WHEN THE GERIATRIC DRUNK NEXT DOOR
When the geriatric drunk next door who was
raising chihuahuas to make a living,
but couldn’t part with one them when it came time to sell
came over one day in my childhood,
shaking like an aspen leaf in the fall,
going through withdrawal, to ask if he could borrow
a few bucks, I watched my mother give him five
of the last ten she had to raise four kids
for half of the rest of the month before
the next welfare check arrived, and say,
Here. Don’t hurt yourself. Something to ease the pain.
Though she didn’t drink and he’d been drinking too long
to turn the herd that had trampled him around.
She didn’t judge. She didn’t try to give advice.
She didn’t belittle the man in the way she gave.
She didn’t count how much the giving took off her plate.
She wasn’t indulging her progressive, liberal, altruism.
She wasn’t breaking loaves and fishes on a hillside
or trying to win a popular election.
She just gave like the sea, the earth, the sky,
like fire gives heat and light, all in one easy action
of a heart that has suffered enough on its own to know
we’re all in the same lifeboat on the moon
white-water rafting through the rapids of a waterclock.
And that has been my religion ever since.
Though I’ve never said anything to her about it.
How much I loved her in that moment
of compassionate tenderness, how she pulled
one thread out of the straitjacket of despair in his eyes,
and rewove it not on a loom like the moon but a harp
into a flying carpet of joy so another human
in as much of a mess in her own way as he was
could gain some altitude for a little while above the misery,
and hang on to at least one single wavelength of threadbare radiance
that could still fall on the shit everybody was living in
and turn it into a flower. Indelible,
the understanding in their eyes when he
looked at her incredulously for a moment
and she knew exactly what he meant
as she laughed at herself with a soft, wry smile
as if she’d just seen the sacred fool behind her best sentiment.
That was the whole of enlightenment to me.
The beginning of a spontaneous discipline
and still is, though it’s sometimes bitter to practise,
when your giving is mistaken for having been taken
and you lament how many people can’t tell the difference
between a theft and a gift anymore. How they deprive themselves
of so many jewels of inestimable value,
and that human touch that can pour the heart like gold
from the darkest of ores, the deepest of mines,
or bring meteors to shed hot tears like diamonds upon impact.
Or oxygen and the bases of protein.
Though it be a nuclear winter outside.
Though the bride was left standing at the altar
and there was no one there to lift the veils of Isis
to see the stars in the eyes of the Queen of Heaven even at nadir
like a chance someone wasn’t willing to take.
Though common sense dictate a rational sacrifice,
and Ayn Rand and the Union of Spiritual Snakeoil Salesmen
preach that you’ve got to learn to love yourself first
as if you had a self to nurture that wasn’t rooted
like a mirage in a desert in an hourglass that poured
through your fingers like water when you tried to grasp
the delusion of the flower. Though all the mystics
try to annihilate what doesn’t exist to see God as she really is
as they come before her like busy, busy bees
with money in their pockets and honey in their hives
and all their martyrdom proves to be just another mode of suicide.
You can give a piece of garbage you’ve picked
out of a dumpster like the bruised fruits of the earth,
and when you give it to someone you can eat
from the Tree of Life with impunity without having to choose
between the serpent and the apple, the evil and the good,
or the knowledge you must suffer to be understood
as a human, who can gain altitude by erring on the side
of someone else’s plight without even wearing wings,
to the wonderment of the angels and demons alike,
and occasionally, like me, your angry, eldest son,
who didn’t know until that one moment whether
he should approach the world like a fist
with teethmarks on the knuckles, or
an open palm with lifelines thrown out to another
like billions of umbilical cords woven like a strong rope
into a mother who didn’t need to build an ark to be a lifeboat.
Who could see lucidly through a glass darkly
the veils of her own nebulosity breaking out of the fog
like the search lanterns of the stars
out of the most ancient mystery of love
hidden in her heart without the aid of a teacher or telescope.