Sometimes Days, Then One Hour

I am in Melbourne now. The day before we flew to Australia to meet friends for Christmas, I learned my grandpa had fallen and his body, weakened by Parkinson’s disease, was unlikely to recover. That afternoon I laid on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, and drifted between tears and sleep. The next morning I called Mom. I wasn’t sure if I needed to be home. Last time I visited Grandpa, we said a kind of goodbye and in the months since I prayed for his heart as he endured.

My own heart did not know what was right when I learned, kindly said, that it was only a matter of time. I am still not certain I did what was right, going to Australia on holiday when the man who set me on the crossbar of ten-speed bike to race down a hill, telling me to hold on the short ride down, returning to the top of the hill for another go, this time taking my brother, before my second, third turns – when that man was dying and I still might go to his side and say again: I remember how strong you were and see how strong you are even in this weakness. And your weakness does not change my love or affection or memory of who you are.

In the airport Justin showed me the email Mom sent that Grandpa had died. I thought what I’d been doing four hours ago. The flight was long. We landed in Queensland and I made it through a full day, woke early to run. For a week I ran with stray thoughts that brushed against prayer and poetry. I started immediately to write a poem I could see coming together, eventually. I wrote and rewrote and supposed at structure, organization for pages and days. Below is the latest draft, written today in a cafe, across from my daughter who sat reading her book. I will return to this, puzzle the best way for this poem.

A couple of weeks before he died, I sat in a different cafe, alone, thinking about Grandpa meeting Grandma, thinking about the care, chance and appointment that line up our lives; thinking the ways we are made to be here now. I am glad for my grandparents, glad for my parents, glad now for my children who will one day have their own moment of wild reflection: all the ones who bring us here now, all the ones who follow.


Maryborough, Queensland

4.Island Plantation Road

I am where I want to be
at the edge of sugarcane fields
under a hot, blue morning,
feeling my heart. The air is
sweet. I stand still long enough
for sweat to salt my arms, legs –
long enough to listen to
how quiet the world is, finally,
long enough to decide
I must go back. The roads back
are  the roads I look for
when I run: roads of
narrow width
single lane stretches
neglected asphalt
gravel
Those roads go where I want

3.Saltwater Creek Road

This must go somewhere to
nowhere, this busy road out
of town, this busy road must
give me a two lane road, at least,
a two lane road that loses
its shoulder, that gives me
a woman and her dogs out
as early as I. This woman and
her shepherding dogs stop. She
tells me the roads cutting
through these fields are
quiet and if I take this one –
There. She points –
I can go right to the creek

2.Walker Street

Far away from me my grandfather
is newly dead, awaiting burial

Maybe this is why I run all
the short paths in this cemetery,
correcting my mistake, thinking
at a distance this is an empty
cemetery. The markers are flat
and the cemetery is full

Luther Valley cemetery is full
of tall, old stones weatherworn so
it is easier to feel rather than read
names and dates etched or raised
Full also of sharply cut new
headstones like the one my family
will stand at when my
grandfather is given back

1.No Through Street

The town is a crosshatch of
wide, crowned roads that end at
field river highway. On a map,
the town’s edges look frayed
I run Lennox, Moreton, Bazaar,
Pallas, Albert, Queen
looking for a way out,
finding instead how this town
wakes, slow in bright, hot air,
slow at summer Christmas

 

Drive Words Poetry Exercise

This writing exercise comes from Thirteen Ways Of Looking For A Poem by Wendy Bishop.

First, list four or five words for each of the following categories:

Flowers or plants
Metals
Animals
Types of landscape or weather
Parts of the body
Words you simply like the sound of
Colors
Scents

List quickly. Don’t overthink. Then circle five words. Those are your drive words. Now, go to a poem you like and circle five words that seem to resonate with the poet. When I choose drive words from a poem, I look for repetends, strong verbs and imagery.

Write five couplets. Each couplet must contain two drive words, one from your list and one from the other poet’s list. You are going to write a poem you wouldn’t otherwise write. Have fun. Putz around or rip through the couplets.

Like most poetry writing exercises, this doesn’t yield a finished poem. Instead, you’ll find an unexpected place to start with a new image or phrase or narrative.


I assigned this exercise to my creative writing classes last week. It’s an easy prompt to start but difficult to finish because we ask too much of our writing exercises. We don’t want any of the lines to land with a thunk. We want the right phrase on the first try. And exercises like this might take multiple attempts before we manage a so-so finish, which can feel like a waste of time but isn’t a waste at all if your writing expectation is to enjoy putting words on paper.

As an aside, I haven’t posted anything here for a month because we’ve been getting school off the ground, jumping into and out of our weekday routine (a week off for Eid, after two short weeks of school; a three day weekend for Islamic New Year), and I’ve been consumed with writing a bio for our job search (maybe more on the bio later as the process mirrored my seniors’ college application essay writing), and now I finally have a poem to post here and my kids are squabbling from top bunk to bottom bunk about feet and flashlights. So every bit that you just read was interrupted like ninety times. But I’m not quitting. Give me credit for not quitting yet.

Seven or eight notebook pages, mostly crossed-out lines and couplets. My drive words: weeds, silver, hip, field, please. From Wendy Bishop’s “Your Apple Tree”: link, crack, empty, fuel, unwilling.

From the first try, I wrote about my tight hip, an old injury that is healing, slowly. I wanted to write about the year I first noticed my muscles pulling my gait to one side, the sense something was wearing out but I didn’t want to stop long enough to heal because I had to keep running. I’d go out and run and run and run. I still do this, without good reason. Only that when I run, I calm.

But as I wrote through several drafts, I wasn’t sure I’d get to say everything I wanted to say while adhering to the rules. I left the exercise unfinished for a few days. Today I followed the rules.

Of This Hurt

When my hip cracks I see silver go white
I catch my breath, say what I say

when I pray Please […] Amen
This injury links hurt the length of

me: foot ankle shin knee hip neck/
pull strain swell pop break. I empty

my body. For years, unable (unwilling)
to see my heart, I ran a grid of fields –

corn, soybean, weeds – on a fuel of
restless anger. I think that is the cradle

A Long(ish) Narrative Poem

This morning my daughter and I went to a cafe. She ordered a hot chocolate and scone. I got got a flat white and sparkling water. We spent a couple of hours sitting across from each other. She read a book, drew pictures. I wrote the start of an essay that might never become an essay and, feeling like I’d wasted pages and needed to salvage the morning, I returned to my short narrative poem to draft its expansion. When I write / revise poetry, I like to start in my notebook. I also like to stare out windows or at ceilings.

Margaret (Margit) Island Run

She wakes just after four when the sky
leaves night. When she cannot sleep again
she puts on running shorts and a bright coral
shirt made to feel like nothing at all, even
when it’s hot. She finds her shoes, unlocks the door
and walks three flights to the street, turns left
on a street of antique (antik) shops, galleries,
cafes. There are stoops wide enough for sleeping
homeless men (she counts three but returning
an hour and a half later, only one, arms crossed,
eyes closed like an infant, and where the others
were, the smell of urine). She crosses the bridge.
There are trails of urine from dogs or
men on their way home and a broken bottle,
its glass pieces catching sun, precise like
cut jewels. A pack of drunk young men cheer
when one of them runs backwards, keeps
her pace for ten or fifteen meters.
She looks at him, waiting to see what
the joke is but that’s it. He smiles, winks.

On Margaret (Margit) Island she passes
a woman bent over a metal bin
retrieving wine and beer bottles she
stands in a white plastic bag. There are other
bags full of upright bottles. Different
heights, shades, shapes. All open-mouthed, empty.
Maybe every Sunday this woman digs through
bins to pay each month’s electric or water.

She runs a path that loops the island, sees
a couple who is like a performance piece:
standing toe to toe, his head bent to hers,
unmoving. She passes another couple
kissing on a bench, limbs overlapping. And
then the path is empty for a stretch
and she goes to a quiet place (breath, footfall),
running steady, keeping her feet straight,
seeing the work of her body in her mind:
counting her cadence, reminding her hip
flexors and glutes they are made to move
like this and faster, telling her core be
strong. She comes together beautifully
on mornings like this, when she gets quiet
enough to listen hard, when she lets the work
of her limbs loosen her mind, calm her spirit.

A Short Narrative Poem

An exercise from The Practice Of Poetry. Parameters: 11-15 lines, 9-11 syllables / line, no rhyme. Varied sentence length.

She wakes just after four when the sky
leaves night. When she cannot sleep again
she puts on running shorts and a bright coral
shirt made to feel like nothing at all, even
when it’s hot. She finds her shoes, unlocks the door
and walks three flights to the street, turns left
on a street of antique (antik) shops, galleries,
cafes. There are stoops wide enough for sleeping
homeless men (she counts three but returning
an hour and a half later, only one, arms crossed,
eyes closed like he means it, and where the others
were, the smell of urine). She crosses the bridge,
meeting a pack of drunk young men who cheer
when one of them runs backwards, keeps
her pace for ten or fifteen meters.
On Margaret (Margit) Island she passes
a couple who is like a performance piece:
they stand toe to toe, his head bent to hers,
unmoving. She passes another couple
kissing on a bench, limbs overlapping. Now
each are part of Sunday morning together.

Running Vienna

When we arrived, I asked our host where he suggested I run. He took out a map and showed me the streets from our apartment to Schoenbrunn Palace and promised kilometers of garden paths. I went the next morning, a fifteen minute run to the palace gates which open to the public at 6:30am.

I loved it.

I said Thank you, God. This summer break, running outside was bliss. The cool morning temperatures, breeze, and occasional rain. I ran the park’s paths for an hour.

I wanted to explore Vienna on my morning runs too so the next routes were up Mariahilfer, through the Museum Quater and along Burg Ring and the Danube Canal. Nearly everything I found, I found by accident. I tried to remember what direction I came from and at some turns, made a note of graffiti or statuary. I got lost a lot. I ran farther than I meant to. When I approached someone for directions, I used the train station nearest our apartment as reference. One man laughed and said, “That is a long way away.” He made a zigzag with his hand and told me which street to watch for and I jogged away hoping he meant long for a walk.

One morning I planned to meet a new friend at Belvedere for a run through the gardens. I looked up the route and knew enough of the streets and landmarks to guess where to turn. I ran and ran and ran, heading toward Belvedere, going wide and getting lost in a maze of short streets and tall residence. I stopped to ask a woman in a parked van if she spoke English. No. “Belvedere?” I said. She nodded and drew a map in the air, said, “So. So. So-oo-oo. So.” I nodded and got lost again.

Map of Vienna

Getting lost was fine. I carried fifty cents for a public toilet and learned which ones were nicest. I rarely ran fast so hearing Westbonhof was a long way away didn’t worry me. I looked up. I doubled back to see if I recognized a landmark. Later in the day I showed Justin and the kids what I’d seen that morning.

But after a few days of running the city, even the quieter streets, I found myself leaving the center early, returning to fit twenty or thirty minutes of Schoenbrunn paths in my run. My last week of running was entirely Schoenbrunn. I arrived when the gates opened and ran the flat paths and the hill. I made up patterns and loops. I got rocks in my shoes. The tree archways made me happy. The rose garden made me happy. The old men sitting on benches made me happy. I get giddy around other runners after so many months on a treadmill. I nod. I smile. I sometimes run to catch up and hold a pace, just to play running partner for fifteen minutes.

Map of the park at Schönbrunn

I met one runner on our way to Schoenbrunn and we seemed matched enough in pace that we ran a long loop of the gardens together. I loved it! We met up again my last morning in Vienna, by chance, and ran a few lengths of the park together. She’d just returned to Vienna after a year of traveling. She mentioned the value of connecting with people from the place you’re visiting. Agreed. I was so glad to meet both of my Vienna running partners.

My last run through Schoenbrunn, I went by a motley collection of broken statuary and columns piled in an empty fountain. It’s the corner of Schoenbrunn opposite the zoo, probably ignored by most visitors. But after the tree archways, that mess of stone was my favorite part of the garden. The haphazard jam of the leftover pieces – the different colors, shapes and sizes of carved stone – is beautiful. I stopped one morning on my run down the hill, on a path behind the fountain. I stood and looked at the floral design of tiles on the arch. The carved faces. Giant chunks of column. Maybe those pieces find their places at the end of hidden paths. Maybe one day they are given their own benches for us to sit on and look at them and think how lovely. Maybe they just stay together, leaning long enough that the pose gets comfortable.

Running Prague

I like to run the city I travel. This summer is the first in three years that I’m able to start my mornings with a long outdoor run. Here, I’m doing out-and-back runs with branches off to see neighborhoods or parks.

I begin at the edge of Charles Park and run downhill to the Vltava River. I follow the river past the Charles Bridge and take a slope down to a cobbled dock. I run early enough to see the orange and blue suited sanitation workers sweeping up last night’s party near the bridge, but the dock collects a few empty wine bottles too. Before starting their sweep of the dock, a man and woman recline in an old Volvo, smoking. Their two little dogs are nearby, sniffing along the wall.

I am not on the dock long. The riverboats are quiet. I see a couple on a bench; he woofs at me and she doubles over in laughter. A few men are at the edge of the dock, fishing and talking, not bothering to glance up at passersby. There are some other runners out, but mostly bikers whooshing by on my left and dog-walkers on my right.

I find a trail. Crushed rock cutting through a wide field of tall grass and short trees. Other paths break from the main, weaving their way toward a busier street of office and apartment buildings. Homeless sleep in the field at night and we nod at each other in the morning – an old man carrying a back and rolled mat steps out from the weeds and I am one of many striding by in the day, seeing a tree as a tree rather than as a roof.

The trail is short. I pretend I’m in the middle of nowhere because that is where I’d like to run one day. The crushed rock is a break for my legs. The rest of the my run through Prague is on tiny square paving stones, cobbles or asphalt; all of it uneven, sloping or crowned. The trail is a flat, forgiving surface. I hold my gait but there is less work to my running: no curb to hop or stairs to climb. It is  perfect, boring trail.

I run back the way I came. Commuters are on their way to early shifts. Trams are fuller. There are more cars at the intersections. I learn which blocks are busy and skirt them. When I reach my landmark, I walk, sweaty, ready for the day.

Running Still

I might be a revision junkie. I reread yesterday’s post and saw necessary changes. I’m not revising the entire post, but here is one paragraph that deserves better:

We have sweet spaces of time built for daydreaming and thinking. In college I began running longer and longer distances, mapping twenty-mile routes through the middle of nowhere. I ran with a tape deck once because my CD player wouldn’t fit in my Camelbak. Yes. A dubbed tape. But aside from that anomaly, my long runs were open to whatever thought flitted through my mind. I counted to a thousand, and then back down. When I started using the time to think about pieces I had in workshop, running and writing became more tangibly connected.

Nothing terribly wrong. But like I said, this paragraph deserves better. I skipped over the center of it: that running gave me space to space out. That’s it, really. So why mention the one long run with a dubbed tape? Oh, and I don’t like the word “flitted.” I don’t know why I used it. Maybe some thoughts flit, but a lot land with a thud or peek around the corner.

So I spent about forty minutes thinking and writing about when I returned to running in college and what made that routine such necessity. I’ve written about my running before. This may be another start:

In college I began running longer and longer distances, mapping twenty-mile routes through the middle of nowhere. I drew maps on notebook paper and copied road names from the Gazetteer, consulting the note at dead intersections of farmland and sky. The running, even shorter distances in town, gave me undistracted time to think. I counted to a thousand and then back down, again and again, counting with my breath. I took interruptions.

Running and writing connected. I had a classmate who said she composed the best forgotten essays on her marathon training runs. Running was a piece of paper and pen, an hour or so to write, cross-out, rewrite, find the best word. I found and lost poetry on road and trail. I gave characters an audience and went home with the next scene for a workshop piece.

I also had a lot I didn’t want to think about. I was hearing truth, but not listening. Running took me far away from campus and my house. I hit my stride, thinking or not thinking. I found stretches of abandoned road and stopped to stare at the telephone wires. I might stand in one place, listening, for ten or fifteen minutes, sweat drying as salt on my brow. I remembered the goodness of being quiet.

This practice became necessity. I started praying again; I wanted to hear God. Running became my way of being still and knowing. Running with only your heart and mind to hold is as meditative as sitting still. There is something spectacular about working your body, finding a steady pace, and letting your thoughts come and go.

Better, yes?

Daydreaming as Drafting

Daydreaming was my first practice at drafting and revision. I remember car rides to the grocery store, sitting in the backseat of the station wagon. I remember my daydreams: waking up one morning with curly hair like the girl in the magazine ad for Tide; hunching over the handlebars of a skinny-wheeled ten-speed bike, racing downhill; creating a new wardrobe of primary colors and white Keds. Behind the wheel in the front seat, my mom might have been daydreaming too, the back roads familiar enough to let her mind wander.

We have sweet spaces of time built for daydreaming and thinking. In college I began running longer and longer distances, mapping twenty-mile routes through the middle of nowhere. I ran with a tape deck once because my CD player wouldn’t fit in my Camelbak. Yes. A dubbed tape. But aside from that anomaly, my long runs were open to whatever thought flitted through my mind. I counted to a thousand, and then back down. When I started using the time to think about pieces I had in workshop, running and writing became more tangibly connected.

We often return to the same daydreams or thoughts, just as in our notebooks. In the back seat, the underbrush or open fields flying by, I could start over: change small parts of my fantasy, reconstruct dialogue.

But give yourself those sweet spaces. I made a list of times or places where I can let my mind wander. Do the same. Unplug for five or ten minutes of waiting in a line, turn off the radio on your drive home or keep the TV off for an evening. Let quiet and boredom invade. Make a practice of this. Find a question or an answer. Write a story in your head and take it to the page. Pray.

A while ago, I read “In Defense of Boredom” by Carolyn Y. Johnson in The Week, first published in The Boston Globe as “The Joy of Boredom.” I read it with a kind of AmenPreachIt response. Take a moment to read the piece.

Get Your Gait Analyzed!

One of my students suggested this prompt: write a letter from your current self to your younger self, and also from your current self to your older self. I tried it a few times, focusing on my running, finally ending my page with:

Blah blah. Blah blah blah. You won’t listen anyway. You’ll run your body to a literal stop and spend the following two years confronting a rotation of physical, spiritual and emotional issues tied up in running injuries.

Eventually you’ll heal.

I tried again, later in the day:

To my younger running self,

Get your gait analyzed! Your long runs are ratcheting the pull in your hips, which will one day show up as a puffy knee, popping hip and sad foot. You will have a sad foot because you aren’t picking up your feet, landing midfoot with a light kiss.

You run like a box. Drive with your arms! Rotate your hips! Relax your shoulders. Give yourself miles that aren’t pinching your glutes and pulling your thighs. Massage, stretch, strength train. Discover the foam roller before your piriformis is angry.

You crave an unnatural level of physical endurance. Exceed that, but with a proper stride. Get your gait analyzed!

To my future running self,

Bodies break and repair. Endure. Keep kissing the ground, lightly. Enjoy new strength.

Say thank you at the end of each run.