you should end back at the center where you started.
all things should return neatly to their place.
i want you to be tender with what remains.
the absence of love leaves no fossils.
your hunger will not return to the earth.
to decay, first understand
the feeling of palm against flesh.
first have something to leave behind.
something you want them to know about.
i am on my knees in the dirt.
i am burying my tenderness - i keep a little
for myself, my friends, the earth.
the shovel sings hard and cold.
i understood rot by understanding growth.
i am sure someone will be here some day.
at the axis of the end.
where love and death intersect
if indeed they ever cease to do so.
to have my hand, you must have one of your own.
get dressed next to me in the mirror.
i understood complexity by knowing simplicity.
how every color makes up the next.
i am not sure you will be here tomorrow.
tonight the air is fragile and the sky bold.
we exist as a handful of everything.
exhale onto your palm and spread me across the world.
despite myself, i want to see it all.
i want to walk into the darkness
and bring back souvenirs for your nightstand.
you should end back at the center where you started.
with your body three-dimensional.
existing in the plane of existence.
and the sky will be bottle-green tonight.
and the hands we will hold, only now alive.
sinew beneath flesh above bone.
New Year, 2022
A pendant streetlight hung in fog
above the melting snow.
It lit bare treetops in the dark
that shadowed ground below.
As midnight party blared within,
I stood on porch without.
Some distant fireworks cracked and popped;
nearby I heard some shouts.
There’s Pete and Miley in Miami,
Ryan, Big Boi in New York.
A flashing ball, shrimp cocktails, all
the flying bubbly corks.
But I most cherish fog alone,
its simple, living peace
a fitting closing for this year:
a quiet prayer – release.
“To find the journey’s end in every step of the road...is wisdom.” - Emerson
I wrote my first historical fiction when I was eleven, about 15 handwritten pages that each contained a chapter with a different narrator. All lived around Johnstown, Pennsylvania in 1889, and each witnessed an event attached to the flood that destroyed the town. The sixth-grade teacher who oversaw the writing club was deeply impressed. That story, now lost, represents my first writing. I choose it for my origin because I had never before put so much effort into a piece of writing, or experimented with a narrative in any way, or put written anything I would later remember. Since my first novel (in-progress) is also historical fiction, recollecting my Johnstown flood story also feels like drawing a circle.
It is a circle with several missing pieces and drawn over many years, though. In high school I wrote some poetry and in early college some short stories (hopefully unremembered by anyone, as they were awful), and then I did not write anything for a long time. I never took a creative writing class. Five or six years after graduation I picked at an abortive attempt at a novel for a few months; a couple years after that I labored on an essay that I submitted to a few journals, but I understood too little about both writing and publication to succeed. In the years after that piece, I dabbled with ten-minute plays.
In all these phases, I hoped for an editor to accept my work for publication. I have never expected to make a living with writing – I am a teacher, and happily so – but I wanted validation and an audience. Those desires, in hindsight, missed the point of writing because I valued the goal above the process.
Writing has provided me with a place of escape and control. I resumed writing in October 2019, and when March and the pandemic struck, writing became vital in ways I had not expected. It provided me with an ongoing project when so many aspects of life had ceased, and with time eddying endlessly and case counts swallowing attention and energy, writing presented a solvable puzzle. A sentence must be rearranged, a paragraph shortened; a bit of description must slow the pacing of the dialogue, or a word switched to further shade the phrase’s meaning. A story is unlocked one absorbing step at a time, and entering into this work with all my mind brings a clarity and a freshness that I treasure.
My writing goals have changed. I received the publication I sought: I’ll confess that valuing the process over the prize became a great deal easier with that particular primate wrested from my back. I have stories and poems still looking for homes and currently under review by editors; I hope they find the light of day soon, but beyond my willingness to prep more submissions, that is out of my control. I have 68,000 words of a projected 90,000 words of that novel written, and I want to finish. I anticipate writing the final sentences of The Ghosts on the Glass early in the summer of 2022. I’ll spend the remainder of the summer editing and sending out my first queries to agents. I do not know what will happen, but I will take my shot. Perhaps stars will align and a press will publish my novel; perhaps my search will end a couple years and dozens of rejections later, and I will publish myself. Regardless, the experience has been a rewarding one, and I will have received no less pride and no fewer moments of calm and clearness from my writing.
Feelings - update
Lately, life has been for the kids too afraid to grow up. The ones who sit on the swings on their elementary school playground, wishing time would freeze. The girl who just got into her dream school, who suddenly wishes she could go back to sleep. The group of boys taking off their jerseys, never to play a high school football game again. It’s bittersweet; it melts on your tongue.
Life has been suns setting and steam rising, the smell of fragrant new beginnings mixing with the lost scent of a fabric softener you haven’t used in five years. It’s funny how long we spend wishing for things to change, and when they do, we freeze.
I made a fresh loaf in our bread machine Sunday night. My wife and I were closing out our long Thanksgiving weekend with some good cheese and red wine, and the warm bread tasted very pleasant. I had not used the bread machine in a while, but it got a great deal of use in the spring of 2020, when every trip to the sparsely-stocked grocery store felt like running a gauntlet. I thought back to those times as I measured the two-and-a-half teaspoons of yeast; the memories invested our clink of glasses an hour later with extra meaning. For my family, as of December 1, the pressing phase of the pandemic is over.
I do not mean that COVID-19 is gone, or that all risk has disappeared: Delta and Omicron are out there, and “endemic” means we will all get it at some point. Certainly, the pandemic continues to affect numerous facets of life and will for some time. We still wear masks. All the same, Wednesday afternoon marked an end of sorts because my daughters received their second doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and I feel that I have done my duty. I worked to avoid spreading COVID-19 until those for whom I was responsible could be vaccinated; I succeeded.
I felt responsible for my parents and my wife’s parents, all of whom are in good health, but who are old enough to be at risk: they are all fully vaccinated and have received their boosters. I am responsible for my wife and children, all the more so because as a high school teacher, I am the most exposed member of the family: we are all vaccinated, and my wife and I have received our boosters. I am responsible for the well-being of my students: they are not all vaccinated (I don’t know how many are, and it’s not my business), but they all could be if they and their families choose for them to be.
Emotionally, I struggled the most with safeguarding my students. When our school reopened in September 2020—on a hybrid remote and in-person schedule so as to have half as many students in the building—I could not escape the feeling of impending doom. My colleagues and I guessed at how long we could stay open before cases shut us down: one said two weeks, a lot said a month. I guessed two months, reasoning that the first long weekend would lead to travel and positives brought home to our rural county. Universally, we expected the closure to come any day, and I lived in fear of it. I tried to avoid contact with others because I feared that I would be the one who would shut down the school. If I got COVID-19, how many staff members might I force into quarantine? Roughly sixty students would have had to quarantine: sixty students who could not attend school or work jobs, or watch younger siblings so their parents could work. Sixty students to whom I could pass the virus, who would (in all likelihood) be fine themselves, but who might live with an immune-compromised parent or a grandparent, whom I might kill.
I remember the moment when it became clear that I was not alright, because I posted to Prose about it. I have a beautiful view outside my classroom window: the athletic field in front of a hillside with many trees, which in autumn blaze their colors in the morning sun. The news had reported several new positives in the county that day, and I tried to see the hillside, tried to feel and love it. I wrote this haiku:
Cases are spiking here.
September leaves, fence,
hillside in the morning sun,
sky: you must hold this.
Steuben County, New York - 9/25/2020
Beautiful things are talismans. The moments of peace and love they inspire can stave away anxiety and fear. Encounters with beauty keep me whole, and when I lose my capability for that feeling, I’m in a rough place. When my wife miscarried years ago, I wrote in a journal, “I feel no joy in the trees.” That feeling of disconnection passed, though; the COVID anxiety did not.
