Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

That was the summer

they drove the Ferris wheel into town,

erecting it in the park—

and James Taylor and Carly Simon

sang to each other over the radio

and people paid money

to throw ping pong balls into small jars

for the chance to win a goldfish;

to throw darts at balloons

for a giant teddy bear.

The park smelled of beer and grilled corn

and from the top of the ride,

I could almost see the whole town—

down to the five and dime and up to the cemetery.

Those were the days before I knew words

such as mercy or duplicity or forgiveness.

The cotton candy melted on my tongue in sharp crystals.

The Ferris wheel was gone the next day,

my pocket full of tickets I couldn’t spend.

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My brother thrilled to pummel and punch

that red-nosed clown again and again—

an inflatable plastic sack with a round weighted base—


and always the clown returned to standing.

Forty years later, I still don’t want to punch anything,

wish, instead, I could be more like that red and blue Bozo,


could roll and twist and spin each time

life knocks me over, and though I wobble,

though I bob, I would defy the laws of physics


return to standing, yes I would,

and find a way to smile.


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The day is quiet and

the light is strong and I sit alone

in the V of the weeping willow


in a place where the sun can’t reach me

and no one can see me.

I pull off the bark in thick rough slabs,


and the day is drowsy and the light

is long and the bark feels rough

in my four-year-old hands,


but I flip it and find it is smooth

underneath where it touches the tree.

Yes, the bark is smooth, like my dress,


like me, and I move my fingers across

the soft side, surprised by the secret writings there—

meandering marks that slither and wriggle


in cursive spells, some language only

the tree can tell, that only I can read.

And the day is page and the light


is song and I am not at all alone,

perhaps there is writing inside me, too,

the bark thrilling in my hands.


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How Long Has It Been?




They sit on the shelf now, mostly,

or have moved into boxes of memory,

those soft cloth dolls we once cradled

and cuddled and dragged from bed

to the yard to the car to the store.

They went everywhere with us,

their small yarn eyes always open,

never narrowing in disapproval,

never turning to shine on someone else.

Their plump cheeks eternally blushing,

their smile never uncurling

into disinterest, never snarling

into disdain. We could tell them

everything—about the girl

down the street who jeered

that our plaid pants were too short,

who sneered at the way we ran.


We could tell them about

the blue monster who lived in the closet,

and how he sometimes slipped out

to crawl beneath our bed.

And they listened. And smiled.

And let us hold them and suck

on their hands—or their hats—if that’s

what made the night feel safe.

They never whispered mean

words about us to their friends

while we were off at school.

Sometimes, it’s true, they would

disappear. That’s what all

beloved things do. And then,

days later perhaps, they’d be found

under a pillow on the couch or out

beneath the willow tree sitting

in the dirt beside the shovel and pail.


Now, it is we who have disappeared

into the world of harder things—

keys and doors and ceilings,

and women with words

like sticks and men with eyes

that seldom meet our eyes.

We are too old for dolls.

Still, there is in us, perhaps,

the faded longing to hold something

soft, something so familiar,

something so well loved,

so absent of cruelty

it makes us feel capable

of loving utterly, unguardedly again.






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Long before we could see

the smokestacks rising above

the rooftops of Madison,

my brother and I would shout

from the backseat,

“I see Oscar Mayer!”


Though we had never been in,

it was the building where

our grandfather worked

and its gray flues meant

we were close to Papa’s home.

I remember wanting it

bad enough to create

the vision in the distance.

“I see Oscar Mayer,”

I’d say, and my brother

would say he saw it, too,

and my mother or father would

explain it was still an hour away.


Five minutes later,

my brother would insist

he could see it for sure,

and then I’d see it again,

and an hour would pass this way

until finally the dark smoke

rose on the horizon

and we’d shout in unison,

“I see Oscar Mayer!”


It still happens sometimes,

I want to arrive somewhere

so badly I can see it

though it isn’t there,

or more likely I have no idea

how the destination will appear and so

I declare myself far away,

though I don’t really know.


Decades ago the Madison

plant was closed,

though my brother still writes

sometimes to tell me he can see it.

It was easier then—

we knew exactly

what we were looking for,

knew it so well that

I almost think

I can see it from here.



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For most life on the planet, being hidden is the default condition.
—Michael Dickinson, biologist

The little girl is not like the hermit crab,
though both live by hiding, finding small
spaces where they can retreat and occasionally
poke out a well-armored claw for transit
or feeding. It’s natural to all living things,
this impulse to survive through concealment,
only this girl, who has tucked herself under the bed,
her soft body curled into itself,
this girl, though she pinches
at anything that draws close,
she desperately, urgently
wants to be found.

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When I Was Five

Whitish and filmy, their eyes clouded over,
the dead bluegills and croppies would float
to the top of the lake and catch in the seaweed.
I’d splash with my hands at the water’s surface
and make waves to push their rotting bodies
toward the neighbor’s pier.
And then my brother and I would play.
Death, then, was just something to push away,
certainly nothing that had anything to do with us.

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I Felt So Safe There

Beneath the stairs in the unfinished room
was a space just large enough
for a girl age six to crawl inside and hide.
I’d tack up a thin pink blanket to dampen any light
and crouch in the dim with my dolls, my pillow.
There was a hole in the concrete block
that I scraped and smoothed, with what?
I can’t recall. The hole was small, but it was sufficient
for holding my finest treasures: a round blue bead,
an arrowhead, a wedge of weeping willow bark
that worms had carved with squiggle marks.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have also
tucked in there a tiny scrap of paper with your name on it.

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I hear the horses, are there dozens? hundreds?
They are galloping toward my room.
I do not know how it is that they are in my home,
but if the riders find me, they will take me. Or kill me.
I know this.

I am alone. The top bunk of the bed where I am hiding
rattles from the pounding of their hooves.
Play dead, I think, though it is not so much a thought
as reflex. I slow the red race of my breath until it is brown
and dry, until my chest is still as stump,
until I’m a lump instead of a girl.

When the men on the horses arrive, I do not move.
I do not wince nor cry out when one pokes at my sheets
with something blunt and cold.

That’s the deadest girl I ever saw, he says.
I hear the feet of horses as they stomp and rake at the ground,
hear them strain and clench and rear. Then
a whinny, then a whirl, I can feel their breath,
and the horses ride off again.

Is this when I learn that the way to save myself
is to fully shut down? In the years to come,
I will find new ways to play dead. One is to starve.
One is to hide. One is to look so green and thriving
on the outside that no one could ever guess how brittle I am.

But those tactics are for later. For now, the girl in the bed
that is me and not me marvels that she is still alive.
It is a long time before she moves.

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Sitting beneath the weeping willow,
what did we know then of distance?
Everything was close then—
the Five-and-Dime, just a few blocks away,
where we could buy a roll of Necco wafers
for just ten cents and share them under the tree.
The great strings of leaves hanging about us,
a canopy, a room of green, a world where we could hide,
though there was nothing much to hide from.

Remember how we, even with our fingertips touching,
could not hug even half the tree, our cheeks
pressed into the thick gray bark in an effort to span something great.

There were days we would slip ourselves into the low split
in the enormous trunk and not come out for hours.
We would pull back the bark to where the trunk was smooth,
a warm brown, and there on the underside of the bark,
we uncovered the curvy carvings of beetles or worms.
We thought they were treasure maps, and spent days
deciphering the strange markings. Oh my brother,
those days were the treasure.

The lines to you now are long curves on a map
that stretches east from the Rockies to the Great Lakes.
I am reaching these grown up arms toward you
in an effort to span something great.
What did we know then of distance,
those green summer days?

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