I just got word that three of my poems will be featured on the Poets for Living Waters site. (I encourage you to visit there, but don’t look for my poems, they aren’t up yet. I’ll let you know when.) The project was initiated by Amy King and Heidi Lynn Staples in response to the oil “spill” in the Gulf.
Spill is such an innocuous word, isn’t it? A little swab with a paper towel and we’re all set. Much better than repeated- perpetration-of-habitat-destruction-in-defiance-of-known-hazards-and-deliberate-flouting -of-best- practices- in- the- name- of- commerce.
Obviously, happy as I am to have the poems in the world, the triggering event is devastating, and what’s especially disturbing to me is that although the poems are appropriate to this project, they weren’t written in response to it. Two of the poems were written after Katrina, one was written even earlier—an amalgam of my general anxiety about what we’re doing to our world.
Right now I’m worried about sinkholes. Is it just me, are we hearing more about them, or have we so damaged the infrastructure of our planet that it can literally no longer support us? Good metaphor, bad reality.
Sorry if this post is a downer. So far, Pokey has pretty much avoided the topical other than that which pertains to mothering and art. But I’m losing sleep over this—and I think that’s appropriate. So I’m grateful to people like Heidi and Amy for making a place to speak to our anger and grief, and I’m going to finish this post with a piece I wrote when my son was four. So—five years ago. Before this particular crisis, but sadly, still relevant.
Where I live people spend a lot of time in their car. It’s not L.A., rather, long stretches of rural asphalt and dirt between home and school, home and work, home and the grocery store.
On a recent ride I had my four year-old son in the back. Driving with my children usually requires a near prehensile ability to navigate, answer questions, distribute snacks, retrieve said snacks from the floor, and moderate disputes, all while listening to an endless stream of gripes, jokes and original songs with active and vociferous appreciation.
On this trip, however, it’s just Isaac and me, and he’s uncharacteristically silent. I’m using the free air space to compile yet another to-do list in my head when he breaks in: So, Mom, how do we kill the squirrels?
That morning he and his sister found a trap in the bathroom closet, set for the red squirrels that get stuck in our walls and plague us with their slow, noisy, and highly olfactory deaths. At the time neither child made much of the discovery nor did I offer up an explanation. Cornered, I whip off a quickly edited answer: We put food in the trap and the squirrels come to eat it.
Then what happens?
Well, the trap springs and comes down on their neck and they can’t move.
And they’re dead, he says, relentless.
Yes, and before he has a chance to probe further I explain about rodents and diseases and the need to keep what’s outside, outside, etc., etc.
A mile of silence from the back seat, then: And why do we kill the ants?
He’s referring to our recent invasion of sugar ants. They’d issued forth from an invisible crack in our stairs, formed a brigade up several risers, and after hugging a yard or so of baseboard, made a party out of our cat food. I tried to discourage them with the vacuum cleaner, but when my husband got home he set out poison–cheerfully painted metal disks that bear an incongruous resemblance to Mardi Gras noisemakers. Next day the ants were gone.
I again give my breezy analysis about our need to keep the house closed to outsiders, and again my reasoning is met with lengthy silence, then: Mom, why did Darth Vader go over to the dark side? Why did he become bad?
Let me say that Isaac has never seen the Star Wars movies; regardless, he gets plenty of exposure to epic battles of every stripe. He talks constantly about collisions between good and evil; he’s often in various stages of dress that reflect his interpretation of one or another superhero, knight, Power Ranger, Transformer, Bionicle and other assorted “action figures.”
I’ve given up on squelching this fascination, though not without mentally comparing him to my daughter, who as a preschooler during the first Gulf War led her class in a peace march through our town’s sole four-way intersection. It doesn’t take much to get me to march that story out; proud evidence that she, at least, has absorbed some of my “values.”
But here we are: the bird’s come home to roost—this “feathered thing” that represents, perhaps not Dickinson’s hope, but a straining toward something just as elusive, and here is my beloved boy child, trying to find his way in a world that constantly bombards him with mixed messages about power and control, aggression and compassion. How does he protect himself? How does he choose? My carefully constructed rationales fall away: why do we kill the squirrels? the ants?
Because they get in our way. Because it’s easy. Because we can.
Now it’s my turn to be quiet. I scratch around for an answer that has some truth in it, that shows respect for his struggle: Because, I say, maybe for some people it’s easier to be bad than good. Or being the bad guy looks like more fun. Maybe they don’t think they’re being bad, maybe they think the other guy is, or maybe they just don’t think about it at all.
Oh, he says, and I can tell that this time, he’s done. Neither of us says anything else. We keep driving, the gas in our tank turning to exhaust, darkening the air behind us.
Next week: back to poetry, the book, the baby, the restless, slow-dawning consciousness of Pokey Mama.