but first take down the confederate
flag in my own heart —
waving, defiant, odious, proud
of its own insistent beating;
pulsing with self-righteousness,
coursing with misery self-inflicted.
I am riven with this dark pathogen!
These very genes of mine are
imprinted with the insatiable propensity
to hate that which is unlike me,
and thus like me;
to choose sides, me versus world
versus me again.
It is as if I too had flicked cruelly the dark lash
against the dark flesh of my dark neighbor
who is me, after all.
I have kept slaves in my heart!
Crimes against humanity! —
I have committed those too:
believed with fervor in the other’s reprehensible inferiority;
wished them to submit to my will;
offered them but spit and the heel of my boot —
then feared likewise from the other, my just reward.
Even now I cannot so easily lay down these arms.
I come to you as to the Appomattox surrender:
bent and bitter, trembling and pained, uncertain of
this raw vulnerability, resentful and yet reaching
out one hand to the other’s
and breathing in, then out
again to start a
new day under
but first take down the confederate
This black heart of mine —
Heartsick, homesick heart
Of hearth, earthy early life
Young heart cozy in company
Pressed against black flesh
Pounding to sounds of black
And white, he remembers
Young and alive, unknowing
Or innocently authentic
Then torn —
Ripped out of my chest
Stuffed into school uniforms
And loud yellow buses across town
Squeezed into schoolwork
Popping out to spark with sparkle
Here and there, a struggle
Of white amid white
On the outside, yet inside
The black heart cooled.
Shame now, putrid and stinking
Shame upon me, silencing,
Should-ing me and my black heart knows it
Knows he, too, is black as day
And white as glorious dark night
He pumps, he beats louder
When, across the room
Across the invisible visible divide
Across the barriers of decorum and safety
Across other people’s feelings
And appearances, and rules
Across the din he hears a
Lilting tone, little
Lovely and familiar, he licks
Up the aroma, the whiff of love
That love he once knew:
To be free as a black heart
Amid other black hearts
Free to be seen as love in flesh
Yet today, not.
The tone across the room
Passes away, fades, dies.
He cannot join it;
It does not rescue him.
He wails, he yearns, he longs
To reach it
He dares not
This kinship, buried, secretly
As an unspeakable absurdity
Or a privileged outrage —
He comes alive only rarely now
He misses his brothers and sisters
He wishes them well.
This day I led a group of coaches and their families to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park, along the Potomac River upstream from Washington, DC. (More about the event here.) While my companions were exploring Great Falls, I sat and observed the spillway above the falls, and wrote this poem. In many ways, this is a poem about me: I passed over my own life’s spillway several years ago and began to leave bleaching trunks of trees — the burdens of previous expectations — behind.
I prepared this text for delivery during Good Friday services at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, today. An audio recording of the actual delivery is available here. The scriptural reference is John 18:1-11.
Last year, I left my career of 10+ years to strike out on my own in a new direction. Before settling into that new path, I decided it would be helpful for me to take a cross-country roadtrip for a couple months and visit the country while also gaining some physical and mental distance from my “previous chapter of life.” The route took me from DC to Nebraska, up through South Dakota and Wyoming to Montana and Washington, back down to California and eastward again through Utah and Colorado. In Colorado I slipped off the edge of an icy road and ended the life of my car, cutting the journey a few days short but surviving with great lessons. As a result of that dramatic finish, I never posted too many of the photos I took during my trip, and I thought to use some of those photos in a recent exploration of the iPhone app “Over”, which allows text to be overlaid onto images. I am going to attempt to convey my poem in images through this website and see if this represents a diversion or a new artistic direction for me.
I hiked yesterday in Sky Meadows State Park, Virginia, with a group of coaching colleagues. We had decided to set an intention for our hike, to hold in our minds an object, a desire, a wish for the new year, a hope for the future, a focus for our contemplation in silence and in fellowship. I settled on “confidence,” both for my own ability to steer the day as the event’s leader, and for my ability to navigate uncertain waters of career transition to achieve financial and reputational success in 2013. Seated beside a stream at a crossing of two trails, the wooded mountains finally spoke to me, gently rebuffing my fascination with certainty.
Sometimes I imagine my past as a coherent narrative with a consistent purpose. In truth, I create a fiction — stability — and convince myself of its accuracy to soothe myself and my conversation partner. Neither my past nor my future actually conforms to a mathematical formula or neat geometric graph of happiness and sadness. Instead, I experience a scatter plot of emotions, thoughts, and wishes, some of which originate from a sense of scarcity and others from abundance; some reflect my noblest aspirations and others my basest fears. When I imagined animating a scatter plot, the image of fireflies sprang to mind and inspired the following poetic reflection.
I am planting seeds
Coffee beans pressed deep into tan soil
Dreams, possibilities effervescing within shells
Hopes of what could be
Should the rains fall, the frosts recede
Visions, behold, of tall crops, of pendulous fruits
Blazing bright sunflower blossoms
Amid a field of gaps where
Seeds did not grow
I planted so many I do not notice
The failures, the did-not-sprouts
I reap a harvest of plenty
I step from row to leafy row
My arms embrace a bushel
Filling with treasures unhidden.
It will be enough.
The young maple at 36th and T
Green leaves turning to gold, to salmon
Orange and bare are her branches,
Woody and silken her boughs,
Dark and sky-pierced in early November
She is transitioning, stopped in motion
The wind shakes her head
Twenty feet tall, twenty years of age or much less
She has known autumns, springs, in-between times before
Till they are routine
She is summer bloom and shade
She is winter despair at once
In this moment, caught between
By my eye and the eye of my mind
She is mirroring me, winking
Sparkling with dull amber and ruddy burst of dry tomorrow
She has already shed much
Yet has much left about her
She will have to let go
For now she is, though, more beautiful than ever
Becoming one thing, becoming a state of being
Sucking life from the ground
Staring death in my face
A swirl of color and dream
On a corner, at an ordinary crossroads
For me to behold this day
Flat as an ocean from the sky
Still as the air in my throat
But sparkling dark as the sun sinks
Gray as the vague cloud lazing
Streaking limp with Autumn near
Peaks of peninsula beyond,
Of houses dotting shore
Of dock, of boat whose names
I do not call
Frog emerges to accompany me
as I sit in wait
As my breath holds still
As my ear receives distant jet
All of us vibrating, trembling
Not flooded with memories, but with futures
Glistening with moist promise
upon dead needles, like Frog
I swat the flies he would eat
A red bicycle leans, awaits
its rider, me
The scene is set, anticipating
Edge grass tall and feathery
Necks of heron more vertical than up
Dark pine trunks with crackled bark
A spider’s web, three days past its
Frog and I perceive all these
Anxious crow shrieks and flees
Acorns tumble to the ground like
Dislodged by gnawing squirrel high
I am recording a scene without screenplay
It is the setting of no action
I am waiting for nothing
And nothing is waiting for me
The river lies before me
Tide fights current and, this hour, wins
All are externalities
I am like the river, but how?
Coursing downward, flowing toward
a basin of deeper me
Halted by an uprising, a lunacy
Madly tugging my spirit upriver
Upon reedy shore near Frog’s perch and mine
Crickets offer a chorus of soothing sobriety
As grasses wave in a gentle wind
It is as if I am waiting
For the next big thing to happen
A monster to slither from the river
A frog to become a prince
A grass-wave to beckon me in
An acorn to knock me asleep for
a thousand years
A spider’s web to catch me
I am waiting for externalities
Afraid of internalities?
Uninterested in exploring the depth?
Confident all is well below?
Perhaps my next step is not out there
In some pretty scene
But in here
Next to Frog, under Pine, along River
As the sun sinks lower.