WHEN IT’S TIME FOR A DIRT NAP

Last week’s post was all about life, birth, coming into the world.  This week, we’re zooming to the other end of the spectrum to introduce a new poetry form.  An EPITAPH POEM is one designed to appear on a tombstone.  They are necessarily brief and often rhyme.  They can be funny or serious or poignant, however the deceased would want to be remembered.  If you could write your own epitaph, what would it say?  Here are a few of mine.  Feel free to add yours in a comment, below.

WRITTEN IN STONE

Laid corner to corner
in her graveyard suite,
she’ll slumber in death
as she lived: Oblique.

Moving into
this dimension
is just another
reinvention.

To the dates,
pay no mind.
She was only
twenty-nine.

Below the daisies,
things turn a 180.
My body will rot,
my teeth will not.

Took my vitamins, ate my kale,
drank protein shakes, to no avail.
Healthy or not, we end up dead,
wishing we’d chosen pie instead.

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THE BIRTHDAY GIRL’S ADDRESS

Two score and nine years ago, my mom and dad brought forth on this planet, a new baby, conceived in January or February, and dedicated to the proposition that any child born into a Catholic family must, within a reasonable timeframe, have a sibling.  Thus, the minute I arrived home from the hospital, I already had what my older sister had waited three years for:  a friend.  I don’t recall much about our first meeting, but I’ll bet she peeked through the bars of my crib making silly faces, singing songs, or showing me her toy telephone and urging me to hurry up and start babbling so we could get our money’s worth from AT&T.  She called me a few days ago, and it was one of those rare occasions when the planets aligned and we both had time to talk.  A two-hour phone conversation might sound frivolous or decadent, but when we connect after a long hiatus, that’s how we roll.  We catch up on the day-to-day, spill our news, share our triumphs and tragedies, laugh like crazy, take
a pee break, and laugh some more.  I’m dumbstruck by how much alike we turned out, having had only haphazard contact for the past thirty years.  My solution to a front-loading washer that leaks a bit?  Shove a towel under it.  Her solution to a broken dryer button?  Turn it on and off with a pencil eraser.  Two peas in a pod, I’m telling you.  This seems like a point for nature in the ongoing nature-nurture debate, but don’t forget, we grew up together and shared a bedroom for fifteen years.  Mom would tuck us in and tell us to be quiet and thirty seconds later, we’d be chattering about something of vital importance:  what fourth grade was like, whether Santa Claus was real, what kind of dog we’d get if mom would ever let us have one.  Today, it seems like every kid has their own room.  I’m glad I didn’t because if I had, I’d have missed out on one of life’s greatest treasures.  This poem is dedicated to the world’s best big sister and my very first friend:

LIGHTS OUT

After nighttime prayers were said,
Mom would send us off to bed.

Close your eyes and go to sleep;
no conversation, not a peep!

We’d cover up, lie really still,
and summon every ounce of will

But quickly our resolve would crumble,
cautious whispers turned to mumbles

Jokes and secrets of all sorts,
muffled giggles, squeals, and snorts

The raucous chatter siblings share
drowned out Mom’s footsteps on the stair

but her command to QUIET DOWN!
cut through the din and shook the ground

Instantly, dead silence reigned,
save for the snores my sister feigned

Once satisfied she’d changed her course,
we’d carry on without remorse

On nights we earned a second warning,
talk was tabled until morning

Then, touching hands between our beds,
wordless wishes traded heads

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GEORGE, THE UNFRIENDLY GHOST

Years ago, we road-tripped to Colorado to check out an old VW Bus for sale.  After two nights sleeping at rest areas in our Jeep, we were dying to tuck into a real bed, but even the dicey-looking mom-and-pop motels on the outskirts of town cost a hundred dollars a night.  A local told us to try the older casino hotels in Cripple Creek; they offered low rates in the hope that their guests would spend the difference, and then some, at their convenient slot machines, roulette wheels, and card tables.

We settled on the Imperial Hotel.  The décor was outdated, it lacked elevators, and the bathrooms were shared, but it offered two things the other hotels did not:  rooms for $39 a night and a resident ghost named George who lived in room 64.  When we expressed an interest
in the haunted room, the clerk insisted we meet first, because “some people get along with George and others don’t.”  I sort of believed in the supernatural, for instance, I believed God answered prayers and I believed my old Volkswagen was possessed by a FahrverGremlin, but
I admit, I was dubious about George.  Until I made his acquaintance:

GEORGE
(Kyrielle)

We checked into an old hotel,
drawn in by its intriguing lore
The ghost of George was said to dwell
within its walls: room sixty-four

Enchanted by the legend’s spell,
we followed to the second floor
a clerk, who warned of what befell
detractors of room sixty-four

Blood-red carpet deftly quelled
our footfalls through the corridor
She turned the key and all was well,
dead silence in room sixty-four

