31 March 2014

Magpie Tale 213: His Other Life

Image via Magpie Tales

Shaking hand opened the drawer
Wormy chestnut, waxy blackened 
angsty scrawls of sun-faded youth 
Burden of years constricts the heart
that sees the tarot of inks it never wore 
Never will, not in this life, nevermore,
Change has come, blood spilled
in a different river from passion's run

24 March 2014

Magpie Tales 212: Unmade

My Bed by Tracey Emin, via Magpie Tales

She was told by earnest hearts
the simple solution was to get up
Shower, primp and perform
Monkeys at the circus, no doubt

She tried, decades of self-combat,
to make the sober faces happy
But what to them seemed prison
To her was sanctity of the womb

23 March 2014

Feeding Yourself (Sunday Meditation #37)

Chewing my way through a shrimp po' boy the other day, hunger doing its best to overcome disgruntlement at being surrounded by competition culture. The sandwich proved to be a fair balm, but only just. Meditation on society and culture should not be done on an empty stomach but perhaps it is to be avoided whilst eating. Especially hard to do when surrounded by big screen TV's and noisy folks watching the game(s).

Nowhere is safe it seems, in this modern society, from the illness of competition. Everything has been turned into some sort of sports metaphor, with all of us required to give "110%" and to "bring it" when it is "game on". All the time, 24/7. And I am quite tired of it.

Even cooking and eating are not spared the lunacy of win or die. I noticed this one night this week while watching a cooking show on the tube, the name of which rhymes with "Flopped". I do enjoy watching the chefs work creatively under impressive constraints, but it became clear to me with the episode in question just how pernicious sports and gaming "culture" have gripped our sensibilities.

The announcers, the chefs, the ads, all using the language of conquest, domination and war. It isn't enough to create something amazing for its own sake, it has to "crush" the competition it "came after". The erstwhile chefs throw shadow punches and talk about their fellow contestants as if they were weak neighbor nations in possession of natural resources to be pillaged. They must be "taken down" and "dominated" because they are all "here to win".

It is a conundrum I face every time I set out to cook something or write something: for whom and why do it? The truth became apparent to me as I ruminated on the sandwich I was devouring. To focus on domination, humiliation and subjugation of others as "winning" is to have already lost the game. Whether it be cooking a meal or filling the pages or sending a ball through a hoop, the true competition lies not in overcoming others, it lies in overcoming one's own self.

17 March 2014

Magpie Tales 211: Simon Says

Feast in the House of Simon, 1610, El Greco via Magpie Tales

In my house at meat
Cure upon me, yet
I am the example
to be made of forgiveness,
by you, son of God?

Outcast I was, perfume I have not
Let the question reverse itself
Thankful to keep my limbs
But without perfume or hair as rags
You damn me with faint praise

16 March 2014

We Are Light Made Solid (Sunday Meditation #36)

Day began for my house with a glow in a dim corner of a early morning kitchen. Cobalt glass lit from within by an opalescent white mist. I was hurrying through the room in haze of mental distractions and hunger pangs, I forget what I was on my way to do. But that blue glow arrested my progress, breath catching, and the ghost of my brother lit a candle in my heart.

Look carefully, look consciously, to find the light. It exists everywhere and nowhere, which sometimes causes it to fade from consciousness. Like air. Breathing is so fundamental to the course of life that distracted minds lose the ability to do it properly. Not unlike growing our souls without light. We forget to see it as did this morning.

The blueness in the corner radiated from a humble salt jar, silver cap on rich cobalt-hued glass. The glow was unearthly but I quickly determined its provenance. My kitchen is adjacent to a dining room by a wall containing an opening. The kitchen itself has no windows directly to the outside but borrows light from the dining room, which has three windows. The windows face south and west.

The light came through the dining room, illuminating the salt jar just in time to pull my out of my anxious head. Light communicates, it speaks in its own way. A brief rush of time as the spirit of my brother, and my family, was there for me in that blue light. The continuum of life in the corner of an ordinary kitchen.

