Construction

For the past eight months or so, I’ve had the privilege of volunteering with a mentoring program here in Los Angeles, which means that once a week, I get to hang out with a few other adults and a group of students from one of L.A.’s public middle schools. It’s been a wonderful experience all around, and I’ve been deeply impressed and encouraged by the young people’s creativity, intelligence, compassion, thoughtfulness and resilience (among other positive attributes).

Their approach to one activity in particular caught my attention and inspired these reflections:

Construction

Seven inner-city seventh graders—
constituents of an educational system
struggling to maintain a tenuous grasp
on teachers, funds and hope—
are charged with building
the tallest tower possible
out of the flimsiest scraps imaginable:
paper, straws and pipe cleaners—
the kinds of materials one might reasonably expect
to buckle under pressure.

Though the supervising adults
murmur words of caution,
advocating a careful, conservative approach,
the youth set their sights
on a loftier goal,
taking as their model
the highest-rising edifice
that scrapes the sky
above their corner of the world:
the U.S. Bank building
in downtown Los Angeles.

In a flurry of breathless ambition,
they set to work,
adhering components to one another
with tape and sheer will power
and contriving an impressive something
out of nothing—
demonstrating that a structure is as strong
as the faith of its builders
in their ability to create.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Life Cycle of a Dream

Back in January, I was doing a lot of thinking about dreams—the visions for our lives that we may or may not have, and that we may or may not chase if we have them. The poem I shared then was a lament about the apparent inability of some young people of my acquaintance to imagine realities beyond the familiar.

Another strand of the topic I’ve been pondering in recent months is the idea that sometimes we have dreams, and we chase them, and they come true…and that’s not the end of the story. By way of background…my dear friend, Lee Harper, and I spent eight years pursuing the dream of opening a coffee house in our inner-city Jackson, Mississippi, neighborhood. That dream came true on June 6, 2008, when Koinonia Coffee House celebrated its Grand Opening—and in the months and years that followed, as Koinonia became the racially, socio-economically, politically and otherwise diverse community gathering place we had so fervently longed for it to be. (For more about Koinonia, visit the coffee house’s Facebook page or website.)

But a couple of things got in the way of a simple “happily ever after” conclusion to the coffee house saga. One was that by the time we finally opened our doors, my imagination had been caught by a new dream: the hope of making a writing life for myself (and for some reason I didn’t think working full-time-plus co-managing a coffee house would facilitate my literary aspirations). Another was that although we received tremendous support from our community, money didn’t exactly roll in, and there have been multiple occasions on which Lee and I (and since I moved back to California to chase my next dream, just Lee) seriously considered shutting the whole thing down. (Lest I send any of Koinonia’s customers into a panic, the coffee house has weathered each of those storms and remains alive and kicking as of this writing!)

It was after one of those “maybe it’s time to close the doors and move on” conversations that the thoughts shared below began swirling around in my head and demanding to be given a home on paper. For the record, my answer to the middle question is no, I absolutely do not believe something should be called a failure simply because it doesn’t (or may not) last forever. Seeing a long-cherished dream come true—for any length of time—is really quite a wonderful thing!

Life Cycle of a Dream

How does that first glimmer of an idea—
that inspired aspiration so lofty
and compelling
that its attainment seems as impossible
as its pursuit is inevitable—
become one more chapter
in a storied past?

Do you count it as a failure
if that which has been
so painstakingly envisioned
appears
and then vanishes again,
Brigadoon-like,
replacing hours, days and years
of working and waiting
praying, hoping and striving
with a rumpled patchwork of memories
joyful, painful and ordinary?

Or is this the nature of dreams:
to be so ephemeral
that they can be grasped only briefly—
spoiling like manna
if held onto for too long—
and so richly satisfying
that a mere nibble is sufficient
to nourish the soul
until the next captivating notion
comes along?

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Resolution

I’m delighted to be spending this Mother’s Day in Santa Cruz /Watsonville, having brunch with my mom and then hearing her perform as a member of the Santa Cruz County Symphony (SCCS).  I’ve attended many concerts over the years, and I’ve always been inspired by my mother, her fellow performers, and the beautiful music they make together. Along the way, I’ve discovered that certain musical moments, for whatever reason, have special power to touch places deep in listeners’ souls. I experienced one of those moments last March, at a previous SCCS concert, during a performance of Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto.

It’s taken me over a year, and several attempts, to find the words to describe the incredible joy, hope and general sense of well-being those few marvelous measures gave me. I still can’t really do the moment justice, but the poem below is my attempt. Thank you, Mom, for bringing so much beautiful music into our family!

Resolution

Although the music has been lovely to this point
I am in no way emotionally prepared
            for this lush orchestral entrance—
with its downbeat so sure and strong
            its chord so consonant and bright
that it suddenly seems as if anything is possible:
            audacious hopes may be realized
            crippling fears dispelled
            fractured relationships restored
            and festering wounds healed
under the gentle touch
of a master who knows
that in that cleansing moment
            when dissonance is washed away
            in a resolving flood
life’s intractable problems
            become marvelously malleable.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers