Please Repeat the Renaissance

by Saundra Cindrich

 

It seems
to me, Michelangelo,
that you could have waited
to paint your great Sistine Chapel
until now.  

On good days naked I can see
myself touching God’s finger
on a ceiling of dimpled thighs and ample bellies.  

On good days naked I can hear
the murmur of plump defiance
as my delicate wings
propel me beyond gravity
into mounds of ice cream clouds.  

On good days naked I can feel
the fall
of jealous eyes upon my body’s inheritance—
generations of genes
deposited faithfully
in my round luxuriant self—
laid back and chosen
by you for the splendid ceiling
of your Sistine Chapel.  

It seems
to me, Michelangelo,
that you should have waited
for me.
My sufflated body on your ceiling
would have been the envy
of even Raphael’s
Graces.  

Halloran Pass

by Joanna Brooks

 

Eight p.m. in a high desert diner,
smacked up waitresses triple jump
to the call of coffee cups.  

Now, for the hunger that a couple
cups of mud couldn’t cure. We eat.
You—grits and biscuits, redmeat.
Me—nothing, I’m fine ma‘am,
Just watching this quiet, kind-eyed man.  

Him? He’s good to still my hands.
Thought he was it. Hundreds of miles
into the desert now. I shake
holding the hot white cup. Give up?
I can’t go back. I must want  

Nothing. Keep my mouth shut this time.
Though I’m a fine trader, not trinkets enough—
human hearts, roadside silver, myrrh from Muslim men,
oranges from
children perched predatory
on speedbumps in a hundred small towns across the Yucatan. 

What do I want? More cream and sugar, please.
Another cup; we leave into
a night
as tense as turquoise.  

Back at eighty miles an hour,
sky turns to ash at its edges,
smudges the lines of the road.
The radio scratches old words
into the sky with a jag of glass:
I want you to want me.  

Engine’s too hot—we stop near Apex Caliente;
the
semi-precious sky settles such weight
on the
small brown mountains. Your chest,
the
sand move same to my indiscriminate tastes.
We stay the night, holding each other to pass time
in the Valley
of Fire. 

Dad’s Stride

by Sterling Augustine

Dad quietly turns the light in the living room on to its lowest setting. I’m sure he hopes that no one knows he’s awake; he hates disturbing us. There’s no big problem that keeps Dad up tonight; he just doesn’t need the sleep. So he sits in his easy chair and reads. 

Someone catching Dad awake at 3:00 a.m. would spoil his ritual, his trance-like engrossment in his latest book. He finds contentment in the solitude of his private insomnia, a mix of tranquillity and almost religious isolation—a solitude that presents itself at our home only in the middle of the night. I watch the living room light seep under my bedroom door.  

Home between semesters, I have been awake with Dad for the past few nights. And even though I’m still recovering from finals’ long nights, like Dad, I don’t need the sleep. In fact, if he weren’t already up, I would pad around the house, trying not to disturb anyone and enjoying the quiet. I too am a little embarrassed when someone finds me in the living room at 3 a.m. for no better reason than I couldn’t sleep.  

Our sleepless nights coincide often. More, I’m sure, than either of us knows. Through some undiscussed-even unconscious unilateral agreement, I don’t disturb him. And I imagine he knows not to bother me. He probably lies in his bed, sensing the light seeping under his door, wondering what keeps his son awake. In this way we share our sleepless nights.  

Dad never taught me to enjoy those dark hours spent reading or thinking, but I do. I certainly couldn’t have learned this habit by example, because with any interruption Dad’s ritual ends, and he turns from savant pouring over some mystic tome into accommodating Father, concerned that he has disturbed someone’s sleep. Yet I do know how he feels during these late hours because I know how I feel.  

Although Dad would deny it, eight children strain the man reluctant to get married. He wasn’t sure that he could live with another person. Mother persuaded him otherwise. He’s glad she did, but the hermit in him misses the days he worked for the forest service, living alone in the woods for weeks at a time.  

When he’s in a sagacious mood, he tells stories of those summers in the woods, sounding like he was on Walden Pond. Sometimes he tells about the miles he walked checking his string of traps near Mansfield, Ohio, when he was fourteen. This story he told me by letter: ‘When I was about Sam’s age, I used to go down to the stream behind our house (about four miles away) and look for different shaped stones or anything that was special and caught my eye. I would sometimes (more often than not) walk for miles (10-15 miles) just looking.” 

Even now, forty-five years later, Dad walks to think, looking for what Annie Dillard calls “pennies.” There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted with pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. Dad finds these “unwrapped gifts and free surprises” wherever he goes.  

When I was ten, my family took a trip to the Oregon coast. About five miles of sand-dunes separated our campground and the beach. One morning as we played on the sand dunes, we kids decided to walk to the beach, following a path that Dad had walked earlier that day. We made it about halfway before turning back, bringing home the usual assortment of shells, driftwood, and children’s treasures-pennies.  

We didn’t see Dad, even from the highest dunes, until he arrived at camp late that afternoon. Not only had he walked all the way to the beach, he had also walked along the beach several miles, where he found several teenagers driving dune buggies. He stopped and talked to them. Then my dad convinced a nineteen-year-old hippie into driving him home. I can only smile thinking of a dilapidated dune buggy catching air off some enormous sand dune and my college-professor dad grinning and holding onto his battered hat. A penny indeed.  

I don’t have my father’s eye for pennies. I haven’t cultivated a healthy poverty the way he has through his contemplative walks. And I can’t remember ever taking one of those walks with him. He’s never invited me—and I’ve never thought to ask. I’m not sure he knows when he’s about to take one.  

Neither do I. Like that day last summer when my philosophy class finished early. I got on my motorcycle to drive home and nearly reached the end of Hobble Creek Canyon before I realized that I was driving aimlessly, enjoying the solitude, engrossed in thought and gazing at the fire the sun splashed against the canyon walls. In that canyon I found a penny—another part of me so like my Father, my version of his long walks.  

Tonight Dad looks for pennies in the small pool of light illuminating his book. He sits in the living room, the light warming the darkness. I wonder what he reads tonight. Perhaps a book my sister Kif gave him last week, Hermann Hesse’s Siddharthe. His walks have given him a taste for deep thought found only in books about the human condition. Other topics don’t have the depth of a long walk.  

Dad reads five or six books at a time, either checking a book out from the library or choosing one from the shelfin his study: The Way of the Sufi, The Man who Discovered the Secrets of the Universe, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and The Collected Works of Leo Tolstoi.  

When I lived at home, Dad would read aloud from those books while sitting in his easy chair. I would lay luxuriously on the soft floor with the house entirely dark, except for the light from the same lamp he reads by tonight. I would fall half asleep soothed by Dad‘s resonant voice and Tolstoi’s story of the Bishop and the three hermits. They saw the hermits coming along hand in hand, and the two outer ones beckoning the ship to stop. All three were gliding along upon the water without moving their feet.  

He seemed to invent the text each time he read it—his voice owning the story completely, his words slowly overflowing from a deep well of eloquence that he rarely lets us see. His deliberate nature serves Russian diction well. Not even a pause on words like desyatina and rozgovieni. The cold steppes, the small huts, and the Russian peasants’ austere lives materialize clearly in my mind as I remember him reading. If I were ever to direct a movie, I would take the script home, find Dad sitting in his chair one evening, stretch out on the floor, and have Dad read me that script by the light of that same lamp. I would then know exactly how to give the script life.  

Reading out loud is troublesome for me. After about five minutes my head grows light, and I have to stop to breathe. But I do have a section of mystic books on my bookshelf. Dubliners, The Prophet, and The Brothers Karamazov—a book I read during my freshman year. While everyone else struggled through three-page paragraphs with names like Smerdyakov and Ilyusha, The Brothers kept me from feeling homesick. At the really hard parts, I would stretch out on the floor and listen for Dad’s voice.  

In all, Dad may have sent me five letters before I turned twenty one, even though I moved out of the house when I was sixteen. In almost every letter he has ever written me, he has included a quote, a poem, or some idea that he had stored away, waiting to share with someone when the time was right. He fills his letters to rrie with musings he almost never mentions in person: quotes in Latin, thoughts on The Screw tape Letters, explanations ofHesse’ s Demaine. He tells me of his love in passionate, almost painful terms by letter. Face to face, he limits them to the simple “I love you.”  

Like him, I enjoy giving away pennies. I always send my letters with a poem or at least a brief quote. Kipling’s “L’Envoi”; Emerson saying “Rings and other jewels are not gifts but apologies for gifts”; or something from Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie. Like my father, I express my feelings much better in pen and ink than in conversation.  

I have never tried to be just like my father, and Dad has never tried to mold me in his image. When I tell him I want to be a professor he warns me not to choose his career. But sometimes I stumble on another similarity and surprise myself. During the past few years I even outgrew modern music and now covet Dad’s collection of original jazz piano recordings. And although we have many differences, they only thinly cover all the traits that father passes to son. Traits that he imparts more through proximity than through teaching. Traits acquired on the long walks looking for pennies that we both take alone. And while I may not be walking in his footsteps, it seems I have his stride. 

Two Holidays

by Mary Lynn Bahr

 

For Brigham

You spent an hour
thinning cotton through the branches
for Kleenex ghosts with blotted eyes
and the yarn and paper witches
who perch like blossoms
on the knuckles of your tree.
You filled the kitchen windows
with cardboard cats and pumpkins
and asked me
should you tape the extras
on the closet doors?  

 

You sat on the linoleum
untangling strings of lights
to replace two dead bulbs.
You strung fat, blinking “V”s
between the porch rails,
wrapping cord to metal
with twist-ties. Tonight
as soon as it was dark
you asked me
should you turn them on?  

On Her Birthday

by Julie K. Curtis

 

Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. I thought of it fleetingly all day long—in the quiet moments between worrying about my  math assignment and the midterm paper in my modern lit class. I  meant all along to get a card, write it, and send it. That’s what I’ve  done every year for six years, when I was last home for her birthday.  

The truth of it is that usually I send the card late. I let a couple  of days or a week pass of those in-between-the-moment reminders.  Finally, I search for a card that’s blank inside and elegant and  unusual outside, and I spend another day contemplating what to  write on it. Then I do write in the card and send it; a few days  later I call on my dad’s calling card to tell her that I love her, even  though I forgot to send the card in time.  

It isn’t something my mother expects—the card, I mean. She  doesn’t even expect the phone call. For her, birthdays aren’t such  welcome time markers anymore. They aren’t exact, or quite as valid,  somehow. I remember someone asking her how old she was in the  year she turned forty-nine. “Fifty,” she answered. Later I asked her  why she’d said that. “To get used to saying it next year,” she told me.  

I didn’t fully understand her reasoning then, and I’m not sure  I do now. But I do miss sharing birthdays with her. We were both  born in September, and from the time I was old enough to realize  that other people besides me have birthdays, I was privately quite  proud of having my birthday in the same month as my mother.  

Because there are five children in our family, I always made a great  deal of anything that might distinguish me from my siblings, that  might draw me especially close to our beloved mother. So we had  this affinity for each other, I thought then.  

Now our “affinity” is something I’m beginning to understand as  a young woman—the affinity of womanhood, of nurturing, of the  organic and spiritual growth process. It’s wrapped up in these  abstractions, but really it traces back to a stunning moment in my  life, the moment I realized that my mother bore me. Out of her  womb and blood she bore me. Out of her body and soul. In biology  class I was watching that film, “The Miracle of Life,” and I saw a  woman giving birth. It was bloody. It was painful. Birth ripped her  apart, but she bore it willingly. Then it was my mother, and I was  the little wrinkled child emerging into life.  

Not long ago I was visiting the city of my birth, up on a hill  looking down upon it. That city always makes me brood at least little bit—something of my organic beginnings there, I guess.  From above I wondered which building was my birthplace. I  couldn’t pick it out, but somehow felt I should have been able to,  even though I haven’t lived in that city for twenty-one years. Once  I asked someone to point the building out. At the time I thought would always remember, but many things have come between me  and that day.  

 

There is a year when birthdays stop being so celebratory  because other days become more significant markers of one’s life.  I think my mother’s lying about her age has to do with this. I think  I’m beginning to feel it too. My birthday is no longer the holiday  second only to Christmas; it isn’t so important as it was when I was  small. But as I grow older, even Christmas isn’t always one of my  time-marking days. One begins to mark the years with other events:  “the day I graduated,” “the day I married him,” “the day she died,”  “the day he was born.” I mark not my own first beginning so much as the second and third beginnings of my life and the anniversaries  of the events of those I love. In fact, my own birthday consisted  only of my brother stealing me off to dinner at an Italian restaurant, and my postponing my homework until the next day—not so  momentous at all.  

Each day brings its prospects of a new beginning, a new  birthday. Each day has its turn of events, its new balance or  imbalance. Each day can be a beginning or an ending. It’s exhausting to think how much change and variation this implies for our  lives. But it’s beautiful, too.  

The British poet Matthew Arnold wrote, “We live between two  worlds, one dying, and the other powerless to be born.” When I first heard this quotation, it stopped me dead, because I was experiencing just the sort of interworldly death and birth that Arnold  describes. I had just returned from Hungary, where I spent eighteen  months as a missionary. I was struggling to re-adapt myself to family  life at my parents’ home, then to social life and academics when I  returned to college for my last year of undergraduate study. I was trying to find again a life I’d been absent from for a long time.  

During that late summer and early autumn, I felt exquisitely the  death and birth of those parts of myself, those worlds. I had lost the  well-defined sense of purpose that missionary service brought me,  and I searched in vain for the strong motivating purposes that had  directed my life before my mission. Self-consciously, I reminisced  about my missionary experiences, as I was painfully and guiltily  aware that they were my only frame of reference, my only familiarity. I couldn’t go back, and yet I didn’t know how to move forwardAt the time I thought I was supposed to rid myself of the old world  and immerse myself in the new. But that wasn’t working very well; I couldn’t simply divorce myself from my other half. Arnold’s words made me realize something I hadn’t imagined before: you never  quite leave, and yet you never really arrive. In limbo, that means, the times between.  

But it isn’t so nondirectional as all that. It isn’t simply floating.  Rather, it’s the wayfaring, the journey that takes you through the  worlds, but you’re never allowed to simply stop and settle. Not quite.  

 

Wayfarers have different birthdays, and many of them. Reincarnation is a fact of life, with each new phase and fancy. I felt like  I was dying that day those years ago, leaving home openly with tears, knowing that my parents wouldn’t live there when I returned. I died  when I said good-byes to my most-beloveds and got on a plane to  Hungary. Again, when I returned, I felt my funeral. My countenance wore black those first days, and I saw nothing. But each time  I found a new birthday-January ninth, March fifteenth, September sixteenth, July eighth.You have to be born again, although that  hurts too.  

There is pain in birth. They say time heals. They say when the  joy comes, you forget. My friend Krista told me, “But I didn’t forget the pain. When they’re sewing up three layers of me and the epidural  didn’t take, it hurts. When they put her into my arms, I didn’t forget  like they said I would. I loved her, yes, but I didn’t forget.”  

I don’t think you forget. The pain passes, though, and the  triumph of birth comes when you know you’ll live on. The pain passes the same way the pain of an ended love affair ends—when you realize that you will someday love another person just as much;  when the uncertainty of “Shall I ever love again?” is answered in the  heart. It’s the wayfaring passage from world to world. It’s the miracle  of life all over again.  

So as we are wayfaring between two worlds, the old world  lingers and the new has yet to be explored. The dazzling beauty is  in the array of choices they afford. Even the simplest things are full  of rich meaning. Take me, as I stumble between languages and  cultures. I read the word hold, and I can’t for some moments decide  whether to choose the English meaning, “keep,” or the Hungarian meaning, “moon.” Each sends me into a sweet reverie. This is life  between two worlds: one dying, yes, but it will never die completely,  just as the other will never be completely born. I will never wholly  belong to either, and so I will never wholly lose either. We need not  refer to simply one death or one birth. We are wayfarers. We have  many.  

Until the end come our birthdays: birth-of-era-days, birth-of love-days, birth-of-faith-days, birth-of-birth-days. But even beyond the end, we continue. My grandfather died some years ago, but  my first Sunday in October is always his day, anniversary of the  tearful morning when I knew he had passed, a birth-of-death-day.  People have a way of living on.  

For my birthday six years ago my mother sent a tape of  children’s songs by the Simon sisters, a tape I loved as a child. Now  I’m thinking of the last verse of the last song:  

       “I love you til Heaven rips the stars from his coat,
       And the moon rows away in a glass-bottomed boat …  And
       I love you as long as the furrow of a plow,
       And so ever is ever, and ever is now.”  

It is a most fitting end to a declaration of love: the cosmic, organic,  and spiritual dimensions of love—and not just of love, but of life.  That we love is why we are born, and why we live, and why some  live on. Love has to be this sort of holistic conception, for it is the  substance of life, just as the absence of love is life’s emptiness. Love  is the continuity that paves the wayfarer’s road; one can’t help  following one’s deepest heart.  

As I wayfare along my chosen path, I carry threads and ribbons  and banners declaring my travels. These mementos bind my  wounded spirits and trace my wanton loves. They are my birthright,  my continual inheritance. They are my reminder that births and  deaths are temporal parts of a spiritual world.  

My Aunt Tina, my mother’s sister, wants to carry a sign that  reads, “The world begins tomorrow,” as opposed to its ending.  “Every day we’re beginning again,” she says. “People ought to  realize that.” Someday I’ll join her and we’ll picket the sidewalks in  the city of my birth. People really ought to know.  

And, of course, happy birthday, Mother.