Brattleboro: Coffee and the Meringue Queen

merigne

The view from the coffee shop window was perfect: a gentle, sloping, wide river lazily flowing between a set of old railroad tracks and a moderate hilltop covered in the greens, browns, and oranges of fall. I found myself hoping, almost desperately, that a train would go by and shake the building so that I could count the boxcars as they went by, the way I did as a child.

“In high school, everything is going to change. Even junior high is much more intense than middle school. I mean, when I was younger, I could just have fun, but now I have to get really serious about my studies. I either want to go into international relationships or one of the sciences, depending on how a few things go this year. I’m only in eighth grade, but my mother tells me that this is the time to get ready for the rest of my life. She feels like girls are the future. My dad agrees.”

I tried tuning out the loud voice behind me, turning back to my computer to focus n editing my novel. I’d finished my memoirs months before, but hadn’t taken any time to proofread and edit it down, and that was one of the major reasons I was here in Brattleboro, Vermont, taking a week in new spaces so that I could focus without distractions.

“I mean, look at everything happening in the world. There are so many terrible things! But that’s why girls have to step in and save the day. We make up half of the population and we simply have to step up and clean up the mess if we are going to save the future. First from this administration, then from the top down or the bottom up everywhere else. I think we can do it! And for me, it starts with my education. That’s why I wanted to meet with you. I’d like more female mentors to teach me along the way.”

Now I was intrigued. I turned me head to casually look at the table behind me. A young woman who looked about 20 years old (but who was only 14 by her own words) sat facing an older woman. The student with the loud voice was beautiful, blonde hair that hung to her shoulders, green sweater, gold necklace, no make-up. She looked like someone who would start in a Disney show for teens. The older woman had her back to me, but she had on a black felt hat and a black scarf, and she was hunched over a cup of steaming coffee. I turned away, eavesdropping a bit more. I couldn’t hear the older woman’s soft voice as she spoke, but I continued hearing the booming alto of the teenager.

“I love that you were a teacher. I love that you taught poetry! And I love that you were part of building this community out here. Maybe we could meet every other week or so and just talk? I would love to read your poetry and share mine with you and hear about your stories here. May I read one of my poems now?”

The girl then read a short poem about sweeping crumbs under a rug, then using the rug to cover an ancient stain on her floor, and then transitioned that into society’s mistakes being swept under the rug historically, finishing the thought that perhaps it is best to leave messes out in the open and try to clean them up instead of just hiding them. I was stunned. Suddenly a Garth Brooks’ song came on the radio, and I was distracted by the bizarre contract of his words with hers. “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers. Just because he doesn’t answer, doesn’t mean he don’t care.” That song now, during her impassioned speech about history, feminism, and owning mistakes? I couldn’t help but laugh as I turned my head, and the teen girl briefly made eye contact with me, clearly annoyed at my gaze. I turned back away, still smiling anyway.

The old woman spoke for a long while, and I got lost back in my book editing, but soon, the young woman was talking again, this time about her family.

“It’s me and my two brothers. I’m the oldest. My parents are really cool. We all contribute to meals. Like, my mom makes all the fish. Sockeye, bass, everything. I don’t like salmon much, but we do a lot of fish around the house. We use lots of vegetables, of course. Me, I’m the desert person. I love desserts. Always from scratch. I make French macaroons, and I use lots of berries. My favorite is meringue. I’m the meringue queen, I guess you could say. Did you know you could do meringue out of chick peas? It’s delicious.”

I looked across the table at my sister, who was sipping at her iced latte and reading a book. She attends an all girls’ college nearby, where her wife works in administration. A quarter of the all-female student population was international, and the school embraced transgender women as part of its student body. Hours before, we had checked into an Airbnb, where a female homeowner named Carol welcomed us, and we learned that she was a pastor at a local church. Next door to the coffee shop where I sat was a church with a giant rainbow banner proclaimed ‘God isn’t done speaking’. Just last night, I saw an online music video by Amanda Palmer that showcased incredible women saving the world through mothering, the final image of the video being Palmer herself pulling out a breast to feed a Donald Trump looking alike, soothing him to sleep as she took his phone and Twitter feed away. And behind me, a young feminist who loved poetry and meringue was seeking out a feminist mentor to learn the history of women.

