Imperfect

April is National Poetry Month. Typically, I celebrate by sharing poetry with my blog followers. If ambitious enough, I will be posting a new poem each day for the remainder of April. Below you will find one of my poems. This one was quite fun to write.

I was inspired several years ago to write a poem that addresses the “academic” approach to poetry. I drew from some related experiences as a high school student where my work was challenged as being faulty, outside of the box, incorrect. Yet it was prose. It was fiction. It was poetry. I’ve heard it said relative to screenwriting that it’s okay to break the rules. But it is critical that we first understand and know those rules. I’m okay with that. But I got caught up in the moment of a memory from 9th grade English.

The following poem is the result.

I sat, submissively. You stood, towering.
You, the PhD. Me the struggling artist.
My thumbnail kept picking at the edge
of the nail on my index finger.
My writing hand index finger. Odd.
You told me my poem was “okay,”
but it was not perfect.
So what, then, it was imperfect?
Faulty? Flawed? Defective? Unsound?
Wait, this was a “free verse” assignment.
It was meant to not have a regular meter.
It was supposed to simply “be.”
Perhaps my poem had “imperfect vision.”
Imperfectus: incomplete.
So you’re saying it was “missing something.”
Perhaps you don’t like unrestrained boundaries.
Your failure to appreciate poetry that is
absent fixed metrical pattern does not mean
my work has failed as poetry.
Non-metrical, non-rhyming lines often
closely follow the natural rhythms of speech.
Perhaps this is the very purpose of
an imperfect poem.

©2016 by Steven Barto

“Advent.” A Poem by David J. Bauman

April is National Poetry Month. Typically, I celebrate by sharing poetry with my blog followers. If ambitious enough, I will be posting a new poem each day for the remainder of April. Whenever possible, I will provide a link to more poetry by the featured poet.

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David J. Bauman’s poems have appeared in San Pedro River Review, Contemporary American Voices, Blue Hour Magazine, and T(OUR), among other places. He has poems recently published or forthcoming in Yellow Chair Review, and Watershed: A Journal of the Susquehanna. He’s a winner of the University Prize from the Academy of American Poets, and editor of Word Fountain, the Literary Magazine of the Osterhout Free Library. He is a former co-worker of mine at the Priestley Forsyth Memorial Library in Northumberland, PA, and a good friend.

Weekday mornings on Bald Eagle Street
I waited for the bus. On winter days, I’d hide
by the dryer vent at the side of our house,
cupping warmth in woolen gloves, as inside
mom washed socks and jeans and sheets.

Saturdays I’d hide inside, close my eyes,
lean back against the machine. My feet tucked
into an empty laundry basket, I huddled up
to the hum and heat, soothed by the beat
of its rocking cycle, safe in my make-shift cave.

In those moments the world was my own,
and small enough to see—the narrow walk
between our house and Aunt Cindy’s, a slice
of the street, a glimpse of backyard promise—
even though the swing set was covered in ice.

There were tunnels through the snow
back there, for me to escape or defend.
Long white ledges lined with snowballs,
ammo, gradually amassed, a fortress to stand
against armies, or brothers, or any other foe.

By David J. Bauman

 

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” A Poem by Dylan Thomas

April is National Poetry Month. Typically, I celebrate by sharing poetry with my blog followers. If ambitious enough, I will be posting a new poem each day for the remainder of April. Whenever possible, I will provide a link to more poetry by the featured poet.

Today’s poem is one of my favorites by Dylan Thomas.

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This poem is a strong invocation for us to live boldly and to fight for what we believe in or desire. Thomas implores us to not just go gentle into that good night, but to rage against it. Even at the end of life, when “grave men” are near death, the poem admonishes us to burn with life. This is a life-affirming poem.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

©1947 Dylan Thomas

Selected Poems of Dylan Thomas 1934-1952

I Don’t Want To Be Demure or Respectable

April is National Poetry Month. Typically, I celebrate by sharing poetry with my blog followers. If ambitious enough, I will be posting a new poem each day for the remainder of April. Whenever possible, I will provide a link to more poetry by the featured poet.

Today’s poem is one of my favorite by Mary Oliver

I don’t want to be demure or respectable.
I was that way, asleep, for years.
That way, you forget too many important things.
How the little stones, even if you can’t hear them,
are singing.
How the river can’t wait to get to the ocean and
the sky, it’s been there before.
What traveling is that!
It is a joy to imagine such distances.
I could skip sleep for the next hundred years.
There is a fire in the lashes of my eyes.
It doesn’t matter where I am, it could be a small room.
The glimmer of gold Böhme saw on the kitchen pot
was missed by everyone else in the house.

Maybe the fire in my lashes is a reflection of that.
Who do I have so many thoughts, they are driving me
crazy.
Why am I always going anywhere, instead of
somewhere?
Listen to me or not, it hardly matters.
I’m not trying to be wise, that would be foolish.
I’m just chattering.

https://peacefulrivers.homestead.com/maryoliver.html

What Stops You?

FEAR. Now there’s a terrible four-letter word. Some will tell you that fear is necessary for survival. How else will you know if something is harmful or fatal to you? I propose the correct word here is caution. Not fear. You see, fear will stop you dead in your tracks. Fear will lie to you. Fear is an emotion. It will make you question your next move, and every move after that. It will create doubt in your plan of attack. It will convince you that you are going to experience nothing but rejection and ridicule. Fear will make you give up. Quit going in to avoid failure.

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This applies to many things in life. Some typical events that are interrupted by fear include proposing to a woman. Yes, asking her to marry you. What if she says no? Then what? I’ve already asked her dad for her hand in marriage. I’ve told my mom, who cried, then dabbed her tears and said with a gleam in her eyes, “When’s the wedding?” I’ve told my best friends. I told my brother and my pastor. Good gracious, I’ve told everyone. What am I going to do? See how our protagonist is ready to quit just so he doesn’t hear the word “no?”

Now what about writing? How many times have you bragged to teachers that you’re going to be a published author one day? How often have you told your mother or your father. I think it was well past five years since I first told my dad I was going to be a writer. I mentioned it once again, at a family picnic. Maybe one time too many. He said in response, “A wise man once said if you have nothing good to say, maybe you shouldn’t say anything at all.” You could hear a pin drop. No one knew what to say. My face turned beet red. I fought back a tear, and decided such comments don’t create fact. Action does.

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Why do writers write? What makes them see beyond all the negative prognostications and decrees? How are they able to see something on the other side of the blinking cursor on the laptop? When it’s all going so well, and I am cranking out word after word that somehow seem interrelated, I am convinced I’m well on my way. This is it. I’m writing. Where did all this talent come from? Dad was a woodworker and a painter on canvass, so I must have his creative genes.

Then I hit a wall. A dead end. And I do mean dead. Like my fingers won’t even move. No thoughts come to mind. The characters are trapped, never to go anywhere again. This can go on for days, weeks, months. I hate to say it, but it can even go on for years. I had a wonderful idea for a screenplay. It had everything. Teenagers, music, a snowstorm, a party gone horribly wrong. Great opening act. Act One was a joy to write. I even had a good idea how the story would end. But I am stuck at page 57. Dead in the water. I’ve tried altering the ending. I even changed the moral of the story, and looked at various character arcs. Nothing.

So what stops you from moving forward? Julia Cameron, in her great book The Artist’s Way, takes her reader through a series of exercises and workshops and lists in order to get at the bad guy inside you that’s telling you what you’re doing is no good. The internal editor. This evil force is ultimately based upon someone in your life that told you there was no way you’d ever make it. You’re too old. You’re not clever enough. You’re not creative. Your idea is not original enough. I highly recommend if you are seriously stuck as an artist — songwriter, sculptor, painter, writer, poet — that you get this book. Follow her instructions. She will help you get unstuck and find out what’s stopping you from moving forward in your work.

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Click here to visit Julia Cameron Live.

To the writers everywhere, just stay plugged in to the spirit that moves you. Julia Cameron talks about God being the Great Creator. She said God has instilled creativity in all of us. Our job is to get in touch with our Inner Artist. Why do we write? Because creativity is living deep down inside of us. What stops us? It’s a whole number of things, most of which are not even rooted in reality. No one knows where their writing will take them. I am grateful for the renewing of my spirit and my drive to create. It has put me back on my intended path, and that’s worth every word I struggle to put down on paper.

So write, my friend. Start with free association. Try writing the minute you wake up. Write anything that comes to mind. Your internal editor is still sleeping. He won’t see what you’re writing. Don’t worry about punctuation or spelling or word usage. That can all be fixed in your rewrite. Just write. You will be so amazed at what comes out of end of your fingertips at six in the morning.

10 Ways to Write a Poem

I found the following post on Poetry Breakfast, a WordPress blog I subscribe to. Please stop by: https://poetrybreakfast.com/

  1. Reassemble the torn bits of the poem
    he left on your desk in 1989
  2. Listen to the waves wash around
    sanded jellyfish and mermaids
  3. Retrace the steps he took
    to give you a birthday kiss
  4. Dance with her in post-stroke
    and wedding dresses
    and a virtual audience
  5. Feather the skinned knees of every
    smooth-cheeked kiss
  6. Drink down wine
    turned to water
    turned to winter
  7. Stretch the length of your spine
    along his hand and the lined page
  8. Taste the fat of coffee cream lyrics
    sung by a burning boy
  9. Lock eyes with clasped hands
    across happy hour smiles
    and congenital heart defects
  10. Commit it all to paper
    commit to no one
    commit soul to holy hands
    commit the rest to memory

By Annmarie Lockhart

About the Poet:  Annmarie Lockhart is the founding editor of vox poetica, an online literary salon dedicated to poetry, and Unbound Content, an independent poetry press. A lifelong Bergen County, New Jersey resident, she lives, writes, and works two miles from the hospital where she was born. You can read her words at fine journals online and in print.

 

Poets and Poetry in the Eyes of William Wordsworth

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” – William Wordsworth

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“In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time. The objects of the Poet’s thoughts are everywhere; though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings. Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge – it is as immortal as the heart of man.” – William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth was a major English poet who helped launch the Romantic Age in English literature. He and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Wordsworth’s debut as a writer was in 1787 when he published a sonnet in The European Magazine. He received a B.A. from Cambridge in 1791. Wordsworth’s magnum opus was The Prelude, which was published in 1850 by his wife three months after his death. It is considered by many to be the crowning achievement of English romanticism. The poem chronicles the spiritual life of the poet, and marks the birth of a new genre of poetry.

Wordsworth developed an interest and sympathy for the life, troubles, and speech of the “common man.” He had a keen interest in politics and poetry, and had a particular disdain for tyranny. Wordsworth saw a necessary relationship between writing and political justice. He disliked complicated, fanciful writing, and instead believed poetry should be written “in the real language of men.” He understood poetry to be “the spontaneous overflow of feelings,” saying, “it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” He selected incidents and situations of common life as his subject matter, but described such situations with language “really used by men.”

Prior to Wordsworth, the ordinary life of ordinary people was not typically the subject of poetry. He democratized poetry, giving it a universal appeal. Poetry to date had featured urban subjects regarding artificial lives of people living far away from the simplicity of nature. Wordsworth preferred humble, rustic life as his subject matter because it is here that essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can grow into maturity and come to realize their full potential. He believed such a humble and rustic life to be more simplistic, serene, and tranquil. He was contented with the manner in which rustic people expressed their feelings through quaint, non-elaborate and unsophisticated means. Their language was more passionate, more vivid, and more emphatic. Wordsworth believed poetry should express common human feelings, without restriction on the telling of man’s experiences.

In his preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth is basically “thinking aloud” on poems he’d already written in an attempt to formulate revised ideas about poetry. The two central ideas of the preface are the need for reforming poetic diction – which according to Wordsworth had become far too artificial – and the role of the poet in society. Wordsworth thought poetry had become too marginal. He had also come to the conclusion that the troubles of society were specifically urban in nature. He believed the insight of a poet to be higher than other people, but he did not think the poet should shout down from a lofty height. Rather, he should be one of the common human beings, who feels what others feel, and, accordingly, be able to describe common feelings and passions. The rub is that he must do so in the language of the everyday man.  According to Wordsworth, the responsibility of the poet is great because what others cannot express, he is to present in a comprehensible format.  He knows others think and see, but many lack the same comprehensive access to their sensory perception the poet can reach.

In 1843 Wordsworth was named poet laureate of England, though by this time he had pretty much put his pen to use only when revising or rearranging his poems. He had basically retired to merely publishing various editions, and entertaining guests and friends. When he died in 1850, he had for some years been venerated as a sage, his most ardent detractors glossing over the radical origins of his poetics and politics. Wordsworth’s prose, while not extensive – and often difficult – reveals the poet’s historical context. A careful reading of his prose will likely lead the reader to a clearer understanding of the path he traveled from the eighteenth century to the Victorian age, aiding modern readers in recognizing the origins of their own literary and political culture.

Romantic poets cultivated individualism, reverence for the natural world, idealism, physical and emotional passion, and an interest in the mystical and supernatural. Romantics set themselves in opposition to the order and rationality of classical and neoclassical artistic precepts in order to embrace freedom and revolution in their art and politics. Notable romantic poets include Fredrich Schiller, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, and Victor Hugo.

Romanticism crossed the Atlantic through the work of American poets like Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe. The romantic era produced many of the stereotypes of poets that persist today, including the poet as a tortured and melancholy visionary. Romantic ideals never died out in poetry, but were largely absorbed into the precepts of many other movements. Traces of romanticism have lived on in French symbolism and surrealism, and in the work of prominent poets such as Charles Baudelaire and Rainer Maria Rilke.

The Things They Carried

I met an older gentleman at church last Sunday who served in Vietnam. The conversation actually started with the current opiate epidemic in America. I said unfortunately thousands of young men came back from Southeast Asia hooked on heroin. He saw many soldiers smoking weed in order to cope with the horrors of what they were being asked to do, but did not personally see any servicemen using heroin. He was aware that it was going on. He related how he was able to avoid the hell of alcoholism and drug addiction that took hold of countless young men.

I became great friends with a minister who lived across the street from my parents for several years before he and his wife, also a minister, returned to Santa Barbara, California. He related to me the horrors of serving in the Vietnam war. He was a sergeant, and said several of his men died in his arms. In the interest of his traumatic experience and his privacy, I will not give any further details here. I will simply say I was shocked to see that he made it out alive, and is living a life of love and service, in full commitment to the Lord. My uncle also served in Vietnam. I know from family conversations that it was very hard on him. I never felt comfortable asking him to divulge the details. He died several years ago after fighting non-cancerous lumps in the back of his lungs, immune deficiency, and kidney failure. He’d been on dialysis for years. My aunt was told his death was due to exposure to Agent Orange. She receives an additional widow’s benefit specific to his exposure.

My conversation with the fellow churchgoer regarding heroin use among the troops in Vietnam made me think of Air America. Air America was an American passenger and cargo airline covertly owned by the United States government as a dummy corporation for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The National Security Agency farmed out the airline to various government agencies. Air America was used by the U.S. government covertly to conduct military operations, posing as a civilian air carrier, in areas the U.S. armed forces could not go due to treaty restraints contained in the Geneva Accords. Air America’s slogan was, “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.” The airline flew many types of cargo to countries such as the Republic of Vietnam, the Kingdom of Laos, and Cambodia. It operated from bases in those countries, and also from bases in Thailand, and as far afield as Taiwan and Japan. It also on occasion flew top secret missions into Burma and the People’s Republic of China.

Air America flew civilians, diplomats, spies, refugees, commandos, sabotage teams, doctors, war casualties, DEA officers, and even visiting VIPs like Richard Nixon. Air America moved tons of food, water and livestock into villages devastated  by Agent Orange, as well as ammunition and other materials for troop support. During the CIA’s secret war in Laos (you might remember Nixon’s secret bombings), the CIA used the Hmong population to fight local rebels. The Hmong happened to depend on poppy cultivation for hard currency. Amazingly, poppy has been used for trade in commerce for centuries. When rebels captured the Plain of Jars in 1964, the Laotian air force was unable to land their transport aircraft for opium transport. They had no light planes that could land near poppy fields to load opium. Consequently, the Hmong were facing economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. Air America began flying opium from mountain villages. How can we not think some of that opium smuggled out of Laos by the CIA ended up as heroin on the streets of America?

THE REASON I BROUGHT THIS UP

I have become captivated by the history of America’s war on drugs. Sometimes, during research, we get led down paths we never expected. This is what happened when I started looking into heroin and Southeast Asia. I found a wonderfully written, haunting, vitally important piece of literature written by Tim O’Brien called The Things They Carried. I began reading, and I was there, in the jungle, with my uncle. With the gentleman from my church. With the men in the story. This was no Full Metal Jacket experience. It was not like I was watching Platoon or Hamburger Hill. Please understand me: Those movies do a great job, as does Saving Private Ryan relative to World War II. This book, however, is literature. It’s like a living, breathing journal. I could not stop reading. It’s been several months since I’ve done a book review, and this is sort of like that, but it’s more like a peek inside a piece of literature that captures the daily life of soldiering in Vietnam. The scene where I pick up the action is graphic, so please be prepared. I don’t make political statements on this blog, and I will not do that in this post. This is more about heroism, service, dedication, obedience, fear, and the raw experience of hell on earth. It’s about literature. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.”

I know what I want you to think, to consider, to feel, about this issue. I would love to hear your feedback. Maybe you know someone who served in Southeast Asia. Perhaps you have a family member or loved one fighting ISIS in the Middle East or the Philippines. Don’t stay silent. If this post sparks an emotion, post your reply. Literature at its best provides us with a blueprint of human civilization. It should remind us of what we’re feeling inside. It should provoke us. Literature plays the vital role of preserving knowledge and experience and passing it on to our successors. Literature might even make us ask the big questions: Why are we here? Who are we? What are our responsibilities? In the instant case, The Things They Carried causes us to think about the idea of war. Is war ever just? What does it mean to be noble? When should we help another nation? When is it proper to back away?

I thought you should know that this book is as much memoir as it is literature. O’Brien served in the 23rd Infantry Division.

From The Things They Carried.

The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good luck pebble. Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot. Norman Bowker, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a thumb that had been presented to him as a gift by Mitchell Sanders. The thumb was dark brown, rubbery to the touch, and weighed 4 ounces at most. It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen. They’d found him at the bottom of an irrigation ditch, badly burned, flies in his mouth and eyes. The boy wore black shorts and sandals. At the time of his death he had been carrying a pouch of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition. “You want my opinion,” Mitchell Sanders said, “There’s a definite moral here.” He put his hand on the dead boy’s wrist. He was quiet for a time, as if counting a pulse, then he patted the stomach, almost affectionately, and used Kiowa’s hunting hatchet to remove the thumb.

Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was.

“Moral?”

“You know.”

Moral.

Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker. There was no blood. Smiling, he kicked the boy’s head, watched the flies scatter, and said, “It’s like with that old TV show, Paladin. ‘Have gun, will travel.'”

Henry Dobbins thought about it.

“Yeah, well,” he finally said. “I don’t see no moral.”

“There it is, man.”

They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Stars and Stripes , fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos, and much more. Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green mermite cans and large canvas bags filled with iced beer and soda pop. They carried plastic water containers, each with a 2-gallon capacity. Mitchell Sanders carried a set of starched tiger fatigues for special occasions. Henry Dobbins carried Black Flag insecticide. Dave Jensen carried empty sandbags that could be filled at night for added protection. Lee Strunk carried tanning lotion. Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct.

They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself — Vietnam, the place, the soil — a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility. Their principles were in their feet. Their calculations were biological. They had no sense of strategy or mission. They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, not caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not, then forming up and moving on to the next village, then other villages, where it would always be the same. They carried their own lives.

The pressures were enormous. In the heat of early afternoon, they would remove their helmets and flak jackets, walking bare, which was dangerous but which helped ease the strain. They would often discard things along the route of march. Purely for comfort, they would throw away rations, blow their Claymores and grenades, no matter, because by nightfall the resupply choppers would arrive with more of the same, then a day or two later still more, fresh watermelons and crates of ammunition and sunglasses and woolen sweaters — the resources were stunning — sparklers for the Fourth of July, colored eggs for Easter — it was the great American war chest — the fruits of science, the smoke stacks, the canneries, the arsenals at Hartford, the Minnesota forests, the machine shops, the vast fields of corn and wheat— they carried it like freight trains; they carried it on their backs and shoulders — and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.

References

O’Brien, Tim. (1990). The Things They Carried. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

The Neighborhood Has Seen Better Days

This is a piece I wrote using the writing prompt, “The Neighborhood Has Seen Better Days.”

I’m twelve. Feels like I’ve been twelve forever. Time has been standing still this whole, hot steamy summer. There’s been plenty of chances to sit here on my steps and watch the cars whizz by. Oh, but the motorcycles. They are wonderful. Most people today ride without helmets. Hair flying about. Tee-shirts. Shorts. So cool. So absolutely dangerously cool. I’m so happy lately, living in a fine house with a wonderful mom, belly full, shoes on my feet. Plenty of shoes. Pretty shoes. Lots of dresses and dollies and teddy bears. My room is so nice and warm and purple. I think I even have six pillows. There’s nothing I love better than to climb up on my bed and bury myself in my blankets and dream of days when the neighborhood was a nicer place.

But today, right now, I am sitting on my stoop watching Mrs. Pauley argue with a man in a black suit holding a piece of paper. I remember playing hopscotch with Mrs. Pauley’s kids, racing bikes around the block, selling lemonade at our corner stand, and lazily brushing the dog on her front porch. Lilly, her middle daughter, was my best friend. I had her over to my house for a sleepover at least half-a-dozen times. Lilly kind of liked Tom, Ernie Conrad’s son. Ernie Conrad ran the neighborhood barber shop. My brother Steve was good friends with Tom. They spent many hot summer days in the air-conditioned shop reading Archie comics and sucking on Tootsie Roll Pops. The shop had mirrors on both walls, and the boys would stand and look at themselves in the never-ending reflections. Tiny copies of themselves over and over without end.

But poor Mrs. Pauley. She is right in the middle of trying to live her life. Raising a family of six. Happily married. Always smiling. Buying Girl Scout cookies. Feeding the birds. Serving as a Block Parent. A regular at PTA. Taking us to the community swimming pool, and even braving the cold in December to take us ice skating. A mom’s mom. A real nice lady. So it was very sad when her husband passed away. He had a great job at the railroad. My dad said Mr. Pauley made a lot of money. Things were fine at first, then the trouble started. The two-car family soon became a one-car family. My friend Lilly started going hungry. She ate at our house a lot. She told me her brothers and her sister were living with Mrs. Pauley’s parents. Notices started being posted on the front door. The porch wasn’t swept. Someone stole the wicker chairs. The windows remained filthy. I didn’t see Lilly as much. In fact, she missed a lot of school.

Which brings me to the afternoon I was sitting on the front steps of my porch. It was hot out. No air was moving. Mrs. Pauley was standing in the doorway, looking rather upset. There was a policeman and a county sheriff standing on either side. A man with a briefcase and handful of papers was arguing with Mrs. Pauley. She was starting to cry. I could tell the county sheriff was being sympathetic. Mrs. Pauley pleaded one last time, asking “Isn’t there something I can do?” The official-looking man in the dark suit shook his head no and reached out to post a paper on the door. I could see what it said from across the street. NOTICE TO VACATE.

I looked up and down the street. Trash littered the gutters. A car sat in front of Mr. Baker’s house with four flat tires. There was an empty lot where Ernie Conrad’s barber shop used to be. Most of the front porches were piled up with old furniture, busted exercise equipment and beat-up bicycles. There were broken mini blinds in the windows, and many had no curtains.

It seems the neighborhood had seen better days.

©2015 Steven Barto

Lynn

I’ve been less than connected to others during much of my life. I’m not so sure it was by choice. I often felt dark inside. Unable to receive light. To use illumination in any way. Such as to cast meaning and clarity on a situation. To show me a direction. To give sight where it didn’t seem to exist. It’s a singularly lonely feeling. An inability to latch on to others in any significant way. Sometimes it would feel like I was the only one in the room despite the cast of thousands swarming around me. I couldn’t even hear others breathing. Eye contact was not possible. The gaze of others was so bright it would cause me to squint and guard my eyes. All that content, all those queries, coming at me all at once. Blinding me. Confusing me. Causing me to shut down, which made it all the more impossible to go outside myself. Which, of course, led to cold, smothering, deep isolation.

I felt that way a lot. Communication was painful. Nauseating. I was fully shut down most of my childhood and teen years. We moved a lot as a family, which made my social awkwardness commonplace. It wasn’t just about girls. I liked girls. Obsessed over them. Oh, their lips and their curves. I was aware of every girl in the room. Not that I believed they were interested in me. I had too many problems dealing with people in general. Add sexual tension, and I was frozen in place.

I think that’s why it’s so fascinating to me that my first best friend was a girl. Lynn. She was cute. Not gorgeous. She had a fast reputation as a young woman, which sort of frightened me. (There’s no way I would know what to do.) Lynn was unique and otherworldly. She danced her own way. She did things she wanted to do, and she had no real sense of restraint. Her eyes were bright. Wide open. Telling. Funny thing though: I didn’t have to squint when I looked at her. The brightness I shied away from in others was warm and subdued in Lynn’s gaze. It was beyond a gaze, actually. It was a gentle peek inside. There was nothing threatening or overwhelming about her contact. I felt shallow and warm and alive when she looked at me. I felt aroused. Nothing too deep or complicated. No rules. No agenda. Just a slow sucking in. A natural feeling of compatibility. A very special feeling.

I didn’t quite understand what was going on between Lynn and I. We were not officially dating. But we were joined somehow; spiritually, maybe. It was as if we’d been gliding on a pathway of discovery and comprehension. No one ever understood me before Lynn. Freak that I was, I couldn’t understand me. I was lost even to myself, and so I couldn’t explain it. I had no respect for the feelings of others. You were no more than an object for me to use for my own ends. My ends were justified in my mind. There was only one way: the way I chose to go. I saw no other paths. I considered no consequences. Certainly, it was no concern to me how my behavior would effect someone else. This is, of course, the very root of my lack of friends. Even when my mistakes were pointed out to me, I couldn’t see them.

Except when they were pointed out by Lynn. She was gentle about it, and that was a first for me. No one had ever been gentle or respectful to me. It seemed that Lynn wanted me to learn something about myself that would lead to a happier life. She understood my isolation, and hoped to teach me of its source. She knew it wasn’t of my own doing. It was because of things that were done to me. My isolation was because of others. Lynn didn’t want me blaming myself for my lack of friendships despite my bad habits and selfish behaviors. She knew the egg (in this case) came before the chicken. My personality was hatched, in other words. Who I was and how I acted was a byproduct of how I was treated. Things were done to me in the name of love that affected me deeply.

Some days I wish Lynn were still here. She died of ovarian cancer ten years ago.

©2017 Steven Barto