Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Go gently, love, and soft

Go gently, love, and soft,
Wake not the sleeping lion,
But steal by in light slippers
Wearing tenderness like a knitted shawl.

Go gently, love, and soft,
Step through the river lightly,
Letting it part around you and rush on by—
Try not to gather up the water
But rather let it slip through your parted fingers
Blessing its sweet caress.

Go gently, love, and soft.
Near not the precipices of your soul,
Not today. Not today.
Walk safe paths, build a small cairn with fallen rock,
And offer up a prayer
for courage, gentleness, and peace.
Go gently, love, and soft.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

grace, or a story I tell on certain occasions

On certain occasions, more times than I can remember now, I have
sat with other women telling the stories of violence attempted or done
to us at the hands of certain men and there is a kind of grace just in the
telling and the hearing and the praise we offer each other for surviving
such things and going on, but when such rites occur, I also often tell this
story, which is not my story, but a true story nonetheless:

Two young women were visiting Cambodia and one night they stayed late
at a friend’s house and then hailed motorbike taxis to take them home. And
the drivers they hailed were evil men who had formulated a plan, and they
drove in separate directions in the dark so that the girls would lose their way.
And one girl knew instantly that the way was wrong and she threw herself off
of the back of the motorbike and was saved. But the other girl was not the sort
who paid much attention to strange places, so she did not notice that she was
being taken to a new part of the city, did not notice for a long time that she was
being taken, until the city suddenly fell away and they were on a road in the dark.
And then she hoped for the best, for she did not know her way home. And finally
they stopped, at the door of a brothel, and she knew it somehow for a place of evil
and said she would not go in, and then he drove away into a dark field and then stopped
the motorbike and fell upon her and she fought him, harder than he had expected,
and he grew afraid and released her and ran to his motorbike and drove away. And
she rose from that field in a strange land and began to walk in the dark and then she
saw a light, a candle in the window of a small wooden house. And she climbed the
stairs and she knocked and a middle-aged Cambodian woman opened the door, and
looked at the bruises on the girl’s face, and let her in. She stayed that night in the
house of the woman, and they had no language between them, but the woman sat
the girl down before her and took a brush and brushed her hair for a long long time.

I think that perhaps the image of grace does not get any stronger, any purer, than this,
than a woman in a small wooden house
on a dark night, brushing the hair of a stranger who
needed her. And I tell this story time and again so that those of us who did not
have anyone to take us in and comfort us in the aftermath of violence
can imagine what it would have been like if we did,
if we could only have had a mother’s hands in our hair,
taking all the fear and the anger and the shame away,
one slow stroke at a time.

Sunday, 16 September 2007


Yesterday was Mexican Independence Day and I walked to my Mexican friends' flat in the wind and the rain and climbed the stairs and ate flan and drank rather a lot of tequila with five humans and two beloved guinea pigs--the pigs, refraining from the liquor, ate strange woody pellets instead... And I am sure that the evening's conversation turned political at times, but since those times were in Spanish, which I don't speak, I couldn't follow, but this morning I dragged out this poem I post below, written by Vidal de Nicolas, once a political prisoner in Burgos jail--in Argentina, maybe? Clearly, I should turn to someone else's words this morning, and these are words that ring in the heart for a long time after...

A Wish

That son of Cain, let him have no more power
to loose his fury on the unfettered spring
or deal death to the kiss.
Let hatred be restrained from flooding
the pristine margins of the air.
Let knives become impotent against swallows, and the assassin
powerless to garrotte the dawn.
May war never again
batter the skulls of newborn babes, or sever
the exultant arteries of a man.
Let poisoned fangs and pistols
and slavering jaws be done away,
and nevermore let frenzy lash us
with its insensate waves.

Let nothing remain but a love
as vast as all the oceans,
pouring like a cataract across the pupils
of our eyes, flooding the planets,
filling the songs of poets everywhere.

And here is a kingfisher, for it was high time one turned up here--and may birds like this tiny malachite kingfisher in my cousin's hand live long lives full of fish and sparkling water...

Friday, 14 September 2007

Words by Rumi

Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving--
It does not matter now.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken
your vows a hundred times.
Come, come again, come.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007


I left America yesterday, but I could not tell you when.
Half a bag of pumpkin seeds,
one car, two airplanes, and three buses later,
hollow and husked,
a shell of myself,
I came back to my new flat—
which has two new flatmates,
men I scarcely know,
and a hell of a lot of dirt.

I was unhappy and my
feet were cold. I inadvertently missed
the official induction meeting
of my school this morning, and
deliberately missed the social gathering
this evening, being in no mood for
making new friends while still mourning
leaving old ones.

I gnawed on bread, fretted over my
laptop, which doesn’t travel well,
and finally set forth to the grocery store,
the one I used to go to, far from my flat,
but with familiar shelves and cannisters.
En route, I found Michael examining a traffic cone by the library.

Michael and I have a strange friendship.
He’s in his last stage of writing up his PhD,
one of those phantom people who flit in and out
of their offices at terrifying hours.
We have never done anything social together;
yet he has walked around the corner
of various streets just when I needed someone most.
This past year he helped me process
the death of my grandmother,
the stress of undergoing an HIV test,
(yah, long long story involving my foot and a hypodermic needle on a beach
in Cambodia—a story that no longer matters, praise be),
and the decision to apply for a PhD.

Michael was delighted to see me.
Michael is always delighted to see me,
which is part of the reason Michael is
a glorious friend. We processed whether
or not I can pass my transition boards on
an accelerated schedule in order to go on
holiday in May. We decided that I could,
and I proceeded on to the store. It was full
of confused new undergraduates, and I had
the singular pleasure of being able to feel
myself past those early interminable searches
for the cherry tomatoes and the free range eggs.
I know where things belong; I’m not new anymore.

Then I walked home in the late afternoon sun,
and cooked pasta with mussels, which are such
fearsome looking creatures that they cheered me up,
and two of my other guy friends from the Centre for African
Studies texted me about going to a movie together—to be honest,
I don’t think they realized I had gone anywhere, and I felt
inside my chest that slow shift of the heart
back to some strange sort of equilibrium.

Oddities for My Sweet Brother

I’m told that this account amused him so I thought I’d give you my version, along with some odd pictures of our family. Mike, I'm counting on you still being in Nyala and looking at these photos with the same sense of bemusement.

The day after my arrival in New York I had a headache and accidentally took a prescription sleeping pill that, for some mysterious reason, my father had placed in the Advil bottle. Several hours after settling down with a magazine, I woke up face down on our wee dock in the sun in a state of high confusion and thought that was the end of it. We went off to uh, somewhere, to play miniature golf and eat pizza, and everyone kept teasing me and I kept insisting that I was fine.

But the fact of the matter is that I don’t remember posing for or taking any of these pictures at all. I turned on my camera in the airport in Philadelphia and ended up laughing out loud.

This is my brother Jeff and his wife Sarah, soon to be studying in Brighton for a year... But This is where it becomes Really Strange and Undignified....
I love my family.

Sunday, 9 September 2007


Tomorrow I leave America.
I came home seeking retreat, renewal,
thinking I would go the Abbey at the Genesee
and find silence amongst men vowed to it.
I usually see our family home as a den or a burrow—
close and warm,
full of merry company and clamour—
more than I can bear some days.
I thought to flee it
but the land kept me.
We have a pond
ringed round with forest,
and here is holiness uncloistered—
for vespers, the wind sighing in the trees
and the drumming of woodpeckers,
the water disturbed, time and again,
by unseen frogs or angels,
where you can be baptized over and over
amongst the fishes.

Once, in the poorest province in Cambodia,
a denuded region ironically named
Long Forest, we drove through a massive
grove of bamboo on the backroads.
I was standing in the bed of the truck,
an unwomanly habit which bemused my
Khmer companions, and I threw back my
head and saw a vast vaulting arch of feathery
rustling green—heart-stoppingly lovely, a
cathedral of bamboo, and I looked down
and there was a young girl and her younger sister
walking down the road, the baby with lambent
frangipani tucked behind each of her small ears.
And I forget so much, but I promised myself
to hold them and that place, uncloistered,
in my heart forever.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

What will become of us?

I am in western New York for two more days,
with my parents. And last night I could hardly sleep,
which I blame entirely on my friend, Dave Huth.
No, I’m kidding. But a conversation with friends
had taken a dark turn, to the precarious state of
our world, to the disasters that could soon befall us, to
those that already have, time and again, in the harrowing
history of the world, to the difficulty of holding on to hope
in times so unjust and so uncaring, and I had the awful thought—
what if those stark teachings from my childhood
where God ends the world in fire, were in fact about us—
what if we end the world? What will become of us?

And then a new friend drove me home,
talking of stars and flying. In the black
night, we startled a line of deer, their eyes glowing
like tiny moons—they ran from us, afraid,
and later, on my ceiling,
a leggy spider gathered and swung
and somersaulted along an invisible web
as if afloat, or aloft on some tenuous strand
of hope. She did not fall, and I was glad, but
we are not as innocent as spiders, as deer, and
the question remained: what will become of us?

Sleepless, I went seeking poetry, and the anthology
had included a passage from Romans, so I brooded on that:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
Shall war, or genocide, or poverty, or wealth, or consumption, or greed,
or apathy, or denial, or despair, or debt, or greenhouse gases, or the loss of this
good green world?
Nay, for I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor principalities, nor governments, nor disease, nor great disaster, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor
any other circumstance shall be able to separate us from the love of God.

I believe that this is true.
But I also hope and pray, how could I not?
that these present terrors cease,
that the others that threaten do not come to pass,
that we survive ourselves,
that we can live.

Rabbi Heschel once said:
Just to be is a blessing.
Just to live is holy.

I believe that this is true.
Yet I want so many things
from this sweet brief life
allotted to me—here is one such wish—
to stand next summer in Namibia
or my beloved Mondulkiri, in the wind
on a dark night
and see the stars clearly again.