It’s just after 10 p.m. on May 22, 2013. I am sitting in a cozy apartment in Charleston, SC, close to the ocean and pretty far away from my family. I live here with my cat, Spenser, and my books and the art that makes me smile—much of it made by y’all. I stay out as late as I’d like and have, really, only myself to consider when making decisions. Many people, perhaps, dream of a life as “fancy free” as mine. Certainly, I enjoy it most days.
Someone asked me the other day if I was Irish. I told him, as I tell everyone who asks, that I married Irish. And, I married well.
Someone else asked me the other day what my age limits were on dating. I told her, as I tell everyone who asks, that I absolutely draw the line at someone as old as my daddy—that creeps me out. I’m not judging other people, but, ick. The other part of that answer was instinctively that 50 is the upper end. I’m 40, after all. A decade is reasonable.
I went on to do something else, then I got to thinking. If he were still here, tomorrow, May 23, would be Phil’s 50th birthday. I’d be planning a big party—maybe 2 depending on where we lived—convincing people to fly in, drive in, get there from Atlanta, Asheville, Ohio, Oklahoma, any way they could figure out how. I’d be baking Granny Allen’s pound cake, and I might even agree to make tuna casserole for our private celebration. I’d buy 4 or 5 different birthday cards to be sure I’d gotten just the right one. I’d spread them out over that many presents: books, music, whatever the current hobby was. I’d be cleaning and scurrying and saying I love you lots and lots.
Instead, I’m looking around here at the few tangible bits of him I keep out, thinking about his parents and brother and sister, his nieces and nephews, my parents and siblings, all his friends, knowing they are as bereft as I without that quiet, smiling man around. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t mention him, at least in conversation. Every fellow I’ve spent time with since has heard about him (some of them took it well, others had too much ego, all are in the past. go figure.) All of my friends have heard stories and seen his cowboy hat. From time to time, he still shows up in my dreams, young, smiling, sweeping me away again.
I know, as well as I know his social security number all these years later, that there will never be a day that I won’t still love him. I also know that I am the one still alive, and I have to take the lessons he taught me and keep becoming the best woman I can, a woman he’d be proud of. I have to move past the fear of offering my heart and having someone take it with them when they leave me forever. I’ve made real progress in that direction this year—examining motives (my own) and making deliberate changes.
I gave all of my heart to Phil the first time he kissed me not long after my 17th birthday, and he took very good care of it. I have every faith that someone, some day, will come along and do so again. Until then, I’ll live this full life with all of you and the ocean and poems and music and cats and pots and late nights and sunrises and hold onto my heart, open and ready and thankful.
Katrina Murphy is a poet, teacher, baker, host of the Internet radio show Questions That Bother Me So, and a dear friend who not only kindly allowed me to re-publish this piece after I read it on her Facebook page, but also reminds me each and every day to appreciate just how well taken care of I am in this world. Hang out with her on Twitter via @QTBSradio.
Here’s me reading “The Hunters” at Monday Night Blues. It’s one of the poems I read on-air today on Questions That Bother Me So with Katrina Murphy.
This afternoon I was on Questions That Bother Me So, an Internet radio show hosted by my dear friend Katrina Murphy. Somehow Katrina and I have actually only known each other for about two years, though I don’t know how that’s possible as we have such a rich connection. Perhaps we both recognized that God put us in each other’s lives for a reason, and so we were immediately open to each other. Whatever the reason, I am grateful to have her in my life and was delighted at the luxury of chatting with her for two hours.
I just read a Facebook post from the writer Anne Lamott. She was writing about a reading she just gave in a small bookstore. Not having yet published a full collection, I have read at numerous small venues—churches, bars, a classroom on an HBCU campus, the back room of a store that used to be a restaurant.* I am used to the intimate audience, the audience that shows up because they truly love you or they truly love poetry or, in the best cases, both.
Katrina and I met at such an intimate venue—Charleston’s East Bay Meeting House, where the indefatigable (and talented) James Lundy, Jr. hosts Monday Night Poetry. My MFA classmate and ace poet and occasional cocktail buddy and sweet friend Sandra Beasley had read there, and she posted a Facebook note encouraging folks to find their way to Charleston. So I sent Mr. Lundy—as he used to be known once upon a time till I started affectionately and joshingly just calling him Lundy—an e-mail asking to read there, chock full of the assorted credentials I’ve pulled together over the years. Surprisingly he said yes, and I found myself heading to Charleston that October.
Katrina read at the open mike portion, and afterwards warmheartedly invited me to go out for cocktails with her and some of the other poets and friends of poets who were there. I can’t describe how well taken care of—to borrow a phrase from Katrina—I felt. These people who had not known me at all the day before, and knew only what they could know of me after listening to roughly 45 minutes of poems (which included the fact that I could carry a tune, write about blues musicians sometimes, and have a perennial crush on Christian Kane) welcomed me as if they had been waiting for me to come along and be their friend the whole time.
That’s the beauty of small venues—that you can make those connections, some for a lifetime (no way am I ever giving up Katrina) and some just for a moment, but all authentic and real and powerful and lasting in influence. It was at another small venue that I, for the first time, viscerally understood that something I wrote could be meaningful to someone else. It was at a small church on Cape Cod, and I can’t imagine for the life of me how I received an invitation to read as I hadn’t yet even published a chapbook. I think perhaps someone heard me on a Provincetown radio show that had been kind enough to have me on while I was living in town on a writing fellowship.
One of the poems I read that night was called “Poem for the Two Jemimas,” inspired by a beautiful story quilt by Faith Ringgold that features two robust, colorful women. The poem is a blues mourning the loss of identity that can be one of the down sides of losing weight. I myself had spent the better part of about a year, or maybe a year-and-a-half losing 75 or so pounds. I had moved from the city I’d lived in for six years to this little town on the edge of the world, and I was still coming to terms with my new body and how I was perceived by myself as well as others. All of that had percolated into this blues. After the reading, many in the audience—which was mostly women—offered kind words and congratulations. One woman asked if “The Two Jemimas” was published somewhere because she wanted to share it with a friend. I was so touched that I gave her the copy I’d read from. More than a decade later, I’m still stunned that she wanted to give someone else a page of my poetry.
On the show today, Katrina asked how a little girl from Queens grew up to be a poet. As I answered her, I was so aware of all the hands that have pushed me, prodded me, pulled me forward as I have loved, hated, grappled with, and cherished this talent God’s given me. I am grateful for all those many touches—some fleeting, some continuing, all profoundly life-changing. Ultimately, that’s why I write, to honor what they have done for me. The poet Sterling Plumpp once told me that for every poet and poem, there is a reader. I take that to mean that I may never command large audiences, or be invited to read for an hour at the National Book Festival. I may never even publish a full collection. But even as I long for those things, I keep in mind that the important thing is not that I have the world’s largest audience, but that the poems find their way to the people who need to read them. And, perhaps a bit selfishly, that the poems also help me to find the people who I need to keep pushing, prodding, pulling, and making me know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am well taken care of.
*Full Disclosure: I did read in Barnes and Noble two or three times when I lived in Chicago. But Chicago is an unusually receptive city for poetry events. People there have been known to given readings in the middle of restaurants standing on chairs while diners make their way through their courses. Ah, if only it weren’t so cold there…