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paper boat

my son leans into the froth of the bank where

the water meets the grass where

the earth met its match —

Deft dangle of the paper ship as

it slips onto the plodding surface and

merrily complies to the rules of its tension –

the consternation of that legible face written with

eagerness and unbattened itching of hope for

the boat to go —

But then it goes

and the mouth cheers but the heart chugs

after like a tow boat, too slow to

do anything but let the wish swim

with the creek to the other side

of knowing, where the lurking curve of the earth

hides Before and After from showing up despite

the insistence of the dogged grimace that is

defining my son’s first instance of the bittersweet

kind of grief that floats through us and all of our

preciousness and equal possessiveness —

 

we tried and tried to yank the masts

of the soggy flotilla that passes through

and through and through

2 Poems

March Dogwood

trees shudder petals

white blossoms fly, float, scatter

kindness spills from you

 

MESSENGER

by my mother’s yellow pillow

i tangle the spiral wire around my little fingers

i shout into the plastic phone receiver with

the little black holes for ears

an angel into her trumpet

DON’T BE AFRAID

GOD IS RIGHT INSIDE YOU

YOU ARE NEVER ALONE

my chest shadows the room with sunbeams

my feet feel solid on the wood floor

my heart has swallowed the dark and

all is magnified

praise the lord says the telephone

i am a prophesy

 

if a jellyfish

if a giant globulous oval

a lavendar luminescent hernia from the fat of the sky

bulged forth, or rather skimmed and

no, not a metallic enclosure, chainmail and shadows,

buzzing with the scratched record music of other solar systems

but a gentle giantess from the deep

swimming up, large as a city

gush of slickness rimming its open underside

with eagerness and a glistening

it looks like it could levitate over

the houses, suction down and vaccuum us into its core

cup us in her gratuitous mouth while her tender

tendrils explored the doorways left open, the other

hollows of our various entrances

if such a creature came up into the horizon

and later we made a movie about it

if we are still around to make movies about it

i wonder what sounds we will pretend she made

i wonder how fierce we will try to play her

and who will get the lead roles

and who will we pretend gets eaten up

or stung, stunned into a corpse position

and yelling, save yourselves!

 

in the days after

Even Mary in the hallway who is not

political and who, last year, in the planning

meeting for the office holiday party, went off

about how we should use the word Christmas and

stop worrying about other people’s feelings – even she

used the word GRIEF when I told her how

I sat in the minivan in the parking lot at CVS

weeping, while on the radio, President Obama tried

to make us feel better. The loss sat on my chest

like a crow, waiting for the sure thing, the rot to

start in my heart so he can start feeding, his cleverness

clawing my sweater, my tears glossing his dark

feathers, and beside me the groceries, and medicines,

and Mary says, yes, it is just like that. My children told

me yesterday, of course, mother, birds are carnivores, 

and they always have been, with conviction. Why

didn’t I know that? Or see it coming?

We have all been judged, it seems, and the crows

line up around the top of the office building to

and bicker, loud as ever, deliver each sentence – to

Mary, to me, and you – of the quick and the dead.

 

 

 

at the meeting. for chris.

I shoved my face with crappy chocolate during the meeting tonight.

Crappy, stale hersheys and rolos hard as pebbles and I’m pretty sure

I consumed the paper cupping the reeces, in my haste, in my eagerness to

erase what I found out today, that you, they wrote, “passed away.” Usually, I text

you, whether you’re just listening in or sitting next to me; you make me laugh

and I have to pretend I’m coughing.

I didn’t pay attention to your coughs.

I am angry. I did not know you had any chance of waning. Your oxygen tanks

got heavy, it seemed, grew empty too soon, arrived too late, but still, you

never said you were close to running out. I want to ask you about this, right

now.

They want to pass another resolution; this time, about you. I want to hear

your reaction to that one.

I sit and listen, sort of, and there’s no one to chortle with, no one who gets

the ridiculousness, who can share my angst. Motions, seconds,

minutes, memos, sorrow, rage. And we never got drinks. Never

met each other’s wives. It was always going to happen, soon, right?

They still don’t really get why we’re here, Chris. I still don’t understand

what the point is, if any of this is worth it. We sit and argue and debate

and struggle to communicate, shuffle papers, take notes, slug coffee, pretend

we know what we’re talking about. Try to take change seriously. Try not to

take ourselves too seriously. Give up, hold strong, give in, stay put? Hard

to say what really matters, in the end. What is right, and true, and good.

And to what end? Yours? I spend the night waiting for you to arrive

somehow. I scribble on the agenda items and crumple the silvery wrappers

and then it’s over and we had a moment of silence and it was a big

empty hole and you weren’t in it, and then we are adjourned, to meet

again, to meet again without you, on paper, and with our

well-intentioned resolution to remember your laugh, your cough,

the precious rasp of every last breath that we catch

for just enough to love it, and that is, must be, enough. But

you know, it really isn’t.

Yoga Jealousy

In yoga class, the lady in front of me can stretch her leg up in the air and close to her ear, performing Bird of Paradise like she’s got feathers or something. She folds over her outstretched legs and touches the ground. She manages a bind I struggle to find. Her balance is impeccable, and I am quivering, falling, and – yes, shooting her mean looks.

But, it’s yoga class, and it’s a class focused on community, and how we’re supposed to be energetically HELPING each other through the practice, and I’m supposed to enjoy this process without judgment, of myself or others.

I am full of judgment. Of myself and others. Totally.

Taking Notice of My Ego

BUT – I notice it. I take note.

I notice an older woman on the other side of the room. Her twist barely exists, and I puff up a bit because I am more limber and can shove myself further than she can. I feel sorry for her. I forgive her for her saggy inflexibility. I feel good about myself for my own magnanimity.

I notice how ego-centric these feelings are. I notice how I automatically resent people who seem “better” than me – prettier, more confident, better yogis, better at life. Even the yoga teacher’s warm honey insights as she leads the class, which I love, which I benefit from, remind me that I am not her, and the thought is: I could be her, I could be someone who mattered, but I am not.

All this competition – why? What am I wanting? To be all these other people? To be the best? To only be around people who are worse at things than me? REALLY???

The worst part about this line of thinking is that I think of myself as hating the “bad” people – the privileged, annoying, shallow, blonde, stupid, spoiled girls – and loving the good people – the homeless, impoverished, old, disabled folks with bald spots and bad skin.And that has made me CONGRATULATE myself. As if I am somehow HOLY because of that.

But I am not holy. I am an egotistical chump. I just feel lesser than the ‘bad people,’ insecure and judged by and rejected by and lacking in their presence. Around the “good people,” I come out looking, smelling, seeming pretty good.

Good vs. Bad Guys, Liberal-Christian Style

This is a pitfall I’ve seen in well-meaning, liberal churches I’ve belonged to – who believe they are champions of the  poor and disenfranchised, but really have fallen into the Noble Savage-esque trap of as idealizing ourselves as their benefactors – as demonstrated in the desire to give them money but not really have them next to us in the pews. That, and a tendency to demonize the rich and privileged – the problem being that it’s the same pattern of “us vs. the other” and “good vs. bad” and judging others and doing so based on externalities that us good guys detest in the people we think of as bad. So – I caution those who are proud of their Good Works, or who think they are the Good Guys. We are, all of us, bad and good, and, ultimately on the same side, and glorifying a person because they are underprivileged and demonizing someone because they are privileged is just as bad as the reverse, especially when doing so is all about stroking your own ego and not about loving others at all!

Turning Over Rocks, then Leaves

Wow. I hate it when I realize stuff like this about myself. Turning over the rock – finding the ugly mold growing there.

We were bending forward, standing up, balancing on one foot, sweat in my eyes. And I allowed myself to believe that the girl in front of me with rubberband limbs could actually be a wonderful, worthy, lovely person, loved by God as much as I am, and I let her, in my mind, be as awesome at yoga as she was, while allowing that I am me, however I am, and we need everyone in this world, in every spot level they are, and it’s ok, and I wish her no harm.

My heart expanded from its tight, knuckled fist.

It was gripping so tight to hating her, to hating myself.

Loving her, I felt love for myself. (It’s amazing how intimately connected to the two directions of love are!)

Forgiveness for me for not being perfect.

We all want and deserve love. Even the blonde skinny girls who can do handstands effortlessly.

Live the Life You Love? Is that Right?

I’m sure somewhere someone has written a thesis paper on the conversation that takes on our cars – you know, the way we talk to each other through bumper stickers.

Many of them say, plainly, “this is my identity,” “this is something I like,” or “I support x.”

Others shout at you. Some offer unsolicited advice in the form of platitudes. Some make bad jokes. Some get snarky. Many declare a position or political stance – as if you asked.

Some bumpers host a veritable sticker wallpaper. These people always look like they have so much to say and are sorry the canvas for their expression is as small as it is. Other cars have one bumper sticker, and I always think, Wow, you are boring.

Some bumper stickers arouse anger, others a chortle, rolled eyes, disgust.

I mean, there’s a lot to analyze here, right?

Anyway, Friday the bumper sticker that stuck on the dashboard of my brain admonished me to LIVE THE LIFE YOU LOVE.

Why not “love the life you live,” I silently asked the person in the car. And I thought about how those two phrases represent a constant battle I have inside my head between the two approaches to life: Either find peace, acceptance, be open to, aware of, and go with the flow of how things are, OR Follow your bliss, your heart, your passion, your sense of justice and work to change the world, your life, your relationships, your community for the better.

Image: Fat Buddha dueling with a stick-figure Jesus. Buddha’s weapon – a flower. Jesus – a sword. Both of them full of love and compassion for the world. Both of them significantly changing the world. And people on the sidelines arguing about who changed it for the better (the Crusades don’t help out Jesus’ side, for instance).

Of course, no one really wins this battle, and neither phrases or approaches wins me totally, either. Are they two sides of the same coin? Are they spokes on a wheel, revolving? What I imagine, actually, is a seesaw – once I put all my weight in one camp, I sink – and have to move to the other side. And I keep going back and forth and never settling on either. But then it turns out it was a fun ride. (I really miss seesaws, FYI.)

I get worried that I don’t have a single mantra to follow. I pick one path and it is just not enough so I pick another. And then I’m just walking in circles.

But on the other hand, I don’t think one mantra can cut it. You can’t slice the baby in half.

Both are true. Both/and.

Live the life you love, and love the life you live. And repeat.

A Prayer for When I Speak Without Thinking (poem)

oh mother, mother goddess,

why does my blood run cruel

my itch get bitchy and my crank get yanked

and the words that snake

from my mouth are thankless

and poorly wrought, combustible

idiocy, dropped without thought

of how explosive they can be –

and the trigger is pulled –

fast forward to the fragments

of trust littering the bed linens, glittering

with glass dust, the way the universe does

with dead stars – our galaxy

a gated community, constantly

busted up by the undesirable

characters from the neighborhoods

of the past – at least, these ghosts

feast on the order we’ve stashed, graze

on the joy we’ve hoarded here, hoping

to have enough to last –

am i so lazy, so lousy

at boundaries, so clumsy

with my good intentions, that i yank

the sweetness out from under

her feet, and say sorry, and repeat,

bruising the blessed

with my sarcastic remarks and my dour

self-pity, as effective as perforated

safety glasses – my heart is defended

but my love is upended, and the black

holes extend their unwelcome invitations

to get utterly distended, right there on

the front lawn, easy as a lemonade stand –

disaster is so inexpensive,

so easily dispensed,

and disorder is what makes the world

unfurl and get busy with creating

new life – entropy and heat

and chaos increase – and the fractious

lashes of my tongue and the light –

i don’t know how i will not crash

this – but i beg of you, mother, to

put this right –

to still at least my inner resistance –

may i speak with sweetness, even

when i am angry and afraid

of abandonment, when my ego

feels too grand for her britches

and i fight with the bitchiness

of someone whose grief

has turned a puddle of bitterness –

can you give me this one

relief? a palate of peace

so that i can not hurt

anymore the one whom i adore

and for whom i would sell several

planets for, subdivisions of asteroids –

oh mother, turn my rash

rages into soft pages

where poems populate

graciousness, and i will no longer

crack the habitat

of our inner spaces –

bring us peace, give your grace,

may your light shine upon this face –

and live deep in my brain, purifying

everything that my lips release –

so that love will ascend, increase, spin

with the unceasing diligence

of the sun –

What to Do With My Life

My internal struggle has ALWAYS been: What To Do With My Life.

Since I can remember practicing plays at 3 years old, I remember feeling that I was Called by God and that my duty was to measure up to this by using my talents for good, making the most of my life, not wasting anything given to me, and becoming the Amazing Person I’d been set up to be.

But then there was also the twin sense that started small and dense but spread and threaded through the rest of it – school, plays, conversions, adventures, college, grad schools, publishing poems, singing in a band, getting jobs, scrounging around career websites, seeking career counseling over and over – the sense that I was utterly FAILING.

At 10, 15, 22, 25, 30, 35 – I couldn’t decide what to do, what I wanted to do, what I was meant to do, what I should do, what I could do, and the years piled on top of me like a mountain of fat, sweaty hogs in the mud.

