Pure Space

June 5, 2017 by

 

by Vera Lisa Smetzer

 

Ruins of an old brick building, no roof, sky
falling on the ground and sunflowers growing
tall like odd gods of the abandoned.
No window panes, only arched spaces opening
to the air like hungry mouths of children.
I click the shutter on sunlight and shadow

until I dream this space, expose
images inside the bricks as I wash prints
in the kitchen sink. A pigeon is caught
flying towards the light in one photograph.
Paul asks, What will you do with these?”
“Look,” I say, “how the light slants against

the brick. This one, the bird’s nest
perched on a rusty rain pipe, white chalk
droppings stain the bricks.” He shakes his head
and looks at the photographs again.
I cannot teach him this perfection
of pure space skimming through arched windows.

I kneel to capture sunlight streaming through
a low break in the bricks. I forget
the smell of week-old garbage in the next alley.
I smell the earth holding fragile shoots of grass.
I turn and behind me a second story window
frames the building behind it and shadows

hang like pictures. I could set a table
and chair in the middle of this lot. Sit
and listen to the birds, plant basil
to keep flies away. Develop prints
in a tray of rainwater. I could live here
and call it home.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Alvera Lisa Smetzer

Arched Space, photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

“Arched Space,” photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Urban Ruins in Wichita, Kansas, photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

Urban Ruins in Wichita, Kansas, photo by Vera Lisa Smetzer

I Leave at Dusk under Threat of Rain

June 4, 2017 by

 

Behind me, the disordered duplex,
our tiny yard, its iron fence.
And my wife, who is also leaving,
for someplace we have never been
and will never be together.

Walking out is free air and adventure.
Only when my feet stop am I afraid.

I am catching the bus to my future.
Later, sitting for days as the bus
moves through rain and sun and rain,
my eyes bump down rows of wary faces,
our lips pursed, sour as our feet.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

Swimmers, Acrylic Painting on wood by Mike Smetzer

Swimmers, Acrylic Painting on wood by Mike Smetzer

Great Aunt Ada’s Gifts vs. the Trump Presidency

June 2, 2017 by

 

Watching the Trump presidency unfold is one amazing performance after another. It is entertaining. It is riveting. It has comedy. It has dramatic suspense. And it is personally frightening. Frightening because Trump’s theater is the real world and all of our lives hang on his lines.

I wish watching the Trump presidency were more like opening presents from a great aunt I’ll call Ada. Ada either sends English regimental ties when I haven’t worn a dress shirt in years. Or creative hand-knit socks that are like nothing I’ve worn since my mod phase in the sixties.

Aunt Ada means well and she loves me. She’s just out of touch with my life. When my aunt sends a useless gift, no one’s life is destroyed, democracy is not undermined, and the very continuance of civilization is not threatened. The only note of suspense is “will it be a tie or socks?”

Aunt Ada does no harm. I toss the tie or socks in a bag for Goodwill. Then I write her a little thank-you note, adding I hope she likes the present I sent, which I suspect is equally useless to her. And we both get back to our separate lives. Sort of like my relationship with Trump when I just saw him for a few moments on The Apprentice as I was clicking through channels on a dull night.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

Detail from "Sunset" - Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Detail from “Sunset” – Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Sharing

May 31, 2017 by

 

One summer a few years ago, I poured some old bird seed, a mixture of sunflower seeds and millet, into a child’s wagon in our back yard. I regularly saw five or six squirrels in the area and I thought they would enjoy it. What happened, however, was not the general feeding I expected.

One squirrel soon arrived and began to eat and eat and eat. Other squirrels arrived too and hopped frantically near the wagon. If they got close to the wagon, the squirrel inside jumped out and chased them away. When he was full he set about hiding the rest of the sunflower seeds, still not letting any other squirrel near the wagon. In squirrel world, it seems, there is no sharing even in abundance.

