Little Songs

April 20, 2012

One wintry morning, I gathered some musical friends and some glockenspiels, harmonicas, trombones, and banjos, to record an album of children’s songs and lullabies as a gift to my sister and my new nephew. I then traveled across the lands to Ohio and Indiana to add the musical talents of family members. It was great fun, and we thought it would be best to share our songs with babies and small children everywhere. And everyone else, too.

The people we pass.

June 8, 2011

We were pulling a massive wooden wardrobe, balanced precariously on a dolly, through the city. There’s no denying it—it looked silly. It felt silly. It also felt like the entire neighborhood was contributing to the progress of the move. After months of Craigslist-clicking in search of a wardrobe which was made from real wood, which wasn’t too expensive, and which came from someone in my neighborhood, I had discovered that these were nearly impossible criteria to meet. But now we were hauling the culmination of my efforts up the street.

“Wheel that right over here!” a woman called from her front porch. “Is that a dresser?” a small voice asked from the sidewalk where two girls were playing. “Do you want my help lifting that?” a very small boy asked with sincerity.

As the wardrobe stopped at friends’ houses along the way for breaks, and as it was carried quickly across the median of a busy street, and as it finally ended up situated nicely in my closet-less apartment to offer my clothes respite during daily dressing frenzies, I considered the difference of moving with cars or trucks: the wardrobe-hauling process simplified, but interactions with people along the driving path censored. The focus on the destination, insulated from the journey with walls. If the wardrobe had fit into the just-too-small car that we had initially attempted, then the woman who later recognized us as “the people who moved the wardrobe” likely wouldn’t have stopped to greet us. Our lives, compartmentalized within walls and containers, make our bodies barely visible to the people we pass. It isn’t easy to step outside of these boundaries. This was barely a glimpse.

Hello, city. Yes, I see you there.

I was walking out of Borders Bookstore with destination in mind when I was stopped short by a small mass impeding my path in the middle of the sidewalk. Glancing down to investigate the best strategy for overcoming this obstacle, I discovered it was a small child. Padded so thickly in fluffy winter clothing that it was difficult to imagine a person inside, he was struck still, head tilted upward and one arm raised with a woolen mitten dangling and spinning slowly from sleeve, the only sign of movement.

My eyes traced the invisible line stemming from small pointing finger to sky.  It was late afternoon, and I could remember an ancient intrigue of first realizing that the moon is often visible in the sky while the sun still shines. Something that most people know but rarely gaze up to see. But now the sky was shrouded in half-clouds and I didn’t see a moon.

Sidewalk squares ahead, the child’s parents finally realized their offspring was a slowly-sprouting statue on the Borders sidewalk, and they hollered back an encouragement for him to catch up. “Moon.” The sole word uttered from the mitten-toting keystone’s mouth. So I squinted at the sky as hard as my eyelids had strength, examined the slim connect-the-dots space between clouds, and slowly a tiny sliver of moon, hardly visible to an unsearching eye, came into focus.

Later that day, freed from the stilting child’s wonder, a friend flippantly mentioned how the child she babysits obsesses over the moon. It struck a chord that sounded to me like an important memory. But she jumped erratically to the next topic and talked on.

This is the difference between the experience and the retelling. Between the story and the summary. Between the taste and the food critic’s review. Between the friend’s nostalgic stories and the weekend spent visiting their childhood home. Between the discussion of love and its actual shoulder-popping-back-in-the-joint sensation: to get clobbered in the middle of the sidewalk by the sight of a hazy sliver of moon while everyone else walks by.

It must have been about two years ago when I found an old postcard in a book. A sun-glare photograph, and on the back, the note was sprawled: “I’m writing like a chopper and flying low.” It inspired my phase of writing down words, slipping them in borrowed books, and returning them to the library. Hoping they would be found and needed. It was then, too, that I deemed Carl Phillip’s book The Rest of Love some of my favorite poetry pages.

It was about a week ago that I strolled through the library, realized an urgent need for more poetry in my life, spotted Carl Phillip’s poems on the shelf, and gathered them to re-read.

It was tonight as I was reading a poem to myself out-loud that I turned the page and there it was, clicking its toe on the sidewalk with a small smirk, waiting for me: a purple post-it note stuck to the page staunchly declaring in my own handwriting,

Some things fall apart so that other things can fall together.

