I feel the pen in my hand, roll it between my fingers and touch the tip to paper. It has a soft grip and a smooth roll when it writes—all the things a pen should be. I am writing a poem. Sometimes the words take shape in my mouth; I wrap my lips around them and trap them before they spill out. I keep them on paper until they are ready to be spoken. Other times I cannot make the words come. They hide in my head until they want to be found. I show them how to join their brothers on paper.
I am trying to remember what had happened a few days prior.
My friend Savannah, drunk in her studio, is sitting on the floor. We are drinking wine out of a plastic water bottle that she had cut in half to make cups for us. I could feel the carpet under my fingers, stiff from dried paint.
“I remember packing up all of my little treasures when I moved to college and crying because I missed them,” she said, “and when I came home I cried because I didn’t miss them anymore.” She ran her finger down the spine of a book she had checked out from the library, waiting to be returned. All around her are things she would not take with her, gelato spoons, tabs from milk bottles. All of them mean something to her. I thought of T. S. Eliot—we have measured out our lives with gelato spoons. The street she lives on sounds like the shape of her mouth. She would leave it, too.
I couldn’t blame her. I too was always leaving, always collecting little pieces of my life in gelato spoons, always missing them. Sometimes I feel like there’s more of myself out there then what I can find at home. I cannot build my life around gelato spoons. Sometimes the ripples of change that carry us home again must start from somewhere far away. My friend Cory told me once that “light is the same everywhere, you know.” But I didn’t believe him.
The Migratory Habits of Wild Birds
In late October the water trembles as
I brushed the dust from the porcelain tea set
that sits next to my bed, a present from my 5th Christmas.
It would not go in the boxes that laid like closed mouths on
the flight patterns of North American wild birds
the floor next to me, confident in the finality of their destination.
I wondered if the person who would come back to this room,
if the me who would return at Christmas time would
shift southward to cover 2,500 miles of open sky.
miss these things like I missed them now.
I cried because I knew that she wouldn’t.
As the days grow shorter
I take refuge on the floor of her studio.
I watch her look up at the ceiling
these majestic birds rise higher and higher
as the wine sloshes around the chipped V’s in her cup
looking at the walls that make her cage.
preparing for the journey that will take them
I can see her waiting, leaving, knowing, thinking-
her brain moving the thoughts around
far away from the land in which they were born.
that she doesn’t think matter,
that echo around the room
and the wine stains the porcelain red
When they go they leave only the scar of a dark V
as they wash over my face and into my mouth.
across the setting sun.
I chase them down with water.
Baby grabbed my hand tightly. Her soft, brown skin was warm against mine. She took me and pulled me to her chest, enveloping me in the folds of her sari and rolls of her skin. She was a big woman, and when she smiled, her cheeks pushed her eyes into the shape of almonds, revealing her crooked teeth. We had never met before, but she loved me, I could feel it in her hands as they held mine. The other women she was with hugged us too, one by one.
Our team, all seven of us, sat on the floor in the small, bright blue room, surrounded by Indian women. The room was the bottom floor of Grace Home. Covered by the sweat of many bodies and the dust from many feet, it was a gathering place for eunuchs, for prostitutes, a place to dance for orphans, for worship, a graduation hall, a dining room.
I had come to India as a missionary. I wanted to see India, to travel, and to change the world. Every twenty-one year old is an activist, after all. I wasn’t just here to hang out. But here I was, surrounded by twenty women who didn’t speak English, who loved me, who used to be part of Mumbai’s sex industry, and all I could do was sit and listen. They were part of an organization called the Tamar Ministry. As we sat there, our Punjabi suits sticking to our backs, they told us their stories. A woman named Asha translated for them. Asha means “hope” in Hindi.
Some of them had gone into the industry because they had mouths to feed and no way to make money. Some of them had been sold by family members. Baby was one of the first ones who had been rescued, along with Ronnie. They told us about how they would go rescue others, fighting off several men as they would grab a girl and take her to safety. I held my breath each time one of the women began to tell their stories, praying that they would not ask me for mine. What could I say of my life that would mean anything to them?
When they left we went upstairs with the children. Johnson sat next to me on the floor of their room. He lived on the third floor of Grace Home, along with nine other children—Titus, Paul, Peterson, Daniel, Sharisa, Theresa, Sarah, and Solomon. All of their parents had died of AIDS. We were surrounded by the other children, occupied with the Justin Bieber music blasting from Kate’s iPod next to us. I was looking over at them when Johnson grabbed my arm and said, “Talk to me, sister.” His English was pretty good. All the kids called us “sister,” but it sounded more like “see-ster.” Johnson was 12 years old, though I would not have known it. All the children, as well as most people in India, were very small. He was charming, smiling at me with his teeth white in contrast with his dark skin and eyes. I loved them all, but Johnson was special to me.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” I asked.
“I want to be an engineer,” he said, “what are you going to do?”
“I’m studying poetry.”
“Ah! Write me a poem, sister.”
I was embarrassed. I thought of my previous poems…nothing he would like. If I was going to write a poem for a twelve-year-old-English-as-a-second-language Indian boy, I’d have to write it to him. Nothing based on imagery or pretty words, nothing about falling in love for the first time, or light pollution, or how hard it was to be twenty-one years old. It wasn’t that he couldn’t understand those things, they just weren’t important to him. But love was important to him. He knew about love and he knew about losing the people he loved. I wanted him to know that I was coming back, one day. I wrote him a poem that rhymed— something simple, something I would never turn in to one of my English classes. I watched him read it.
“Ah, sister, very good!”
Later that night, as we started to leave Grace Home for the last time, Johnson grabbed my arm and tucked it under his, holding it close to his body.
“I won’t let you leave, sister.”
I cried on the rickshaw all the way back to our hotel. I had come to India trying to change the world. I asked myself, But why had I come? To write a poem? To listen? I did not know.
To My New Friends In India
Though my new friends
and I are far apart
there is love in
all of our hearts
that make the
time and space
between us seem
to be erased, so when
we all meet again
we will still be
the closest friends.
I rubbed the dirt between my fingers, letting it fill the lines of my fingerprints; being careful not to let it get close to the blister I rubbed into my thumb milking the goats that morning. I listened to the distinct sound of Joanna’s bare feet walking towards me. She walked everywhere barefoot, her feet hard and calloused, her legs hairy and covered in scratches from picking blackberries. Her short brown hair was gathered into its usual ponytail at the nape of her neck. She was twenty-two and around six feet tall, a foot shorter than her older brother, Zachary. She did not particularly resemble Zachary, though they both had angular cheek bones and big lips. “You may come in for lunch, now,” she said. Both she and Zachary spoke in a way that sounded oddly formal, a product of time spent reading and farming, uninfluenced by spending time with people their own age or watching television. I shook my hands off and breathed a hot sigh of relief. I still wasn’t quite sure if I was glad to be there.
I had found St. Francis Farm the summer after my sophomore year of college in an attempt to put a few things behind me… a traffic violation, a few less friends, a case of mono, and a criminal trespassing citation will do that to you. After googling “how to work on a farm for only two weeks,” I had joined an organization called WWOOF, where I could connect, via their website, with different farms and work out an agreement for room and board in exchange for labor. (So I browsed the New York section of the website, emailing several different farms. I had gotten my heart set on one that was closer to New York City (the whole state is not one big NYC, in case you had forgotten).) I finally found one that I felt like really fit me. It was called Sylvester Manor. Its webpage displayed Mumford & Sons type characters in the middle of a field holding chickens. Obviously this was where I was supposed to be. But, bad news—it was already booked solid for the summer. Mumford had too many sons. (I continued to email various farms, until)
I finally stumbled upon St. Francis Farm. What got my attention was that it was associated with the Catholic Worker movement. Started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930’s, Catholic Worker communities exist all over the world, each focusing on social justice through voluntary poverty, nonviolence, manual labor, and the works of mercy. Dorothy Day described the purpose as trying to “live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ.” Peter Maurin said they were trying to create a society in which “it was easier to be good.” It sounded even better than Sylvester Manor. After all, what’s cooler than Mumford & Sons? I’ll tell you—philanthropy.
And so here I was, trying to figure out exactly what I was trying to accomplish by weeding the asparagus. I thought we were supposed to be changing the world, here, not just trying to make a salad.
As the days came and went, I became used to the routine life of the farm. In the mornings we would wake up at 5:45 (in the morning) to milk the goats. This was my favorite chore. Despite the fact it was July, the morning air was chilly. I would walk from my room across the dewy grass to the house where I would meet Joanna, standing in the dimly lit living room, feet bare. She patiently waited for me to milk one goat and then she would milk the other, her familiar hand pumping the milk out twice as quickly as I could. I loved the syncopated rhythm of the milk hitting the metal bowl. As the sun would begin to seep through the trees, we went inside where I would strain the milk, put it in the fridge, and then drink a cup of coffee (with goats’ milk from the previous day). We would meet upstairs in the room with windows in the shape of a cross, where we sat with the light shining in on us. and I could hear the clip clop of the Amish carriages driving by. There we would have our thirty minutes of prayer time. Even though this was a Catholic Worker farm, the Hoyt family was Quaker. We spent that time in silence, reading, praying, and meditating. I had never taken this kind of time to pray before. I was always going, always doing, always working. I started using the Book of Common Prayer that my father had gotten me for Christmas. My favorite prayer quickly became For Every Man in his Work, which goes—
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who declares thy glory and showest forth thy handiwork in the heavens and in the earth; Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men; for the sake of him who came among us as one that serveth, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I began to understand Dorothy Day when she quoted Gustav Landauer, saying “The real transformation of society will come only in love, in work, and in stillness.” I realized the world was here, under our fingertips, and we had only to reach down and touch it.
I find myself with my pen in my hand again, rolling it around, trying to familiarize myself with this old friend of mine. Of course, grasping at words is easy. Actually grasping them and putting them down on paper is hard. My eyes wander across my desk, resting on postcards and dirty coffee cups. I run across a quote I had written down when I was at St. Francis Farm. It’s from Dorothy Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness.“We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.” Gelato spoons catch my eye. What’s worth writing about? Why do we even write at all? I have a feeling they might be They are variations of the same question, but I begin by looking at what I’ve held on to. What is it that I have held on to, and why? I find myself going back to the people who have loved me and to the people I have loved. We leave and we stay, we farm and we rescue. We write. We save the world in all kinds of ways. Cory was right—light is the same everywhere and we can see that everything is changing. The earth is under our fingertips.
Julia Rox is a poet from Nashville, TN. She is a senior at Lipscomb University, studying English: Writing and Philosophy. Her work has been published in On the Cusp Zine, Fractal Magazine, and the Lipscomb College of Arts and Sciences Magazine.