source of which I am still unable to identify.  Those words refused to let go of my mind, and I felt compelled to somehow fit them into this tale.


Spring is later than usual.  This time last year, she remembers, there were some nights when his arms around her were almost enough, when their ragged quilt, although still needed, was not absolutely essential.  Now it is nearing the end of March, and still the thermometer dips below thirty-two and the winds blow cold.

She is crippled and unable to forage for herself.  What would she do without him to beg for her and bring her food?  He keeps her warm, and shares his cigarettes with her, and shields her from the indifference of passersby.  He knows where to hide the two them when the police conduct clean-up missions.   He softens the humiliation she feels from insensitive passersby.   His name is Joseph.

Long before she met him, he had been enrolled at Penn, where, he once told her with a wry smile, below his picture in The Record, under “sophomores” was written:  “Joe Barnes – looks like a bulldog; drinks like a fish.”  His drinking brought those college days to an early end.    Now she cries when the other street people call out to him, “Hey, dog-face!  How’s it goin’?”  

It has been over two months since his last drink, but she has seen him slip off the wagon so often.  She prays he will stay sober forever this time.  She prays for that, and for many other things.

Tonight, in the dark alcove of an office building a block from Symphony Hall, they huddle together, trying to mitigate the wind’s bite that penetrates their ragged quilt.  A couple stops before them, and the man, wearing a white silk monogrammed scarf casually circled beneath the collar of his open overcoat, his long, black and elegant, cashmere overcoat, spits out words of contempt at them.  As they pass on, Joseph whispers, “Pay him no mind, dear.  It’s only words.”

“Oh, Joseph,” she says, “they just don’t understand!  Why does God create such pitiless people?” 

“Who is this god you talk about who creates people?”  It’s a favorite trick of his, answering her question with one of his own, and almost in anger he adds,

“Define god!”

But who can define God?  She remains silent and thinks, and as she thinks, a familiar anxiety nags at her.  Joseph hardly eats anything anymore and is losing strength.  He says he needs only air and her sweet kiss to survive, but she knows the truth.   Soon he will not even be able to lift her, skin and bones as she is, to carry her from place to place.  Then they will be forced to lie, clinging to each other, starving together – until death releases them.  She is quiet for many minutes.

He breaks the silence at last, and in a softer voice says, “I guess instead of defining god, we should try to define ourselves.  Are we ourselves the cause of what happens to us?”  It’s a rhetorical question.  “Or is our destiny determined from birth, and is it all just a toss of the dice?”

 “You are too deep for me, Joseph!” she says. 

He brushes his hand across her face in swift caress, saying, “The riddle I really can’t define is what you find to love in a dog-face like me!”

“Don’t!” she says.  “I hate that word!  Besides, the true question is how can you love a crippled burden like me!”

“We’re each of us crippled in our own way,” he says, “feeding on each other.”  

“Hardly!  I feed more than you!”   And then with a pang, she is reminded of the growth in his mouth that makes eating painful.



There is a distinct greenish cast to his dear face.  At first she told herself it was her imagination, but now she can’t deny his sickly color any longer.  Timidly she questions him about it, and he says simply, “Jaundice.” 

“Why?” she asks.

 “I don’t know.  Maybe it has spread to the pancreas.” 

“Cancer?”  At last she brings the dreaded word into the light of day.  She hasn’t dared mention it before, hoping that to leave it unspoken might negate its existence.

He nods.  “Cancer.  Yes.”

“The pancreas.  Does that mean  …”  She can’t finish the sentence.

“A death knell?”  His words, clipped, terse, finish the question for her, “A death knell?  Yes.  Not much hope.” 

She sobs quietly, and for one brief moment he stands apart from her, a private bitterness stamped on his countenance, but soon he reaches for her and holds her tight against him.  Gradually, her crying stops, but the words death knell reverberate in her heart.

That evening, the wind kicks up more persistently and scatters street and sidewalk debris in whirling eddies.  The glittering, blinking marquee of The Benedum proclaims that Swan Lake will be danced tonight.   Little girls in party dresses mince along in shiny black patent leather shoes, trotting to keep up with their parents.   Others -- young and old, sweethearts and spouses, friends in groups of twos and threes – hurry along with them, pressing forward to the entrance of the grand hall.  A girl, not more than eight or nine, her velvet cape flowing in the chilly spring air, stops a moment in mid stride and catches her eye.  She looks quickly away, but the child searches the shadows for her face, and smiles.  She opens her purse. 

 “Darcy!” her mother says.  “”Never open your purse around these people!  They would like nothing better than to snatch from you anything that is in it!”

Darcy has already extracted a dollar bill, and extends it toward them.  “For you,” she says.  “Please.”   

The mother and daughter move on, their heels clicking on the sidewalk in hasty retreat as the young girl’s voice floats back to them.  “But, Mother,” they hear,  “the little bit of money I gave her wouldn’t buy all that many drugs anyway.  But if really what they are is hungry, then my dollar will help.”

Joseph murmurs something, and she asks him what he said.

“Nothing.  I was just quoting from the Old Testament – that a little child shall lead them*,” he says.

“You’re quoting Scriptures, Joseph?”  She smiles affectionately.  “And you call yourself an atheist!”

“Define atheist,” he says.

For the first time in many days, she laughs, and suddenly spring seems not quite so long in coming.

Finally the days are hot and long, the nights warm.  Time was when they loved this season – when, without need for quilt, they slept in comfort under the summer sky; but it’s too late for comfort now.  Joseph is in constant, deep pain.  He is hardly able to stand, let alone go in search of food or pocket change.  For what seems an eternity to her now, she has been hungry. 

“We should look for help for you,” he says, speaking so low that she has to press her ear close to hear his words. “You still have life to live.”

“Define life, Joseph,” she says.  “Define life without you.”

“Somehow, it makes me sad,” he whispers, “that there will be no one to miss us or mourn us.  I never thought it would matter, but now, at the end, it does.”

She nods.  After a moment’s pause she says, “Surely there will be someone.  Someone like that little girl, perhaps.  Remember?  Someone with conscience.”   

A feeble smile moves across his lips.  “Define conscience,” he says.


**Isaiah 11:6