As the two women behind me packed their bags to leave, I clicked on CNN to see the latest headlines. A tweet from Trump, who has been accused of sexual assault, shaming Al Franken for being accused of sexual assault. More allegations that all opposing news is “fake news”. More allegations against Roy Moore and Kevin Spacey. A massive oil spill. More Russian connections drawn toward Kushner and the Trump administration. Political revolution in Zimbabwe. A story about a homeless man posing with his wife’s corpse before dismembering her.

Literally every story about horrible men in power abusing that power and doing horrible things. I shuddered from exhaustion. Then I looked at my sister, then at the departing mentor and student, then back at the slowly flowing river, and I realized there is far more hope than the news headlines convey.

It would just make patience, trust, and a lot of strong voices working together.

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Burned

abinadi

I can see myself up there

High on a mountaintop

(“A banner is unfurled”

the familiar sing-song lyrics autoplay in my head

by rote

and I squelch them swiftly).

From such a vantage

I could view the entire valley

with perspective

and see all the corners and shadows

that have given me life.

In them, I would find my heritage,

equal parts handcart and homophobia.

 

The streets are quiet up here

Full of newly-weds and nearly-deads they say

because history is changing and people with it.

Those who built these sidewalks

are no longer the ones treading upon them.

 

The street signs bear Mormon names.

Zarahemla: fictional capital city,

Cumorah: hill full of secrets,

and Abinadi, a man I once admired

because he allowed himself to be burned to death.

 

My back is to the city now

and all is rustling leaves

and birdsong

and one lone cricket

and sunshine on my skin

and I think of how I was carried here

by pioneer women

and how I almost

let myself burn.

He Said

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he said

“You’re husband material,” he said, looking into my eyes with candor. “And I have a terrible habit of only falling for guys who are bad for me. So I’m not really interested in seeing you again.”

“I made a huge mistake,” he said, looking away. “Making out with you sent the wrong message because I don’t think you’re that cute. But maybe we can hang out again some time.”

“Chad was the one who got away,” he said to a friend, who later told me. “He was sweet and good-looking and actually wanted to date me. But he expected me to text back, to put in effort. I know he’s still single, but I’m just not ready for that kind of guy.”

“You’re the kind of guy I could move across the country for,” he said, with those blue eyes right on mine, “and you’ve accomplished so much. I can’t do this, not until I’m someone who’s done as much as you have.”

“You’re friends are crazy hot,” he said, eyes mischievous on the dance floor. “But they aren’t my type. I prefer guys like you, guys more average.”

“I like everything about you,” he said with a reassuring lopsided smile, “and there is nothing I would change. I could spend my life with you if you just change the following things about yourself.”

“I love you,” he said, with sincere eyes much too quickly, repeating it often and consistently until I believed him. Then one afternoon, he shrugged, averted his gaze, and said, “You know, I’m just not feeling it anymore.”

“If only I wasn’t married,” he said.

“If only I was younger,”  he said.

“If only you were younger,” he said.

“I’m not ready for kids,” he said.

“Can you bring your kids on our second date?” he said.

“You have nice skin but you have some work to do on your body,” he said.

“I might be busy for a month or two but maybe I’ll give you call some time,” he said.

“I only like older guys,” he said.

“I only like younger, skinny guys,” he said.

“I only like beefy bears,” he said.

“It’s only been three days, but do you want to be my boyfriend?” he said.

“You’re not Mormon enough,” he said.

“I don’t date ex-Mormons,” he said.

“I like you, but not as much as I like meth,” he said.

“I like you way too much way too soon,” he said.

“I’m just not ready to date someone again,”  he said.

“I’m just looking for sex,”  he said.

“You actually look good now, what changed?” he said.

“Don’t call me handsome, it makes me insecure,” he said.

“I’m ashamed of myself as a person,” he said.

“I’ve never dated a therapist. Do you think I have depression?” he said.

“I’m not capable of trusting another person again,” he said.

“Yo keep a lot hidden,” he said, his brown eyes focused on me intently. “It makes me wonder what you’re thinking. It makes me wonder about you. You seem like a great guy. I mean, how is a guy like you still single?”

 

 

 

 

Origin

 

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Zero

My mother wrote songs as she rocked me

Singing lyrics aloud, her eyes blue on mine brown

A song of the mother Mary rocking the Christ child

A lullaby that soothed until heavy eyelids closed in sleep.

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Five

We cut holes in shoeboxes

Then covered them in paper, pink and red mostly.

Scissors sliced thick paper into hearts and letters

While scented colored markers etched our names

In grape purple and lemon yellow and licorice black.

On super hero valentines,

I wrote To’s and From’s to each member of my class

Except I wrote two for Michael, the boy who made me laugh.

I liked-him-liked-him

The way Chris liked Michelle and Jason liked Desiree.

At the Valentines Party, I placed each small card in each small box

And two in Michael’s.

But I only wrote a From on one of his cards, leaving the other blank.

If I gave two to him, the other boys would know I was different.

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Fifteen

“You are indeed one of Heavenly Father’s choice sons.

Do not in any way disappoint Him.”

The patriarch spoke kindly, firmly,

A direct message from God to me on his breath.

Weeks before, when I had told the bishop my shameful secret,

the message had been the same, kind and firm.

“God loves you, He does not tolerate sin.”

The words of the prophets, kind and firm again.

“Pray, do everything God says, and He will cure you,

Make you straight,

Because He loves you.”

And so I ket my eyes just that, straight

Focused, unerring.

Dad was gone,

And my stepfather spoke with fists and angry words.

I was a fairy, he said. I would never measure up to a real man.

But God, He heard. I just couldn’t disappoint Him.

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twenty-seven

She looked at me sincerely, tears streaming down her face,

And asked why, why after six years of dating, we hadn’t kissed,

Hadn’t held hands, not even once.

I thought of the familiar excuses, used again and again,

About trying to be moral and righteous,

About saying it wasn’t just her, that I’d never kissed anyone,

Never held anyone’s hands.

Those were true words, but not the whole truth.

She needed the whole truth.

“I’m gay,” I said. “But I’m trying to cure it.”

And she didn’t mind. And so we kissed, finally.

There was affection and regard and kindness behind it,

If not chemical attraction,

And relationships had been built on less.

And for her the feelings were real.

And so, three months later, we married.

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thirty-two

The day my second son was born, I got that same sense

Of holding my entire world in my hands.

That word again, Fatherhood,

Overwhelming in its possibility, its responsibility.

Here, a new miracle, different from his brother in every way.

But this time, our lives were different.

Early drafts of divorce papers sat on the desk at home.

I was sleeping in the basement now,

And her heart was broken,

While mine, though sad, had come up for oxygen

After three decades of holding its breath.

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thirty-eight

Pen to paper, I think back on six years of firsts.

First authentic kiss.

First try at an authentic relationship

And first authentic heartbreak.

First time dancing, euphoric and free.

First friends, real friends, finally, friends.

First realization that I like myself, powerfully,

And that I have no need to be cured of something that was never wrong.

First freedoms, from religion and deadly self-expectations.

I live now, loudly.

My sons thrive in two households, and they will tell anyone who asks

That their mother likes boys who like girls

And their father likes boys who like boys.

They are thriving, and smiling, and real.

And so is she.

And so am I.

Bully

Bullybully

When I was 9, I consoled a girl from my class on the school bus
About her recent break-up.
“How could he do that to you?” I patted her back.
“You deserve so much better.”

Deep down, I wanted to be that boy,
The one who broke her heart, who tossed her aside.
The popular and callous straight boy who didn’t have to hide.

He confronted me on the same bus the next day.
Told me to stay away from his girl.
He, smaller in every way,
Told me to watch out at recess,
That I was a nerd
And that he had more hair on his balls than I ever would.

How strange that it took so many years to offer myself the same words.
“How could he do that to you?”
“You deserve so much better.”

the unintentional hypocrite

door

before i went on my first date with a man, i did marriage counseling for dozens and dozens of couples

before i knew what i wanted to do with my life, i successfully completed six years of college with a 3.8 grade point average

before i considered myself authentic, i wrote hundreds of pages of journal entries and poems exploring my soul

before i knew how to tell my story, i published a book

before i had my first real kiss, i had a successful marriage to a woman, and everyone thought we were the perfect couple

before i knew what being mentally healthy was, i was the director of a community mental health center

before i understood my own spirituality, i completed a two year dedicated missionary service and baptized several into the faith i was born into

before i understood how to take care of myself, i was taking care of two sons who required my everything

before i lived well, i merely lived

 

 

The Silver Sea

Tonight
The sea turned silver
The boiling sun
Took refuge behind a mass of opaque clouds
As yellow light spilled from its edges
In life-giving tendrils

With only a slight shift in vantage
I stood in a scattered crowd of humans
And saw the earth curve
A long arc across the horizon

Unconquerable ocean rolled forth endlessly
Walls of it smashing
Into the ground beneath me
Slowly and incessantly wearing it down

Rushing water drowned all sound
The guitars, the children,
The motors and tinny radios,
The fragile thumping hearts

And the humans stood as one
Facing west
Looking toward the circular world
As pin-prick stars
And spreading shadows
And salt-soaked wind
And whispering water
Held their weight.

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inversion skies

inversion1

the flying flag flutters

the white of its alternating stripes blending into the

still white polluted sky behind it

the air is thick with the smoke that blankets the city

the exhaust fumes from cars and factories

drift upward

seamless and indistinguishable

raindrops in the smoggy ocean above

stark black telephone wires divide the expanse

small birds dot the rooftops on the horizon

finding no safety in their numbers

and haunting electric lights glow and struggle to be seen

 

I view this through cracked glass

the interior world behind me reflecting back

distorting the sounds and sights of

brewing coffee and blasting heat and lulling piano

into a soft shimmer on the window

 

this atmosphere dwells in my head my heart my gut my lungs

my fingers clutch a pen tightly

and I remember the color blue

and the heat of the sun

and the gulping of fresh clear oxygen

inversion2

Understanding New York City

nyc1

I’ve walked the edges of New York City, and right through the center.

I’ve left my footfalls on sidewalks, over high bridges, in underground tunnels.

Yet the city eludes me.

I gather puzzle pieces, individual experiences, and cram them together,

trying for the full picture.

The small Asian woman ordering passersby into her shop. “You come inside, now.”

The lithe black woman, unnoticed, singing songs of the city in a public park. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”

The wheelchair-bound man, blanket pulled over his head, snoring loudly, all of his possessions in a pack tied to his feet.

The perfectly sculpted 20-something walking six dogs, practicing his monologues aloud. “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we of might win by fearing to attempt.”

The red-tied man, donut and coffee in hand, negotiating loudly over cell phone while he thunders down the steps. “Time is money. Buy, buy, buy.”

nyc2

This city, in all its scope and slope and texture.

Penthouses scraping skylines, rats scurrying over subway tracks, Broadway ballads, melted cheese, flashing neon, dirty rivers, Tower of Babel-levels of spoken confusion, shined shoes with mud in the treads.

 

This city, that must be lived in transitions:

waiting to be discovered… to demanding discovery

struggle and survival… to testing personal resolve

paying too much for too little… to being paid too little for too much

 

This city, where being stepped on is appreciated, where hustling is a way of life, where living the dream means doing long past the point of wanting to do.

 

This city, where symbols of freedom cast shadows on systems of injustice.

And both, and all, must be seen and expected.

 

And that’s New York.

nyc3

 

absolutely electric

Lightning1.jpg

In my most powerful moments
when lightning flashes outward from my fingers, toes, and eyes
and I float evenly in the center
kept aloft in the night sky
seeing over every horizon
in those moments, I am
limitless
bulletproof
invincible
free
I rise higher, willfully
with clouds at my feet
absolutely electric
in time
I grow chilled
and lonely
and weary of the winds and jets and birds
and I return
to mud, to dirt
to safe holes in familiar glens
to roots and dust
to burrowing aphids
to warm damp subterranean space
and there, safe, I dig my toes into the soil
and I sing into the darkness
hearing the life forms plodding on the ground above me.
they have no idea I’m here
not until I’m ready
again
for the sun and song of the surface.