I sought counseling. I never had before, but I needed help dealing with that weight. It helped.
My wife and I missed our regular visits with our parents, none of whom live in our state. I know people who would not see their older parents at all until vaccinations, and on the other hand, people who went on visiting throughout the pandemic as though all were normal: neither pole was an option for us. I wanted to be cautious and avoid endangering the older people in my life, but going many months on end without seeing a loved one is its own kind of risk. Days are finite.
We decided on a middle ground. Throughout 2020, we saw our parents only under tightly controlled circumstances: we would hole up for ten days without going anywhere, even the grocery store, and if we were symptom-free after that, we would be together like in the old days. We would see one another’s faces mask-free. We would hug. Once school began, we did not visit until January: the winter break permitted nine days out of the classroom before a visit, which we deemed close enough. This was not a perfectly safe approach, of course: there is no perfectly safe approach. It was the risk we all calculated we were willing to take, and it worked out alright.
A lot worked out alright. I did not shut down the school. No one did: there were quarantines a-plenty, but we made it through the year, open every day except two (while admin got the hang of contact tracing). It was not a normal year, but there was school, and it was good. I was exposed to COVID-positive students four times that year, and I had to quarantine and isolate from my family twice, but through a combination of good fortune and safety protocols, I never contracted and spread COVID.
I got my first Moderna dose in January 2021, the second four weeks later. (If I hadn’t, Public Health would have instructed me to isolate from my family after those last two exposures, too.) By the time spring break rolled around, my wife and our parents were fully vaccinated as well. We visited at will again, and thus regained our biggest portion of normal.
In the summer, we flew to visit friends in Colorado. My wife and I went to a Denver jazz club with them; it was the first live performance of anything I had attended in sixteen months, and I wept. My daughters got their first PCR tests and used the negative results to check in at sleepaway Girl Scout Camp for a week. They acted in Charlotte’s Web with our community theatre group. When September came, they returned to school every day, and they began attending extracurricular classes for ceramics and tap dancing; I’ve passed the time during their lessons writing at a typically-uncrowded brew pub. Masked, and with every audience member over 12 providing proof of vaccination, we have attended tours of Broadway musicals that were a very long time coming. All of which is to say, we have been happily living our nearly-normal lives because life had to resume. And now, my kids are vaccinated.
The Northeast winter and holidays mean a spike is coming, and the vaccines are not full-proof. Breakthrough cases have been widely reported for months. But as has also been reported, up-to-date vaccines have provided meaningful protection against the worst outcomes. Personally, I have known vaccinated individuals who contracted COVID who merely had unpleasant colds, and other vaccinated individuals who felt pretty sick. For that matter, I’ve known unvaccinated individuals for whom COVID-19 meant nothing more than an unpleasant cold. But I’ve also known an unvaccinated woman in her thirties with previous lung problems who lacked the breath to speak on the phone and spent a week unconscious on a ventilator. I’ve known an unvaccinated 50-year-old runner of marathons who for more than a week stayed in bed until 1:00 pm because he lacked the breath to walk to his kitchen. I’ve been acquainted with three people who died from COVID-19: two who died before anyone could get vaccines, and one who died having chosen not to get one.
I also know someone who contracted COVID in October 2020 who still cannot taste food. That is what I feared as much as anything: long haul COVID. Lacking the ability to taste that celebratory wine, cheese, and bread with my wife is unfathomable to me. Putting aside all other negative outcomes possible from the disease—you know, like death—the potential impact on taste alone would have been enough for me to get the vaccine. Statistically, my children were always highly unlikely to die from COVID, and I never really feared it. But I did not want to disable them. Their vaccinations are not guarantees that they’ll avoid long haul COVID, but it’s meaningful protection that they can have, and it gives us a more confident freedom than we had before.
This is not to say that everything is the way it was. Most school and community activities have returned, but not all. I’ve been teaching in a mask to masked high school students all year; my honest take is that I’m indifferent to the cloth on our faces. Students are working in groups more often this year. I no longer feel crushing personal responsibility for their wellbeing, or the wellbeing of the people in their lives. Their health is in their own hands and out of mine—to my immense relief. I protected them as best I could and restricted my own life while they had no option aside from trusting me. Now, the option is theirs and their families’, and they will calculate the odds for themselves just as we calculated ours.
The most significant COVID impact on my family at present is who we can see. Some of our closest friends are caregivers for cancer patients, and they’ve determined they cannot take the risk of spending time with others. In their places, I would make the same choice. When we see them again, if we see them again, it will be outdoors when the weather turns warm in April. We try to keep in touch. I hope they are well.
For now, we have plans again. A long weekend trip, a performance of Hadestown in New York, a vacation to Yellowstone with my parents. Group activities. Hugging those we love and breaking bread. Giving thanks.
ap lit assignment but make it sapphic
and so the leaves have turned to gold today
yet their beauty cannot match your two eyes
so i'll stand here, asking you to please, stay-
and we'll gaze together at the cold skies
under the passing clouds and the sun's sway
i am on my way to you yet again
imagining you on the seat across
from me, smiling at strangers on the train
the one that goes to the upper west side
the one i know you will never see
this room is too warm for the two of us
the walls are closing in on me and you
you pull me closer, closer, and closer
it's too much and not enough- our hands touch
we swing together like no one's watching
this is me trying to make you fall in love
it doesn't matter if you are or not-
you'll never say it- at least not to me
so we'll keep dancing, but only for now
it's not fair, but i'm sorry anyway
for what? for falling half in love with you
he is like a god, who sits next to you
and makes you laugh, while i can only stare
johnny finds oblivion, and goes back home
it’s all an act.
our hair, i mean. the way it falls, i mean.
nobody knows it better than God, except
maybe his lonely neighbor who watches
every morning as he pulls it from his scalp.
there’s an old country song i made up just now,
where a lonely warbling woman rasps on
about the end of the world.
there is a great deal of loneliness in this poem.
it has already been mentioned two times. this poem
has holes and so all the loneliness of the world
has unfortunately began to leak in. (that’s three)
in this song about the end of the world
we were still fixing our hair. you see,
everything is already ending all the time.
we just go on wading through it,
knee deep in the muck and not a bit hopeless.
in this song there were birds, and nobody
understood this bit, why the birds were there,
living their bird lives while the rest of us
were handed an ending, and too soon.
we held it in our hands, like a corpse.
we could not fly, and this is why the birds.
someone wanted to remind us
our hope is a home-grown thing
unfeathered and without a loud call
sung into the morning.
at the end of the street the world could end.
where the road gets uneven and the fence
bears its chain-link teeth the world will end.
or he will fall in love.
or nothing will happen at all,
even with him standing there,
and nobody will build a monument
to this unmonumental moment,
and the old country song on the radio
will go on singing about the birds.
perhaps all of this at once.
perhaps the world will end
and we will just be making do.
the loneliest thing
is watching the birds from the window
(four times) and wondering how they met.
how they all decided they were meant to be.
that they would dance and sing in unison.
i found out the world was ending
when i was only thirteen.
so of course, i fixed my hair.
i went to the park,
i fed the pigeons. i placed kindness
gently in the mouth of my demise.
all this is to say,
today the end and tomorrow the end.
and tomorrow the birds.
close your eyes. it’s all happening already.
You pour the sun, the
rain, the land itself into
a glass, wring the last
red drop, too precious
to fall aside. Hands toiled
for this moment,
migrant hands for
pennies to the pound,
deft and rapid and
sweating with the work so
the vintner can mash and
measure and blend the barrels
so they taste just so, age
just so, at 55 degrees
for a decade or more behind
the cork you pop to release
the planting, the harvest,
the past to your glass: