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

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

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

Thanksgiving

I realize that Thanksgiving was last week (at least, it was in the US of A), but I didn’t post anything then because I didn’t think I had a “Thanksgiving poem.” And in the more traditional senses of the holiday, I in fact do not have a Thanksgiving poem. After this sentence, there will be no references to turkeys, fall foliage or pumpkin pies in this post.

I have to go back a ways to explain the gratitude tied into the two poems shared below (one written in 2005 shortly before the event described in the second took place, and one scribbled just recently in hindsight). When I first moved to Jackson, I and several other interns were each assigned to a sort of host family–we didn’t live with our families (then, anyway), but they took us under their wings, spent time with us, answered questions, etc. I had the privilege of being assigned to a remarkable woman named Gloria Lotts and her son, Kortney.

For the last six months of her life, Gloria and I did share a home, and I was both inspired and shamed by her strength and generosity (consider, for instance, that I stayed home from work with a cold one day, and she–in a wheelchair and losing her battle with cancer–brought a bowl of chicken soup to my room at lunchtime). More than anything else, I remember Gloria’s apparently infinite capacity to love and nurture young people–not only her own son and generations of children at her church, but also the teens and preteens in our neighborhood who seemed bound and determined to walk down destructive paths. So while I am certainly thankful that the drug traffic ceased (reading the poems should make this statement make sense…), I am more grateful for the lessons Gloria taught me about patience, courage, compassion and hope. Rest in peace, dear friend!

Traffic

Another car pulls to a stop
In front of the house
Across from mine
Its horn sounds one short honk—
Decently and in order—
And driver and dealer
Conduct their transaction
With fluid motions
And infuriating calm

With each exchange
My heart retreats a step
Fear and anger vying for control
Of the territory ceded by hope
I wish I knew
Whom to blame
Or how to change
This reality on the street—
My street—
Before it claims another child
Too young grown old
Too soon ensnared
By the promise of escape
Only to be faced
With the threat of confinement
Of body, mind and soul

© 2005
Alexis Spencer-Byers

Clean-Up

(for Gloria)

For months, you sat on our front porch,
praying for the drug dealers
across the street
to find a more honorable way to exercise
their entrepreneurial inclinations.

Impressed not only by your persistence
but also by your tender-hearted bravery,
I observed as you greeted these young men
day after day
and told them of the fervent aspirations
you held for them.

When you died,
great gaping holes opened up
in a multitude of hearts, homes and institutions
and the world was changed for the worse—
except for this one thing:
In the wake of your departure
the illicit traffic on our block
ground to a halt,
and as I rested in the blessed quiet
that followed
I could only surmise
that you had seized an early opportunity
of whispering your loving petitions
directly into
the listening ear of God.

© 2011
Alexis Spencer-Byers