4/2/2020 | Lake Distance
Lake Ontario has gone still, reflecting the city.
The beach is hushed with the open secret.
Young children and dogs see the shapes of the letters
Of the signs telling us to keep our distance.
Looking south, if the day was clearer,
I might see the shadow outline of New York State,
And hallucinate the wheeze of ventilators
In the swirl of open air that is the border.
My partner plays balance beam on bleached driftwood
With our seven year-old.
She mirrors his overflowing age,
And shows him how we come from each other.
Our four year-old commands his nana
To stand six feet back;
He holds up a stop-sign hand and grins
As if the world were a traffic game.
But she can’t help herself from reaching for him.
The generations want to collapse into each other.
Some of us will never understand
How this is suddenly dangerous.
My own grandmothers no longer have bodies.
Eyes closed, I can fall into their talced arms.
They breathe out soft, clipped stories
Of the war, rationing, polio, standing on the road
To sell sandwiches to truck drivers.
Hanging out laundry in the attic.
Of a baby born premature and kept warm
In a cooling bread oven,
And making Sunday dinners for twelve on a single dollar.
As a child I saw their eyes gleam and took it for devotion,
But missed the spark of holding me to account:
“How will you make good on all of this?”
I missed the winces of pain as they shifted
From hip to hip in the twilight armchairs.
Neither had a place to name their feelings,
Nor, perhaps, anyone to hear them.
I’m ashamed for the time I spent mistaking
Silence and class dignity for avoidance.
What were all those books for? The wandering?
Why am I only learning to garden now?
Why did anyone give us credit cards?
Why did I always find something to do
To keep me hovering above this moment of water?
How did it happen that I was distracted so often
From the most fragile, vanishing things?
Why did I pry these minutes apart from each other
As if my life resided between them,
Gazing at imaginary problems,
As if these grains weren’t the continuity I sought?
None of the scriptures or poems prepared me,
Or maybe all of them did.
Like the one where the son asks the father
“Tell me about the innermost self.”
And the father says to the son,
“Like the salt mingled in ocean water,
You are that, you are that.”
Today the son would ask
“Tell me what the virus is.”
Because religion left me nothing but kind guesses,
I would say: “It’s not quite alive, but it can die.
It doesn’t know chest pain, or the feeling of drowning.
It thrives when it is within us.
It makes us aware of each other.”
I had a friend who died in his car
After swallowing a little white pill.
He was a Buddhist who helped and didn’t help people
In relation to how much he marvelled and suffered.
He taught me the phrase, “trouble and joy.”
He’s sitting with me here, closer than six feet,
We talk about impermanence, which he no longer has to test.
I murmur “I can’t believe you’re missing this”,
Meaning children, a partner, the virus.
I hope he ate that pill like those monks
Who pretend to eat the last plum on earth.
He was obsessed with the resonance between
The suffering self and the suffering world, and
I still can’t tell whether this is perceptive or grandiose.
White men can be both as we fantasize
About helping more than we help.
But sitting here now, body and ghost,
Perhaps we waste less time.
The seven year-old comes in for a hug.
He’s too big for my lap. I’ll be getting smaller.
My wife continues balancing practice, for her own joy.
The light changes. It doesn’t matter how.
I’m grateful I didn’t bring my phone.
Sitting back on the kitchen counter,
It fills up with exponentials:
infection rates, grief, financial ruin, platitudes.
If I had brought it, I may have thrown it,
To skip on the glassy water like a mute black stone.