Alexandria (RIP Ronald Baggs, 1941-2014)

You never knew what talent you had
Until one year for my birthday
I asked for the greatest gift you could give
The story of your life

I wanted to know who you were
Before I first met you
A grey-bearded wrinkly man
At the age of thirty-nine

I was your last child 
Unplanned but not unwanted:
When the pregnancy was difficult 
And the doctors counseled yit to abort,
You and my mother
Unanimously decided to keep me 
Whatever the risk 
“You were the best mistake I ever made”
You always quipped

And I wanted to know who you were 
I wanted to know who you both were
You were thirty-nine and thirty-four
When I met yit, after all
And I was thrilled beyond imagining
When the chapters started to 
Pour in through the mail

You never knew you could write
But you wrote so well
With clarity, intelligence, humor, and depth
Not a word too much
Not a word too little
Little need for an editor there

You wove your life story seamlessly 
With current events of the day — 
What we now call history
(You were born in 1941 after all)
You included illustrations 
Ranging from silly cartoons
Of childhood mishaps
To aerial views of places you lived 
All tied together 
With the perfect writing style for the job

I loved reading your memoirs 
Alongside my mother’s
Because each made your personalities 
Shine through in your writing style and 
Choice of subject matter 

But you didn’t think you were a writer
Until you sat down and wrote
Mom said you always had it in you
But you were nearly seventy
Before you let it out

(When you were diagnosed with terminal cancer
Metastatized everywhere
No hope of cure
Months if you’re lucky
Days if you’re not
You told my brother 
“If there’s something you want to do
Do it
Don’t wait
None of us knows
How much time we have left.”)

But you were a writer
And you finished your memoirs
And started writing a novel
Based on our family history
During the Okie migration
When you became too weak to type
You dictated to Mom

She told me how thrilled you were 
That I was writing a novel too
I will finish this novel
No matter how long it takes
Because it meant that much to you
Even on your deathbed

You became a writer in your old age 
But you also became a storyteller 
Among the oldest still alive
On your family’s side
To remember
Not just your life
But the lives passed down to you
In stories
From the elders who came before

And now all that is gone
Your only older relative
Your aunt Voicy
Has severe dementia
Everyone else is dead
All that knowledge is lost

I shall seek that knowledge 
The only way left to me
By lowering myself underground 
Where the roots of our family 
Grow deeper and deeper
And the soil is rich with love

I won’t learn any stories 
I haven’t already heard 
Those died with you
Such a wealth of information died with you

I don’t think you fully realized
How much was hidden
In the caverns of your mind
Much like mine
Like dragons we hoarded rich sensory details
In caves hard to get in or out of
But when found
They shone like jewels

But even if I learn no more stories
From our underground root system 
I will be saturated 
In the essence
Of what it is
To be who we are
And the smell of rich soil
Will be its own reward

Understand that to me
Your death was not only
The loss of a loved one
It was also the burning 
Of the library at Alexandria 
And so is the death
Of anyone old
But especially 
An old relative
What is lost can’t be retrieved 

I only wish you were still here
To fill in the blanks
Between the stories
And to share our dragon hoards
And to smell the soil 
On each other’s skin
And know through smell
As through no other sense
That we are a part of each other

Continue reading

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Return to sender: no longer at this address

My mother is a wizard with plants
I kind of knew it already
But when my father was upset
Because he'd never see the morning glories
Bloom again in his life
My mother secretly coaxed
A morning glory vine
Out of season
To bloom, and climb, to bloom, and climb
And she took him outside
To show him the magic she'd done
And that's how much my mother loves my dad

My flowers are my poetry
I coax the words to bloom and grow
And climb and climb into his heart
Even out of season
I use words to express the wordless
And that's one kind of magic I have
And that's how much I love my dad

But one of these days
I'm going to write a poem
It will be full of obscure mountain lakes
And treks across the mountains to the sea
And forest floors that were so much more
And owls hooting up in the trees
It will show him every place
That I could feel his love
Without the emotional bombardment
Of living in the city

And it will be a perfect poem
For that time and that place
It will certainly be better than this one
It will show him that I care for him
(As if he doesn't know by now)
It will show the depth of love
That death can dredge up when you're lucky

And then i will get a phone call or an email
It will start out:
“Go and take your dexamethasone right now.”
And I'll have a sinking feeling
But I'll take the syringe of steroids
And put it in my feeding tube
Then go back to the phone or the computer

Then they'll say
“The news is bad
Your father has passed away
He was far too tired this morning
To check your blog today.”

And all that's left of my magic
Will be words on a screen
Words he may have understood
But will never hope to read

From that point on forwards
We'll be separated by time
We both will have existed
But from that point in time onwards
I will be here and he won't

I wonder how much dexamethasone it takes
To avoid adrenal crisis when your dad dies
I wonder how much magical love it takes
To stand the pain you feel when you realize

That you will never talk to him again
You'll never hug him again
You'll never sit next to each other
With an elderly cat spread across your laps
You'll never ask the questions
You forgot to ask when he was alive
You'll never play with his beard again
And there's so little time
There's so little time

But I'm wrong
Like people are often wrong about time
Eternity is all around us
That's all the time in the world
Eternity is where love exists
Outside of time and space
So even if he never reads my best poems
He'll feel the love that went into them
Just as he feels the love
From that morning glory vine

He feels the love from his two pet dogs
He feels the love from his wife
He feels the love from his three adult children
He says he's lucky to be surrounded
By so much love

So I'm terribly sorry, Ron
If some of my poems don't reach you in time
And i'm terribly sorry Ron
If I try to Skype you and it turns out you're gone
Just know I love you more
Than even the best poet can convey
I love you more than I could ever say

And love is the magic that made my mom
Able to grow those morning glories
And love is the magic that makes me able
To write poems daily after years of dormancy
And love is the magic that connects you to me
It's the way we can feel each other's love
Without any form of contact at all

I hope the place I built for you outside of time
And filled to overflowing with my love
Will see you through

And I hope that I'll continue
Writing poetry to you
Long after you've gone

And I hope it reaches you in Eternity
Or wherever it is you're going

And I hope that even the worst of it
Conveys this message:

I love you
I love you
I love you

The Singing Tree (2004)

She said the ocean, she was sure
We retraced our steps down the rocky cliff
Stars staring down pinpricks into my head
The human condition, she said
The fog obscured my frantic blundering
World whirling in the rain at the top of the tree
We sang a wordless melody
The air sang back to us
She said the ocean, but I was sure the tree
Dug roots into our hearts

Unfolding

Sometimes I want to unfold
The beauty of the world
As if it was the most intricate
Origami flower
That had ever seen the light of day

Then I want to wait
And wait
Until the flower blooms for real
Until its velvet black blossoms
Tinged with purple edges
Grow fuzz that you can run your hand over

And I want to hand it to you
And watch you rub the fuzz
Against your cheek
Against your lips
Against your nose —
The yellow-black stamens tickle

And then fold the flower
Back into paper
And put it in my pocket
For safekeeping

I would make more of them
And write secret notes
That only some people could read

They would say things like:

“The most beautiful things
Are concealed all around you.”

“You are a flower and
This is how you become real.”

“You are unfolding
Just like this.
Don’t hurry,
Don’t wait.”

I would hide them in plain sight
And I would hide them in places
That only the curious and observant
Would bother looking

I would hide them in places
That can only be found
When doing shit work
For 22 cents an hour

I would hide them so that each person
Stood a chance of finding at least one
Just one
That told them what they needed to hear
Right now
Just then

Unfold them, they become real flowers
Fold them, they become folded paper
You can do this as many times as you need
Because they are magic flowers

And if you get good at looking and listening
With more than just your eyes and ears
You will find these creations everywhere
Left by someone
With far more magic
Than I will ever possess

You know when you find one because
Suddenly something ordinary
Becomes extraordinary
Suddenly you’ve been let in on a secret
About something you’d seen before
But never seen before

It can be anything from
A spray of mud on your pants
To a pair of decorated crutches
To a butterfly

It doesn’t have to be pretty on first sight
Many times it isn’t
Many times it seems horrible
Until that flash of inspiration
When it unfolds into a flower in full bloom

And then every texture is like suede
And every color is like the deepest blue before dawn
And every taste is like boiled collards with butter
And every smell is the fur behind a cat’s ears

I wish I had the magic necessary
To make these things myself
To fold reality into paper
And leave it everywhere for people to find

As it is, all I can say is
Someone has already done it

You can find these magic folded papers
On the inside of a zero
In the yawn of a kitten
In a feeding tube
In a wadded up rag
In a tangled old root
In a leaf that skips down the sidewalk

And all of them are flowers
And all of them are there to tell you
There is more in this world than you can ever see
There is more love
There is more light
There is more beauty

And you are part of it
Always
Even
(Especially!)
When everything seems to be
Crashing down around you

Can you accept
This magic spell
This gift
From the world
To me
To you?

Intimacy with Friends and Forests

Part of a blue lapis lazuli ball on a brown background, slightly out of focus.

Part of blue lapis lazuli ball on a brown background, slightly out of focus.

I sink into my body, and it feels like sinking into the moist brown soil in a redwood forest, full of fungus and forgotten redwood needles, and plants, and decay, and life, all at once. I may have left the forest in body, but in my soul it’s right there. Waiting for me to deepen and put down roots.

I can feel every joint in my body as I curl up in a ball and lie on my side. They ache, but also say hello to me, tell me I’m alive, their voices  indistinguishable from the aching.

I stretch my senses out and out and out. I don’t know how I do it. I don’t even know exactly what I’m doing. I just know that even though my bed is my permanent home these days, seldom left except for doctor visits, I’m able to connect to the world more thoroughly than I ever thought possible. I can become the floor of a redwood forest or the sun hitting a granite mountainside. And I can see what most people can’t. Aspects of the world I know some others can see, but seldom talk about? Because how do you describe it? How do you explain it to anyone who isn’t already aware of it? I don’t know.  These things are as ordinary as rocks, they don’t need to be put on a pedestal. But they’re so central to my life I have to talk about them.

I have a doppelganger of sorts. Sometimes it feels like the two of us are branches of the same thing,  connected at a fork. But if I follow the branch back to where we intersect, I can be part of her as well. I can feel the world from behind her eyes.

I love to do it when she’s concentrating on something she loves. She becomes so focused and so delighted, nothing else in the world exists. Other times, though, after a long day at work, she feels buzzy and confused, like her brain just wants to take a nap. I am so glad she works with feral cats. She does so many things I’m not able to do. But I experience them through her, and doing that relieves me of any regret that I’m unable to do those things, as me. It feels like I can do them as her, and that’s enough.

This sounds bizarre, but I’m told by people who know, that there are levels on which identity doesn’t work how people think it does. Maybe it’s really possible for two people to be part of one whole.

It would certainly explain other experiences I’ve had. Where I connect to the world in just the right way at the right time, and suddenly I’m having the experiences and emotions of a mother who lost her child over a century ago. Or even stranger, I slide into the collected feelings of everyone who has ever had a certain experience. It hits me hardest when someone murders an autistic child, and suddenly I want to tell the world that we were there, we saw, we knew, we understood what nobody thought we could… except who is we? I slide in and out of those experiences without trying, and the anguish  becomes mine for that moment before I’m just myself again. I’ve talked to other autistic people who experience the same thing after one of us is killed. It’s involuntary and heart-wrenching.

But when I connect to her, it’s not by accident. I know how to find her. It’s like placing my fingers ever so lightly on a filament too thin to see. And then pulling backwards ever so slightly. And letting myself be guided slowly forward. To the point where we connect.

I do it when I want to check in on her. I do it when I am too weak and too tired to communicate with anyone else, in any other way. I can touch her and know that she is real, that she is out there, that she knows I am here and recognizes how I feel at that moment. I do it almost instinctively when I am in unbearable pain. I touch her mind and she touches mine back, like holding hands with me only without the overload and exhaustion of having someone in the room. And in emergencies. True emergencies where I don’t even know if I’ll pull through. I reach out without even trying, from the stretcher in the ambulance, and she contacts my friends to make sure her instinct that I was hospitalized is correct. She’s never been wrong.

Being around her is like the best parts of being alone and being near someone at once. We can communicate with each other about things that we don’t have the language skills to tell anyone else. We can tell each other things that are impossible to talk about without shared experiences. We know each other as deeply as it is possible to know anyone. And yet we have clear boundaries, we don’t bleed into each other in an unhealthy fashion, we are connected at the core yet separated on the surface, as it should be.

And I lie here curled in a ball, leaning my side on the upward tilt of my hospital bed. I don’t have the energy or cognitive ability to write, to put things into words. But I can hope that at the right time, the words will come and I will be able to describe the inner life that is so hard to explain or describe to anyone but her.

