Upon Closing The Odyssey or, Mending My Heart Stretched Open by Something Called Public Works

I wonder what Odysseus did the day after the voyage was over? What happened

after the poem ended with Athena’s pacts of peace? He bathed well, I bet. Slept

for days. Made love with Penelope between big meals. Took a walk with Telemachus,

beginning to know his son. I bet he walked. Walked his kingdom, thinking of the men

he’d lost in the war and mourning the dive bars turned into condos and poke joints.

Caught up with old friends and enjoyed their heavy smiles, now somehow strange.

Nobody survives a journey like that unchanged. I wonder if he tried to write it down,

to pick up the daily poem practice he let slide during rehearsal, or to whisper his heart

and his homecoming unfolding in fits and starts to the dog while the rest of them slept.

I’m sure he was visited, ghosts and widows with suggestions of better ends. You

might have brought more home with you, more than this weary heart echoing

adventure and weeks of unanswered emails. Maybe the callous on his right hand

started to ache, missing the weight of the ship or the exquisite pressure of making hard

decisions quickly, rushing tech, and collaborating with the fiery joy of camaraderie

born of long days and not enough time. I wonder if he composed long letters in his

head to his crew, his cast, his stage manager who refused to turn back even in the

fiercest storm. As a soldier and a sailor, he must’ve known how to say goodbye.

He must have practiced over and over. But of course knowing the way

doesn’t make the journey go faster. Endings are not always beginnings and I

assume his return was not a new story right away. But after awhile I suspect

the sea called to him again. And I bet he answered.

July 13, 2017

Don’t get me wrong. I got no 

beef with Odysseus. Great guy. Tough.

But why can’t girls be epic?

July 12, 2017

Homer doesn’t give her much credit: Penelope

mentioned briefly and only for her beauty. But

Odysseus, deserter of family for foreign wars, is melodiously 

honored and pitied. Our poor hero, captive in a nymph’s love cave. 

Calypso, just one more vessel for beauty and manipulation. Even Athena 

gets reduced to “clever” in our collection of treasured verses, taught

in every high school. “Women learn to manipulate 

because it’s the only power we’re allowed”

Sarah said once, trying to explain mean girls to me. Never

good with bullies and too quick to cry, eventually I learned 

my own woman’s work. Patience like Penelope at her loom, 

lying only a little. Trying to keep her boy alive, and strange

men from sneaking in the door behind her, taking

what they want. Her fear and her rage woven

tightly into a shroud for some drowned memory

of an old idea that sends no word.

July 11, 2017

Our mayoral candidates 

wear spacesuits and vape onstage. I love

Seattle. We are so weird.

July 10, 2017

Overnight at JFK. Owls wearing lab coats 

on tv and three little boys in shorts 

riding their parents rollerbags

in and out of the men’s bathroom.

I think we might all be here all night.

The earliest departure reads 7:30am and

wow it’s only 11. The guy at the ticket counter

has his head in his palms while children scream

their conquests in the play area brought to you 

by amazon.com. Oh Seattle. Espresso 

from the fake French bistro isn’t bad. Only 

a quick nap and nine hours til home. 

July 9, 2017

Just couldn’t go home yet. Drive

south to the all-nite ice cream

place. This feeling is familiar. Too beautiful 

a night to sleep is how I started smoking

two packs a day. To keep mosquitoes away

while I sat under this wide upstate sky.

Only a kid parked on the Stuart Road bridge 

but already restless, even scared, to go home 

or relax. Funny how we heal. So many of us 

sober now and grateful to grow old. 

The land, too. Eighteen acres that grew us 

up wild and violent, newly owned and coaxed

 into an organic farm. Loved, healed, though 

still overgrown in places. Like me. I turned 

forty and returned to the epicenter 

of my quake, expecting ruins. But it’s peaceful

here even the thunderstorms push gently

against my windshield. For the first time 

in a long while I feel tilted forward 

toward the future, rather than back 

on my heels in a frozen past. The road 

soft beneath my acceleration.

July 8, 2017

Introvert on Vacation: A Haiku

Marathon writing day. Long 

slow run beside the river. Luscious 

dinner alone. Paradise.

July 7, 2017

Waves crashing every forty seconds 

interspersed with electronic birdsong and a piano 

refrain borrowed from the Beaches theme pulsed 

behind my ninety minutes of deep tissue pressure 

at Linda’s Drop-in Massage in Rochester, New York around ten thirty on a Friday night in July.

Once or twice the piano suddenly crescendoed a dark minor chord 

foreboding tragic twists. “Why your shoulders so tight?” asked the small Asian woman 

with muscular hands and round, warm elbows. 

Could be the day I spent wandering my hometown looking for clues

hinting where I’m from and the exact nature of my escape, and stories

tracing lines around who my brothers were 

before they died. Or it could be the car I backed into this morning 

with the gusto of someone who used to know her way around here. Glad I buckled 

and got the extra insurance on the rental. “Your shoulders tight, but you very strong,”

she gave me a thumbs up across the dark room, “You sleep good tonight, okay?”

July 6, 2017

writing isn’t public i think it happens alone

what real writers create. yes but it makes me

feel accountable, like someone is listening. maybe

try writing a poem, a poem a day. hide in metaphor.

that leaves me less nauseous, he said. and after a year

you’ll be a pretty good poet maybe. you’ll get tired

of writing the same poem over and over again. sherman

alexie said writing poetry is a treat for prose

writers like polishing a small distilled gem, words

smithed to a shine. okay okay you’re right. poetry

is always a good idea even if it’s rough at first.