A humble cobalt-colored jar, filled with the only rock, in its pure form, that we eat. These are not the materials of grand revelations, fiery visions, speaking in tongues. They are, like ourselves, of the earth seen. By light, I am privileged to view the earth unseen, and the spirits which inhabit it. Salt and glass, light and shadow, by these materials I am made whole, I am made human.

10 March 2014

Magpie Tales 210: Honeymoon at the Wartorn Arms Hotel

Lee Plaza Hotel, Detroit, photo by Bonnie Beechler via Magpie Tales

What innocence it was to have not known the smell of mildewcide, to not have marveled at the unearthly shades of blood wicking into a sponge, like liquid bruises. The acid-metal taste of fear and revulsion clinging to the back of the throat as the sirens wail grew louder, fingers clawing desperately at the door in a bid to escape before the uniforms and guns arrived to haul us all away. Life before the war seemed so quaint in retrospect. 

Under the blue-grey haze of cigarette smoke, you asked me once "What is the difference between the past here and the now there? You are different, you know, but one cannot pin down why." I remember laughing, a raspy howl roughened by Chinese tobacco and that awful cherry soda we drank in a bid to stay sober. I thought you were daft to ask such a silly question, then caught myself to realize that you spoke from innocence. You spoke from not having seen the ravaged past that I had.

I stood amongst the peeling paint and crumbling plaster, recalling the blank look on your upturned face, truly untroubled by the misery that would find you. Find us. The odor of mold and feces made my stomach turn. I took another drag on the cigarette cupped in my trembling left hand, seeking solace in smoke that did not reek of cordite and scorched pavement. Despite my nausea, could not force myself to leave. Your ghost demanded conversation.

"Well?" you said, the mottled wall behind you shining faintly through your eyes. A low rumble seeped through the floor and into my aching legs. The armored vehicle serving as my transport awaited outside. I slumped into the dust-clotted chair. I found it hard to meet those eyes of fog and gauze. You began to fade away even as I spoke into the clammy air of the room.

"The difference? It isn't just that was then, this is now!"

You sat up straight, gained some solidity. Your eyes widened.

"The difference, the one that matters…" I choked, gulped, nearly shouted, "That was Sarajevo where I had nothing. This is Detroit, where I had you. And you are gone."

My head slumped to the table. Her hand faded from my grasp. My cigarette burned itself out in the ashes of another dream. A groan permeated the chill dimness, whether the city or my soul giving vent, I could not tell.

09 March 2014

Jesus Christ Movie Star (Sunday Meditation #35)

Is your faith not enough that it takes movies to make it real, or to banish doubts? Belief in heaven, of whatever stripe, seems to me to be the minimum requirement to make it real for the believer. I say this after having seen an ad and two film trailers this week for religious-themed movies, "Son of God", "Noah" and "Heaven Is For Real".

A big Hollywood production is a low benchmark of imprimatur, in my opinion, to make one feel better about choosing to believe. Faith is faith, and it doesn't need a camera or an audience for validation.

06 March 2014

Hawk Don't Eat Squash

Field notes, March 5th, 2014. Driving home, meditating on the belly.

It was astonishing, that flash of rusty red. All the more so at sixty-five miles an hour. I was privileged to see a hawk fulfilling its hawk-ness. I suppose it was good that it was feathers not blood. Pity that the prey had no chance to object. If not for the glass and road noise I suspect I may have heard it cry out at the fatal moment.

I was just outside a small town called Lone Jack, on my way back from a photo excursion in cow country. Quite a coincidence that I turned my head to the side, looking at the driver's side mirror as I hustled down Highway 50. It was at that moment the hawk decide to strike at some small, gray, furry things in the median. I still have no idea what the hapless prey was, but it looked vaguely like a rabbit or a rat.

The shock made me gasp. It is not that I had no idea that animals prey on other animals, it is that I was not expecting to see it on a major roadway. Especially not so close to my car. The attack happened fast, almost in the blink of an eye. There was also the awe of having witnessed something sublime. It was a peek into the workings of the world. A truth acknowledged, perhaps, or the revelation of a mystery.

I would think back to the symmetry of that incident, the relationship of eater to eaten, as I puttered in the kitchen while preparing my own dinner. Mine was nothing so dramatic as pouncing on something creature who had no idea I was coming. No, mine was less intense, involving the roasting of a spaghetti squash, the pureeing of tomatoes. If there was any drama it was in the cutting of onions and mincing garlic with parsley; there was speed and precision involved and I am pushing myself to become more professional with my knife skills.

The closest I came to emulating the hawk was to open two cans of oil-packed tuna, which I added to then marinara I was making. Certainly no talons flashing, beak parted in anticipation of a killing stroke. There was a momentary sense of dislocation, though, as I meditated on the notions of what we do to feed ourselves, to survive. It was weird.

As I shredded the squash with a fork, prior to anointing with sauce, I was struck again by the mysteries of food and eating in this life. Spaghetti squash fascinates me, watching it transform from this hard blocky thing I strained to cut, into long twirly strands that eat like noodles. Earlier, I had marveled at the fibrous net inside the squash that held the seeds. While fishing the seeds out, I felt wonder that such a thing could just grow. The seeds, too, I would later season and roast for a snack.

I know it was child-like of me, maybe even slightly naive, to be so amazed at the mysteries right in front of me. I know much can be explained by basic biology and chemistry and technical investigation. But at the moment I saw the hawk strike and the squash strands part, I was filled with the warmth of belonging, of being inside the world rather than apart from it. The hawk doesn't eat squash, and I don't prey on hawks, but for some few moments, we shared a mystery that has little to do with explanation and everything to do with simply being.

05 March 2014

Futebol Star

Her seven-league boots
leaping yards, running the pitch,
she is the beautiful game

04 March 2014


Home notes, March 1st, 2014. 11:50 pm. Sleet falls amongst the snow.


...is the sound of late night loneliness. Icy beads pecking on the panes, little metallic fingernails tapping the glass. 
Laying in bed with only sleet and house murmurs as companions. With no one around as distraction, a restless mind wonders if something is trying to enter, or beckoning it to come out and play.

The sound of sleet falling onto silence feels too loud to bear. Mournful bellow of a train, a mechanical buffalo separated from the herd, comes as relief.

Slowly sinking into the genteel coffin of the bed, listening to myself breathe. I'm hoping I do not become entombed in ice. Experience has taught me that this too shall pass. 
My heart remains hopeful. Experience has also taught me that the sounds of winter are to the soul what famine is to the belly: they engender gratitude for the feast.

03 March 2014

Magpie Tales 209: Our Lady of the Spirit Road

The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897, by Henry Rousseau via Magpie Tales

I cherish the memory of her breath. The roughness of strong tea and fried ramps is no ordinary aphrodisiac but it haunts me still. Travelers when we met, travelers when we parted long ago under a hunter's moon, I do not believe I can gaze on a sky such as that without weeping at the loss.

To live in the verge is no simple thing, but possible. More of us do it than one might consider. Magadalena certainly did. I was one of them for however brief. Chasing my spirit animal over hill and sward had become my life's work. She had already accomplished hers when I crested the rise and saw her tending a small fire under a nearby tree. She looked at me with eyes of sunlit ice. 

I stood on the shoulder of the road. My hands fidgeted nervously with my hat. I hadn't know I had taken it off, I was so mesmerized by those eyes. A smile broke the road-weary map of her face. She raised a dusky hand and bade me join her at the kettle. I sat. We talked of warm sun and cold hearts. She gave me tea. We became lovers at that moment, though we knew it not.

The day we parted began in an unsettled dawn. Road weary from several days of hard walking, we had come to a fork in the road the night before. There was a clear stream, with fish, and soft grass in which to sleep. Dreams kept me in motion much of the night. Shadows. Beasts that bared fangs at me across strangely colored campfires. I ran through forest and field in argentine moonlight, wondering if I was pursued or pursuer. In my last dream I stumbled over a log and woke up confused and breathless.

The light was submarine. Faint rosiness on the horizon and a barely smoldering fire. I raised my head, bleary eyed to squint over at her. The breath seized in my throat. 

She lay asleep. There was a smile on her face and her right hand was trembling, fluttering. In the dim light and thready smoke I saw what I thought was a beast standing over her, shaggy maned and bright-eyed. Magdalena appeared to be reaching out to it.

In my confusion, I thought she was being attacked. I bolted upright and shouted, waving my arms at the apparition. The beast dissolved, or so I thought. She jerked awake with a loud gasp, blinking at me with those glacial eyes. The look of concern and fright sent a pang through my heart. Taking my hands, we talked of what I had seen. She grew solemn as we made tea.

The fork in the road lay before us. Magdalena had quietly told me that we had different paths now. Mine was not hers, and the creature I sought abided in a different realm. We talked long, and deeply. My heart broke, as did hers, I think, but knew she spoke the truth. After moonrise, we split apart. 

Forks in my roads ever give me pause, nowadays. On nights of the hunter's moon, I walk from moonrise to moonset, looking for Magdalena in the thickness of shadows. Sometimes, I do not weep.

02 March 2014

Genius of Winter (Sunday Meditation #34)

Nothing is so sharp as the voice of love sliding its razor edge into the muscle of the heart. It can be confused with the crystal cold air sucked into lungs gasping in shock, stepping through the thermocline of the doorway into winter light like old lead. The walls do not keep out the voice. They cannot. The voice is love.

Acoustics are strange out there along the edge of winter and spring, between dark and light that speckles the caves of the heart. Echoes last long. One may come to believe that the voice has died out, faded away, is mute. Then it comes back loud and clear, in the guise of sleet stinging the face or cold biting the hands. The voice demands, and gets, your attention.

Distance seems not to matter. The laugh of a child can be heard in the skitter of snow dancing across the wind-scoured pavement. Confusing, yes, as the scene is otherwise dreary. But there is no denying the laughter. Sleet drips out of the nacreous cotton of the sky to freeze on the skin. The sharpness of pain brings focus, tripping a switch as doors open wide in the heart and head.

There are visions, brief, and luminescent like lightning striking on top of the head.

The faces of love, radiant and welcoming. Their voices ignoring time and distance to remind the heart of its home. To see in the swirl of the sky eyes that look like one's own is a miracle, plain and true, no matter how small it seems to the exterior world.

What matters is that those eyes can be seen. If they can be seen, they cannot be forgotten. There are unbreakable threads spun of blood and love stitched into the soul, yes, it is true. But one has to hold onto them, no matter that a gap of a thousand miles lies between ends in the physical world. 

Ice, snow, grey light all dull the senses. It is easy to slip into numbness, to suffer amnesia of the heart. A freezing breath lancing the lungs or numb fingers sticking to the door handle serve up reminders to be present in the world. To be present in love. This is the genius of winter.

01 March 2014

Knowing Your Aglio From (An) Olio In The Ground

Belly notes, February 19, 2014. A temporary bachelor at table, and hungry.

Feral. Primal. Rough. Vibrant burn of red chili flakes tempered in olive oil. Spaghetti like iron strings, filo de ferro, dusted with herbs and garlic.

Throaty. Raspy. Growly. Exactly what I needed for a solo dinner on a rainy winter evening.

One of the best dishes I have yet made in all the time I have been cooking. Not elegant, nor haute cuisine, but guaranteed to satisfy in all its rough hewn splendor.

I speak, of course, about spaghetti aglio e olio. You know how to make this, even if you do not realize it.

Extra virgin olive oil.
Red onion.
Red pepper flakes.

Oregano, if you dare.
Thin spaghetti.
Parmagiano-Reggiano cheese.

By its fierceness you will know it. You will be satisfied.