I soak in the night, as I soak in the earth. I reach out into a blue place. A deep shade of blue that glows like the sky above the beginning of a sunrise or the end of a sunset. I’m told that shade of blue has a meaning, but all I know is I catch it hanging around a lot, and that it’s a powerfully good part of the world. Sometimes I have dreams where the entire sky is that shade of blue, and they always seem amazing and important. I try to incorporate it into my paintings.

A lot of what I do at times like this is listen to the world. Listen to it with my bones, even the pain that runs through them seems to enhance my ability to listen. I don’t listen with my ears, I listen in ways that don’t have words. They feel like the forces of gravity, pulling in directions, as if my bones have been replaced by magnets. I listen in gravity and color and in the ability to lose myself inside of things, places, and people.

This is my first language. All of my early memories are of textures, gravity, movement, and colors, blending together. When I was very sick and hospitalized, I had a dream that told me to go back to that, to listen in that way, to root myself in those early experiences of the world and keep going as far as it could take me. So, when I remember, I do. I sink into my body and I listen to the world, I feel its movements inside me, I see color and texture. And most of all, my entire body feels connected to the rest of the world in such a deep way that there aren’t words for it. I can feel where my place is, where I belong, and that I am there all the time.

I prefer not to give these ways of experiencing the world a lot of words. I don’t even bother explaining how it works, other than that the world is different than many people think it is, and that my best mode of thinking and understanding is perceptual rather than conceptual. But I know these things are real, because other people who experience the world as I do feel the same textures and see the same colors. When I connect to someone, they know it and we talk about it. So whatever else this may be, it’s more than imagination.

And for me, is one of the most important things in my life. This is where I get my strength. This is where I get my sense of connection, of having a place in the world. This is where I go when I’m too exhausted and in too much pain to do anything else. This is how I have come to know that my body is me, not a thing separate from me that I fight with. And this is how I know that I am much more than my body at the same time. That identity, time, and a lot of other things, don’t work the way people think they do.

This is how I know that however else I feel about them, my disabilities are deeply embedded in my individual body, in the physical manifestation of my existence. They are not tacked on as an afterthought. And they are sometimes deeply involved in how I do this. My ability to see the world from this perspective at all is deeply connected to the traits that get me labeled autistic. Sinking into my body like that means constant awareness of pain, of things struggling to function but not always managing. Being bedridden for years has somehow enhanced these abilities, and so has encountering death up close and personal.

Speaking of death, I could swear that as a young adult living in the redwoods again, my surroundings talked to me about it, in their own way. About how when you die, all these different life forms live off of you. Bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, trees. They all eat you, and you become a part of them. And in being part of them, you have been absorbed into the rest of the world. And there’s something profoundly beautiful about the way that death is part of life, and life is part of death.

And that is why death holds no fear for me. But for now, I am alive. And I sink into my body. And joy is as deep and physical as pain. And they are as intertwined with each other as life and death. I feel my way towards my friend. I feel her focused delight in existing. Then I feel the sun on the granite, as if I am not me, but some combination of sun and granite, right where they intersect. I feel the sturdiness of rock that is part of mountains. I feel things that have never been given names, gravitational magnetic forces tugging deep in my bones. I never feel as if I leave my bedroom. I am firmly anchored right where I am, no matter what I feel, I feel it here. But I feel like I can touch other places, other people, without leaving this place.

So I am curled up, leaning against the tilted bed. But I’m also curled up leaning against the base of the enormous redwood known to people from Redwood Terrace as the Mother Tree. I hear singing, without hearing a sound. And besides its normal colors, the tree is also a shade of lavender that exactly matches my amethyst ring. And also transparent to a light so clear it’s invisible. A solidness sinks down into my bones. I stay there until I fall asleep.

My Head Is Wrong, But Things Will Be Alright

I did more today and in general this week than I should. Too much exertion. Too much work.

My skin burns everywhere.

The world is shimmering. There’s a background flicker. Then there’s orange and yellow shimmery spots everywhere.

My ears are ringing in a very high pitch that nothing can block.

My tongue is weird.  It’s poised for verbal tics. Poised in a highly unpleasant way. But there’s no words or noises. Just the threat of words or noises.

But there are words in my head. Or ideas, just before they get formed into words. They are flooding every which way.

My head is buzzing.

All the above things are connected together, part of the same whole.

So the words flicker and the flickering buzzes and the buzzing is orange and yellow and the orange and yellow are made of words and three words burn.

Please stop please stop please stop.

This is not me. This is me, lost. This is me, lost in the world of words. If it would only be quiet and still again I would be me.

This is the world I lived in made my own barged my way into no matter the pain, from the ages of approximately seven to twelve.

And then and then the words fell apart and everything was fragments and I was picking up the pieces.

But I was just that much closer to me?

At least now it is only minutes hours days instead of weeks months years.

I finally find it. .

I tell my mind to be silent, to stop telling itself stories, the lies we all tell ourselves about the world.

Silence.

Silence.

Silence.

These things are not me.

They are outside me. Bombarding me. But the prickly burning ringing orange words are not me.

I tell them to leave.

They have no place in my mind. My home.  My life.

My brain does not need to accept this world of words, let it worm its way into my head, tell me how to feel, how to live, how to be.

It’s an intrusion into my life. Not a thing to aspire to or identify with.

But I have deep roots in places no words can go. And those give me an immunity to the kind of words that exist only to delude and invade.

Those words can’t touch me.  They can’t even see me.

If I reach down far enough I am made of clarity. I am made of joy.  I am made of strength. I am made of love. I am made of silence.

Silence.

That’s what matters.

Silence.

Photosynthesis

Sometimes I have climbed a tree
All the way to the top
And pressed my body into the trunk
Until I didn’t know where I ended
And the tree began

I’ve never liked the feel of sun on my skin
But on top of the tree it’s different
Because on the tree my skin gives way to leaves
And the sun means food to them

It’s a popular thing to say these days
That if a person is different enough from you
You’ll never understand them from the inside

But photosynthesis has taught me that’s wrong
Because I feel what it’s like
To get food from the sun
And to follow that sunlight the whole day long

My skin becomes bark
My bones become wood
My hair becomes leaves
My feet become roots
And rather than hating the sun on my skin
It sings me a food song
A life song
A love song
A light song

And if I can resonate with a tree
To photosynthesize as if I have leaves
Then surely I can resonate with
A member of my species
Who’s different from me
Even if they tell me
It can’t be done

When I Say Love

When I say love
I mean the way the granite feels
When caressed by the sun
On a hot summer day

When I say love
I mean the way redwoods feel
When they drink in mist
Through their leaves

When I say love
I mean how the redwoods
Iterate an entire forest
In one tree

When I say love
I mean the way the redwood sorrel
Always finds its way up
To carpet the forest floor

When I say love
I mean the way roots find water
And help the plant grow straight
While the leaves search for light

When I say love
I mean how the leaves feel
When they turn sunlight
Into food

When I say love
I mean the way one old redwood
In a forest of newer growth
Holds up the entire ecosystem

When I say love
I mean lichen and moss
And salamanders
Who never leave the treetops

When I say love
I mean soil on the ground and in the trees
That allows death, decay, and rebirth
And endlessly creates life

When I say love
My body may be in bed
But I have slipped off to the forest
Through an impossibly deep blue twilight sky
To curl up at the foot of the Mother Tree
And bask in Her amethyst glow
And maybe, maybe
Be brought into the soil
To decay, to grow, to live
To soak up some of Her love

A Poem About Realness (1999)

In the center of the wood in tangled gnarling knots I sit
In every part of every tree I grow the waiting path
The light that filters through the trees reflecting colors dark and deep
The stars that glimmer through the leaves reflect me just the same

The roots that travel searching deep and ancient through the darkened soil
The smell of earth that tells you more than any sight can say
The deepened grooves inside the bark that guide you winding wondering
The stillness deepness permeates and holds within the path

The moss is dangling from the outer branches of the tallest trees
The higher branches reaching leaves and needles to the sun
The warmth and cool unearthened sound that makes the forest what it is
The paths they take all from one place which in all paths begun

I sing the song that comes from there and blends and sharpens in the trees
That changes still and stays the same and shines in forest light
That twists and turns and follows flying endless into from the path
Where travelers and wanderers may in the end find me

A wanderer might find the path in smallest roots and gnarling trees
The spaces in between the trees might show the path as well
The forest and the stars will show emerging patterns still the same
And if the forest brings you fear, then you have not found me

The ancient stillness of the wood reflected from and through my world
For at the center lies the path and in the path is me
However wild the wind may blow the movement of my path remains
For if you fear the forest’s edge then you have not found me