The hinges creaked; a fusty smell
escaped as she threw wide the door
A headstrong aura mine repelled
and held its ground, room sixty-four

As I pushed past this psychic knell,
a pounding through my temples tore,
the migraine hit like a bombshell
screaming from room sixty-four

My skepticism thus dispelled,
prompt reassignment I implored
A far-flung room would suit me well,
one nowhere near room sixty-four

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WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS

Seems anything can be a sport these days, even things that require little or no physical skill or talent.  Like chess.  Or poker.  Since I suck
at chess and cannot control my “tells,” I need the Olympics to hand
out gold medals in something for which I possess natural aptitude:

THE BEDROOM SPORT  —  Sonnet
(No, not that one!  Geez, get your mind out of the gutter.)

If snoring were to be declared a sport,
a competition all night long would rage
Chuffing Chortle versus Thunder Snort,
contenders on the PosturePedic stage
Pure monotone or wild cacophony?
Scoring-wise, it doesn’t really matter,
but uvulation is compulsory;
the judges gotta hear them tonsils rattle
A deviated septum raises hell,
like a double chin or lying on your back,
all guaranteed to boost your decibels
and jerk the needle on the seismograph
But in the end who wins, you or your mate,
depends on who’s asleep and who’s awake

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WHEN IN ROME, DO AS THE NEW YORKERS DO

Hubs and I spent a year in Rome.  Rome, New York.  It’s upstate, where winters are long and cold and snowy.  Our rental house was four floors: full basement, first story, second story, and full attic, square footage that costs a fortune to heat.  To save money, we decided we’d tough it out and not turn the furnace on until November 1.  Such an idea might pass for reasonable in Ohio, but up there, it means watching TV in long johns and a sweater.  Under a winter coat.  Wearing mittens.  I became passionate about baking, a good reason to turn on the oven and linger in the kitchen.  Precision tasks like knitting or carving a pumpkin had to be done a bit at a time so I could stuff my hands in my pockets or wrap them around a mug of hot tea to restore flexibility.  Somehow, we did it, and the memories flood back every autumn when I turn the furnace on, wrinkling my nose at the dusty-stagnant air rising from the vents.

Last year, the furnace went wonky on us.  It would run one cycle (five minutes), then quit.  It wasn’t the pilot light, so we did the only other thing we know to do:  turn off the power, wait a couple minutes, and turn it back on.  I’m told it resets the circuit board, similar to rebooting
a balky computer.  When that repeatedly failed, we called “THE GUY.”  Between diagnoses and returning to install parts and troubleshoot, he made seven trips.  We were hopeful at the outset, but soon, each new repair was regarded with wariness.  Would it work for a day?  A week?
A month?  Were we going to freeze to death before Mr. HVAC actually got it fixed?  The VILLANELLE, with its endless loop of repeating lines, seemed the perfect vehicle to drive this story home:

FURNACE VILLANELLE

My furnace has an intermittent glitch
And inexplicably, the heat goes out
I toggle off and on the power switch

the sole maneuver in my bag of tricks
I call the man and say, without a doubt
My furnace has an intermittent glitch

He reassures me HVAC is his niche
and pencils me onto tomorrow’s route
I toggle once again the power switch

Hot air escapes the vent, a little titch
The motor cycles once, then peters out
My furnace has an intermittent glitch

Qualified to sort out what from which,
the man returns with toolbox, skills, and clout
replaces flame inducer, pressure switch

unblocks a drain, addresses every hitch
It runs like new a month or thereabout,
then crashes from an intermittent glitch
I toggle off and on the power switch

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ONLY GOD CAN UN-MAKE A TREE

Perhaps can is the wrong word here…  Maybe I meant to say should.
A crew of tree guys has been working in our cul-de-sac since sun-up to trim pesky branches away from the power lines, the air vibrating with the buzz of chainsaws, the rasp of rakes, the chunkety-chunking of the wood chipper.  The big ash tree in our front yard is barely hanging on,
a victim of the dreaded ash borer.  During high winds or heavy rain, he litters the roof, lawn, and driveway with all the brittle, hollow branches that have succumbed since the last storm.  Cutting him down would be the prudent thing to do, and we have gotten an estimate, but foisting euthanasia on any living thing is hard for me.  His lowest branch is still sturdy enough to support our Amish swing.  He leafs out in springtime and his canopy, albeit haphazard, converts carbon dioxide into oxygen, gives shade, and shelters the birds and squirrels we so love to watch.  His roots are active as well; every year or two, they sneak through the hairline crack in the sewer tile, go gangbusters, and surprise us with a back-up à la commode.  How does one justify killing something with so much joie de vivre?  When he does eventually come down, I would like
to keep one thick round from the stump for posterity, preserved with
a coat of polyurethane.  With my finger, I’ll trace the rings that tell his life story, scan the pages of his colorful and meticulously kept journal.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY 

Hidden in the rings of trees
a life of secrets never told
Densely rippled diaries
hidden in the rings of trees
Circumferential histories
inscribed in umber, red and gold
Hidden in the rings of trees,
a life of secrets never told

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SPRING FORWARD, AUTUMN BACK?

Is it Autumn or Fall?  My husband and I have debated the name of the season for the past thirty years.  To me, fall has always been fall.  My parents said so; when you’re a kid, they’re the authority on everything.  That hit a snag when I started school.  Apparently, the last two meals
of the day are lunch and dinner, not dinner and supper, as I had always been told.  My lunch box was proof.  My parents disputed this claim.  Back in the day, when they walked ten miles, uphill both ways, to the one-room schoolhouse, they had carried dinner pails.  Ask a teenage Wal-Mart clerk where to find “dinner pails” and you’ll get a blank look, the same one you get if you inquire about canning jars or clothespins.  The 80-year-old greeter will know what you’re after; if he’s a wise-ass, he’ll snicker and direct you to the Olsen’s Mercantile in Walnut Grove.  Fall, however, was validated on the bulletin board in our classroom.
F-A-L-L, spelled out in big, official-looking letters and surrounded by a mélange of red, orange, and yellow construction paper leaves.  If a nun said it was so, it was so.  Nuns were demi-gods, after all.  Fall remained rock-solid, unchallenged until I married a man who insisted “autumn” was the correct word for the season between summer and winter.  If that were true, it would be the dinner/supper dilemma reincarnated, not to mention poor Sister Josetta having to suffer in purgatory, her penance for lying.  The librarian hedged, saying it could go either way; fall was simply vernacular for the “proper” term, autumn.  Not one to lose sleep over being proper, I used fall and autumn interchangeably
for years without really thinking about it.  Then I did think about it:

FALL BY THE WAYSIDE

Mankind was damned
by its fall from grace;
we fall off the wagon,
we fall on our face

We fall ill but we never
fall into good health
We fall into ruin,
not winnings or wealth

We fall blindly in love,
a free fall of the heart,
falling out, then away,
‘til it all falls apart

We fall over ourselves
but fall short of success,
falling victim, it seems,
to our own eagerness

Fall down on the job
or fall prey to a scam
and you’ll need to resort
to your fall-back plan

Pleas fall on deaf ears
A joke might fall flat
Fall too far behind and
you’ll fall off the map

We fall on our swords,
take the fall for a friend,
doomed to fall ‘til the big
curtain falls at the end

Connotations of gloom
are surely the reason
that AUTUMN, not FALL,
is my favorite season

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SHIFTING THROUGH THE SEASONS

Autumn moves in like an inexperienced driver, one who hasn’t quite mastered the gears that make the earth revolve smoothly around the sun.  He’s wary at first, but soon barrels ahead into sweater weather, only to backpedal into summer for two sweltering weeks in October.

Speaking of which, my nephew and niece turned sixteen and started driving this year, stirring up memories of my own early experiences behind the wheel.  I can appreciate why parents aren’t especially eager to ride shotgun while their progeny learn to navigate the open road.  Mine sent me to a two-week driving school.  My first in-car instructor was a very pregnant Hispanic woman.  It terrified me to realize three lives would be at stake if we crashed.  The teacher, blithely unaware
that I was a driving virgin who had never even backed the family Buick out of the garage, told me to “adjust the seat and mirrors” while she popped back inside to use the restroom.  She returned to find me ill-positioned and completely perplexed.  How was I supposed to adjust the seat if I didn’t know what I needed to be able to do or reach?  How could I adjust the mirrors when I didn’t know what I should be able to see?  She sighed; it was gonna be a long two hours for both of us.  We went no faster than 35 mph, circling clockwise, then counterclockwise around the block, me struggling to keep the car between the lines as
I practiced stops and right and lefthand turns.  I must have scared the poor kid right out of her; I arrived the next morning to find she’d been replaced by an easygoing hillbilly with long hair and a scraggly beard.  On the entrance ramp to the highway, he slid one foot out of his man-sandal and pulled it up onto his lap. “Turn your left blinker on,” he said.  He barely glanced up from the callus he was picking as I merged, white-knuckled, into the speeding traffic.  I learned to drive a stick shift in my boyfriend’s Mercury Lynx.  It was surprisingly easy; I can recall only one embarrassing incident.  I was first in line at a traffic light, waiting to make a left turn.  When I got the green arrow, I manipulated the pedals as I had been taught, but somehow, I stalled the car.  I tried again and again, to no avail.  Traffic backed up behind me.  Angry honks filled the air.  Stymied, I fingered the shifter, realizing as the light turned red that the car was in third gear.  More precisely, jammed in third gear.  When the light changed, I punched the gas and held on as the engine caught and the car bucked and jerked around the corner.  I managed to coast safely into a parking lot and use a pay phone to call my boyfriend, who dispatched two of his mechanically-inclined uncles to the scene.  Mark and Rich were kind enough to get me un-jammed without any snickers or snide remarks.  At least, none that I ever knew about.  It was a life lesson in having patience with beginners… both ourselves and others.

AUTUMN DRIVE

Another one of Earth’s boys
must have gotten his learner’s permit
Suddenly, the orbital ride
is downright jerky and unpredictable
Stalling out and stopping,
creeping cautiously through summer,
then punching the gas,
tossing equinox headlong into solstice,
only to jam on the brakes
and throw the spin of the entire planet
into a wobbling reverse
Trees blush in embarrassed empathy
Earth sighs and sets his jaw;
they will tackle parallel parking later

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RE-ENTRY INTO FELINE SERFDOM

Questions arose last week about whether Peaches is my first cat, my first foray into feline serfdom.  Actually, he’s not, but I’m a bit out of practice.  We took a kitten into our apartment in 1989, then another, then another…  For the past 28 years, we’ve had at least one and as many as six cats fleeing the vacuum cleaner and winding themselves around our legs.  Runty Caper set the house record for longevity, 23 years.  When she could no longer outrun our puppy, she began playing dead, proof that an old cat can learn new tricks.  As the cats aged, we moved them into a (baby) gated community in a spare bedroom that slowly devolved into a nursing home and then a hospice.  I thought my cat years were over, but during a brisk end-of-autumn walk, our dog flushed Ginger out of a corn field.  Ginger was a decidedly outdoor cat who roamed the neighborhood in weather so inclement it would stop even the postman.  She played with the local skunks, showed up every morning for breakfast, knocked on windows using her paw when she wanted to come in.  It was a new experience for me, a veteran indoor cat person.  When Peaches moved in next door, he was smitten with Ginger and followed her everywhere.  He was heartbroken when we lost her and moped around for weeks, hanging out in our flowerbed pining for her, and eagerly accepting any affection we would give him.  The neighbors (renters dismayed when the owner put the place on the market) closed on a new house last week, one near a state highway.  Afraid for Peaches’ safety and unable to keep him inside all the time, they asked if we’d be willing to take him.

Peaches was docile and affectionate.  His people said he loved being indoors, probably because it was such a rare treat.  Our new adoptee slept in his basket, basked in the sunny bay window, quickly mastered his litterbox, and licked the gravy off his canned food before finishing the tidbits.  Despite ample opportunities for escape, he never tried to make a break for it.  I figured it would be simple to transition him to a house cat.  WRONG.  On Day 5, he did a runner.  Why would he take off on such a cold, drizzly day?  I can only guess he spied his name on the calendar next to the word vet.  I spent the better part of the morning trying to find and capture the scrappy bastard, completely forgetting that since orange cats possess limited ability to camouflage, Peaches would have spent the last two years honing his feline Ninja skills and familiarizing himself with every nook and cranny in the neighborhood.  Trust me, opposable thumbs are no match for a combination like that.

Below is my account of the experience told in SHADORMA, a Spanish form with six lines and the following syllable count: 3 / 5 / 3 / 3 / 7 / 5.  Any subject is fair game; no final shift or turn is necessary.  Shadorma may be written as a single stanza or a series.

INSIDE A CAT’S HEAD

Keen instincts:
On scheduled vet day,
he slips out
the dog door,
reveling in freedom and
his own cleverness

Detailed maps
of the neighborhood:
every fence,
every tree,
spaces under decks and sheds
where he can lay low

Strategy:
outfox, outrun, hide
until owner
surrenders,
slogs home in muddy rain boots,
cancels appointment

Internal clock:
wait fifteen minutes,
reappear,
purr sweetly,
and insist the whole thing was
just coincidence

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A BASKET OF PEACHES

Whew!  It has been a really busy week!
Hubby’s birthday
Our 29th anniversary
The neighborhood block party
A doctor’s appointment
Scheduling other appointments spawned by that appointment
Pursuing an idea for a new writing project
And on top of all that, we’ve added a new member to our family:

This is Peaches.  As they packed up to move to a new house along the highway, a dangerous situation for their outdoor kitty, our neighbors asked if we would take him.  He’s orange, which sealed the deal for me, with amber eyes, Gremlin ears, and a tail that’s fluent in sign language.  He is shamelessly affectionate.  He likes flannel and canned cat food. His first meeting with the dogs proved him to be lightning-fast, adept at finding hiding spots, and in possession of the most venomous hiss this side of the Mississippi.  Once he has visited the vet and recovers from getting snip-snipped, he will be allowed outside again.  I’ll post more poetry as soon as I have the time and inspiration to write it.

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