A poem from 1996. My father, Jim, died today. Felt right to post this now.
Granddaughter of many immigrants, I
belong only to this land,
this language, by the grace of time.
I’ve dreamt the speech of my ancestors:
Swedish, German and Italian,
each struggling to recall its homeland,
when my tongue, unconscious,
Today, I learned of a place
off the Sycan Road where a rock
resembles a wrinkled face of a woman;
she sits surrounded by sage,
junipers dotting the hills,
and some go there to pray.
Rub her back with your palm
I am told
by an Indian man with a long black ponytail,
do not ask her for money
or strength to hurt another.
Ask instead for help
Ask for the power to think
Have the courage to pray
your own prayers, he said.
My father, logger by trade,
lover of the forest by nature,
told me: The woods are your church.
A sentence to be uttered only once;
otherwise, it loses its magic.
This I know by instinct;
the same slow fire in my gut
that burns when I hear
of a stone grandmother, watching
over high desert trees;
oil of many palms
worked into the rock
in circular fashion,
thoughts of many in trouble
have rested upon her
wrinkling like years
of water upon the earth.
Her magic is still good.
I hope she watches over loggers, too.
* * *
My father rose daily at four a.m.
pulled on cumbrous black steel-toes
wool, flannel, denim, and a baseball cap,
ate fried eggs at Denny’s
and drove two hours into the woods
stopping at dawn to watch the sunrise
over railroad tracks,
sip coffee from a thermos.
Even in his fifties he is limber
and quick, moving uphill burdened
with saw, engine oil, and canteen.
He is faster than men half his age,
a pace-setter, wrinkled from sun
and wise as the woman in the rock.
The woods are your church.
This is the first man I loved:
the one who taught me to cut stained glass,
who gave me two simple words: have patience.
After his workday we drove
another mile to Leins’ grocery
and bought banana popscicles.
Eating the sugary ice in the pickup
going home, I memorized the smell
of pine shavings, saw oil, spilled coffee.
The scents of lonely workdays,
bizarre holy incense offered
to spirits of trees,
to America in its good times,
to a little girl who loves her father.
When other children asked me
if I believed in their God, in their savior,
Emerson believed that cathedrals
were meant to emulate the forest
with their tall vaulted canopies
their detailed carvings, intricate
as the paths cut by worms
or wind or water.
This is an easy connection for me
this swift link between the sacred ground
called woods and the one called church.
There is a religion without a name
that rises early, silent,
with the scent of dew on sage;
the shape of logger’s boots
in cinder dust, the trail of deer;
wheeltracks of pickups;
the long ocean passage to Ellis Island
and a homestead at Rocky Point;
an ancient clan of treefolk
singing Solstice praises;
all are heavy with meaning,
all are memory and longing.
* * *
No blessed phrases will fall off my tongue,
only the plain words of a language I love.
Old Woman, I still belong,
in a strange and hideous way, to this land, like you.
I have a holy place that will contain me,
but its walls are ether, cloud,
lodged halfway between forest
and heaven. A place to visit alone,
to think, to pray for patience.