An unintentional future letter to myself, an unexpected tree-house strung with Christmas lights in the middle of the woods. Found and needed.

Do you want to dance?

November 4, 2010

My body was sprawled on the roof outside my window on an unexpectedly skirt-wearing short-sleeved day in late October, letting frustrated life questions reverberate from my chest to the open blue sky above me: Are my decisions worthwhile? Should I be more practical in my future-attempts?

My dad has this story he told me when I was seven years old about trying to decide whether he should leave his successful financial career to go back to school for teaching. As he was contemplating this dilemma, whispering prayers for guidance to the corner of the room where the wall meets the ceiling, he put on his headphones and immediately heard Michael Jackson’s song “Man in the Mirror” directing the phrase “Go ahead, make that change!” into his eardrums. He listened to Michael. (I reminded him of the way Michael changed his life on the event of Michael’s death, and he seemed slightly embarrassed that I remembered a story he told me when I was a kid. These days he’s cycled back around from teaching to finance.)

This morning, the church service I went to was a drama of the scene where Jesus comes to visit the home of Martha and Mary. Perhaps my favorite story in that giant book. The one where Martha tattle-tales on Mary because she’s running around doing all the work while Mary sits with Jesus and talks. The famous “one thing needful” is to spend that time in simple presence. “Stop taking yourself so damn serious and be present with me,” is pretty much what Jesus says.

So there I am glued to the roof on a perfect autumn day, trapped in suspenseful anticipation for my mind to reach an answer to my questions, trying to contemplate my life decisions with big words because I have 500 more words to learn for the GREs, and Sufjan Stevens crooning on my computer sings to me:

“It’s a long life. Everything is chance. Does it register? Do you want to dance?”

The song saying to me: Stop taking yourself so serious and enjoy the presence of unexpected beauty. The silly is salvation from the ultimately overserious.

I imagined myself whirling around the sky dancing, present and imaginative on the sun-warmed roof, needful.

her trail of incense

August 10, 2010

She was unexpected.

On a day that I had already scheduled full of listening to people give reasons why they have no homes and thinking about ways to peacefully and forcefully engage in a battle against those reasons, she showed up with an unscheduled reason and a sense of urgency in her deeply accented voice. Her homelessness was a reason she didn’t understand.

What I did was listen. She wasn’t my client and I had no obligation to help her, and, in fact, I didn’t have the physical capacity to help her within the confines of my program. But I listened.

Heartaching at the inability to offer her my own resources. Because something warns me if I let her sleep in my house she might take my things. Something worries me that if I give her my food I could run out. Something suggests that I worked for these things and so they are mine to be shared within a safe circle of people I already know who largely already have things of their own. So much for directions to give to those in need. These words must be code for  “learn the appropriate agency to call and have the initiative to put in a referral.”

But even through her body-weighing frustration, I could catch a twinkle in her eye when she said she had slept outside under a full moon. I could bear with her frustrated, yet still dazzled, view of life.

She left in a much-calmed state from the frenzy surrounding her appearance. Listening and redirecting were the only things I felt able to do. They changed her demeanor if nothing else. As she left, she pulled a single stick of incense from her bag and handed it to me. “I hope you enjoy the scent.”

Later in the week, one of my plants grew too long to stand on its own. So I stuck her incense in the dirt and tied my leaves to the support, letting the scent of how we need each other drift across me, the neighborhood, the city. And the wondering of how far the smoke will float.

do interesting things

July 31, 2010

It was while I was in the process of moving into a house two blocks away from where I was living that I had long conversations with every neighbor who I’d often briefly encountered during the year when I had lived right next to them.

The quirky man who lives next to my garage heard me sanding an old table and brought over about twenty different electric sanders to see what worked the fastest. The plant man whose garden I had an impressive view of from the roof where I grew my plants saw the sad little pine tree my roommate had thrown away and carried it into his house with confidence there was still some life left in it. The small old woman who lives across the alley happily, and extremely slowly, carried our unwanted kitchen supplies into her house. “I used to do things like move a street over from where I lived,” she said on her way. “That was when I was young and ambitious. My parents thought I was crazy.” My parents, overhearing, smiled and nodded. These are the ways that life changes with age.

