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"Oak Leaves”
by
Alison Parham

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Jennifer Pittman

Backpacker Theology

She believes in the flat topo map,
its brown contour lines of elevation,
the relative truth of north,
such an easy promise of intention,
how any path carries you,
trailhead to summit to cave,
even when you’re lost, daunted, slow-paced.

There is, however, no sky on a map,
no clime, no squall or beating sun,
no way to gauge exposure,
the expansiveness of grief,
how it is to listen in all this space;
how, just below the high pass,
the desire to quit, defeated and weary,
overwhelms.

On a mountain’s shoulder
there is no black-dotted boundary,
no park edge shaded in red
butting up against federal land,
just gray rock, ragged ridge,
crushed lines of one long eon after another,
a staggered line of forest, thin air;
—and, sound—
waters,
winds that gust like highways
carry the scrub jay, a green-tailed towhee,
the aspen’s rattle.

At the switchback
where the finely printed trail name curves,
where the tiny topo lines crunch together,
she rests against a rock,
her back to the pass,
legs propped on a boulder.
Here, where there is no choice
but to continue,
she is safe from herself.

From the mountain’s shoulder,
she studies where she was
just this morning,
where slow waters carve
a meandering ess
through thick meadow grass,
push its way into staggered shallows
toward a fall.

In a few paces, she will rise
to the lowest saddle of the crest,
see miles into her future,
the next valley, forests,
another steep pass of loose shale,
lingering drifts of snow.
And, it will appear entirely too hard,

The path spills over from a high pass,
drops into shadows,
places she can’t see at all.
It is quiet.
All her best guesses surround her.
Her slow and clumsy passage,
pressed in sand and mud,
is already forgotten.

Every misstep is less personal here.
Every time she miscalculates miles,
doesn’t check her compass
or the angle of the sun,
every time she frets
in an open field of tumbled rocks
white as noon sky,
gets pummeled by hail,
falls asleep in the shade
—she sees any trail
would have been
just fine.

Eventually they all even out,
wind up in meadow or marsh, canyon or sea,
solid worlds of blue.
They all link to the next neatly mapped grid,
orient north.
In the square that frames her little home,
the cul-de-sac where she rests, unpacks,
even the trail back home
leads off the page.

# #

Packing Mom

I imagined it would be somehow different, she says,
watching me clutch handfuls of matchbooks and twisty ties,
stuff them into a brimming garbage bag.
I toss bottle caps into the recycle box, along with almost 200 plastic spoons
rubber-banded in groupings of three and four.
I dismantle her kitchen, drawer by drawer, foraging
in the abundance of plastic, wire and unlit birthday candles.

It is a labyrinth of spare endings, final straws still in their paper sleeves.
I thought you’d pick your favorite things, she says. We’d talk about them.
I thought you’d want something.

I try to appease her, throw things in a box labeled “Garage Sale,”
look for something I can save to please her.
Here’s a sieve, I say. Oh, and here, here’s a cookie tin.

A stack of paper-wrapped wooden ice cream spatulas unfurl like cutout dolls,
hand by hand. I pick next a plastic bag of picture hooks,
a cracked plastic cake plate.

She hovers, tracks the choices I make on my knees.
I feel her taut grasp at every little thing,
a broken valve of letting go.

She has bolstered her days with Styrofoam to-go boxes and clean tuna tins,
baggies of old plumbing pieces, packets of Mr. Chau’s hot sauce.

In the oven, my angry cake batter brims over the shallow pans,
bubbles into burned ash on the bottom of her shiny black oven.
I too, imagined this differently.
I envisioned a waft of spice cake, a gathering of memories.

But here I sit, moving spoon by spoon this strange accumulated poverty
that she keeps insisting is mine
for the taking.

# #

At the Next Table

“Make it more poetic.
Don’t say ‘every Friday at noon.’
Say, ‘For years I returned
to the café at midday,’
or something like that.”

She reads aloud her poem about Buddha
who sits shyly on a mountain top
under encircling hawks…

“Wait,” he says.
“What do the hawks really have to do with it?
and don’t say ‘Buddha’ so often.
I’m not sure he’s shy.
It’s more like that impish grin
on Mona Lisa, a mystery
but there’s humor in it.”

In the background, dishes clatter
and milk steamers screech. A barista yells out
“Double cap! Mocha! Pie!”
She announces a free complicated drink
made by mistake and two people stand,
lock eyes over it.
“He was first,” she says. “Sorry.”

The poet turns to me, holding
the word “impish” uncomfortably in her poem
I need the right word, she says.
I offer my thesaurus:
“elfin,” “mischievous,” “puckish,”
“naughty.”

“No. That is not quite it,” her partner pipes in
and leans forward to tell her
about the Buddha’s smile
in her poem
and how she should leave out
the circling hawks
because, he says, “it’s not about that.
It’s about how you saw things.”

# #

JENNIFER PITTMAN – is a Soquel-based freelance journalist and editor who is currently working on a backpacking memoir, some poems and a handful of almost-finished essays. She has been a member of the Writers Bloc critique group for more than 18 years, is cofounder of the Writers Workout, a drop-in, flash-writing-by-prompt group, and helps facilitate the Community Writers Series of Santa Cruz County, a monthly gathering of local writers.

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