to care, to be sensitive, to tend, to exchange
The Tenderness Project is a collaborative act of pointing, and imagining, and sharing, and gathering. A collaborative gathering in and gathering up. A listening. An inquiry. An experiment. An archive. A seam.
The glowing yellow background of tenderness makes me think of those plastic traps for yellowjackets and wasps, hazard signs, and radioactivity. At first I think, why this color, and then a little toggle switch goes off, and I think I get it. I go back; it’s more deep than bright.
I’m small and trying to sleep in a large honeycomb cell. I’m trudging through a mango, swimming through New Gamboge. The old gamboge is in a faraway country deep inside a tree.
I do talk to the bees, but I don’t bring them the news. Sometimes they let me pet them if they’re really digging a flower. Other times I’ll put a dab of their own honey on the end of my pinky and let their tongue and little feet tickle my skin. They don’t sting. And even if they do, the joints in my hands are grateful. I don’t remember when I learned that they die after their one and only sting. I once tried to put a stinger back in. What a gooey mess we both were, my tears helping not a whit.
My dad is walking tenderness: just weeks ago, 47 staples railroaded up and down his spine. Thanks to two metal rods, he’s taller than me again. He wears a neon yellow vest so trucks and tractors will see him as he walks a little further each day up the county road. He lives in the house he grew up in, built by his dad of cinderblocks and wood paneling with owls in the grain, who at 17 was a gunrunner’s mate on D-Day. He used to plant rows and rows of sunflowers. He could feed a wild fox from his hand and summon a cloud of cardinals with the shake of a coffee can full of seeds. My dad is up to a mile and a half now, his hazard-yellow vest working hard to keep him safe in the morning fog, flashing bright as lightning bugs so hungry for love.
letting the ghosts in
--after gabrielle calvocoressi
I rupture my Achilles tendon on a downy spring day that promises rain. There is a pop, though I am not sure if I hear it or simply feel it. What is it to feel a sound—aching and staccato—in the body? Still, I recognize this feeling, this sudden sinking into the earth. I have heard this before.
Many body parts are named after men. Have you noticed this? When he comes to visit me post-surgery, I ask my friend if he has read The Iliad, if he knows the story of “the best of the Greeks” and the hero of the Trojan War. It is said that his heel was Achilles’ one vulnerability–-as an infant his goddess mother dipped him in the River Styx headfirst. Only his heels did not make the plunge. My friend hasn’t read The Iliad and so I tell him what I know. And that sources other than Homer’s epic assert that Paris shot Achilles in the heel toward the end of the Trojan War, thereby slowing him down enough to be killed.
The Achilles tendon attaches the calf muscles to the heel. When it ruptures, the body loses the ability to walk normally. The tension gone, the tendon pieces pull away from one another, recoiling. Promises are revealed for what they truly are: fragments once joined.
After the surgery to repair my severed tendon, I lie mostly in bed, icing and elevating my foot near constantly for days. The weather has been uncharacteristic this spring–-clouded, overcast, a near constant promise of rain. Outside my window, the maple is in full leaf and a family of birds that I can hear but not see build a nest for their young. They talk nonstop about this and that and I am thankful to be privy to their conversation.
When I say I recognize this feeling, I mean to say that this is the second time I’ve injured myself in this way. First the left. Now the right. When I rupture my Achilles tendon, the firm plane of ground turns liquid and I fall toward its molten center. Gravity momentarily alters its equation and I trip tender under its weight.
The words tender and tendon are almost the same. Though only two letters deviate, they do not come from the same root. Tender from the Old French, from the Latin meaning ‘delicate.’ Tendon from the Greek: ‘sinew’ or ‘to stretch.’ A tender thing is a gentle thing. A tendon joins muscle to bone. And yet tender is also a verb: to offer, to give. It is a word in motion, adjoining, connecting and so I can’t help but think of this ruptured tendon as a breach of offering. As something un-tendered. As something rendered delicate.
It has almost been a week since the surgery. I am no longer taking pain pills. I am feeling myself once again. The clouds have beat themselves into a soft layer covering the sky. There is a 40% chance of rain. I have built myself a nest of memory foam and Belgian flax, forgetting and the opposite of heroism. The tenderness of life goes on.
diary entry: space girl remembers tenderness
morning already eclipsed by exhaustion
i pull my body outside of my half-remembered
dreams push my books inside the bag push
the waters back inside my body push my tears
back into my eyes so that when i walk down
the street no one will know know what?
know that i am a burning ocean frying its fish
no lemon no breading just screaming and a lot
of thrashing i swim more than walk
down the street no one looks at me no one looks
at me and why would they they don’t know
me who knows me in this place how do i
stop burning i look out the window and see ways
to leave looked for a gate to narnia beneath the waves
and found only an untouched Bible and mildew stains
only found a girl who can’t even claim her brown
without wondering why everybody thinks she’s dirty
only found a girl trying to play super hero plastering
her friend’s walls with the leaky roof but never
disclosing the flood in her basement heart a flooded
basement a flooded cave a flooded sky that doesn’t stop
raining wings what are wings wings rubbed
raw and the window too small for a soul to fly through
what was tenderness when all i knew how to do
was rub rub rub my eyes until the tears rescinded
the first time i really understood tenderness
i was walking along a stream gurgling summer
music for a weekly expedition to a farm
it started raining i didn’t have an umbrella
instead of running beneath some trees or
complaining about my hair i pulled my hood
off my head the water seeped so quickly
that i felt like a succulent drinking her fill after three
weeks of drought the rain cooled and soothed
whatever itchiness my scalp felt i remembered
baptism the faith i had to not be dropped into
the water and the firm hands that held my nose
and gripped my shoulders dipping me into the pool
and when i came up from the sparkling water blind
and trembling more hands gently holding my arms
to guide my steps momma waiting dressed in white
with a towel in her arms enveloping me always always
enveloping me the first time i felt tenderness and
really really felt it was when momma was detangling
my hair still relaxed and frizzy before i decided to go
natural momma ran into a knot but instead of
using the comb to drag it out momma ran
her fingers through the knot and gently gently
soothed the strands apart momma’s hands are
another kind of rain are the first baptism i’ve ever
had when i get overwhelmed i imagine momma
combing my hair fingertips humming with prayer
momma told me that i can tell her everything
momma gives me kisses stayed up for 5 hours after coming home from work by train and bus
to comb out my hair and braid dark brown gold into my scalp
momma knows how to be tender
but her mother her grandmother her aunties and cousins
made her out to be a nobody
so momma never learned how to be vulnerable
momma told me that i can’t tell anybody everything
but she doesn’t know that the second person i learned tenderness from
was a girl who ran her fingers through my hair when i cried in her lap
about how the future is a boarded up window and how i
was going to stay falling all my life
momma didn’t teach me that a friend’s arms can be a home too
so i stayed ready to run
but i tired myself out and became a burning ocean of fish fried alive
by their own salt a home turned house on fire
momma told me things out of her hurt not wanting me to be hurt but
when i see the distance behind her smile when momma don’t share her tears when we talk about my depression
my fears my sadness the hopelessness that i’m trying to overcome
i wonder why she won’t tell me what happened
sometimes saying i love you every morning every night over and over again only does so much
i do the best thing that i can do:
when momma is falling asleep
i rub my fingers through momma’s short relaxed hair
and soothe softness into her scalp
anne marie & julia rooney
We are sisters who have not lived in the same city for the past sixteen years. Both artists, we use the mail as a space of collaboration—not only between the two of us, but with every hand that touches what we send. It is one of our favorite practices of tenderness.
When Anne Marie moved to Baltimore in 2016, her mailing became a daily practice. As Julia collected each mailed item, she wrote Anne Marie an email as a form of digital receipt. After two years of sending objects and emailing responses, the artist turned the collaboration into a folio of risographs, each page made from scans and prints of their correspondence.
Or What I Learned Writing Over 100 Love Letters to Friends and Strangers
Three-and-a-half years ago my marriage was ending, but I didn’t know it yet. Everyone kept telling me to take care of myself, but all parts of my life—financial, personal, medical, parenting—were stretched and fracturing. I made sure to swim, to cry privately, to make sure everyone got fed and bathed and to bed. Self-care was the everyone’s mantra, but I couldn’t afford a massage and no bath bomb was going to fix what was wrong. My therapist at the time told me I didn’t just survive trauma, I thrived in it, but I didn’t want to anymore. I’d spent so many years of childhood and young adulthood staying calm in a crisis, rescuing others. I thought of the Li-Young Lee quote: “what kept you alive/all those years keeps you from living.” And I wanted to live.
I don’t remember how the idea arrived, but I decided I would write love letters for advent. I posted on social media that I wanted to write letters to people and asked who wanted one, and because I didn’t know how to say no, I wrote almost 60 love letters for the 24 days of advent. It emptied me in a way I needed emptying. I read articles on love, books on love, watched movies about love. I thought about what it meant and shared that with friends and strangers. So much that seemed tucked away or unspoken came out. It felt good to love others and to have that love appreciated.
The advent after my marriage ended, I was better at keeping the boundary where I needed it—at one letter a day—though not by much. I still wrote 40. I found myself revisiting some ideas from the previous year, seeing if they felt different. I watched more movies, read more books. I thought and felt, and I wrote to friends and strangers and some wrote back. Someone asked if I poured that much into other people so I wouldn’t notice no one loved me like that. I didn’t know.
This past year, I asked people to nominate others to receive a love advent instead, and I stuck to my boundary of 24 people (okay, I admit it, I did 25). And although it was my smallest list since I began, it was the hardest to write. Someone asked if it was because the letters were to strangers. In some ways intimacy with strangers was easier. I could say things and no one would remind me of it later or ask a follow up question. I thought that perhaps since I’d healed, I didn’t need to give love so desperately. I’d found ways and people to love that didn’t make me feel insufficient at love. I wanted to offer a gift of love but wanted something left of myself too.
Someone suggested that I write myself a love letter at the end, but by that time, I was empty again. However, after the new year began, I started making little love notes to myself. This year, by the time advent arrives, I hope to have written 24 small love notes and to open them as I write to others. To look back on a year in which I loved full-hearted, but not desperately. To give to myself the kindness I want to give to others. To open those little doors for love’s arrival and find the generosities of the year again, to invite them in, to celebrate that I can survive, but now I get to live.
what do you do with your longing?
do you even know it?
do you even look at the tomatoes and cry?
remember me like this:
grabs at early
old work shirt
next to the
I used to pick
thought that just
stomping on things
corn and soy,
staring at the
birds we only now
notice, black with
other of the in-
coming storm that we
downhill from the
bench you discovered
the one that you
like because it’s
easy to miss,
still at the center of
loose gravel roads,
ways like tangents all
huddling near the
small bits of
survive through the
of cars going by
close to the
earth so that
pause, the slow drop
In the spaces between daily responsibilities
in transit to my life’s works
when I do not have reception
when everyone else seems to be asleep except for me
you come back
pass brand new times
when you held my hand and I scratched your back
enchanted by even your tiny, gapped teeth
between which toffee-sweet words fed me
Then soon I am scrambling out of your sleeping arms hungover again
I want coffee.
I want to get back to the other side
before you pressed your body against me and covered my mouth with your hand
your ragged breaths like daggers
It comes back to me in the quiet undisturbed spaces:
That crawling under my skin. A shivering of the tenderest of timbers.
a quote attributed to ross by kaveh akbar on twitter
has become the star I guide my workshops by:
"If the critique does not emerge from love, then I'm probably not interested."
I'm in love with what tenderness can do in a beginning poetry workshop, the way it makes poets out of everyone, the way it allows new writers to feel seen, the way it fights the fucking patriarchy.
what a homesick mexican mom feeds you
Inspired by Brandy Nālani McDougall's "What a Young, Single Makuahine Feeds You”
caldo de pollo, to bring the color back to your mejillas.
tamales, hechos por todo la familia (every christmas).
huevos con chorizo. o salchicha. o machaca.
enfrijoladas. papas y rajas. agua
de piña y sandia y tamarindo.
ensalada de nopales. albondigas. flautas. tortas ahogadas,
como en guadalajara, with the cousins. little salsa rivers running
down your hands, a beautiful mess. frijoles
smothered on bolillo, sprinkled with queso fresco. fideo
de little stars o alfabeto. chicharron en salsa verde;
fatty, crunchy, tender. tinga, tostadas
de cueritos, all vinegar & chewy goodness.
quesadillas. calabazas. carne asada, with radishes & charred spring onions.
guacamole, all chunky (not blended como las tiendas de aqui).
enchiladas de mole, rich & tangy with red onion ringlets.
lentejas. caldo tlalpeño. sopa de tortilla con chile pasilla pa’ smokiness.
chilaquiles. tortas de atún. sopes
de perfectly melted queso.
menudo pa’ desayuno. & the best part is crumbling el oregano
between your palms, letting it perfume the air & cascade into the tripe elixir.
ceviche, all summer. limón con todo. y salsas de molcajete,
never amiss & fragrant. elotes. pozole. y pa’ el postre, polvorones.
flan. fruta y lechera. arroz con leche. cafecito.
it’s sunday in bellingham. & mami doesn’t cook here.
she’s 70 something miles away, which isn’t lejos. until
you contemplate the jitomates in the boiling pot;
how the crimson of their skin will soon peel back
& you don’t wanna do this wrong. so maybe
you’ll call her. & before anything else,
she’ll ask, “ya comiste?”
kaidan kathryn mcnamee
last december i flew to san francisco for top surgery and my mother didn’t fly with me. here is the account. i was born a kathryn and will die an unknown artefact. i am an ongoing question. i am a persistent possible. i was born on december 8 and went under the knife on december 29 some 23 years later. i am a double sagittarius. me and i were both born in the cold. in a sleeting snow. for a year about my top surgery i have curated a careful winding silence. there was no lack of words, rather, a maelstrom of words in competition to be the first to fly from between my teeth. it was a silence of impounding. a silence of t erminal velocity. jaw closed, words chippin g at the enamel. click. click. click. shards of teeth sprinkled in my morning coffee. a hundred people ask me to write about my top surgery and a thousand times i say no. i have fortified my body, zipped myself up at the stitches and attached a padlock, throw n the latchkey across the crenellations. i spent 23 years scrutinizing this body. i have seen it beneath the microscope of a fabricated self -hatred and i have wronged my skin and bone. i visited my body once a night and brushed my fingers along the vines twisting around its skeletons and hummed to myself and mov ed on. it was a shell i could not vacate. i crawl ed my slimy naked self into other shells and every edge punctured me. so here is an unstringing, careful as a scalpel. there is a little extra tissue obfuscating the sutures. here is a many jointed leg i couldn’t tuck in before the tides swayed back to meet me. here is a cautious spillage, fearful as a prayer. look at what you will.
to other bodies like mine. this is a love poem i want to sing into your bones. when the tide comes in, slip back into your own deep recesses. map every twist and ridge of your scalpeled shell. kiss a scar until you feel the tingle in a nerveless tissue. when your flesh swells and grows, a press against your container’s sides, apply pressure until you hear the surface crack. when the ocean retreats. when the ocean retreats. go seek another Elsewhere. go find a world Otherwise.
I found my joy in a piece of bread
It was a spongey-good bread
I found my joy stuck to butter-paper
spreading its legs easy over breakfast toast
once, as a kid, I ate a stick of butter
and my mother said I had no self-control
which is true since I found my joy tangled
around a ghostly boy the other night and then
I found my joy in an empty bed the next day
maybe he melted into the covers or maybe
he just went home but still I found my joy inside a soup pot
I brewed it for days and watched the broth deepen into bone
I found my joy in a bowl of cereal
which is also a type of soup
I found my joy washed in sun
I let my legs out down the street, hairy n bare
and rubbing up against each other like cats
I found my joy in the little red rash that spread
angry along my thighs afterwards, so grateful
for the friction my thighs create when I walk
I found my joy in my own fires burning low,
of being mostly ash and a struggling ember
I found my joy threaded through a needle, because yes
I am now the single woman who does needlepoint—
I found my joy today, forgotten I think—
just an old tube orange lipstick in my purse
and still, I peel it’s streaking face from the cap
use it to draw a bonfire over my lips, or something pretty
I think I found my joy today, but it was mostly fake
crappy plastic glitter stuck to my face
Googling the workers at a local tender age facility
I recently spent an hour looking at the Facebook pages
of the people who work at the Morrison Child and
Family Services Center, where, in Portland, immigrant
children separated from their families are held. I wondered,
who does this work? Who does this work every day? One
supervisor, named Alejandro, is in charge of the displaced
child program, and he really likes pet fish and craft beer and
Game of Thrones and last year re-posted a helpful decision map
for DACA recipients who might be confused and scared in
this new era. And last August, he really hoped to win a free
Glock, which you’d win by sharing the free Glock contest
image (I’m guessing from the lack of comments and
likes that he never did end up winning that Glock). And,
here we are, I thought. Here we all are. This full
human man, whom I hoped to hate, whom I hoped to
judge, whom I planned to screencap and dox, is as abundant
and aimless as a hotel bed. Pet fish! He likes pet fish! Fish
who were born in captivity and die in captivity, wildly-
tinted silver and chartreuse and white fish, with those long
festive tails that hang for a half-moment, after the fish itself
has started out on one of its hopeful circuits around
the water it never finds the edges of, and then, like the
afterthought to a thought that never ended because
it couldn’t begin, catch up in an elegant little snap.
Did he ever decide to enliven the kids' environs with
a fish tank of their own, so that inside their box they
might watch other brilliant beings in a smaller box? I imagine
large, soft Alejandro, in a broad, checked neck-tie like the one he
wears in his staff photo, enjoining the stunned, unrooted children to
gaze and wonder at the angel and clown and devil fish, saying this is how
you feed them, saying this is how you change the filter so they can breathe,
saying look at their little castle, saying please don’t tap the glass because
not only does it startle them, it reminds them that it’s there.
the princess and the pea
I've been told, and I believe, the gardens are grateful for the cold. And, it's true, the rain, though icy, is somehow watering the forsythia, whose canary blossoms will herald spring. Still, even with this knowledge, something about a New York City winter makes for a hard go of it.
I could enumerate the "something" here, but that would pull me away from the subject at hand, which, as you may have guessed, isn't cities or flowers but tenderness. Tenderness lurks in harsh conditions when one feels the vulnerability of being a human animal walking upright against the wind.
For instance, there's tenderness in the way I misremember the woman from the county clerk's office calling me "sweetheart." In actuality, she might have said "dear," or perhaps there was no term of endearment at all. But in our brief exchange a few weeks ago, in this call to be crossed off my "to do" list, her voice was a rope, a tether. It wasn't the help she offered, though she was helpful, it was the tone of her voice, her kindness--so different from cheer.
If we, this stranger and I, were walking alongside each other down a New York City street, shoulder to shoulder, in our rain boots or snow boots, me and this woman I've never seen, perhaps someone, another stranger, walking in the opposite direction, might glance at us, might say we "favor" each other, might confuse us for family, because in this woman's voice was a kind of kinship.
And I think this is what tenderness is: a reclamation of kinship, a reminder of how little it takes to demonstrate care, and in return, how little it takes to feel saved from forgetting, for a second or a season, that we're bound by a durable fragility, an enduring fragility that as long as it lasts, as long as we're breathing, is, in fact, indestructible. Tenderness reminds us of what can't be broken and of what is always in danger of breaking.
Pouring tea into two cups from a ceramic pot the color of grass. The few extra breaths in a long embrace. A friend singing on a voicemail. The woman at the county clerk's office--in the middle of winter, in the middle of the week--I'm saying her voice tended to me. These small gestures are like the Hans Christian Anderson tale about the princess and the pea—the one where the princess is up all night because beneath twenty mattresses and twenty feather-beds is a single pea she can feel: this makes her a real princess. We are all princesses, but instead of sleeplessness we're allowed to rest in each other. Such a small pea tenderness is.
11 February 2018
we are the ones
We are the ones he’s put his hands on. We do not know each other. We may share a subway car and brush our coats too hard. We may even have looked too long in the elevator. At ourselves. At each other. We’ve stared at mirrors and forgotten where our bodies began, forgotten we were in public. He has said we are not the normal. Has he said that to everyone? He has asked us to hike up our skirts and he hasn’t meant it as a question, he has asked us if we were okay and he has not cared about the answer. Some of us may be dead, but our bodies have still been held and tugged on and pressed against the parchment and made to feel like meat. Some of us have given up eating animals. We weren’t certain why, but the flesh began to taste like flesh. It was familiar. Some of us lick our wrists or bite down too hard because we’ve learned to confuse our bodies, we’ve had to learn how to distract pain so we can pretend it has dissolved. It does not dissolve. It will not dissolve. But sometimes, we’ve found it feels good to fool ourselves.
thick in the throat honey
i don’t know how to be tender
i haven’t seen it up close
i haven’t seen it in me
i want to be tender
im a force
i am really good at punishing myself
but i don’t know how to be tender
how to be gentle
when i am wounded
when i am wounding
when i've stricken myself
before, during or after
i haven’t healed myself
healing through tenderness
always has been physical
the way someone touches me
the way someone talks to me
receiver of tenderness
an awkward giver
and an empty bank of tenderness for myself
i don’t know how to start
i don’t know what it really is
i know when i see it
but i don’t see it in myself
is it, worthiness
is it enoughness
is it comfort in being and unfolding to myself
and removing the judgement on whether i deserve it or not
i think it's stillness
i think it's writing
i think it's grace
am i worthy of tenderness?
perhaps it’s a question i need to stop asking
perhaps tenderness is given without criteria
and the flow of water
and being here
means it’s for you
tenderness is quiet
thank you for modeling tenderness
so i can get a glimpse of what it looks like
but change my view of what it could be
it's not intimate moments, thoughtful touches, well timed moments of care
it's stillness, peace, grace, forgiveness
it's being open and available
it's being a little kinder, a little easier on you
it's a slowing down and clearing out
you are worthy of tenderness
part-time at the library (i)
How to copy, for two women my age, a two-sided document; they had with them a small boy who’d found a quarter and wanted it returned to its owner. The one searching for books about Lupus and did those exist in Spanish? The request for a phone number for the headquarters of Walgreen's in order to make a complaint. More Tinker Bell books, please, a Bible for a preacher, direction toward a shelf with green card information, and Julia Child's boeuf bourguignon recipe - to write down and carry on a plane across three states - to make for family. Amtrak tickets for three. The one whose grievance covers his face; his phone’s broken and he’s here to get with the provider and get things working but will need my help to read. Of the computers, most say it won’t work or that’s what I told it to do. A few begin with I don’t know how. The IRS doesn’t make it easy for the one working to print old tax returns. I say: here, click here. And there, let’s go back. As I stand at her side, she’s warm as if she’s leaned on a noon-wall. I read panic as much as summer sun in her temperature. It won’t. I can’t. They want. By end of day. Tomorrow at the latest. The boarding pass, says the one bouncing an infant, is for my mother in Mexico. And the quiet girl with the car-racing game; every time I press play, she complains with her palms up, nothing happens. I used to think of libraries as a place to get out of the sun or cold and hide out, and about desire as much as the need to know. But how heavy -- thick heartbeats -- this read-to-yourself in the presence of others about history and bills and illness and the long complaint. What hard worlds I’ve felt we’re in as I try to avoid the specifics of theirs: job application, overdue, audit, citizenship, indigence, deadline. And the boy with the quarter stretches both arms toward anyone.
when she gets weary
When I think of tenderness I think of Gabe Tomlin, who I taught in 2013 Oh, she may get weary he wrote on the left hand-side of the page in grey. Which I think he knew about from his momma, or at least I think he tried. A little. Tenderness. He clocked the song with an unsentimental marker spatters of ink. The sound of high hats and hardness. The sound of being sixteen and tall as a tree. The sound of being tall as a tree and believing in every body as stars embodied in starflesh. I mean, he actually told the other kids in a pep talk to remember you are star dust. Who does that? So many of us weary in the heaviness of our sadness—grief & care—and we try. Yes we try. But here was Gabe: Try A Little... he writes on the left-hand side of the page in grey, maki[ng] it easier in the fine hand of metric kindness. The way the color spreads, yes. As if what we possess is just waiting to try. A little. A little. Easy, it tells me: You’ve got to. got to. got to. got to. Try. I mean, you’ve got to got to na-na-na, got to got to…
When the comb comes up missing, look to the tender-headed child for answers. My mother learned this quicker than my scalp would have preferred. She would tug and pull at the roughage of my hair, and every strand would cling to one another like they had been drafted for war. Tears would well up in my eyes, and I would always be two tears away before I had to call it crying. Later, when my mom prepared dinner, I would listen to loud gangster rap to redeem myself—from what, I am not exactly sure. I am 21 now. My scalp is still tender, but tenderness is not the same to me. In these 21 years, I have learned that some days you will have to be, both, the hand that pulls and the scalp that screams. Somedays, I still decide to hide the comb. Though, I think repression is tricking yourself into believing that you could ever really hide from you—like a gangster rapper screaming they are afraid of no one and whispering they are afraid to be alone. I now find myself seeking these tender moments and the truths that they have to offer because, sometimes, pain, truth and love are teeth on the same comb.
"granny" bobbie hayden
Ice & Spread
Though you put the cubes in still,
it was always something funny to you
that I liked ice in my orange juice.
And funny to me you had anything
to do with benedictine, as it oozed
deceptively in salt though the color
of mint. To make it you’d juice
a cucumber and mix in whichever white
spread to give it body and balance. It’s not
enough to love salt or spices on your
toast, which I think a lot learn too late,
already satisfied in some grave though still,
munching. Cucumber gives the dip
surprise. It’s enough to eat a sandwich
with the stuff spread thin or thick and say
you’ve eaten well, no matter who’s picky
and disdains it. I always took my bread
plain, which was pretending it tasted
good without wanting anything to do with what
could’ve come next, the push
it promised, and it’s just benedictine,
you’ve made it a hundred times I’m sure.
A hundred people could make a hundred
things and still not glimpse into them such an
other with so little as cucumber
and sandwich bread.
Sometimes I came so close
to tasting it that my pinky
dangled above the rim of the bowl
and shook in a circle until your feet
hit the floor of the hall and I returned
to my glass of juice, took it back, let
ice hit my mouth to cool it, and in that way
let my lip become a brim into which poured
what—earlier and with hands which for all
my life have seemed deliberately and tirelessly
to shape—you, Bobbie, granny
though you’d never let me say a thing so gaudy,
john rhodes hayden
taylor alyson lewis
Through the bars of my rented balcony,
Atlanta seems painted small and ephemeral.
Masticated gum and cotton-candy-blush children stride
skirting smoldering rubber on asphalt-
black and bleeding with rainwater.
I fear that any notion of home has no place in a
city of manipulated steel and dying heroes.
The spaces I called my sanctuaries,
places I have been deferred or devoutly deviant-
suddenly stood emptied by my own rejection of them.
Perhaps I was not built for meaning.
Perhaps I was not built at all, but sprang up from red clay soil,
Strung like a bow, the arrow of my desire.
I could one day plunge to the bottom of this world
and find soft-skinned purchase in wet gravel.
Peel my frozen face from the concrete and see red.
Press my cheek against the dirt,
hear the footsteps of dreamers,
maybe dream myself.
You ever been so damn soft you melted
Through the cracks of the sidewalk like butter?
Remembered the brownness of her hand
on the small of your neck? You ever loved
so damn deeply that the moon was jealous and
stalked your sleeping black bodies, searching
for fire? In love, I have felt everything;
I would thank her that gifted me empathy.
I have never been so naked—I have
never felt the wind and the sun, as now.
Her name behind my teeth, a prayer for grace.
Her body absorbed by the ocean’s floor.
Yet my young soul stands alone, bidding
for hers to join in my awakening.
an experiment of living
the vacuum dragged across the chipped floor
my first time cooking for someone
other than my open mouth
(besides my mama)
a softness of breath
a kept promise
the spring equinox
manifested in smoke
the small ridiculous creature
we call our child
her brown eyes tracking the movements
of our connected bodies—
the salt and steam of commitment
your naked selflessness
enrobed in cotton
the cinnamon/chocolate brown of our nipples
taut against the cold
the high blue windows
the morning paranoia of forgetfulness
the screaming and
the water and
the brown beef broth of routine
a chaste kiss at a traffic light
i love you over the phone
i love you in the car
i love you through the blooming green arch
and beyond it
I wanted to make something vulnerable for TENDERNESS. Or I wanted to make myself vulnerable, expose some gentle space or enter it, to encounter softness, to admit it, dare to inhabit it, a pliable aspect in the self in response to hardness, to force, to all the deadening weight, the dehumanizations, of history, the past, hungers, hauntings. I wanted to hold something soft that might soften me, for a moment, or at least an attempt at a moment. In a remote northern place (another country than America) I cut up photocopies of photographs of a past era - a past war - and laid them out next to the bodies of birds. As I held them I felt tenderness for the birds, and tenderness woke in me, toward the past, toward all our little forgotten bodies.
Way late and way behind.. but your question has been in my mind ever since receiving your note.
I wonder if tenderness reflects ones capacity to be supple. I know that in a drawing a supply hand is an obedient hand.. this is something like tenderness..
In any case. I hope the project is going well and this message finds you equally well!
My best. T
until the elevator comes
—Do you remember her name?
—Seth’s new wife? Es? The new wife?
—Do you mean his old girlfriend, Esther?
—No, his new wife.
—He doesn’t have a new wife.
—You know, I’m not mad, but they didn’t invite me to the wedding. And they won’t get me out of here. I hate it here.
—I’m not married. There was no wedding.
—I know you’re not married. His wedding. Do you know her name?
—No, I don’t know.
—You never call me anymore. You used to call all the time, on your way home from work.
—I’m not mad, but you didn’t ask my permission before moving so far away.
I imagine my grandmother on the other end of the line, sitting in her wheelchair. It’s a recent concession to her age, though she can still walk when she needs to. Her legs are swollen now, my mother tells me, because she won’t put them up like the doctor has told her to, and she has a gold fang hanging from her gum where she won’t replace her dentures. Her hair is still thick, though, and maybe that bodes well for my old age.
She’s right—I haven’t called her in weeks. I did recently move, to North Carolina for school, and I am busy, and I no longer have those walks home from work. But these are excuses that I tell myself and her. Really, I was afraid that, when she picked up, she might no longer know who I was.
—You know Rachel, you’re my favorite niece.
—You’re my favorite grandma.
—It’s so strange, no one knows her name. I don’t think Seth will be at Thanksgiving.
—He’ll be there.
—Oh okay. I’ll just pull Seth aside at Thanksgiving to ask him.
Shortly after my grandmother turned 94, she forgot who my mother was. She still knows me and my brother. She still knows my father, Seth, and that he is her son-in-law, and certainly that he is married to a woman who visits frequently. But my mother, both that woman and not, has dropped out of her world.
To be a daughter is in no instance an easy thing, but this is particularly true when your mother ceases to exist. We are promises and roadblocks and most of all we are mirrors. The world, which was formerly like a lake reflecting our images, my grandmother and my mother and me, now roils like the ocean sloshing off a flat earth.
A few weeks ago, my grandmother tried to escape from her caregiver. She dressed and walked down the hall and stood by the elevator in the middle of the night, waiting for it to come, refusing to return to her room. She waited and waited for the elevator until the sun rose and then set again. Until the earth circled its star and towers crumbled and reemerged from the dust and we blew ourselves up and the sun exploded and the universe exploded and the world restarted. Until the Ice Age and the Bronze Age and World War I had all passed and my grandmother was young again.
Until she was 19 and married, until she had her first miscarriage, then another. Until my mother was born, dark-haired like her father, and my uncle five years later, unexpectedly, after more un-baby disappointments. Until sibling jealousies morphed under uneven pressure into sorrow and hardened into anger and my mother and her mother sharpened their words. Until my grandfather died of cancer just weeks after my mother’s wedding, and I was born and my brother was born and still my mother and my grandmother sharpened their words. Until the anger became silence, and my grandmother stopped speaking to my mother for seven years, and in between was only the wind and me. Until my grandmother moved into a home and they started speaking again and my grandmother woke up in the middle of the night to stand in front of the elevator.
Until the caregiver had to call my mother in the early morning to yell and scream at my grandmother to please please go to bed, they will take you to the mental wing, they will kick you out, please go to bed.
—Do you like Seth’s new wife?
It is almost time to hang up—I need to go to class—and there is no answer for her but the truth.
—Yes. I like her. And she cares about you very much.
—Oh well, that’s nice. That’s something.
BY ARACELIS GIRMAY
At the Detroit Metro Airport
with the turtle-hours to spare
between now & my flight, there is
such a thing as the kindness
of the conveyor belt who lends me
its slow, strange mollusk foot
as I stand quiet, exhausted, having been
alone in my bed for days now, sleeping
in hotels, having spent months, now,
without seeing the faces of my family, somehow
its slow & quiet carrying of the load
reminds me of the kindness of donkeys,
& this kindness returns me to myself.
It reminds me of the kindness of other things I love
like the kindness of sisters who send mail,
wherever you are, &, speaking of mail, there is
the special kindness of the mail lady
who says, “Hi, baby” to everyone, at first
I thought it was just to me, but now I know
she says “Hi, baby” to everyone. That is kindness.
Too, there is the kindness of windows, & of dogs.
& then there was that extraordinary Sunday
back at the house, I heard a woman screaming
about how she was lonely & so lonely
she didn’t know what she’d do, maybe kill
herself, she said, over & over like a parrot
in a cage, a parrot whose human parent
only taught it that one sentence. I looked out
the window & saw her from behind, the way she flung
her arms like she was desperate & being killed
or eaten by an invisible predator, like a tiger or a lion, in the chest. & her voice seemed fogged out with methadone, I don’t know, something, & I walked away from the window
& sat, angry with her for screaming, & sad,
& not long after, I heard her saying,
What’d you say? What’d you say to me?
& a man’s voice, low, I could not tell if it was kind.
& she said, I’ll kill myself, I’m so lonely.
& did I tell you, yet, that it was Mother’s Day?
Flowers & mothers, flowers & mothers all day long.
& the woman saying, I’m so lonely. I could kill myself.
& then quiet. & the man’s voice saying, it’s okay. It’s okay. I love you, it’s okay.
& this made me get up, put my face, again, to the window
to see my landlord’s nephew outside, just hugging her so, as if it were his mother, I mean, as if he belonged to her,
& then, again, quiet, I left the window but sat
in the silence of the house, hidden by shutters, & was amazed. When the front door of the brownstone opened up
& let the tall nephew in with his sad & cougar eyes,
handsome & tall in his Carolina-Brooklyn swagger, I heard
him start to climb the stairs above me, & my own hand
opened up my own front door,
& though it was none of my business
I asked him, Do you know that woman out there?
& do you know what happened next?
He said, No. The nephew said no, he didn’t know
the woman out there. & he told me Happy Mother’s Day
as he climbed the rest of the stairs. & I can’t stop seeing them hugging on the street, under trees, it was spring, but cold,
& sometimes in the memory his head is touching hers
& sometimes in the memory his eyes are closed,
& sometimes she is holding him
& singing to him I love you. It’s okay.
I mean to tell you that everywhere I go
I hear us singing to each other. This way. I mean to tell you that I have witnessed such great kindnesses as this,
in this, my true life, you must believe me.
I mean, on a Sunday, when nobody was supposed to be watching. Nobody at all. I saw this happen, the two
of them hugging, when nobody was supposed to be
watching, but not a secret either, public
as the street, not for glory & not for a joke,
the landlord’s nephew ready to stand there for the woman
like a brother or a sister or a husband or son,
or none of those at all, but a stranger,
a stranger who, like her, is an earthling.
Perhaps this thing I am calling kindness
is more simple than kindness, rather, recognition
of the neighbor & the blue, shared earth
& the common circumstance of being here:
what remains living of the last
two million, impossible years…
You always dwell on the moment after the moment. Maybe that's because it's sweet with possibilities that only you can see. Even when it's raining, you can only think of the ground swelling with delicious water
Life will always come at us... Healing, evolving, and becoming more conscious doesn't stop the pain from piercing our protective outer layers... Self-reflection and therapeutic processes can teach us how to find our way through life with a solid stride, stumbles and all.
they told me he had no tongue.
he sat on his cement slab of porch
on a folding chair
that looked like it was straight out of
a church basement.
every morning when i
peeked my head out
into the thick louisiana air
there he was.
i’d smile and say
and he’d just nod
keeping his mouth shut tight
as he watched me walk down st. claude
in a white dress
stained with miller high life and
we didn’t have much in common,
an old southern man
and a young northern girl
but we had our morning greeting
like a tiny bridge between far-apart worlds.
i never once heard him make a sound
until the day i left.
as i heaved my bags into the car
i heard a sort of yelp-howl
and when i turned around
there he was in his chair
with his arms crossed over his heart
in a gesture that looked like love
and his mouth open wide in a grin
that showed he really did have no tongue
but when he pointed at me
and clasped his arms across his chest again
i knew we’d understood each other anyway.
tenderness in the 9th ward.
I would call my childhood idyllic in that it was out of the influence of most humans
But the current drifted down the driveway & my leaf boat sailed away
A single escape into multiple traps in the world of folly and whims
A reckoning (My otherness)
A reckoning (My sameness)
A maze of rivers & renditions, A maze of systems & searches
Too few results, a too-tall Tower, too much rain to plant seeds
The cube steak of my childhood,
which I’m told was tough. My
memory of it is a soft massaged
muscle, the wet in the corner of my
The pressed fresh of skin freed
from a nail cut too deep.
The ache of devotion. Knees bone
sore from double genuflection at
faithless men’s doors.
Forgiving you for forgiving me for all
that I can(not) be.
taylor cass talbott
...real postcard sent to me in 1988, which my mom recently recovered from an old box of keepsakes. I was Brodie's best "fried gril" until last year, when I became his wife. Even in dark moments, this postcard helps keep me tender.
remove choice from a person and you strip them from what makes them a human being / the blueprint of a life // there is in fact no act of love that includes violence // emotional / physical / psychological // no act of love that uses fear as a motor // the two cannot abide in the same space simultaneously // tenderness / his hand on the small of my back / his shoulder / an open ear / empathy even without understanding // letting him come first and him also // tenderness is a fermata / tenderness is love's wings giving flight to that which is the only real thing i know / a trans-ing / a light
Your bones are shackles that will continue bonding to foreign frames
These marches hold the rhythm of a revolution but the harmony of a sinking conviction
Spectrums range from what you once knew to what you will never, and all else is lost in translation
Between the lips of lady liberty slip the secrets you sold to chance
The smell of freedom is church bells and fresh cut grass in July
Let the stars and stripes reach the lining of your stomach and confess what your blood cannot absolve
Shatter into fifty and shower in a smattered constellation of intoxicating indifference
Humble before the beat and pull; conjure what brought you worlds away, ways away
It is nothing more than loose footing on packed soil that trembles where your lungs can’t go
There is no lightning; witness the thunder
& when pounding fails
cut against the grain
some will tell you
the secret is the marinade
not just any
but their acid bath
by trial & error
to eat away the connective
the softening work of fire
some will tell you
slaughter the young
while still suckling
that meat is like grass
tender & sweet
when just a bud
but here we are, old
& the fires of the world
have cooked us hard
we are tired & our
hearts have grown
large & tough
climb the steps
take the flint
crack the chest
pound the heart
pound & mince
& grind it down
there will be no tenderness
until bruised & battered
the heart like a seed
like a cedar shoot
is taken to the mountain
high & planted
we have too long
been in a land of traffick
in a city of merchants
for too long our hearts
have been bought & sold
to the lowest bidder
I am old & spent
& heart in hand, bleeding
I give it to you
I ask nothing
nothing of you in return
I've worked it over
it will still be tough
in parts, beat my heart
till soft & once
has done what it could
once you’ve slow
set your knife against
its grain & slice
Let us lift up tenderness. Of the fierce kind and the vulnerable kind. Of the kind that picks up wounded animals and wraps them in the feathers that brooding hens have plucked from their chest to warm their clutch.
make me your country. be tender to me.
56. The Hand-written Letter
I am one of those lucky souls who regularly receives handwritten letters. Lucky sort of implies unbidden or unreciprocated handwritten letters, which is not the case. I write a lot of letters. Not a lot in the old-timey way. A lot for today. Which I guess isn’t saying much. But every time I receive a handwritten letter I feel like someone who ought to call himself one of those lucky souls, because I am.
The handwritten letter next to the bed where I’m writing this is written in a lovely, almost old-timey cursive with a bonnet and a cast iron woodstove to it. There is also a beautiful drawing of two people embracing which, she told me, was a sketch for a graphic novel she’s working on. This epistolary sketch reminds me the dire inadequacy of the emoji, though I am glad for the brown thumbs up. Believe me. It also reminds me, for some reason, the sorrow I feel at the genuine corruption, or perversion, of the exclamation point by very famous and erratic twitterers. I wrote it like that to let you know that no, I don’t do it. Which is not a judgment, just a fact.
Once I was extolling the virtues of the handwritten letter to a group of students at Rutgers, telling them that, first of all, it’s a mode of writing, of practice, of communicating ideas to someone with whom, presumably, you want to communicate. Which hopefully is the very same thing we are doing when we write our poems or essays or whatever. (This doesn’t, to me, negate or trouble the fact that poems and essays are also, as I see them, written very much to oneself—they are letters to ourselves, which imagines a kind of mutuality or sameness between the writer and receiver.) But, too, I said to the student, whose handwriting was terrible, he told us, the magic of the handwritten letter is that it communicates our bodies across this space. The actual oils of our bodies. Our breath glazing the pages. If we sneezed and such. (I might have lost them on that one.) His terrible handwriting his beautiful and disappearing and only body stuffed into an envelope to be shared with, to say hello to, his friend.
A computer cannot. Email, etc. Even typewriters, which I sometimes write letters on and love for the ways different technologies make our bodies think differently, and for my substitution of the phrase “expl. pt.” for the exclamation point, which mine does not have. Lovely, but it’s not a handwritten note, the scrawl of which, when I receive one, and if I am not in a hurry, I will sometimes find myself almost caressing with the tips of my fingers.
February 16, 2017
62. Hand to Mouth
There are few things as wonderful for its profound tenderness as watching a person’s mouth move as they write by hand. I noticed it today as the hotel clerk scribbled the internet password on the back of a card, her mouth moving just so.
Sometimes you might discern a slow-motion mouthing of the words the scribe scribes. Sometimes it is a simple twitching, the lips pursing just so, teeny kisses floating into the air. Or the tongue probing the corner of the mouth, or dragging along the teeth. Sometimes the jaw gets involved, the muscle pulsing flashing a shadow near the ear. Or a neck tendon flickers taut like a kite string catching a gust.
The tenderness I feel toward the little mouthings of writers is cousin to the tenderness I feel when I see people mouth the words they are reading, neither of which I can quite explain, except to say the tenderness is deep, and I am inclined in equal measure to look and look away. To boot, I noticed today that when in the presence of such literary oralists I also start kissing the air.
March 4, 2017
96. Raucous Greetings
Among the delights—among the things that delight me for its being an expression, one of the bodily expressions of delight—is the raucous greeting, which comes in many forms. Today I saw it on 14th street when two young men hugged each other so enthusiastically, so convincingly, that one of their hats flew off his head, neither of the huggers making the least gesture toward retrieving it, so enthralled with, so entrenched in, the hugging, the greeting they were. So concerned with eliminating the distance between their bodies, and hearts, were they.
May 7, 2017
john akira harrold
Here's a visual titled "same page" as part of a series called "yonsei" that I'm hoping to make into a small book. It represents a relationship between the issei (1st gen. japanese immigrants to america) and yonsei (4th generation japanese). As a yonsei my ability to survive in america is indebted to family who endured tougher times and invested in my ability to be and thrive in america. Being yonsei can feel like "cashing in" on the work of previous generations. We carry trauma from internment and what that has done to our families and relationship dynamics but many of us are mixed and relatively privileged. My hope is that as a group we can work through this trauma in ways that previous generations weren't able to - specifically by being in solidarity with groups that haven't been allowed the same opportunities as us. So for me, the project of survival in america is one that has much to do with the issei long-game, and how we externalize that history into our present context.