Toward Love: A Small Excerpt from the Long and Ungoing Process of Unearthing and Accounting for My Whiteness

Below is an excerpt from a short performance I created with a small group of artist friends earlier this year. We have been meeting over the last several months to examine how the construct of whiteness, white privilege, and white supremacy function in our lives, as an intentional step towards dismantling the unjust systems we are a part of. We talked a lot and read some and cried a little and then put together a performance we shared with a small audience. This is that.

***

Toward Love: Unearthing the Whiteness I’ve Grown

 

I am descended from neighborhood butchers and chemical engineers.

Fighter pilots and nightschool mechanics.

I come from a daughter who dreamt of being a mother as she helped care for her fifteen syblings in a two bedroom house.

I come from matriarchs who built a grocery store empire and brothers who bullied themselves through Jesuit school. On my mother’s side, I am a diaspora of blood that traces back to England, France, Ireland, and Germany.

But on my father’s side, Poland. Only there.

 

Last year my sweetheart and I took a trip to visit that land where I know I’m from.

I tried to pack what I knew. Vague stories of farmhouses and stepmothers. Big families without enough to eat. I tried to research where exactly. What towns did we know? What names did we carry? I tried to find stories and facts to stitch a path back to where my people came from

And nobody could remember anything. My only uncle couldn’t remember his great-grandmother’s last name. Somehow these names, towns, stories didn’t survive my great-grandparents migration from Poland to North Philadelphia in the late 1800s.

 

Why? Why this extreme, almost willful forgetting? I can only speculate…

 

My father’s people escaped a world of great violence and constant occupation.

Situated between Germany and Russia’s vast and hungry empires,

Poland was the crossfire of Europe for centuries. Used

as a chalkboard to draw and redraw property lines between vicious

neighbors who wanted their own shortcut to the Baltic Sea.

The conquering nations of Europe united to try and obliterate Poland many times and succeeded in some ways. Burning our vast libraries, looting our wealth, dissembling our magnificent castles, slaughtering our women and children with impunity.

And then they named us idiots. Polacks.

Because we arrived on horseback to face German tanks,

and stayed to fight rather than turn to run.

There is a saying in Poland:

“A Pole is born with a sword in one hand and a brick in the other. After the battle, we rebuild.”

But, of course, some things cannot be rebuilt.

These are the circumstances, the history, my great-grandparents fled when they fought their way into America four generations ago. These are the stories they relinquished, these are the mantels of identity they gave up to become American.

The culture that was not burned, buried and willfully taken from my Polish family, we seemed to surrender upon arriving here. In favor of the Dream, I think. Of the promise, of a land where we would not be the cursed and the conquered.

We became American. And white.

That is where my whiteness truly begins, I think. And it persists through my privilege. Through my habit of talking first and loudest. Through my righteousness about how I’m treated by the clerk at Rite-Aid. My whiteness assumes I’ll be able to ride the bus for free when I forget my wallet at home. That I will be taken care of. That my grievances will be heard and addressed. That this great nation is built to work for my benefit. That a police officer won’t shoot me if I turn my back on him. That as long as I align with the ordered status quo, I will be safe.

It’s hard to define

Whiteness.

I’m beginning to know it when I see it because it claims the best of everything. The nicest cut of meat and the most beautiful songs, the richest plots of land and the most innovative ideas. If they’re not already ours, we claim them, keep the profits and revel in our smarts. We build empires well: a network of images stretching around the globe and deep into history, telling the stories of our victories, our beautiful perfect women, and our fast genius ideas.

Whiteness is hard to define, as much as we are trying today.

It resists it. Being defined. Named. Pointed at. Preferring to be invisible and ubiquitous.

Preferring to be the definer, reserving the right to define others and to execute

Those definitions. Sometimes in atrocities and sometimes in subtle suffocations.

The same white culture that has smothered native song, driven out the old gods, mannered wild expression… This same culture has smothered me, quieted my limbs, left a hole for some god to fill, made me inept at ritual and really bad at sharing.

This culture smothers me too.

And has made me the smotherer.

I have not killed a person’s body, but I have been complicit in the systems that do. I have diminished a person’s spirit because it didn’t fit into the shape of politeness. I have killed their participation and left no room for difference. I have associated myself with the victor lest I risk being conquered like my ancestors, and left without a library of my own.

I have been the smotherer of whatever did not fit into this order.

When my brother committed suicide many years ago, I needed to learn the distinction between regret and guilt. Regret, I learned, is accountable and awake. But guilt is secretive and frozen. Guilt builds a house for shame, the most evil of the emotions because it is vicious and sworn to silence, first isolating us and then eating us whole. Guilt wants comfort and absolution. Regret wants another chance.

I have been the smotherer.

I must say that with deep regret but I must say it enough times to wring out the guilt and exhaust my shame. Because I cannot be silent. This is one of the things I reclaim today with all of you. I reclaim my accountability and I relinquish my shame.

And I think of my great-grandparents and the miracle of their survival.

I am inspired by how they made the best choices they could,

in what must have been hard, hard times.

I reclaim that courage, and vow to honor them by making the best choices I can now, in these hard, hard times.

I choose to be accountable and clear. Unsilent.

I push further back and reclaim their swords and their bricks,

And all the culture I can unearth.

I reclaim ritual. I reclaim prayer. I point at my whiteness and vow to turn this weapon into a tool, to use my privilege as both sword and brick to join in the battle to dismantle these histories and systems that smother us still.