Monthly Archives: April 2020

The Writer at Work

Photograph by Jose Padua
Picking up a book to read in bed one night
when I couldn’t sleep I discovered that
Roland Barthes’ Mythologies kept me awake
even more than lying on my back staring
at the ceiling as flat as a fried plantain,
and when I put that down and picked up a book
of poetry by Billy Collins I found
that what woke me up the most was a line
in a poem called Invective that ends “I will
stare into the cold, unblinking eyes of cows,”
the significance of which was not lost on me
as I went farther and farther down the path
of the ravenous who never sleep, yet look
their prey straight in the eyes without cursing.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Notes on Song and Landscape and the Inner Workings of the Heart

Photograph by Jose Padua
My son Julien’s new favorite song at the time was Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger.” It happened during a trip to Baltimore for my semi-annual visit with my cardiologist at Johns Hopkins. “Play the ‘Passenger’ song again,” Julien said, though he didn’t quite demand it the way he had with Ryuichi Sakamoto whose “Mill Theme (Robotaki Remix)” had been his previous favorite. Still, Julien (who was six at the time) made it clear it “The Passenger” was essential listening for the day.

“Who does that song?” he asked

“Iggy Pop,” I said. “Ig-gy POP.”

“Did he get sick?”

“No, he’s been healthy for a while now.”

“He even does tai chi,” Heather added.

“Me and Maggie saw him play last spring when we all went to Philadelphia,” I said.

“Did I see him too?” Julien asked.

“Er, no.”

“I want to see him next time.”

As usual, even though we always tried to leave early from Front Royal, we got to Baltimore just in time for my appointment. I checked in, and went straight to get my echocardiogram while Heather, Maggie, and Julien stayed in the waiting room. I lay down, and the technician attached the electrode patches to my chest, then turned down the lights. She put the transducer, a wand-like instrument, a little to the left of my sternum. That’s when I saw it on the monitor in black and white: my heart, beating, its valves opening and closing, its walls expanding and contracting. I am always amazed when I see my heart in motion; amazed to see it at work, pumping my blood; amazed and joyful that, despite everything from minor pain to episodes of grief and anguish, and despite the continuing absurdity, folly, and obscenity that inhabits the world, I am alive. Not everyone can feel that joy–the joy which, despite these more difficult times, is still my privilege.

When I was done with my echocardiogram, Heather, Maggie, and Julien joined me in the examining room where my doctor would meet us. When he came in he greeted us all warmly (he’s been my cardiologist for close to a decade and a half now). Heather, Maggie, and Julien all greeted him warmly in return, then Julien asked, “What’s your name?”

“My name? I’m Doctor Elmer Fudd,” he said. Julien sensed that he was kidding, and looked at him sideways. “OK, I’m actually Dr. K____.” But Julien didn’t believe him when he said his real name either.

Dr. K____ went on to tell me that my tests looked fine, that although there was the issue of the thickened heart wall, it wasn’t worsening—the possibility of which was why he continued to see me every six months. He took my blood pressure, checked several other vital signs for confirmation that my heart was still healthy, and we were done. Before we left, he mentioned that if we were going home right away we may want to check if there any protests going on, because that could make it difficult to get out of town. It was just a couple of days after Donald Trump had won the election—or rather, had won the electoral college—which meant that in a couple of months he was going to be president. “If there are, we’ll want to join them,” I said.

“Well,” Dr. K____ said, nodding .“If there is a protest, you’ll see me there, too.”

We’d take Maggie and Julien out of school for the day whenever we went to Baltimore from Front Royal. Being in a real city was always a nice break from our small town. Still, we didn’t want to get back so late that they weren’t ready for school the next day. A while back, Dr. K____ had recommended the Ivy Bookshop, but that was far uptown from Johns Hopkins, so as usual we drove to the Inner Harbor, which was right on our way out of town. In just about ten minutes we were going up the escalator to the second floor of the Barnes and Noble at the old power plant building, soaring high above the magazine racks and display tables piled high with best sellers. It’s the sort of height that usually makes me a little nervous, but we’d been to this store so many times that it didn’t bother me anymore. When we reached the top, I headed toward the part of the store that carries some of its less popular items—i.e., the poetry section—while Heather went to the café for a cup of coffee and Maggie led Julien to the children’s books.

Usually I find a few things right away, but that day I wasn’t finding anything I wanted. That’s when a guy who was sitting in the aisle there asked me, “Can you recommend any poetry?” There are always people sitting—and sometimes even lying down—in the poetry and fiction sections, reading books they’ve pulled from the shelves, or sometimes just sitting, listening to music through their earbuds. This guy looked to be somewhere in his twenties and had that look in his eyes that said he was lost or else was about to get lost. “I only know Langston Hughes,” he said.

I thought about what was going on and what was going to get even worse; and I thought about the tasks that lie ahead, wondering who might be a good poet to read for what I hoped would be a revolution of sorts. “Amiri Baraka,” I said. “He died a couple of years ago. His work is wild and straight from the heart.”

“I never heard of him,” the guy said. I was surprised. I thought that if he’d heard about Langston Hughes that he would have heard about Amiri Baraka—and just needed to be reminded of him. But then maybe that was just a ridiculous idea on my part. None of us are immune to ridiculous ideas from time to time. And every ridiculous idea is different from the next one. Yes, it’s also ridiculous to say so. I thought of what else I could say to this guy.

“Check him out,” I said finally, then added poets like Adrienne Rich, Frank O’Hara, Lucille Clifton. Somehow I neglected to mentioned any of the poets I knew, as well as any poets who were still alive, which I then hoped didn’t give him the impression that poetry was a dead art. I looked through the poetry shelves again to see if there was something I could show him, but none of the poets I’d mentioned were in stock that day. I moved on—to the fiction section, looking for Paul Beatty’s new novel, but I couldn’t find that there either. As I browsed, the guy looking for poetry suggestions walked by. He saw me and asked, “What was the name of that poet again? Amira…”

“Amiri Baraka,” I said. “Amiri Baraka.” His name itself was a poem.

“Thanks,” he said, “thanks.” I wasn’t sure, but I think he then said, “Bless you,” before walking off.

From the Barnes and Noble, we went to dinner at the Hard Rock Café. This photograph of Heather, Maggie, and Julien was taken there. The Hard Rock Café is a chain with average food, overpriced, but it’s right next door to the Barnes and Noble, and going there with our weirdness and oddity was all the energy we could spare that night before our long drive home back to Front Royal. And, somehow, they played “The Passenger” while we were there. “Julien, listen,” Maggie said. “Your song. ‘The Passenger.’”

We didn’t run into any protests blocking the road on the way home, so we didn’t run into Dr. K___ again that night. On Route I-70 West, we listened to “The Passenger” a few more times, and we also to Joni Mitchell’s “In France They Kiss on Main Street” as we took the exit for Route 15 West, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “I Say a Little Prayer” after taking the ramp on 340 South in Charlestown, West Virginia. Even though it was a quick trip, it was good to get away from the landscape of Trump signs where we lived. When we got close to town, after nine in the evening, it was too dark to see the signs, allowing the landscape of river winding through valley to take precedence. Of course, in the morning, the signs would be there again; and, even though with that election being over, those signs would soon come down, there would be new signs to replace them. Many of them expressing support of the same old shit.

We were about half an hour from home when Julien said he had to use the bathroom. We were right outside of Berryville, Virginia, so we stopped at the convenience store at the corner of Lord Fairfax Highway and Main Street, right in town. When I took Julien inside, we saw that there was an older woman using a walker ahead of us. A young man who was probably her son was helping her pull away from her walker, which wouldn’t fit in the door of the rest room, and make her way to the toilet.

“I have to go! I have to go!” Julien said frantically.

“You’re all right. You’re all right,” I said. “You can hold it.” The young man turned to us with a worried look as if to say sorry. And I remembered over two decades earlier when, during the last months before she died, my mother also needed help making her way to the bathroom. “It’s okay,” I said to him, nodding as I put my hand on Julien’s shoulder. Somehow, it didn’t seem to take that long.

When we got back in the car, I looked at my phone and saw a news report saying that Leonard Cohen had died. It had happened a few days earlier, before the election, but his family only announced it that day—the day of his funeral. That’s when I remembered a night right before I left New York to move back to DC (I was moving back to be near to my mother, who’d just had a heart attack and a stroke). It was one of my last nights out in New York, and a woman I’d just met who was a friend of a friend handed me a tape of Leonard Cohen’s music. I didn’t know his music that well at the time, and I guess she thought it might serve me well in the days that lie ahead. If I remember correctly, her name was Candy. And I said to Candy, “thank you.” I don’t think I ever got around to saying, “bless you,” much less, “let’s celebrate the privilege of being alive.” Though sometimes it feels as if I’ve missed out on something important when I don’t say these words, or at least think about them. Sometimes, even during days like this, I feel that the time to celebrate is now.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

When I Was a Massacre of Epic Proportions

Photograph by Jose Padua
When I was a massacre of epic proportions
and you were a murmuration of sad songs,
we lived in a different world. Our meals
were simple, gathered from ground and sea
and cooked over an open fire or sometimes
not cooked at all. My face had fewer lines,
I could lift my weight in apples because
my weight in apples was less than my weight
is now. I began measuring these things in
cinder blocks, this being a denominator as
common as panic in a rapidly beating heart.
Being a massacre, I could make my way
through the world so easily. A war in Asia,
a clash of ideals in Europe, a steady conquering
of the poor and toothless in America—
all were places and occasions where I was
welcome, where everyone would stop what
they were doing to say “Oh, it’s here” each
time I showed up. When I left, you’d linger
with your sad songs, tears running from your
eyes, dampening the gathered souls like a
warm summer’s rain. Tonight there are empty
seats on an airplane going from China to Japan.
There’s a restaurant in Bagdad where dust
hasn’t been wiped from the tables in years.
A child in New York stares out his bedroom
window at the quiet street below. I sit in a room
like a diminished tone of muscle, because there
is nothing so beautiful as these stark days, nothing
as soothing as white noise from an old radio.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Light When It Shines Upon the Family Dollar Store as if Making Great Noise or Beautiful Silence

Photograph by Jose Padua
I’d picked up my son Julien from camp that morning, then together he and I went to get his sister Maggie from her art class. When Maggie got in the car, she asked him, “How was camp today?”

Julien, gazing out the window, said, “It was boring work.” It was “boring,” perhaps, because he was still tired from a busy weekend; but it was “work” because that’s what they preferred to call everything—at least at this particular Montessori school. Your daily activities were never called “play”—you had to call them “work.”

Maggie had done splendidly there for 10 years, but after that moved on to one of Front Royal’s public high schools. Julien, on the other hand, was pretty much kicked out of the Montessori school after just a couple of months. He did well at the public school, though, and at the end of the school year the Montessori school let him come back for summer camp. But apparently, even though it was summer camp, everything you did there still had to be called “work.”

During the regular school year, Julien’s teachers at the public elementary school adored him. I didn’t know for sure, but maybe they even adored him when he got mad and said “Jesus Christ!”—which is what he tended to say at that stage in moments of exasperation. Maybe they interpreted it as prayer more than imprecation. Though if he said it the way I say it—which, undoubtedly, was where he first heard the exclamation, most likely in response to one of any number of asshole moves by the Trump administration which at the time had been in power for just six months—it was, unequivocally, imprecation.

Back at the house, Julien had a snack—at his request, Maggie had made him a jelly sandwich. After a bit of a coughing spell, though, he threw it up. Then he had another coughing fit. Soon it was apparent that work at camp wasn’t just boring because he was tired—it was boring because he was sick.

This evening, when Heather was back home from the office, all four of us went to take Julien to the urgent care facility north of town. “No shots! No shots!” Julien kept telling the doctor. They didn’t give him a shot, but they did have to apply the Q-tip to his throat, and when the test came back it was positive for strep. They prescribed an antibiotic and we drove down to the CVS pharmacy in Gateway Plaza back in town. Heather went in while Maggie, Julien, and I waited in the car.

The above photograph shows the late evening sunlight as it illuminated the front of the Family Dollar store across the parking lot from where we waited in Gateway Plaza. On those days when you couldn’t make it out to the mountains—and there were many days when we lived in the valley when there just wasn’t time or energy or impulse to do so—the next most beautiful thing you could behold was the color of the Family Dollar store under deep blue summer skies during the early stages of twilight. Say what you will about the colors of the second and third floors of the Main Street Mill restaurant at about eight o’clock in the evening in late July, or about the grand stone mansion on Virginia Avenue and Academy Drive when the early darkness of dusk made it seem like an ancient edifice built thousands of years ago, nothing compared to the colors of the western facing storefronts of the shops in Gateway Plaza. At any rate, not since they remodeled a couple of years previously.

Back home again, after dinner that evening, Maggie asked me to suggest some new song she might attempt on the piano. She was ready for a break from the Liszt and Chopin she’d been working on, and thought she might try another jazz tune—something other than Thelonious Monk this time.

“What about McCoy Tyner?” I said. “He used to play with John Coltrane, and he has a very distinctive style.” I pulled up a few of McCoy Tyner’s songs on YouTube to play for Maggie. After these, I said, “Also Stanley Cowell. He’s another one of my favorite pianists, though he isn’t nearly as well known as McCoy Tyner.” And I pulled up a few Stanley Cowell tunes for Maggie to hear.

A little while later, I was hearing the opening notes of Stanley Cowell’s tune “Equipoise” coming from the piano in the hallway. I first heard “Equipoise” around forty years ago, when I bought Stanley Cowell’s album Musa: Ancestral Streams at Melody Records in DC back when it was on E Street and the main clerk there was Don, who later on became one of the founders of the avant garde jazz/noise ensemble, Borbetomagus.

I still listen to the mad, intense, incredible noise of bands like Borbetomagus, but not as much as I used to. More frequently what I’ll be listening to are tunes like Stanley Cowell’s “Equipoise”—slower, quieter, and though I’m not going to say it’s more beautiful than the noise, it’s a different kind of beauty. The kind of beauty that has lines of age around its eyes, slight wrinkles around the cheeks, and moves not with that get-out-of-my-way sort of daring but with a subtle kind of boldness that begs you (without even asking) to make room for it, to let it stand in front of you for as long as it can, so it can shine.

And that’s what I heard that night, coming from the hallway where Maggie was playing piano, and that’s what I’ll be listening for next time, when the sun is going down and the season’s air is cooling and it’s time for me to get out of the way again. When it’s time for me to practice making distance, for one reason or another. But for as long as I can, whatever the sound and whatever the speed, I’ll be listening, watching the colors as they move through whatever room I’m in—or whatever street, city, or oddly open space I find myself in. And when the time is right—and only at that time—I’ll close my eyes to see if I can feel the earth spinning.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

These Rhymes Out to All the Nations

Photograph by Jose Padua
My sixteen year-old daughter shouts from downstairs,
“Mom? Mom!” and then again after getting no answer
shouts, “Mom? Mom? Mom!” which is when my nine-year
old son goes to the top of the stairs and shouts back, “She’s
on the phone” and waits a moment before adding, “Shut
the fuck up!” When he hears no further inquiry or attempt
at what he interprets as ill communication on the part of his
sister he says, “Thank you,” which I think goes to show how
sometimes it’s best to stay out of the way of your children’s
business, and that every day we stay alive is a reminder
that the universe is a thing of great natural beauty.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua