Month: August 2014

Poetry and Dogs: On Trying Not to Remember


While I am trying hard

to not remember what I can’t remember

A black, long haired, lanky dog

trots up the northbound ramp

of a Nashville highway.

Collar swinging,

Head set forward.

Someone will miss him.

I twist a poem on to his trot.


When I resume

the not remembering,

I slow to a stop.

A breakfast clementine rolls,


from the passenger’s seat to the floor.

I tap the eulogy

of the dog’s trot,

and leave the fruit be

with last November’s leaves

and the other things

dying not to be remembered.

Lion, Moose-Moose, and Doris: On Naming Things



Fluffy-Snowball-Wigglesly-PinkNose-Kitty-Puppy-Princess earned her reputation as the fiercest in the kingdom of my bedroom shortly after that one vomit incident that landed her in the washing machine faster than I could pick her name for the week.  Or his name for the week.  The process of naming the white stuffed cat was difficult enough without also having to consider its gender.  And for a girl who believed she may have accidentally had her own gender swapped at birth, who was I to base my sex-assessment on the creature’s delicate whiskers and powder pink nose?

My allegiance to Fluffy-Snowball-Wigglesly-PinkNose-Kitty-Puppy-Princess was a quiet one, squashed somewhere between my family’s reputation of we-drive-only-Fords-and-love-only-dogs and my Grandma Graham’s intense phobia of cats, which weighed down the family compound’s air with a magical thickness that averted every stray cat in the neighborhood.  And if that spell didn’t work, they were methodically executed.

There was order in my animal kingdom.  Lists and schedules were in place to ensure that everyone from Izzy the Plastic Lizard to Thomas the Overweight Walrus With the Missing Tusk had equal Going Out time.  As the youngest, equality was extremely important. And yet, for a creature I had such mixed feelings for, unable even to settle on a name, Fluffy-Snowball-Wigglesly-PinkNose-Kitty-Puppy-Princess found herself tagging along more than her fair share.  This often caused minor revolts among the Plush, leading to heartfelt speeches explaining that it wasn’t that I loved her more, it’s that…


But I couldn’t explain it.  I really didn’t like Fluffy-Snowball-Wigglesly-PinkNose-Kitty-Puppy-Princess more.  I wasn’t even sure that I liked her at all.  They sensed my uncertainty.  I paused too long.  I was overcompensating.  Brandon the Blue Smiley Man sneered.  Soda Pop Dexter the Dalmation sniveled.  Mutiny!  And before I could stammer an adequate apology, even the balcony of Beanie Babies turned away in disgust.

If I learned nothing else from The Neverending Story, it is that having a pet dragon would be ideal.  And also, the importance of naming things.  While authors and artists will tell you that naming things dispels fear and creates a brighter world, the art of naming and remembering those names is tricky business.  It is the commitment to something more chaotic than our brains find manageable.  Or it is accidentally loving a certain white cat I know I have been genetically predisposed to hate.  A stalwart in time and space is established, and the name can be loaded up with memories and the sorts of feelings and judgments it didn’t bargain for.  If I didn’t pick and remember a name, I didn’t have to care that Fluffy-Snowball-Wigglesly-PinkNose-Kitty-Puppy-Princess was dangling precariously from a second story window with a leering 10-year-old boy holding her by the tail.  I could casually pick her up from the mud, you know, whenever, and no one would suspect my secret-traitor-cat-liking tendencies.


Only three animals remain, none of which are Fluffy-Snowball-Wigglesly-PinkNose-Kitty-Puppy-Princess.  None of which are even from my childhood.  For reasons that are beyond me, I still take them off my bed every night, and place them back on every morning.  I get mad when my dog tries to chew them.  I guard them like I guarded my Plush inner circle– back when they spent nights in my bed and days playing on my floor, instead.  And I named them, definitively.  Doris, a cheap, lightweight bunny with a pink bow, became mine the day my mother picked me up from the psych ward in seventh grade.  My mother pleaded me to squeeze her instead of cutting myself next time I felt overwhelmed.  Lion, with his bean butt and his tousled mane, sits center.  He was purchased by my mother as a surprise from a play we traveled all day by bus with her church to see.  He was the beginning of the end of my religion, and the end of the start of leaving home.  Moose-Moose, all white and wearing purple earmuffs, was given to me after that five-year-secret-relationship-with-that-guy-who-should-be-in-jail-because-he-is-14-years-my-senior ended.  My mother presented Moose-Moose to me as a consolation for the bruises on my arms, and as a hopeful re-institution of the teenage years I never had.

They spent most of their time in the bottom of my closet during my three years of marriage, while I took on someone else’s name.  When I got my name back, they got their place back, too.  And now, a bullmastiff named Butter joins them in the carrying the secrets and weight of what I can’t always hold on to at once.  They are a difficult crew to keep tagging along, but at least they are remembered because they are named.  That’s more than Fluffy-Snowball-Wigglesly-PinkNose-Kitty-Puppy-Princess ever got.

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It is not so much what the name is, but the the remembering of the name.  The uneasiness of remembering names is the uneasiness of knowing something or someone so well.   We can group them and break them apart and reassemble them under a different blanket that is still as functional as the first:

Chair = Red Chair = Furniture.  And we sit in that comfortably.

But name the chair Harold, and suddenly our ears prick and the room becomes a little more confusing and full of this presence: Harold.

We know chairs.  Red ones and blue ones.  We’ve met comfortable ones and cold metal ones, but we’ve never met a Harold Chair before.  So we commit to remembering the parts of the chair that make it distinctly Harold.  And we wonder how many other chairs we have mistaken only as chairs.  We’ve spent all this time stereotyping and grouping, and now with Harold erupts chaos.

So we forget his name.  It’s easier.  And when we see him next, we can uncomfortably sit and squint our eyes and find a way to casually ask, “And what was your name again?”

But Harold won’t answer.  He’s only a chair.


O Holy Night: On Singing in Mini Vans and Lacking Self Awareness

The suspense of the final night divine begins at the first meandering piano plunks.  Behind every kind face is a growing anxiety, with stomach knots that raise like baking monkey bread and feel like Christmas fruitcake in April.  And, for the singer and the audience, there is no going back.  When O Holy Night begins, the sanctuary sways, the bricks that once held us in a small Western Pennsylvania town cease their hold and we are a ragtag crew beneath the well-meaning, but often ill-equipped captain.  The accompanist, mute in the crow’s nest, looks diligently ahead– the only one who can warn us of our impending future as the glacial freeze creeps up on every stained-glass apostle– and she is silent.  So are we.


By the time I was 10 years old, we had been let down by every willing-and-able old lady and young man in the congregation who attempted to swoon us with their rendition of O Holy Night.  That soaring, beautiful, climax of a tone remained in tact as the greatest myth in caroling history.  As the song rolled forward, we watched the sweat building on the forehead of our latest attempt, the panic permeating through the room as every radiator popped its sneer.  O night!  O shit—!

Sometimes they aborted mission altogether.  It was easy to tell whether this was premeditated, as their shoulders relaxed and their eyes communicated to each face, “It’s okay!  The waters are calm!  I, your fair-weather captain, will politely drop you off in exactly the place you find yourself now.”  But the sonic nutritional depletion that was met with a last second abandon left a freeze in the spine that rested squarely between the shoulders through the end of the sermon.  We were failed.  Brave is the one who dared us, shame on the one who spared us, the old congregational sea song goes.

As I remember it, we were required to outsource her.  It was a particular point of pride that she just-so-happened-to-be-related-to-me-somehow.  Cherie’ (said Sher-ee, like something fancy– not like the usual peasant names) entered into that December Sunday morning like a spring time songbird, nestling herself toward the front of the wood-and-paint sanctuary.  In my remembery, she was silent until she took stage, preserving this great gift– her personal mission to this congregation, who was starving for the final diviiiiiiiiine! as an octave– in tune, as it was written in the sacred hymnals and forever it shall be, Amen.


When sweet, kind, angel of God Cherie’ finished, every clogged spinal chill that remained from every other rendition released within those seafoam green walls.  Even the radiators remained silent in reverence.  It was true.  It could be done.  And we were the long-suffering, deck-swabbing witnesses.

I remained stunned through the sermon and the obligatory closing hymns.  I hated them.  I hated that these impossibly ungrateful beggars could themselves stand and pollute the soundscape with their haggard voices, after the miracle that had just come through and washed years of failure away.  Why was this woman not being hoisted onto our shoulders and marched around the building in a celebratory and accurate reenactment of Jericho?  Let these walls come down, for Godssake, for they will never again bear witness to the phenomenon we have heard today!

While the rest of them filed out and politely thanked her for her time and talents, I ran out of the building and to my family’s Barney-colored minivan.  What did I have to say to this holy presence, this sacred songstress?  What could I possibly tell a woman who has freed us from our enslavement of sour-note finales, Christmas season after Christmas season?

I replayed the performance as we made the short trek home.  Sometime after we got off of the new highway (it’s has been called the “new highway” since it was constructed sometime in the early 80’s), I heard an argument reaching its own finale.

“…but she’s being so loud!” my brother wailed.

“Leave her alone,” was my father’s reply.  “Let her sing.”

Let who sing? I thought.  That’s when I realized it.  I shut my mouth.  The operatic timbre that had been roaring in replay through my head stopped.  It was me!  I caught my father’s eyes in the rearview mirror, his ears raising from a smile.

“Keep going,” he said.

I was at the last divine.  This was the moment– mine.  Before I could lose momentum, I charged the octave with the ferocity of mother bear–

If I didn’t nail it, I must have blocked it out.  Either way, I’ve never had the gumption to do it again.  At least not in public.


My father’s look in the mirror is what I remember best.  Even Cherie’ and her eternal-praise-be-to-God performance has loose ends and creaking floorboards that have been lost in the account (forgive-me-for-I-have-sinned).  But his face is the face of someone who doesn’t understand, or understands better, and wants the thing– the thing!– that is happening to continue to happen uninhibited.  The restraint it must take for a forty-something father of four, with the yelling and bickering and bangs and bumps– the orchestra of unappreciated sounds and squabbles that come from the creatures you have made and you have raised– and above all of them to have the squealing 10-year-old belting in her best opera voice, inciting more angry mock opera voices from more of your spawn.

And then to respond with let her sing.