When I went out the next day I found only millet seeds in the wagon. I decided to scatter more seeds around and between our two large maples. Our bully squirrel could hardly defend the whole area. This worked to some extent, but there was still no doubt about who was lord of the bird seed and who had to sneak in and run. Eventually all the sunflower seeds were gone and only the millet remained, which the squirrels seemed to ignore.

Enter a dove with a taste for millet. He was a stranger. No doves had been visiting in our yard. He went contentedly pecking about the millet leavings while the boss squirrel chased the other squirrels about in the trees. As it happened the boss squirrel chased another squirrel down one of the maples as the dove was ambling about at its base. The boss squirrel altered course to jump directly on the dove, sending it flying. In the squirrel world, I guess, there is no sharing even of what isn’t wanted.

But it is not a great thing being a boss squirrel. You generally get enough to eat, but you must constantly fight off intruders. These squirrels seemed to spend half their time chasing each other up and down and through or flipping their tails at each other. No truce is ever called in squirrel land.

But that is squirrel nature. A generous spirit can hardly be practiced when the next month may bring starvation. Any sunflower seeds conceded to a fellow will be missed when there is nothing more to dig up. And millet is really much better than starvation. Squirrel survival depends on a selfish nature.

At first I shook my head at the squirrels because I like to share, within reason. Sharing has great social rewards and it makes me feel good, and I can be pretty confident that I am not going to starve. I have the luxury to share, just as I have the luxury to write these words rather than chase my neighbor Jerry around the trees. Well, all right, he would probably be chasing me. Or he and his wife Judy and their kids would probably be chasing me and my wife Vera and our parrot Walter. The point is it would all be very tiring if I lived a squirrel’s life and I don’t think I would be pondering how to live well.

You can’t concentrate on philosophy if you have to constantly guard your seeds. So I am grateful that I have so much leisure in my life, that I have the option of spreading some seeds around without starving to death. I could share everything I’ve got and still get by. Human society makes that possible. And I thank you all.

Fortunately being generous doesn’t absolutely require asceticism or washing the sores of lepers. I’m not ready for that. But I think I could give up some of my seeds and make more space in my tree. I have always wanted to be more consistently open with people. That’s why I write. And personal openness is probably the kind of sharing that people with full stomachs value most.

I am going to try to be more open when there are actual people around, not just while constructing sentences on the page. But don’t expect too much. I’m just a holiday hiker on the road to spiritual fulfillment. If I really knew where the answers lie, I wouldn’t still be squirreling up all these verbal seeds.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

An earlier version of this essay was published in 2010 in Brother Michael This Morning.

Detail from "Sunset" - Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Detail from “Sunset” – Acrylic Painting on Wood by Mike Smetzer

Dreaming of Horses

May 29, 2017 by

 

by Vera Lisa Smetzer

 

When you learned you had cancer,
I learned to pray, lit votive candles
as I bargained for your life.

I salvaged the Hail Marys
drifting up from the rosaries
at Mass to save you but

no miracles. Thriving on chance,
you pushed the accelerator 85, 90
on the Fiat – burying the needle.

You wanted to parachute out
of a plane but you couldn’t
give yourself to the sky, so you

bailed out. Beating the odds
became a way of life. You shuffled
the Tarot until one card fell

on the table. Shuffled again if
the Tower appeared, predicting
cataclysmic change. If you

turned up the four of clubs
in a regular deck, you sighed
if the ten of clubs laid down

beside it, warning of illness.
You bet the lottery every week
from Ireland to Australia to Canada.

Still you had no luck. Cancer taught you
to curse but you dismissed it
with a wave of your hand if someone

from Leo’s Mobil asked “How are
feeling?” as they pumped gas. No one
in Caribou rated a second glance

if they asked “Anything
I can do to help? You didn’t
linger anywhere. We discussed books

on healing, talk show cures, crystals,
then macrobiotics. You made plans to fly
to Japan for the promise of a body

no disease could reside in if you ate
brown rice and sea vegetables,
balanced sweet and salty foods.

You embraced the philosophy of yin
and yang. Dressed only in black
or white, believing a person fades

away in colors, unnoticed. People said,
“You look well.” I saw you like
a bird, never landing or seeking rest.

After a remission, cancer again. Watching
TV became your life, then just sitting.
My hands smelled like Vaseline from rubbing

your skin that held no moisture.
You began to dream of piebald horses
as your mother and her mother did

before they died. We spent time
in hospital rooms full of flowers, candy
boxes the nurses nibbled from as they

sent visitors out like bits of dust
swept from the corners of the room.
The walls supported us until we

could be let back in. From your hospital
window you’d point to a tree. “See!
There’s my horse.” I half-expected

to see it tethered. I didn’t want to chase
it away. When the pain was untouched
by morphine and food did not nourish,

I began to save the soft wisps of hair
tangled in your brush. I kept an apple
in my pocket for the horse.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Alvera Lisa Smetzer

 

Spiritual Signs

May 28, 2017 by

 

Have you ever asked for a sign?

When I lived out in Kansas, a Chicago-raised friend reported seeing a red-tailed hawk while driving from Lawrence to Eldorado. She interpreted the sighting as a sign that a major positive development was about to happen in her life. She turned around mid trip and went back to her apartment to wait. Nothing happened. Native Kansans laughed about this, since on the plains you can hardly look out a car window without seeing a hawk.

Hawks in Kansas are nothing remarkable. But this person driving to Eldorado was focused on her inner struggles, on her unforgiving past, on her unreachable dreams. The existence of hawks outside her car was nothing special, but for her to look out and actually see a redtail was indeed magical. It was a legitimate sign for her on her journey, although for native Kansans it was just another hawk on a post.

Now my friend received many signs in her life. She followed her signs into one disaster after another. Signs are magical but they are seen with human eyes, the eyes you bring to the seeing. You cannot trust the signs you see unless you can trust yourself. My friend was not spiritually grounded or emotionally balanced. She was confused and desperate.

During the Peloponnesian War the ancient Athenians sent a massive expedition to Sicily. Things went badly. Confused, divided and disheartened, they prepared to return home. That was when they saw their sign: a lunar eclipse. Not auspicious in the ancient world. The priests understood this to mean that they should not travel at that time but stay another 27 days, until the start of the next lunar cycle. A carefully reasoned conclusion but wrong.

True, it seemed very reasonable to people who did not want to return home as failures, to people who still longed for heroic victory. The result of this delay was a disaster in which the entire force was destroyed, eventually contributing to Athen’s defeat in the war. If the blotting out of the moon foretells imminent disaster and your city state is at war, wouldn’t a wise person hightail it for home? Since when is it a good plan to dawdle in the face of danger? Off balance and emotionally stressed, the Athenian priests must have experienced spiritual confusion. Or perhaps their approach to signs was simply too rule bound.

A sign is not like a prescription we can take to any pharmacy and have filled. A sign is like a mirror. It shows us something in ourselves we would not otherwise see. To apply the sign we need wisdom. Without wisdom, we are misled by what we see.

Miracles are different. Miracles may come to anyone regardless of preparation or merit.  Consider the unclean man whose demons Jesus cast into swine. He was stripped of all merit and hopelessly unprepared. But he was miraculously restored to humanity by God’s grace.  Understanding and wisdom followed.

Signs require a fertile and wholesome ground before they can bear fruit. In chapter 5 of Daniel, King Belshazzar and his advisors were befuddled by the writing on the wall, but Daniel had the spiritual preparation to understand the sign. He not only saw the writing on the wall, he knew it in the unity of his heart and mind. This sign wasn’t really for the debased King Belshazzar. It was too late for him anyway. The sign was for Daniel. A sign opens itself for the person who has clarity of vision. Its meaning comes freely, without struggle or effort. For those who are prepared, signs are transparent; for those who are not, they are opaque.

Most signs are also personal. I can’t know for certain what my friend’s redtail hawk meant. The sign was for her. I do know that when I last saw her, some years later, she was still not at peace with herself. I wonder if she ever found out what her hawk meant.  Did she see her hawk again? Did she go back and finish her trip to Eldorado?

 

This post is a revision of a personal essay first published in 2010 on Brother Michael This Morning.

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Swimmers, painting by Mike Smetzer

Mr. Richards and Cora

May 26, 2017 by

 

A Sunday couple in a front pew.
Mr. Richards sat full face to the sermon,
aware of the girls batting eyelashes
toward his designer collars,
his careful graying hair. He walked
among us, distant and slightly amused.
Cora paled beside him, forgotten,
like some pressed flower,
like a plaque honoring a career goal
he once set and met.

With colleagues at his club,
he tasted the steward’s Beaujolais,
the chef’s steak bordelaise,
its flavor rich from the marinade,
Crème brûlée with his evening coffee.
In the kitchen at home she
crumbled cornbread into beans,
her mother’s scarf tightened
around her forehead
like a truss.

When Cora visited his office,
Mr. Richards asked her to type.
She settled in, like an oyster
growing pearls. She opened
the clogged arteries of his files,
warmed his clerks and his clients
to smiles. Now she is the candle
at his corporate lunch,
its honey glow, the halo
he always wanted for his crown.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

Swimmers, painting by Mike Smetzer

Joe Bought a Truck

May 24, 2017 by

 

Joe’s new truck was one tall ride!
Ram 1500 Sport.
V-8, 8-speed transmission.
Blue-streak-pearlcoat exterior.
Brand new!
With the biggest mud tires the dealer could fit.

We could never afford a wonder like that.
But my brother Joe went down to Foxwoods
and he won. He won big!
So, being a man, and being single,
he bought this truck.

I said, “You could have bought
a lot of ho’s with that money.”
“Think harder, Bro,” he said.
“I bought the Ram.
Now the sluts will jump in for free.
I can drive the girls and the truck!”

To begin with Joe couldn’t really handle
the girls or the truck.
His ego was just this pale little thing
about the size of a baby mouse.
It slept quietly inside a Big Mac wrapper
stuffed between our seats.

What with all the near collisions,
I can’t say I even noticed it the first two days.
But Joe was right about the sluts.
His best play was to park the Ram near
where some muffins in tights would pass.

Then chat them up from inside the cab.
He looked like a cowboy, as long as he
didn’t try to move the truck.
Soon he was helping girls into the cab
and taking them for rides.

He got better at driving and chatting,
and sometimes,
if the girl didn’t know him,
he scored!
Joe’s ego was growing up now
and growing some thick hair
along with a visible pair of balls.

Joe had to take it out of the wrapper
and put it in the toolbox behind his seat.
Not like he had any tools.
By this time, I was no longer welcome,
except when we drove to work.

Still, when he needed recovery time
or when I was the one with gas money,
I got to ride along on his outings.
Sitting in that Ram was as near ecstasy
as you can get without a dealer.

The guys had to look up to us
‘cause we were cruising way above
their silly little rides.
When the sluts saw our stuff,
they couldn’t help giving
their booty a twerk or two.
Sweet ride! Sweet life!

Soon Joe really got to be the man.
He’d drive up next to one of our buds
lining up a slut in a Ranger or something.
The girl would look up
at Joe in his powerful Ram,
and that guy’s junk was toast!

Joe loved it!
But every time he pulled that stunt
his ego swelled inside the toolbox
and it wanted more.
I could hear it behind the seats, mumbling
and pounding on the inside of the box.

Then it started to talk,
and it talked loud!
Joe had to quiet it down with Captain Morgan
before he could pick up a slut.
Still, Joe was the man.

A lot of girlfriends took a ride in Joe’s Ram,
while their guys were at work.
Joe turned a bucket full of promise rings green.
Pretty soon none of our old buds would talk to us,
and Joe had to park next to the guard house at work.

One night Joe forgot to latch the toolbox.
His ego got loose in the cab.
By morning it had shed hair all over
and grown too big to get back in the box.
We had to let it ride between us
and try to pass it off as a lab.
Smelled like a badger!

With his ego out, Joe had to give up
poaching tights, except for Goths,
but he still loved to drive his Ram up beside
some guy with a slut.

Soon Joe’s ego needed more room in the cab.
Joe could hardly shift.
I was hanging out the passenger window.
People looked at us funny.
No one thought it was a lab.
More like a gorilla!

Even our family stopped talking to us.
And Joe’s ego just kept growing.
We moved it into the truck bed.
But we still couldn’t relax.
Joe’s ego growled and snapped
at us through the sliding window.
Couldn’t even pass it off as a bear!

Now when we pulled up next to a couple,
the girl would look up with big-eyed horror
at the three of us looking down.
Then she’d roll her window up.

Good thing we had heavy duty springs.
Joe liked this new power he had over people
and his ego kept growing.
The truck started banging at every dip in the road.

In the end, Joe’s ego took to leaning
against the tailgate,
which threw off the truck’s balance.
Joe could hardly steer.
The weight of all that ego was too much,
and Joe lost control.

It was early December and raining ice water.
The Ram flipped on a curve.
We found ourselves upside down in a ditch
with six feet of mud-flavored slushy over our heads.
We straight out lost the Ram
‘cause Joe could only afford liability.

Both of us ended up in the hospital
with cuts, bruises and serious hypothermia.
And we collected buckets full of towing bills,
ambulance bills, medical bills.
We couldn’t pay any of it!

Even worse, since we had lost our friends,
we had no way to get to work to make money,
except to walk!

On the other hand, we also lost Joe’s ego.
It shriveled up in that ice water like our testicles,
and it drowned right there under that Ram!
So, yeah, I guess we look like two losers
walking to work every day in the snow.
But at least we got back some peace of mind.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

Paper

May 22, 2017 by

 

by Vera Lisa Smetzer

 

You write the worst part
is not kids shooting off
handguns and Uzis
loud enough, close enough,
to make your neck sweat.
There’s a silence in the alley
when you know someone’s heart
has stopped and you shiver
all night. Once on a full moon
you stole a shovel and dug up
dirt to plant sweet potatoes.
People thought you were burying
a body and came after midnight
lugging metal detectors
to check for jewelry.
Before this city, the only bodies
you knew were bending over
small town pool tables when you
hustled them for money. You loved
how their skin glistened in the bar
room light when they started
to lose. Too bad you say,
you don’t have any. Living in
the city is high maintenance.
Worst part is exhaustion
thrusting its fist in your face.
You stomach the stench
of scrubbing public toilets
at Greyhound bus stations now.
Still you dream of ripe fruit
in summer, tending hives,
planting rows of potatoes
on a farm, anywhere. Some days,
fear runs so fast through
you, it feels like bees
hum in your blood. I check
for a return address, there
isn’t any. You continue
about “small pleasures.”
In one store, you read
pages and partial chapters,
move onto another store,
you’ve mapped routes so you can
finish books. To survive,
you write poems and stories,
letters on toilet paper,
like this one. You hope I
don’t mind, say you’ll
write again. You don’t
sign your name.

 

Copyright © 2017 by  Alvera Lisa Smetzer

 

 

Pure Again

May 21, 2017 by

 

When I rose above the clouds,
I was in the sky.
Rain and dark below me,
a million stars around me and above.

Young Moon smiled over the rim of earth,
joy reflected from a hidden sun.
I was moving above the dark,
but my eyes filled with lights.

Stars torched the blackness with colors,
brightest white to deepest red.
Cold and clear was the air
and thin to breathe.

I was self-sufficient and alone,
and pure again,
with space and time to travel,
tiny and dark,
but moving out among the stars.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer