Death Toll

When the snow comes we stay in the house
with mugs of strong tea and honey,
fleece and flannel, buffalo plaid and log-cabin quilts,

The fire burns steady, kettle set to simmer,
it mists the air like hot breath against a pane of glass
jackfrosted opaque.

We press our fingers to the frozen edge, co-mingle
our heat with the last light of the day.

In the quiet golden corner El Tio sits before his ledgers,
turning a pale green page to scan the names
of all who asked for one last solstice,

one last feast of Epiphany, scheduling payment,
sending invoices, tallying his bottom line by candlelight,
he calculates the weight of souls and payroll

for the psychopomp, holding out his cup to us
that we might fill it from the kettle one more time.

Holiday

After a week of grey skies and near-constant drizzle, the first of January is bright and blue, the air so crisp it snaps.

In a little while I’m going downtown to a church, where a handful of us will spend a few hours brining vast amounts of locally-grown garlic in the big kitchen, and bringing home jars of it to grace our pantries and flavor our cooking for the next little while.

Brining is simple and straightforward and inexpensive — salt + water + herbs if you want to get fancy — and the end product looks nice in its mason jar and keeps for months. It’s a nice project for the first day of the new year.

It’s a holiday in these parts, New Year’s Day, and so I get to suspend my job hunt for the next few days, as the holiday and the weekend combine for one last pause before we make our official launch into 2016.

I’ve been looking for work since leaving my ill-fated job at a local Montessori school in November, which doesn’t seem like that long ago, does it, though it feels like a lifetime.

It was a bad fit, that job, and it paid poorly, and made me so terribly sad, all those children trying to get through the day, most of them wanting nothing more than to be reunited with their parents. Three weeks in I came down with some sort of respiratory thing that I suspect was pneumonia, though I was too broke to go to a clinic for a diagnosis. Also too broke to take more than a single sick day, since we weren’t paid for those, and one day’s pay was all I could afford to lose. So I never really got better, just less worse, recouping some of my energy over the weekend only to see it dissipate midway through the following week. Three months of this was all I could take.

It’s scary to leave a job without another job lined up, but I had three part-time gigs to keep me afloat, and once I was no longer spending my days amid the biohazard of preschool culture, my good health returned, along with my energy.

Then one-two-three, the part-time gigs all fell apart.

Right before Christmas, which I don’t really celebrate, but still.

Suffice it to say, it’s been a somewhat anxious stretch.

Which is one reason I found myself this past Monday sitting on a little round zafu in the spare office of a lawyer friend who offers meditation practice three times a week. “Lawyering is such a head game,” he told me, his fingers tapping his temples. “This brings me back down into my heart.”

There were three of us in attendance that day. We sat, we focused on our breath. We called our minds back from their inevitable wandering. Called them back again.

I went into the room preoccupied, and in all honesty I was back to feeling preoccupied within an hour of leaving. But the time in between was a holiday. It wasn’t exactly free from anxiety, but it was a respite.

Holiday. Holy day. Sanctuary.

During our meditation my lawyer friend suggested we count ten breaths, slowly, staying with the breath, staying focused. “If you lose track, just start again,” he said, and I wondered how one could lose track counting from one to ten.

I followed my breath, I counted. And somewhere between six and seven, my mind wandered. I lost track.

I started again.

This week I have an interview with a small local company, doing a job for which I’m well-suited and would probably enjoy quite a lot. Meanwhile there is garlic to brine, and a blue sky above. One day at a time.

Happy new year.

Home Maintenance

I’ve been putting off changing the furnace filter.

In home maintenance canon, that’s like skipping oil changes for your car. Not smart, but in my defense, the furnace is in the cellar, and the cellar is pretty much just a deep dark hole scooped from red dirt, full of shadowy edges and cobwebby corners and assorted mouse bones and other unpleasantness. It’s an old house. They didn’t do poured concrete basements in 1860.

Alas, cold weather has arrived, and with it the memories of the winter the furnace went out not once but repeatedly, until it was properly repaired by a proper repair person who schooled me in the importance of good furnace maintenance. I’m not saying the schooling was particularly effective, but this morning there were heavy grey skies outside and visions in my head of space heaters and thermal underwear and heavy socks and standing in front of the open oven door to get warm, and no, no, I can’t put if off any longer. The furnace depends on me.

