I Offer You a Poet’s Cup of Air
I offer you these two cups of air, said the rabbi under the chuppa. One for you, and one for you. Though I’ll not tell you whose is whose. They are to be picked up without questions of ownership. They are to reside in the same cupboard. Be washed in one sink. Sip from them slowly for the years will pass quickly. When the cups get chipped—and oh, they will get chipped—do not throw them away. Sand down the cuts of destruction. Make them safe to touch again to your lips. Do not make apologies for their stains. Enjoy the breath of air each one contains.
I offer you this air to float on when needed. To flame a fire before it goes out. Take. Drink. Entrust the whereabouts to each other and share the sweetness of the invisible. Don’t make light of what you cannot see. Give yourself over to this effort. Resist the urge to destroy.
I give you streams of oxygen that will find you wherever you roam. A taste here. A memory there. Even death cannot destroy that. See beyond the pretty porcelain or the delicate silver. That is only form. The air I fill this cup with—that is what I offer. You must not doubt. I give you this with good wishes. Full lungs. A healthy breath. Love with all its many tastes.
Drink its mystery.
Holding Back the Water
Let’s say it’s not a familiar river, it’s a strange ocean, and I’m young, just out of college and already married. I don’t yet believe how fast time will pass or where it might lead us. The two of us–both in our early twenties and on our way to Israel for the year–walk by the Ionean Sea all week, every morning buying a loaf of bread hot from the baker’s oven, tied with a string so it’s easier to carry across Greek sand. Say we sing as we go, a song we both make up, a song still on the tip of my tongue. We laugh and chase each other like kites flying in a cerulean sky.
At the far end of the beach we eat the warm bread. We buy it again the next morning and the next and the next, repeating this trail to the rocks. We forget other people because they rarely come these summer mornings, though their donkeys have left reminders we are not alone. Even so, when I feel joy I can no longer contain, I slip off my clothes and run into the water like I want a blessing from the water gods. But he calls me back. Put on your clothes, he insists. I wonder about him suddenly. About myself and what it might be that I will have to hold back in our life together.
How to Make a Marriage
First, you have to close your eyes as you agree to the words always and for better or for worse. Imagine what that means. Forget your mother’s black eye or how often your father left home for war. Concentrate on how much you need this man, all the adventures you will take, your secrets he already knows. Make your own dress from material you buy in New York City. Put French ribbon on the bodice. Let your mother-in-law-to-be sew lace on the cuffs and pearls on the veil she insists you must wear. Stand under a flowered chuppah with a rabbi who agrees to marry a “shiksa.”
Afterwards, drive across the country to graduate school with his father’s Visa card. Find things to do in Laramie, Wyoming, when a winter storm blocks you in. Be grateful for the furnished basement apartment your husband finds in Idaho. Go camping together and fish along the Salmon River. Pick up the phone each Saturday morning when family across the country calls and reminds you each time how homesick you feel. Go to Israel to live on a kibbutz when he’s restless, agree to be a stranger in a foreign land; then return to the states when he’s ready. Move west again, and then east, each time calling it an exciting venture. Convert to his religion for the sake of the children you’ll eventually have. Carry them in your womb as best you can, then push them out with the entire earth behind you. Create a small civilization that will connect you for the rest of your life.
Chariots of Fire
It’s a sunny autumn afternoon in upstate New York. A Japanese miniature cut-leaf maple turns a brilliant orange in the garden, while dark mums lift their heads in full bloom. With neighbors, I stand on the asphalt driveway of our old Victorian house as they admire my husband’s new car: a brand new brown Saab. His pride shows as he points out the heated seats, fog lights, and a CD player. Our young sons climb into and out of the backseat, the heavy doors slamming with a surprising thud. You can smell the brand new interior, hear the jokes about two cars and a microwave being the beginning of the end. We all admit it is far from graduate school with Crosby, Stills and Nash and a ninety-dollar apartment. Far from the days of a small red Dodge with dents and two-toned paint.
Later there will be a blue Audi and silver BMW, all shine and shimmer in the driveway with afternoons of wash and polish. He admits when referring to my Toyota, We’re different people, repeating this lament often like a warning. It’s a matter of time before he will drive away forever, just before the garden blooms and after the boys have grown.
I dream of cars for a long time: who drives what and where? How fast or how slow are they going? How will I get across a bridge blinded, a phone at my ear with a voice giving me instructions?
It’s always a gray day, isn’t it, when our lives unravel? Some years you fool yourself when you sneak in a romantic trip to Maine or throw a January blues party one cold Saturday night. The two of you hire a piano player and roll up the carpet for dancing. You turn up the music and drown out anything you don’t want to hear. Some years you circle yourself and return to the same place as though you never left. This time you recognize that the boundary out there includes you. You want to throw up your hands to release something bigger than yourself from those dark clouds. But you don’t. You keep your head down, afraid to look up as if to do so would surely extinguish all hope.
The son in his attic bedroom tries to get the shades of gray right with his white paper and black charcoal. He pulls out portraits of his life and traces them with his fingers. He’s begun his artist journey, and though you want to call him down for supper or a chore, you don’t because you know how many years it takes to get it right. You want to tell him about all those shadows or maybe what it will mean to be an artist, but you don’t because you realize you can’t possibly know what you’re talking about yet, and you fear that he’ll tell you that. So you sit back in quiet, envious of the way he keeps finding courage for what cannot stay contained.
I’m not going to see you off from this ending of ours. I’m not going to be the one anymore who takes the clay in her hands and tries to make something out of it. I’m not going to eat any more metaphors like the grilled fish with its tail in its mouth lying on my plate like an ancient oroboros. Not going to unfold another memory or round up the snowflakes melting outside my door. Not going to rummage through a stack of smiling photographs taken in Puerto Rico. Not going to give you any more poems or look for your response. I’m not going to believe your stream of pastel promises, your red resolutions of fairness. Not going to confess any more sins. I’m not going to gather words on your behalf, not going to lose another moment of sleep, won’t ignore my hunger or mirror yours.
No, I’m going to get on my hands and knees and growl like a dragon working her way through a jungle. I’m going to make my heart my own again, stop taking HOPE as a drug. I’m going to let myself drift. Throw out that silk sundress because it’s old and out of style. More importantly: it doesn’t fit. I’m going to take a deep breath and stop negotiating with authority, recheck my assumptions, apply what’s been learned. I’m going to swim in pools of grace, command forces of faith, light up the path ahead with my own gathered moonbeams.
I’m going to step into the day to study that V of geese flying overhead, their graceful wings pushing through cold and bitter air.