Poems & Essays

05 Feb


General/Column No Response

of dark air—the starlings   under thunderheads   tumbling as one

the flock chasing storms—this dark is not a doom     this dark is a comfort a flock follows

flying south for the winter     suppose enough milk to last one thousand years,   is a night with no light—

what else is a womb but a room       the newborn, once home



Lauren K Carlson is a poet and writer, mother and wife living in rural Dawson, Minnesota with her husband and three sons. Her work can be found in, or is forthcoming from Tinder Box, The Windhover, Heron Tree, and Blue Heron Review among others. She produced a series for the web, called “Poems from the Field,” in 2016 with Pioneer Public Television. More at www.laurenkcarlson.com

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05 Feb

Constellation with Mother and Child

General/Column No Response

Bright child, bed-headed and tangled
clean cotton-scented, your cry was a call.

I was swinging the garbage over my shoulder,
intent on distributing my burdens and broken cups

with one swift heft into the hollow blue
hopper, empty from yesterday’s pick up—

but bright child, your cry was a song.
Mama stop! The cups, but the cups!

And I lay down that kitchen trash-bag,
for shattered dishes were littered about

the driveway though a snag in the hefty bottom.
O abundant refuse from life’s disasters.

This morning, my child—how you tumbled.
Your head blazing the trail, your feet

where your face should of been,
cup and saucer flying, while cocoa

stormed its way across white linen
and so many glittering pieces of wedding-china,

a constellation of accident, predicted the
fault in our love. To forget, I throw it out.

But bright child, your cry
is my sign.

Mama, they glitter in gravel. The pieces
like stars, will you chart them?




Lauren K Carlson is a poet and writer, mother and wife living in rural Dawson, Minnesota with her husband and three sons. Her work can be found in, or is forthcoming from Tinder Box, The Windhover, Heron Tree, and Blue Heron Review among others. She produced a series for the web, called “Poems from the Field,” in 2016 with Pioneer Public Television. More at www.laurenkcarlson.com

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05 Feb

Another Snow Day at Home with the Boys

General/Column One Response

Two days after the snowstorm
the air is brittle to the touch.
I’m free to go out
but it would be madness in this wind.
And so
I pray for the power to stay
to be steadfast.

Running away
was always my first response
when things went awry.
Parents arguing in the kitchen?
Run upstairs!
A pillow over my head in the bedroom
Hurtful friends?
Not-so-accidentally lose touch
Boyfriends starting to disgust me?
Move on.
Move away.
Throw it away and get a new one.
Why bother repairing something broken
when it’s so easy to start afresh?

Moving through life like a cyclone
pulling up things by the roots as needed,
casting them aside willy-nilly as I went along,
scarcely looking back.
Round and round and round she goes
and where she stops, nobody knows!
Until I heard Eva Cassidy sing
“If you love all men
you’ll surely be left with none.”
And one day the storm settled.

I met him and laid it all down.
He was coming out of a similar storm
and did the same for me,

only he’d been at it longer.
Of course,
no question,
we both promised to stay no matter what.
All was still.
All was quiet.
The snow settled.
The boys came along.

And now I stop
and look
at the things I am left with:
the door that never never shuts all the way,
this drain that tends to clog
that chip in the floor…
and what was paradise
seven years ago
is beginning to erode.
The old pattern calls
run! run away!
start over! start afresh!
But now I whirl around and face it.
I’ll stare you down, old devil.
This is between me and you.
Leave them out of it.
Because I know
if I follow you out that door
you’ll only start up again with me
someplace else,
leaving total devastation in my path.
I’ll sit you out right here.

And so I begin again
unloading the dishwasher
changing a diaper
sorting the laundry
boiling water for pasta
reading another board book
fixing another snack
while you scream and scream in my head
He’s home!
Shouldn’t he be helping?
He’s still asleep!
What would another man be doing right now?

Probably running.
Maybe this is how men run away
without leaving the house.
They go to their “man-caves,”
their “home offices,”
their studios
their TV sets,
where they can’t hear the whining
the crying
the tattling
the shouting
the endless demands.
Easier to stay at work late
or submerge in work at home
oblivious to a spouse’s signals for help;
selectively hard of hearing.
I get it.
I do.
I myself prefer a day at work
to a snow day
spent entertaining two stir-crazy kids.
But I stay.
For them.
For him
and for the promise I made to him.

So I do an about-face
scatter that pattern to the wind
over my shoulder,
drink in the deliciousness of what’s here:
an afternoon nap with a two-year-old nuzzled in my neck,
the contagious excitement of hide-and-seek,
the wonder of sherbet made from juice and snow.
All my boys like it.
Even my grown-up one.
To set it before him gently
so the spoon doesn’t clatter against the bowl
and then return with a wry smile to the dishes…
it’s not what I pictured.
Maybe I thought the 21st Century household
divided as cleanly down the middle
as the snow plow’s path,
equal work on each side
tossing gender roles to the wind.

Well, sister, reality just ain’t like that.
Guys just plain don’t pull their weight in the casa.
There’s no escaping biology.
Yeah, I’ve seen the pictures in National Geographic
of Norwegian stay-at-home dads
vacuuming the floor with a baby strapped to their backs
while Mama’s at work,
but don’t tell me the little rugrats want anything but Mama
when she’s home.
They just want Mama, he shrugs,
bringing them into my bed.

So will this whole thing blow over
when they start school
and grow out of being mama’s boys?
And how old will they be
when the thought of those still, snow-bound afternoons
will send them running
to friends’, girlfriends’ houses, sports, clubs, anything
but stay here.