It depends on me.

I wear rubber shoes to do the job. The cellar used to flood with some regularity, especially after a sustained rain, and it’s been raining here most of the past week, a persistent cold rain that will seep into your bones, not to mention your cellar, and draw off all warm thoughts of pumpkin spice and sugarplum fairies. Even though there hasn’t been any cellar flooding since I had the house’s gutters replaced 18 months ago, I long ago habituated to a puddled floor. Plus, I don’t like surprises, especially in places all dark and cobwebby. So: rubber shoes.

Surprise: the dirt floor is dry, but there is something over there next to the furnace, a suspicious dark mound that looks a lot like scat. Rather large scat, as a matter of fact, considerably more than what might be left by, say, your average Midwestern house-invading raccoon.

It is disconcerting.

I lean in to take a closer look.

Relief: it is not scat. It is a small dead creature, dark and furry and desiccated. A vole, perhaps, curled into a ball, rigid in death. I nudge it with the toe of my rubber shoe and it topples sideways. I can see its front feet now, the tiny finger-like digits, and a tail not quite furry but not bare like a mouse tail. Definitely a vole. I direct it with my shoe into a shadowy corner, behind a piece of rotting plank, next to a dirt-crusted cinder block, where it can continue to decompose in peace.

At the furnace I pull out the old, dusty filter and replace it with the sparkly clean new one. I carry the old filter upstairs and out the back door to the trash bin, where I fold it in half and stuff it down into the bin. On the way back inside I leave my rubber shoes on the porch.

Point of fact: the entire enterprise has taken about four minutes, including the time needed to inspect the mysterious mound and toe it aside. It’s taken longer to describe it to you, and far, far longer to consider doing it and deciding not to, again and again, for weeks on end.

Procrastination is irrational. I am irrational. Q.E.D.

That winter when the furnace wouldn’t work properly, the technician who came to repair the thing (properly) showed me a carpet of animal hair he’d extracted from it.

“Change the filter every month,” he said.

“Yes,” I said. “I will. Every month.”

But I don’t. Instead I buy three-month filters (“Doesn’t matter,” the tech said when I told him this. “You have cats. Change it every month.”) He told me to mark it on my calendar, so I do. I choose a date, make a notation: “Δff.” Then the date comes and goes and I don’t “Δff.”

I’m a little slow with the oil changes, too.

It’s a common failing, this habit of postponing the small stuff until it threatens to become bigger stuff. I don’t even know why I’m telling you, except that I felt so triumphant when I came back upstairs with that dirty furnace filter in hand, and triumphs have been so few these past several months that I wanted to share that feeling with you, embedded though it may be in something bigger, something about the cellar where I’d rather not go, and the small creatures who dwell there completely unbeknownst to me, who appear unexpectedly, creatures I can (sometimes) nudge back into the shadows with the toe of my shoe, in order that I might get on with my life.

Dust II

We walked across this desert once,
red dirt rising to meet us,
the impressions made by our bared soles
no more lasting than the thin light of dawn
unzipping earth from sky. I remember
standing with you on this spot, do you
remember this spot, where we met the ones
we might have been and the ones we never could be,
and the shadows grew long behind us
and rose tall to meet us
and we looked beneath this small red rock
and saw our dust there, gathering.

Dust Filter

I don’t know what to call this filter through which I’m seeing the world right now. Maybe it’s dust.

Maybe it’s fear.

Maybe I am in The Waste Land. (Come in under the shadow of this red rock.)

I’ve taken a job I’m not particularly suited for (to put it mildly) that places me in a dirt-and-pebble-filled children’s playground for nearly half of my eight-hour workday, five days a week. It has not rained in any measurable amount in these parts for over a month, and copious amounts of dust are kicked into the air by flying feet and tumbling bodies. By the end of the week my lungs feel like those of a pugilist with a pack-a-day cigarette habit. Battered and bruised.

Last week I got truly sick from it. And now I fear it.

On the drive into town each morning I pass fields of corn and soybeans gone brown, the giant tillers turning under the remains of this year’s harvest, raising rooster-tails of bone-dry earth in their wake.

Where is the rain?

In honor of yet another presidential campaign season, I have turned off the news. Whatever fresh hell is headed our way can be dealt with when it gets here. Meanwhile, I have decided to sell everything I own and make my way elsewhere. I will not sit out the apocalypse, or the 2016 election, or my impending crone years, in this place.

Ambitious plan, and I am only me, so it will take some time. Meanwhile, I try to write, and the dust (fear) clouds my vision, and the words come out all wrong.

Plus I’m still sick. And so it goes.

Driving

“The lure of the distant and the difficult is deceptive. The great opportunity is where you are. Don’t despise your own place and hour. Every place is the center of the world.”

John Burroughs

Driving along I-75, skirting Daniel Boone National Forest and the foothills of Appalachia, I shared the road with more fellow travelers than I’d anticipated. It was a Sunday, and I thought it would be just me out there. But no: lots of tractor-trailers and minivans and pickup trucks, all of us going wherever we were going in a great big hurry.

I had a pile of cds on the seat beside me. Yes, yes. Anachronism. Me and my media. One day cds may be charming, in the retrograde sort of way vinyl is today, but right now they brand me as a laggard on the great upgrade continuum. O well. It’s not like I’m the only one. Last month I went to a barn concert with my friend Claire, whose car — a Volvo station wagon, circa 1990 — features a cassette player. Cassettes are teetering on the edge of charming again, at least for a certain cohort, but like the mix-tape relationships they represent, they are fickle. When Claire inserted a tape and nothing happened, she pressed the eject button and discovered that her garage-sale Modest Mouse cassette had unspooled all over the insides of her player.

Anyway, driving. Listening to Tom Waits, to Nancy Griffith, to an old Putumayo sampler, having my emotions tugged this way and that by the sounds coming out of my speakers as the hills transformed from the deep blue of the early morning to lush dense green as the day wore on.

Driving is not meditative in any real sense. Too much is demanded of the body, of the senses; it is typically tiring, not revivifying. But it does allow a sort of suspension of the quotidian, holding you in that interstitial space between here and there for a nice bit of time. I often feel, when I’m driving a long distance, that some part of my brain will have things all figured out when I get to where I’m going.

It hasn’t happened yet, but perhaps I just need to drive a little farther. Just a little farther, still.

Scratch

What do you do when the thing you’ve been doing doesn’t work for you anymore? If it ever worked at all. This is what I’m wondering.

I like the word “scratch.” It’s a noun: what the cat will give you when you annoy her. It’s a verb: what you do to get relief from an itch. It’s a slang term for money. It connotes beginnings and basics, as in starting from scratch, and baking from scratch.

I was making up a little recipe book the other day, a gift for a friend. A couple of the recipes I included require a food processor, and it occurred to me to wonder, does she have one of those? Another one calls for an immersion blender. Hello?

Even in recipes there is privilege, there are assumptions.

I have a food processor, an immersion blender. So I’m not starting from scratch, per sé. But I am leaving a work situation that has pulled me for the past two years down a path of depletion. The predictable end is less a bang than a whimper. My finances are exhausted, my energy is spent.

That’s another word that resonates: spent.

I wrestle with the fallacy of sunk costs. Also called throwing good money after bad, and, in gambling circles, chasing your losses. It refers to the often-inexplicable human tendency to keep on keeping on, even when every indicator says you really need to not do this anymore.

(cf. climate change; also, bad romance.)

So I’m not going to do it anymore, that job that doesn’t work, that never really worked except in my Palace of Magical Thinking.

Now I’m in the other part of the castle, the less lovely part, where it’s a bit damp and full of shadow and uncomfortably close to starting from scratch, and I’m not liking it so much.

Still, I have two books that are approaching completion. One is a new poetry collection, tentatively titled The Breakup Poems and Other Attempts to Address This Ridiculously Dysfunctional Life (jk, sort of). The other is a book about my coffeehouse, the one I started when I first moved to the Midwest. I’m calling that one Mud River, which is the name of my publishing company, which was itself named after the little newsletter I used to print (on paper! c’est vrai!) when I ran that coffeehouse.

All my life’s a circle. Harry Chapin said that.

If you’d like to help me get these books across the finish line, you can make a donation to the Fund to Keep the Poet Fed, for which I will be most grateful. You can also leave a comment on this post, which is nourishing in its own right.

Thank you.