The whole package
By GARY THOMAS
I learned the principles of peace, justice, and a sustainable environment growing up fifty-plus years ago on a peach farm outside of Empire. Before I ever read Mary Oliver’s words: “This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know: that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness,” I learned how to attend and tend to the small, simple, huge things of this valley: irrigation, levee breaks, peach leaf curl, dust and sweat, magpies swooping and swearing in the first light, sunset, the cycling of seasons.
From my parents I learned, too, a feeling of respect and responsibility for the land and its people, a desire to help if I could, and to write about it even if I couldn’t. From the times of my youth—the years of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez—I learned what justice denied and struggled for can produce in a soul and in a nation. From many sources—splendid writers, wonderful teachers, terrific actors, amazing songwriters and singers—I learned a love of words. Somehow, after attending Empire Union School, Thomas Downey High, Modesto Junior College, Stanislaus State, and UC Santa Barbara, I became a public schoolteacher, still learning and sharing words after three-decades-and-change with students, colleagues, my family, fellow writers, beloved Fools… I count myself fortunate to have been involved in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, the Volcano Writers’ Retreat, the Curriculum Study Commission, the California Association of Teachers of English, the California Literature Project, the Great Valley Writing Project, to have had Lee Nicholson as a teacher, and to have the Licensed Fools as friends and fellow writers.
My own words have appeared, among other places, in Stanislaus Connections, California English, !ZamBamba!, Penumbra, In the Grove, and A Book of Common Fools, an anthology of Licensed Fools’ poetry. Like my friends and fellow poets, Linda Toren and Karin Hexberg, I have been writing—and posting on my classroom whiteboard—a daily haiku or tanka.
Also in my classroom since 1979 is a small poster with the A. J. Muste quotation: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”
How many steps
will be needed
to subtract this branch from its leaves
this trunk from its branches
these roots from the trunk they spawned
and what will be the remainder?
My sixth and seventh and eighth grade
teachers did their best to prove to me
in the perfection that is mathematics
there are no real remainders
only integers and their decimaled progeny
just waiting for indivisibility.
However the dividend gets divvied
the domain remains the same
so many leaves
so many branches
so many trees
so many short seasons
22 October 2004
Bombs fell toward a sky
from underground, wresting blood, soot, faces
from the refuge of earth. No more warning
than eruptions ever give. No other claims
beyond what bodies may be found. No wisdom
but strangers helping each other breathe an air
old as stolen fire.
Moorgate, Aldgate, Liverpool Street,
Russell Square, King’s Cross—
names to chant, haunted
in all daylights after this one
by new Rippers, new Reichsführers,
cold, profane, entirely resolved.
Bits of a sentence broken mid-word,
traces of a scarf left on a bus,
scraps of an embrace only begun,
shreds and spots where a morning had started—
Olympus in tatters, Götterdammerung in Hyde Park,
Mohammed weeps in the tube.
for London—7 July 2005
On Being Told I Am Finite
After all, it is not like hearing
I am mortal, reminded
that my body will wear out,
will no longer want
to be bothered with breathing.
It is more like remembering
a certain peach tree in my father’s orchard.
Each time we irrigated, it leaned
a little more, as if it were trying,
tantalized, to sip what sustained it,
or just surrender to a different rest
than it knew. It never fell.
It never stopped bearing fruit
and the weight of crows.
My doctor speaks slowly,
looks me in the eye,
bends toward me as I bend forward
to receive every word. He puts his hand
on my shoulder, a very light touch.
He has been trained well.
So have I. I am thinking of the trees at harvest time,
of cobbler, of each sweet slice
swimming under the crust.
13 October 2004
The Principles of Jubilee
After we have taken turns
killing each other,
after we have agreed
it is enough,
it is finished,
we can celebrate,
we can forgive each other
all over again,
all debts cancelled,
all bets off,
all slavery forfeit,
all fields fallow
until cultivation is called for
all over again,
every several years,
every time we forget,
every loss we are tempted to avenge,
until we can love and exempt
every everyday pain
all over again.
We all scream
The day the ice cream truck played
Guns and Roses instead of Stephen Foster
or Turkey in the Straw,
all the push-ups and popsicles melted
into day-glo puddles
and chaos wore a waffle-cone crown.
Even cats slipped in snowcone syrup.
It wasn’t even hot enough
to unplug kids from x-boxes and playstations
and scoop them into the street in search
of plain vanilla, eager chocolate,
— just an early summer jungle
welcoming anyone who would open a door
to scamper after butterfat in its most perfect form,
original sinlessness unshattered
by guns, roses, or any growing up at all.