I challenge all of us
to wait out this New England winter day
In this house.




Anna Sobel is a jack-of-all trades arts-related. She has two young children and hails from Western Massachusetts.

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05 Feb

Letting the Candles Burn Down

General/Column 4 Responses

At the start of autumn, we welcome the holiday season with rituals focused on light and fire. From glowing Jack-o-lanterns and bonfires in October to festive string lights, twinkling Christmas trees, menorahs, and wood stoves in November and December, we bring the light inward when there is less light outside.

I find candles, in particular, to be warm and inviting during New York’s cold, barren winter months.

My daughter loved candles. She collected them with a kind of wild delight, displaying them throughout her bedroom alongside tumbled crystals, incense holders, and other treasures.

She burned candles for their simple beauty or because she liked their scent or to admire the miracle of captive fire in her bedroom. She had to stop burning them in the last weeks of her life because of the oxygen tanks.

“An open flame can cause a flash fire where the tubes go into her nose,” the hospice nurse had said. “No candles, incense, or petroleum-based lip balm anywhere near the tanks.”

The thought of her face catching fire was so terrifying that my daughter refused to use the oxygen until the very end of her life. By then she had no interest in burning candles.

She’s been gone since March. It’s cold outside now. The days are darker, shorter, and I’m still sorting through her belongings, deciding what to keep, give away, or throw away. It’s a form of hell that only bereaved parents truly understand.

Though, admittedly, some things were easy to dispose of.

I called the respiratory equipment company the day after she died. “Come get the tanks,” I’d said. “As soon as you can.”

I threw out the extra pillows, humidifier, and fans my daughter had used to get a modicum of relief for the constant pressure in her chest. Within twenty-four hours, I’d cleared out all evidence of the cancer that had dominated my child’s life for five years.

When it was gone, I cleaned her room, washed her bedding, and made her bed. Then I did nothing. Grief swallowed me completely.

As weeks passed, her room—and the objects inside it—became a constant reminder that she wasn’t coming back. I visited it often, surveyed the spotless quiet, and wept.

After months of leaving most of her possessions untouched, I couldn’t bear it anymore. I went through her bins first, throwing out the easiest things (empty notebooks, broken toys, a frisbee she’d never used). I turned to the clothes next, giving some items to my younger daughter and a few things to her two best friends. I saved some special pieces—pajama bottoms she’d worn for years, a Christmas sweater dress she’d worn the previous December, a vintage skirt she’d loved—and gave them to a friend to turn into a quilt.

Her tidy bed haunted me. Looking at it conjured up the last few, awful days of her life.

So, five months after she died, my husband and I threw out the bed. I turned her room into my home office, preserving much of the artwork and layout as she’d left it, but repurposing it into a lived-in space. I kept the things she’d cherished the most: tapestries, stones, small, perfect bowls she’d made in her high school pottery class, and, of course, her candles.

She left about a dozen behind, some of them partially burned, some of them untouched—jewels within a finite trove of treasure from a life not fully lived. During the first few weeks in our shared space, I moved her candles around, but couldn’t bring myself to burn them. I’d wipe the dust from them every few days and put them back on her nightstand or shelf.

We buy candles for the sole purpose of burning them. They’re like metaphors that reflect the irrefutable impermanence of life. Yet my daughter’s candles sat untouched. Like her pristine bed, they’d become another painful reminder that she wasn’t coming back.

It seemed like such a terrible injustice that these objects of wax and fiber should exist forever, waiting for my daughter’s slender fingers to light them. That’s how the candles helped me realize that I was stuck. They weren’t waiting for her to come back. I was.

Summer was already fading by the time I burned her first candle, a tea light in the shape of a mushroom. It burned down in under ten minutes and I let it smolder until all the wax was gone. It was an incredible relief to throw out the little metal cup where the candle had been, now nothing more than a scrap of tin and a blackened wick.

Next, I burned two votives that had been on her bedside table for nearly a year. They were pretty—lavender and blue. They didn’t burn well and after several failed attempts, I threw them away.

Then I selected a round beeswax candle that reminded me of an apple and burned it throughout October and into November. It burned slowly. I looked forward to the ritual of lighting it every morning and announcing my intentions out loud, invoking my daughter’s memory—and her spirit—as the flame flickered to life.

“Today I will think of you and look for signs.”

“Today I will be productive and focused.”

“Today I will let myself grieve, but not give in to despair.”

On Halloween, I burned a black candle shaped like a skull until it was nothing more than a formless pile of dark wax.

And now, as the cold has begun to settle in and get comfortable, the nights longer, the days greyer, I’m anticipating burning her winter candles—a pine scented votive, a moss green pillar, the special Christmas-themed beeswax candle I bought her last year…

Grief can’t be rushed. Some days it burns hot and fierce, like that first mushroom-shaped tealight. But, often, it burns slowly, riding days that turn to weeks, then months, then years at its own pace, its own intensity.

As December approaches and I steel myself for this first Christmas without my daughter, I will continue to burn the candles down. Their flame shines a tiny light into the darkness of my grief and helps me feel connected to my daughter without holding too tightly to objects meant to be as impermanent as we are.




Jacqueline Dooley has published essays about parenting a child with cancer and parental grief on WashingtonPost.com, HuffingtonPost.com, Pulsevoices.org, and Goodhousekeeping.com. She also blogs at www.healingana.com.

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