At times, I felt lured by Inspirational Speakers to Find Myself and set fire to expectations and limits and just jump off a cliff and take risks and Go For It! But I didn’t really know what to go for. What the right thing was.

Other moments, I attempted to lower my sights, abandon ambition, slice off my ego’s desire for achievement, and just practice mindfulness and being ordinary and simple and washing spoons with awareness and leaving my fate to the Fates to figure out. But then this felt lazy, and like giving up.

I seriously pursued or dreamt about becoming:

  • an ordained minister (started application process, etc.)
  • a middle school english teacher (got into a program, took classes, etc.)
  • a poet/professor (graduated w/an mfa)
  • a writer – getting poems and stories published
  • a lawyer (studied for LSAT)
  • a web designer (took some classes)
  • a travel writer (took a class)
  • a counselor (seriously researched how to)

I’ve thought vaguely about teaching yoga to kids, becoming a meditation teacher, teaching creative writing at prisons and to at-risk kids, starting a school, starting my own magazine, running for office, being a massage therapist, starting my own church, earning money as a motivational speaker. I’ve earned money doing plays about sexual assault prevention. I was the lead singer in a rock band. Or could I sell real estate? Open a bookstore coffee shop? Do stand up?

And then there was Survival – Having a Job. I’ve ended up doing web writing and editing, marketing copywriting, some teaching, website optimization and organization and online analytics.

And I’ve hated it. Not the work itself, always; just the job-iness of the job. A friend once told me I should be like her pal who just roams the world teaching Nia. A relative said I should be a theater teacher at a high school. My coworkers watch me doing yoga in my cubicle or drawing swirls on my analytics reports and day dreaming during meetings with skepticism.

I’ve felt indecisive and on the wrong path, and like nowhere have I really gone all in and succeeded or excelled, and I am turning 40 next Tuesday, and I am struggling with the sense that I have nothing to show for all this Time, not only for all I was given at birth, but for all the struggling I’ve done since then.

I did not make it to Amazing. I am not even solidly, sufficiently ordinary. I’m just wonky. I’m too eccentric to do well at the Normal Job, but I’m too responsible for my family and too under-talented to jettison the job for anything else. I’m just a mess. I haven’t followed in the steps of Hemmingway or Mary Oliver and woken up everyday to write poetry at the crack of dawn – and I haven’t really honed my skills at anything. I’m a professional amateur at everything I’ve done. I’ve skimmed surfaces. I haven’t taken deep dives and gone all in. And the sense of regret strangles me into even more stasis.

And angst. Gritty, toothy, angst.

And exhaustion. I’m tired of being dissatisfied and self-centered and grandiose and ridiculous. So I have tried to hold precious and be grateful for the moments when someone reads a poem they enjoy, or when I organize something well, produce a nice report, help someone at work, hear that the organizations I work with have lightened someone’s burden a little. Then I feel like I’ve made use of myself, at least a little, and I hope that that is enough. And I have so much to be grateful for – not achievements, exactly, but my lovely, dear family, my home, my habitat – for a child without roots, this is amazing. This is the year 40 and I am lucky and blessed to inhabit it.

I may not be amazing, but the world I live in is.

And then today I found something I wrote in 2010… and I am reminded that there is grace… and I think, Ok, Amy Sarah Marshall, stop this hangdog mess and remember what you told yourself five years ago:

all my life i was waiting

for god to call me and all along

the still, small

voice inside me

was waiting for

me to listen —

not to do

anything miraculous

and grand other than

the simple task

of being here,

part of the world –

what will i do

with my life, i kept

asking in agony —

and meanwhile

i was alive

and doing things

Meditating

Meditating. Staring at the scraggly dandelion spiking up from the grass, one the kids missed in their efforts to fulfill the chore given to them of scissoring away all the dandelions and weeds in the front yard.

My mind chatters.

I think about accepting what is, letting go of what is not, a line from the Tao te Ching that I’ve often included in my daily prayers/meditations and used to calm my various anxieties and griefs.

I like how Taoist meditation is moving. You learn how to move with what happens in life. Not just sit out, like vipassana, or lovingkindness meditation, or just plain meditation, like I’m trying to do now. Go with the flow. The only thing is, tai chi makes me think of old people with bad joints and those canvas shoes and Chinese music. I’m not a fan of Chinese music. But it is good to sit here. To hear the birds, feel the wood of the porch, listen to the annoying screech of metal coming from the neighbor’s house. To know that I am one with all these things, not separate, accepting all these things because there is no refusing anything, I am not a separate being in the cafeteria line, deciding what to put on my tray or not. It is all on my tray.

It’s weird to think I’m one with the wood. It is inanimate. What is the meaning of the word “animation”? I wonder if someone somewhere thinks wood is animate. I think about how my neighbor making the annoying metal screeching sound (what the hell is she doing) had her husband tell my kids, playing on the tree swing, to stop laughing so loud one evening, because she wanted to read her book in silence. She is not the most loveable person you’ll ever meet. She has big teeth. One day I asked her what she was reading and it was a New Age book and she owns a shop with a lot of colored glass objects in it, lots of breakable things. It is not a store for children. I wonder if she will notice I am meditating and think better of me for it and not be so quick to want my kids to shut up.

I sit like the Buddha,

I walk like Lao-tzu,

I love like Jesus…

no, no… not quite it… I think like the Buddha? Move like Lao-tzu?

I sit like a Buddhist,

Worship as a Christian,

Aspire to be live as a Taoist…

I run over these stupid variations. Then I think, there’s no goddess in this litany. What do I do like a goddess? Kali’s death-driven face pops up and I think, not that goddess. Ama, the Hindu lady who says she’s the goddess incarnated? She’s loving,t oo. Can’t say I love like Jesus and her.

I think, this is not going anywhere, and I am not meditating, I am thinking. Monkey mind. Get that monkey off my back. Coming down like a monkey. Monkey in the middle. Monkey see monkey do.

I love gorillas.

I can’t ever come up with a single mantra or prayer or statement of faith that sums up neatly how I feel about all these spiritual paths, how I practice them, what I like about each, or dismiss. I can’t. I want to, but I can’t. I want one single line, if possible, to live by. I love when you watch a profile of a famous, successful person, and they have one credo they follow. One liners for the tomb, for the title of their memoir.

I cannot narrow anything down to one line.

This feels agonizing to me.

And I’m still thinking myself into a heart-wound knot.

I can’t control things. I Can’t Control Things! I realize I am always trying to control things. I’ve realized a lot of Truths about myself, but I’ve never thought this before, it seems. What a relief to give up trying to Be Better, Live Better, Improve Myself. Maybe all that effort is actually getting in my own way. I think how this has been the best weekend I’ve had in a long, long time, and not because I tried to force it to be that way. It just happened. It was peaceful and relaxing. Not because it wasn’t active and busy, but because of the lack of striving and attempt to control.

I try to control people, too, as a way to “help” them.

Can’t make my partner different. Or my kids. Or myself. Or the time and place and circumstance I am in now. I mean, I can change things and make choices and such, but I can only do that in the moment and going forward, not backwards, and not by just breaking out a hammer and knocking the foot in the glass slipper.

I remember the perfect present for my partner. I start thinking about where to get it.

I think about birthday parties. I think about how I want to go on a bike trip and picnic for mother’s day.

I don’t recognize the bird call.

My dog is wandering off into the neighbor’s yard, where he likes to poop and eat cat poop and nose around in the chicken poop they have in a red recycling bin to use for fertilizer. I call him back.

I breathe. I try to come back to myself, to this moment, to feeling my breath. I am aware that I am not paying attention, but I’m also feeling whole and good and peaceful. I think about people suffering in Syria. And Baltimore. I think about Evil in the World and how it is not separate either, and how having peace now, I am accessing peace we all can access, instead of evil, and I think that maybe I can wish peace for everyone suffering, but it feels futile, but what else can I do? If we are all connected, then me choosing to feel and practice peace is all I can do. It is something.

I am typing this out, and there is a chicken somewhere, I think that’s what it is, laughing like a crazy baby, who is half-weeping, who is maybe like that baby getting dug out from the packed dust of a building that fell on him during an earthquake. The baby is half out, relieved to be rescued, but still just fed up from being stuck and immobile and alone, he rubs his dusty eyes and weeps into the back of his hand, like an old man.

I hope that’s a chicken.

I am so lucky to be alive. I didn’t make it happen, this being alive thing. It just did, and I am here, completely not of my own doing. I am so blessed.

I ask Jesus to help my heart to stay open, to feel love in the tug of sorrow.

I ask Tara to embolden me.

I open myself up, turn myself inside out, to the world here, and wonder what it will do with me next.