This Thanksgiving was one to remember. We didn't take an epic trip or cook an amazing meal (I know better than to even talk about cooking with the likes of Cindy and Jen whisking around the web); we just hung out. Just the two of us (four if you count Arnie and Red, 16 if you count by paw...) with no agenda.
We skied a little bit, climbed a little bit, played a ton of Scrabble (I lost 4 games in a row, but my prowess has since returned), watched movies by the fire, ate tomato soup and simple vegetarian food (very satiating when I thought about all the turkeys being slaughtered) and knitted. I rode a motorcycle for the first time (and loved it, though that's another post), caught up on The New Yorker and made a dent in the stack of Suns that have been taunting me for months.
I opened old books of poetry and was reminded how words, strung together in particular ways, can stop my heart. And I think part of the reason I love poetry so much, partly why I will always select a collection of poems over non-fiction or a novel, is that it welcomes emotionial reactions.
The four men who wrote five of my favorite poems seem prone to those dramatics. The Embrace, by Mark Doty; The Face in the Toyota, by Robert Bly; Home Again and On Turning Ten by Billy Collins; and Touch Me, by Stanley Kunitz. Similar in form and tone, similar, even, in subject matter, these five poems affect me the same way every time I read them, no matter how often I read them.
And I think of these four men when I watch my husband, whom I love and adore more every day, react coolly and smoothly to unexpected situations. His ability to deal never fails to leave me awestruck. While I throw myself on our bed, in tears and hysterics, complaining that the world is falling apart and lamenting everything from the condition of the economy to not having enough time to take Arnie for a proper run (and in my mind, those two are given equal weight), he rubs my back and tells me that everything is going to be ok, that everything will work out, that there’s no need to worry.
And in those moments, I'm grateful for the men who write the poems I love, but I'm far, far more grateful for Brad, who is so unlike them and me, who can read a poem and find it nice, but not internalize it, not take it on as his own. It's a skill I'll never, ever have, but it's something I need to be close to, because it helps me make it through each day. He is rock, not river, touchstone, not flame. Without him, I'd be reduced to tears by the sight of the front page, by every report on NPR, by the thought of Arnie growing older, by the uncertainty of the future.
Sometimes I wonder why people suggest I read particular books. What in those pages makes them think of me? And what in me makes a certain character smack familiar?
It happens all the time. More than, “Oh, this was a good book, you should read it,” people seek me out and say, “I thought about you as I read this.” And I’ll smile and accept the recommendation or, sometimes, the book itself, and as I start reading, I'll think, “What? Why?” Because often, I see no connection. Often, I don’t like the book or main character, and I'll feel a bit awkward and confused about the whole thing.
But then, sometimes I read something that I want everyone to read. Something like a Billy Collins poem. Something equal parts light and dark, something that stops me, that sees me there at my desk, shaking my head in amazement that people can write openly, so well. And in those times I don’t stop to wonder why I want to share this thing, I just want to share it. I want everyone I know to feel as jarred into presence as I was by those words. Today was one of those times. I came across the poetry of Maria Mazzioti Gillan, and I couldn't stop reading it.
I couldn't wait to get home and post it here, so you could read it, too. It resonated so strongly for me, was so familiar, was so heartwarming...but then it occurred to me that without a little Italian American grandmother and an upbringing in a city of industry for reference, these poems might mean nothing. And I realized then that even if they fall on deaf ears, even if you look them over and say, "yeah, they're ok," I still needed to share them; I still wanted you to have the opportunity to see them for yourself. I'll start with this one:
AFTER SCHOOL ON ORDINARY DAYS - Maria Mazzioti Gillan
After school on ordinary days we listened
To The Shadow and The Lone Ranger
As we gathered around the tabletop radio
that was always kept on the china cabinet
built into the wall in that tenement kitchen,
a china cabinet that held no china, exceptcups and saucers,
thick and white and utilitarian, poor people’s cups
from the 5&10 cents store.
My mother was always home from Ferraro’s Coat factory
by the time we walked in the door
after school on ordinary days,and she’d give us milk with Bosco in it
and cookies she’d made that weekend.
The three of us would crowd around the radio,
listening to the voices that brought a wider world
into our Paterson apartment. Later
we’d have supper at the kitchen table,
the house loud with our arguments and laughter.
After supper on ordinarydays, our homework finished,
we’d play monopoly or gin rummy, the kitchen
warmed by the huge coal stove, the wind
outside rattling the loose old windows,
we inside, tucked in, warm and together,
on ordinary days that we didn’t know
until we looked back across a distance
of forty years would glow and shimmer
in memory’s flickering light.