Pacific

One of the benefits of living in California again is the frequency with which I have the opportunity to drive up and down the coast along various stretches of Highway One. I have always loved the ocean, so catching glimpses of it from the car window, or stopping from time to time to take a more extended look, brings me great joy.

On one recent road trip, I paused at a scenic overlook to savor my proximity to the mighty Pacific. As I watched the waves crash and recede, I felt the familiar urge to put pen to paper, and I started trying to capture my fascination with this great body of water.

Not surprisingly, even as I attempted to craft an homage to the beauty and magnificence of nature, my mind turned to the realities of city life. As I observed the ceaseless repetition of the water’s motion—and thought about the daily ebb and flow of the tides—I was reminded of the heartache and frustration that so often come with community development work, when you pour yourself into people and projects over time, but fail to see the tangible positive change you hope for so fervently. (This is not to say, of course, that I claim to know the best path for any other person’s life to follow, but I imagine many of us share the gut sense that, to give just a few examples, incarceration, drug addiction, and unplanned pregnancy do not generally represent the most positive outcomes for our young people.)

So while I recognize the inherent differences between what the ocean “does” and what community developers do, I still felt inspired to renew my commitment to labor faithfully, whether or not I can observe “net progress from day to day.” I was also reminded how much there is to value and celebrate in the incremental advances; in the shared striving toward a common—if elusive—goal; and even in the growth that comes when we are forced to fall back, regroup, and try again.

Pacific

This ocean has a gravitational pull
     all its own,
drawing me inexorably
     to its edge
that I may listen to the rhythmic pounding
          of the surf
     breathe in the invigorating scent
          of salty sea air
     and watch with rapt attention
          the boisterous charge and slithering retreat
          of waves beyond number—
wondering all the while
if I shall ever possess
the patience and fortitude required
     to persevere so faithfully
     in a given task
when faced with such a dearth
     of net progress
     from day to day.

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Art Imitates Life

While I love working from home, every once in a while I’m reminded that just because I don’t leave the house to go to an office every morning, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t/can’t ever leave the house at all. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I did not immediately head outdoors after writing this poem, but I have been out and about some in the weeks since—to a graduation, a Giants game at Angel Stadium, a picnic in the park, and a few subway rides and neighborhood walks, among other adventures—and it’s been a lot of fun! Perhaps I’ll make a habit of this leaving the house thing…

Art Imitates Life

Outside
an assortment of sounds and smells—
animated chatter around a smoking barbecue
the bolstering strains of a looping playlist
     that could justifiably be titled
     “Disco Faves”
children’s laughter
     shouts
     and rapid footsteps
as a paneled Pied Piper
     cruises down the block,
     blasting its maddening
          and infuriatingly hummable
     jingle
     as it goes.

Inside
the gentle whir of a computer fan
and subdued clicks of a modern keyboard—
evidence of my attempt
to recreate on one flat screen
     what I perceive through another
as I sit at my desk, oblivious to the notion
that I could, instead, venture out of doors
and experience it all
     in living color
     surround sound
     and three dimensions.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

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

Play Ball!

What is it about this sport
that fascinates me so,
when the best a player can do
is end up back where he began?

Why do I accept as a worthy goal
the ability to run in circles—
or have I been fooled
because the powers that be
have given those rounds sharp corners
rotated them 45 degrees
and dubbed them diamonds?

How is it that I have become mesmerized,
spending hours each day
for 162 days
glued to a screen
just so I can watch
the most accomplished of these athletes
come up empty
seven times out of ten?

Am I addicted to the rewards
(and to the frustrations
that drive up their value),
bringing my pan to the river’s edge
and sifting through all the walks,
foul tips and errors,
the pop-ups and routine ground balls
for the sake of turning up
one glittering, precious nugget:
that scorched line drive
towering homerun
swan-diving catch
or picture-perfect double play
that makes all the time invested
worth my while?

Or is it that I wish we could approach
more of life
with the perspective we bring
into the ballpark—
celebrating with wild abandon
the successes of those we care about,
accepting periodic failure
as just one element in a complex equation,
and knowing there will always be
another inning
another game
or, worst case, another spring
wherein we once again will have
the opportunity
to knock one out of the park
or sacrifice ourselves
so that a teammate may advance?

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Welcome to the Neighborhood

First things first, I offer apologies for not having posted anything new for a while. Today’s poem touches on part of the explanation for my long absence: February saw me moving for the third time in two years. There may be those out there who have mastered the art of the seamless transition, but apparently I am not one of them.

Anyway, this latest move took me from Pasadena to (shallow) South Los Angeles, where I encountered a rather unusual welcoming party, as described below. (For any of you inclined to worry, please rest assured that this experience seems to have been an anomaly.) In the weeks since the move, I have begun to settle into my new community, and I eagerly look forward to seeing how the next season of my life will unfold…

Welcome to the Neighborhood

The darkness seems to deepen every moment
as I drive slowly down
what has just today
become my street,
gearing up to spend my first night
in unfamiliar
and reputedly dangerous
territory.

Reaching my new lodgings,
I inch along a narrow driveway,
then wiggle into a muddy parking space
at the edge of a bedraggled
and foreboding
courtyard
in the back.

As I step gingerly from my car,
my nameless, shapeless anxieties
take startling physical form,
as I am immediately accosted
by a swarthy young fellow
bleeding profusely
from one hand.

He tells me that he gouged his palm
trying to scale a fence
(a claim I see no way
either to verify or disprove)
and wonders if I would be willing
to help him clean his wound.

“I don’t mean to frighten you,”
he hastens to assure me,
and while I appreciate the sentiment,
the part of my brain still capable
of rational thought
wonders whether his repeated assertions
to this effect
ought to do more to extinguish
or to fuel
my smoldering alarm.

Although the entire contents of my residence
are in a state of boxed-up disarray,
from the jumble I manage to procure
a bottle of drinking water
a tube of Neosporin
and a roll of Charmin:
just enough in the way of supplies
to establish a fly-by-night first aid dispensary
on the sidewalk.

Before my minimally treated patient
takes his leave,
he politely inquires whether I have any objection
to his hopping the fence
that borders the rear
of my landlord’s property.

I find myself taken aback by the request—
certain that if I were he
I would now make every effort
to stay as far away from fences
as humanly possible—
but I muzzle my naïve astonishment
and simply tell him that as far as I am concerned,
he is free to make his own choice
in the matter.

Then, too flustered to wait and see
how the youthful hurdler fares
against his chosen obstacle,
I ensconce myself within the fortress
I will learn to call my home,
replaying what has just transpired
and hoping I have done enough
to earn a passing mark
on this first test
of neighbor-hood.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Dream Job

Following the observance, last week, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the dreams we human beings have for ourselves and one another–and, as a corollary, of the dreams some of us don’t have.

The poem below describes an interaction I had several years ago with two young men in my neighborhood in west Jackson. As younger boys, these two had participated in Bible clubs and tutoring sessions (as well as the occasional cookie-baking party) at my home, but they had outgrown all that some time back. We  remained friendly,  but I had been uninvolved in their day-to-day lives for a while before this conversation.

As I’ve thought back on this incident (and considered sharing this poem), I’ve been plagued by a nagging question: Is it right and good–or elitist and snobby–to want all young people to have (and be able to articulate) dreams for themselves that go beyond the kinds of realities they see around them every day?

Most of us–whether we grow up in low-income inner-city neighborhoods or not–will never hold our “dream jobs.” Is it cruel, I find myself wondering, to urge a young person who has set his sights on something that may well be attainable to aspire toward something more unlikely (just because that far-fetched idea seems more “dreamlike” to me)? Would doing so just sour this young person toward the job and life in which he may eventually find himself? Or is even an unfulfilled dream valuable because it challenges us to learn and grow and attempt things we don’t yet know whether we can achieve? Is shooting for a star and landing on the moon really so terrible?

Perhaps most to the point, from time to time, seemingly impossible dreams do come true. Who am I to attempt to guess whose will, and whose will not?

Personally, I seem to have made it my life’s work to chase dreams–most often with dramatically mixed success–and though I occasionally fantasize about having a “normal” life, I don’t really think I’d want to have things any other way. Then again, I’m not trying to provide for anyone but myself, and I have a family willing and able to catch me when I fall. On the other hand (or perhaps we’re back on the first hand now), should a few extra obstacles prohibit the pursuit of a dream? So I continue to wrestle with this question of what is the best and most loving way to respond to a young person whose ability to dream appears to be stunted.

I welcome any thoughts folks may have on this topic! In the meantime…

Dream Job

The two teenage boys
tell me they’re almost ready
to start looking for jobs—
school having long since ceased to be
a way to spend their days.

Street basketball
and sitting on front porch steps
have apparently become tedious,
or perhaps it’s just that these pursuits
are somewhat less than satisfactory
to the hard-working grandmas
with whom these young men reside.

Eager to show my approbation
of their work-related aspirations,
I ask the boys a question
that seems simple enough to me:
“If you could have any job in the world,
what would it be?”

Both are stumped.

One never does come up with a response.

The other thinks long and hard
before venturing,
with a conspicuous lack
of enthusiasm,
“I guess I’d like to work at Walmart.
I enjoy putting things together, you know.”

Stunned, I mumble something
vaguely affirming
and stagger off toward my home—
two doors down and a universe away—
not wanting to malign
a respectable ambition,
and yet wishing desperately
that my young neighbors
could conceive a dream
outside the big box.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Restorative Erosion

A few weeks ago, poet Kellie Ellmore (Magic in the Backyard) shared a lovely etheree (a 10-line poem with lines containing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 syllables, respectively)  called “Keys.” I was intrigued by the form and started experimenting with it myself. After several attempts, I came up with this little poem–an unintentional companion piece to “Numb,” it would seem, and an indication that my mind continues to dwell on this process of emerging from emotional self-protection…

Restorative Erosion

Moon
rises;
ocean waves
crash ceaselessly
against the rocky
shoreline of my spirit,
determined to turn boulders
into silky soft, fine-grain sand—
to fashion a warm, welcoming clime
from the stark island my heart has become.

© 2012
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Advent

After two weeks of thinking about it, I still don’t know how to introduce this poem, so I offer it without preamble, hoping that it will independently communicate the yearning that this season tends to stir up in my heart as I consider all the things that are not yet as I wish they were in the world…

Advent

It’s that time again—
another season of watching and waiting
above and beyond the myriad anticipations
already engaged in from day to day:
the anxious speculation
            about how much month will be left
            at the end of the money
the agony of wondering
            whether vulnerable children
            will make it home safe and whole
the fervent hoping that the roof won’t leak
            until the rainy day fund has been replenished
…that the car won’t break down
            on the far side of town
…that a carelessly launched bullet won’t find its way
            through a shattered window
            or a flimsy wall
…and that a lack of insurance won’t prove to be
            the difference between living and dying. 

To all these, something more is added.

These weeks of shared suspense
spur us to look past survival to Shalom—
to the longed-for reality
in which there is no want
            no violent taking of life or things
            no snuffing out of hope
            crushing of dreams
            or fanning of the flames of hatred
but where the One who once found no room
            at the inn
prepares a lavish welcome
            for those weary wanderers
            who have waited long enough.

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers