love in a disemboweled cigarette

Hair in its infinite stages of death can be far more beautiful than any orchid or moonlight or kiss.

This is what I was thinking when I watched the German with long, blond dreadlocks, parading death down his back like frozen stalks of sun, speak to me about getting lost.

We were in the front room of Bob’s Youth hostel located on a street in Amsterdam I still have difficulty pronouncing. I had been staring at him for what felt like hours, burning my hazel into his whole milk skin. I finally got up and sat across from him, asking if he’d write a poem with me.

“Yeah,” he said, “but I don’t really know how.”

“I don’t really either,” I said. “But if you can rummage inside your gut for the words which feel most potent, I think,” I paused, “I think you may find something there.”

So I gave him my tiny red notebook given to me by a lover who I had just started learning how to kiss, given to me to fill up during this two-week trip away from New York.

This was supposed to be an adventure on how to move toward who I was or who I wanted to be. My relationship with a different woman had ended just a few months earlier, one which I thought was the one I might marry, even though I did not believe in such a word.

It was a mourning trip.

I watched as the German, fingers sprinkled with fine commas of bleached hair, pressed his handwriting into the pages.

His dead knots became whispers soaring past his shoulders, for as he wrote, they shook. I wondered how many secrets were hiding in the decease of his hair.

“One must get lost,” he spoke. “Where are you from?” he asked me, handing back my pen and closing the book.

“Brooklyn. Quite a faraway land from here,” I said.

“Leave your maps behind, Brooklyn,” he said to me.

“No need,” I said. “I never carry them around. I get lost even when I do not intend to. But I like your reminder.”

He smiled. He had a tiny chip in his front tooth like the curve of a hammock. I wanted to lay in his mouth and nap beside his ridges.

He told me traveling is about connecting to the land, not the pages that speak about it.

“You’re beautiful,” I spat out. His eyes walked over the length and width of my face. I could feel his lashes even though we were an arm’s distance away from each other.

“Yes,” he said. As though I had asked a question. Or maybe he was answering something that he had heard much earlier. Either way, I enjoyed the oddity of his syllable.

“I’m trying to lose myself here. Bring another version back to New York,” I told him.

“Smoke enough hash and that will happen without trying too hard,” he smiled.

“I am trying to let go of a love. One so big, my heart still has stretchmarks.”

He smiled.

“There is not enough smoke to inhale, which will get rid of that,” he said. “But how about this. Actually…” he paused. I watched him remove the tiny, hand-rolled cigarette between his fat, slightly blush lips. With the tip of two fingers pressed together, he put out the fire on the end. Then, I watched him peel it open, drip the nicotine out and hand me this frail rolling paper, half wet from the spit of his mouth.

“I can see from the rest of your notebook….pardon my snoop,” he interrupted himself, “…that your handwriting is bitty. Write what you want from love on this.”

I held this disemboweled cigarette in the palm of my hand. As though it were a tiny space alien, which had fallen from the sky from a spaceship that our eyes couldn’t quite fathom. With the fingers from my other hand, I poked at it.

“It may not even be words,” he said. “The love you lust may be symbols.”

I thought about every word I ever learned. The ones I kept and the ones I could never quite remember. I wasn’t thinking about limbs; instead, my brain began to conjure up images of smells. Music of taste.

I dropped the cigarette from my palm and grabbed my pen.

The German smiled and I could feel him get up, though never let my eyes wander away from the paper.

I began to finally get lost.

Today is a day is a day is a re(memory) of AIDS

Two Mays ago, I dressed my body in heavy backpack full of fabrics to wear and an empty notebook to fill and I flapped my wings toward Amsterdam. I was looking to write poems with strangers; I was looking to get over a lost love; I was looking to drench myself in a place I spent years dreaming about and needed to explore alone.

On my last day there, I volunteered at Dominiscuskirk, a nearby church on Spuistraat. Stained glass replaced wallpaper or paint and angels flew all around in corners and around pillars. I was there to help set up the giant quilt panels honoring those who died of AIDS. I took in all the photographs sewed onto various colors and textured patterns. When all the quilts had been hung, I sat watching candles grow illuminated.

A thin man, curved into a wheelchair, moved beside me. He introduced himself as Steven. When I told him that I was visiting from New York, he announced he had been there twice before 2001. “I listened to jazz music then,” he said. “And I went to Central Park.” I told him that I came to Amsterdam to write poems. Will you write a poem with me? I asked him.

Steven smiled. I wanted to cry out medicinal band-aids and heal him. We write:

poetry is religion
there are lots of angels here
a lean into bowl creates a hum:
the sounds of bells

So many red ribbons twisted against shoulders, around candles, against hips. I was asked to light a candle for all those who died in North America from AIDS. Several others joined me, representing other continents. During the ceremony, I went up to the microphone and said, This candle is for the memory of all the people who have died because of AIDS in North America.

When all the candles had been lit, attendees were encouraged to call out the names of loved ones who had also died. We stood there, facing a sea of names, called out into the air, illuminated by the shadows of light. I cried, fearing my wild salt would blow out the light of my candle, but instead it just tumbled down my face.

Steven, I wanted to tell you that you’re a poem.
Your skin, plowed away from this disease, is a poem.
Your breath, pushed out by melted musculature, is a poem.
Your smile lit the church organ on fire, pushing pipes into sheets of enflamed music.

You said, “Goodbye“, after we each grabbed a white balloon and walked our way through the church, outside past several canals. And when we were given the signal, we all let go of our balloons. Many had names attached. These hand-written names floated toward the moon. Bag pipers played and I should have told you how beautiful you were are.

I left the next day, still lovelorn. Before I arrived in this magical land, I thought maybe Amsterdam would help me “find myself”. Humans do this; we go places to find the selves we think we’ve lost. I’ve been searching for my lost self for decades. I do not need a passport to find it. And I certainly don’t need love to validate it. Poems, maybe. Light, yes. Music, definitely. Breath, always.

where does all the garbage go once it’s reached it’s rim

Today, I walked.

Today, I pressed sock-less feet firmly into black high top converse sneakers against new york city pavement for 10 kilometers, otherwise known as 6.2 miles.

Today, genders united, sexualities integrated, businesses advertised on the backs of their employees, as we held hands and walked toward a cure for HIV/AIDS. Or, I held hands and others held hands, but we didn’t exactly hold each other’s hands.

There were babies in strollers and adults in wheelchairs and a woman on a man’s back and octogenarians and those decades younger and baby dykes and homos and heteros. And it didn’t matter who we each voted for President. And it didn’t matter our favorite sexual positions. And it didn’t matter our educational backgrounds. And it didn’t matter how much money congested or haunted our bank accounts.

All that mattered was: We all decided to wake up this Sunday in May in New York City, travel the distance from Bronx or Brooklyn, Staten Island and beyond and make noise with our feet and hearts.

I was marching today for a poet.
A poet who’s book rested against my back, safely contained in red backpack. He marched alongside me in poems and memory. He is gone now, only in body and bones and lung expansion. But his poems…..all these poems and stories….march on.

I was marching for a man I met last year at this time in Amsterdam, who greeted me in wheelchair in gargantuan church called Dominicus on Spuistraat, who wrote a poem with me one afternoon on AIDS Memorial Day.

Together, we wrote:
poetry is religion
there are lots of angels here
a lean into bowl creates a hum
the sounds of bells

Countries and languages and humans unite to create a future that exists without HIV/AIDS

As we reached checkpoint two, we were greeted with bags of chips to fuel us toward the end. Gratefully, I accepted a bag and as the last chip left dust on my tongue, I noticed something happening.

Central Park gravel exchanged texture of black and smooth to multi-colored and mess.

The garbage cans were overflowing and plastic bottles of sucked-out water were creating a puddle of empty containers.

Then, as we reached the end of this momentous walk, we were greeted by cheers, music, balloons and ice-cream. Tiny, emptied cups littered the entire area. Garbages were engorged and later, ignored. We left our (carbon) footprint by polluting each spot, which just moments before, we had been celebrating.

Vitamin D coated my exposed skin (even through its carefully applied sunscreen). My belly was full from salted chips, ice-cream, memories of the men I was walking for, and my own emotional state of just being alive and grateful. However, it is hard to ignore the disappointment of how “we” leave our mark.

Volunteers with labeled shirts began the process of clean-up.
I began the process of making my way back to Brooklyn.

Where does all the garbage go once it’s reached it’s rim and what happens when the march ends and life is left to be lived?

How to continue honoring, raising awareness and funds and…still be aware of this earth we are breathing on.

Garbages are going to overflow because we are overflowing. We are running out of seats on subways and languages are getting lost and dying.

When one cure is found, there will still be a need to fight for another.

I am going to hold onto my empty ice-cream cup until there is a place I can throw it into. I will take the extra seconds to separate my garbage. Maybe I will even start composting again.

It’s just one more step. Amidst a lifetime of so many more.