And yet, throughout the process of wheeling my container garden up the street to my new house on an old Radio Flyer wagon I’d received from a lovely woman on Freecycle, and while disbursing all our unwanted belongings to the neighbors, and as I restored my trash-picked furniture, I was convinced again and again of the notion that the key to life is to do interesting things. Things that spark up conversations with people you would never meet otherwise. Things that remind strangers of what they haven’t considered doing since they were young. Things that raise eyebrows and elicit questions because they aren’t typical. Collecting conversations and interactions with people in every which way.

I remember one year on our dad’s-birthday-eve, I stumbled upon my sister in the garage hammering nails into a long board on which she had painted tye-dye colors and written some generic message like “Dad, you’re a pal!” with big sloppy letters. It was a coat rack, she said.

I must have been about 7 years old or so, and at the time it was a favorite pastime of mine to hammer nails into boards. Unable to let my sister one-up me at my own specialty, I spent quite some time thinking how I could turn one of my nail-and-hammer projects into a birthday gift for my dad. Finally, I had it! My grand idea was to hammer different size nails into a block, tie on an extra nail as a mallet, and there you had the perfect musical instrument birthday gift.

When my dad opened his gift after kindly admiring Krisha’s coat rack, he sort of smirked in my directions and said knowingly, “Kayla, you just wanted to hammer nails into a board, didn’t you?” Having been raised to be proud of my creative efforts, I was pretty hurt by my dad’s failure to appreciate his new musical instrument. But I also remember acknowledging in my upset 7-year-old mind that he was right. I did just want to hammer nails into a board.

Last night I sat in my room hammering nails into a board, and I remembered my unappreciated birthday gift that was now turning into something more innovative than even I had expected. After years of disentangling spools of thread regardless of how many times I try to gently organize them in a box or nicely stack them in a window sill, I stumbled upon the realization that they would hang wonderfully from nails hammered in a board.

After a trip to the wonderful Construction Junction to acquire an old piece of crown molding, a cut and paint job, and an evening spent hammering nails into a board, I have discovered the way to keep my spools untangled and looking nice:

a walk to where I go

July 7, 2010

“Wanna walk to Squirrel Hill?” I asked my housemate on a day the weatherman had just informed me would be “oppressively hot.” It was a 2.5-mile trek across Pittsburgh neighborhoods. Each way.

She looked at me like I was crazy. “Well…” she mustered with a disapproving look on her face. She was sitting at her computer looking at pictures on Facebook. “Do you have anything else to do today?” I offered as the only reason I had for why this was a good idea. It worked.

So we set out on our trip. I was inspired by my 60-year-old coworker who lives in Squirrel Hill and walks to and from work every day in East Liberty. Most of the people I work with drive the four blocks down the road to get from our main offices to our food pantry, but this alternative mentality of walking several-mile distances daily seemed so appealing. Usually I bike everywhere, but something about the steady clarity of walking matched the slow-motion mood of the oppressively hot day.

The walk wasn’t great.

By what we decided was the halfway point, we were sweat-dusted and had drained our water bottles in us. We stopped at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts to browse the air conditioning. Our flip-flopped feet were blistering and aching. We stuffed leaves between skin and shoe to dull the pain.

We made it to Ten Thousand Villages, the destination we intended to reach, and back. Even with the difficulties—and likely because of them—walking along with us, it felt like an adventure. Much more than rolling in a car to a store could have. It reminded me of when I lived in Uganda and no one paid much attention to time because everyone walked most places and the journey was just as important as the destination.

The journey is just as important as the destination.

It was a stage set with a singer on one side, a poet on the other. I listened to the song that tasted like a strawberry and found myself entranced at the poem that made me freeze and had an aftertaste of swiss cheese.

In the past, I’ve found that when I read two poems in sequence, they are often unexpectedly magnified with the collision of two poem’s words inside my mouth or head. The often unexpected, yet magnificent crash. The way it feels when you put down a book and carry its message into the immediate movement of life.

At the WYEP studio tonight, there was a call-and-response type concert between the singer Joy Ike and the poet CM Burroughs. Both are local Pittsburgh artists and gorgeous women, and both have the capability of filling a room with sounds that echo across ears with the insight of each somehow amplified by the other. I could have kept listening until I was drenched.

You’ve watered them already, he says.
I water them again. I water them
until each leaf is weighed with
water, until each stem drowns from
over-taking.

-CM Burroughs