There is no Wizard

If we were still in the old world,

the six-weeks ago one,

right now a girl with a make-up pencil

might be standing before you with a mock frown –

stand still!” she’d say,

drawing crow lines on your face,

not crow’s feet,

but lines to make you look like a crow,

so you could argue with Scarecrow on the fence post.

You might be adjusting your feathers, or tying your tail,

or trying to drink hot tea out of your travel mug,

your beak clacking against the lid,

your stomach a haven

for blue and white butterflies.

Tonight would be opening night.

But all of the moms

have deleted this spring musical

from calendars,

(nevermind the concerts, Forensics,

E-sports, graduation, prom.)

Anyway, Zach is not tuning his trombone

to play in the pit band,

and Justin is not hiding behind his curtain,

transforming into the Wizard

who has no answers to give.

But we are in the new world, now,

so just to go somewhere, anywhere,

though you’re Safer at Home, of course,

though there’s No Place Like Home,

you’ve taken the car to drop off

home-made cookies for them.

There is no “next year”

for your merry little band, only

the three of you making it through

the field of poppies,

the attack of the winged monkeys,

the vengeance of the wicked witch, and

then packing up

and taking your friendship with you –

a bond forged not in Kansas,

but in Wisconsin,

by D&D, fueled by caffeine and Doritos,

by video games played into wee hours of morning,

by summer work in the fields, and paintball,

by skiing at Brule (and two broken arms),

by fireworks and Lyme’s disease,

by Magic the Gathering,

by nights at the cabin,

by days on the lake,

the afternoon sun


like it would shine


There are far worse things, it’s true,

we have warm homes,

we have food in our bellies –

but this empty space

on this gray April evening

has me melancholy and feeling sorry

for the whole lot of us,

boys and moms.

What I wouldn’t give now

to be settling into a squeaky chair

in the auditorium,

waiting for the music to come up

while the lights go down,

waiting for you to strut across the stage

in black feathers,

waiting for the Wizard to tell us

that what we are looking for

has been inside us

all along.

It’s all right, though,

the summer will come, and fall,

and the three of you, full of




will follow your roads

to different parts of Oz.

And I’ll remember this night,

this small crick in the universe, how

this sadness came upon me like a cloud,

and how you drove away

with plates of cookies,

bent on sharing



of course,

you’ve had inside you all along.


(for Declan, Zach, and Justin, and the class of 2020. And their moms.)

Falling Stars

Outside in the drizzle of spring,

green, green is the grass –

lilacs are tiny purple fists waiting to unfold

to again welcome May –

once more trotting out its new beginning-

with sweet applause;

Inside, the window is cracked

because of the paint, and you,

at the far end of 16, stand

without a ladder, pulling plastic

glow-in-the-dark stars off of your ceiling,

cracking some, flinging them to the ground.

They have a dim glow, so

one by one I gather them, even the broken ones,

and consign them to an empty drawer.

This earth grows ever older, older,

sliding slowly toward the sun, but

each year it becomes a gangly teenager again

with ragged patches of grass waiting to be mowed,

dandelion acne spotting green fields,

saplings sprouting up in importune cracks,

robins pinning down their mates in a mad scramble,

frogs croaking and peeping in awkward turn,

barred owls rambling late into the night, looking

for someone they can’t name. Who?

But our paths are segments,

not lines or vectors, so

blue, blue is my heart, and oh!

You will not become young again –

I will not find you curled up

with your puppy under your covers,

we will not ever again make up voices

and quarrels for your stuffed toys at night,

and we will never read aloud the last few chapters

of How To Train Your Dragon –

it will always be unfinished for us.

Perhaps you are thinking of all of this

as you leave this room behind,

but I think probably not

as I watch you standing there,

peeling the last star away from the ceiling,

walking over it, without a glance back –

you will chart your course by new stars,

and you will not,

you cannot,

come back this way.

Wes and Jesus Come up Empty



we see paintings of the sea, and moonlight, and doom by

Winslow Homer, after we work on income tax forms and insurance and eat


burritos and watch Netflix, I don’t feel well,

it’s not a bellyache or a hangover or a fever or something that CVS can fix.

it’s like

this existential ache in my soul; it’s

not something that I really want to think about


I’d have to reach back all the way to the beginning

and anyway it’s dinner time and instead I’m reaching into this drawer full of


serrated blades that bare their

teeth along my fingers, but I’m careful to take just one.


Last week

I saw a TV commercial for a microwavable cup

with bits of vegetable and potato and peppers, you just add an


and your breakfast problem is solved, I am thinking

of this while you and I walk 38 blocks teetering on the edge of


this March Sunday morning question unsolvable:

is this it, or is there more? I wish I could just add an egg to this


Faced with that same question 27 years ago,

I stayed. Was it right? I don’t know. The thought of not having my


children, these particular ones, out in the wide world

brings me to fierce and sudden tears right there on the windy sidewalk.


choice is wrong, either choice is right,

or could be made so, perhaps you learn how you feel before the coin lands.


“Is he

a good dog? ….Who’s to say?”

Wes Anderson doesn’t help me here, or Jesus either; Micah 6:8,


is the right thing to do in this instance,

what leads to happiness? Do I say, stay, stay with this boy who is kind, this boy we


and who loves you, beyond measure,

even if you do not always sharpen each other, make each other better,


a knife against a stone?

The world is full of sharp things.



is a yawning paper cootie-catcher

on lined notebook paper in a 5th grader’s back pocket, first narrow then wide,


then wide, you can’t know what’s

inside, you just have to pick a color, and pull up the flap, the


on the other side propels you

deeper into the story, back and forth and back and forth


you don’t know how

you got there or where you are going, you just hold on and


back and forth and dark and

light, yin and yang, pain and pleasure, if you are lucky,


it closes on this world for good

and opens in the dawn of another, without any

guessing at all.


i. Porterfield Elementary


jutted like a brick mole on the inside bicep of Highway E,

just down from where Roberta’s dad sold tractors

to the flannelled German, Norwegian, and Polish farmers

digging up the rocky soil around us.


Here I would learn subtraction from zero, borrowing

a ten from the neighbor number like sugar

(though I needed to stay in from recess to learn to do it, asking why

and then why again, until the “because” ran out, exasperated.)

Also: state capitals (Helena Montana, assigned to me),

cursive writing, long division, the color wheel.


I would write a poem in fifth grade and

Steve Kahara would say “What’re ya gonna be, a writer?” with

the same scorn reserved for heroin addicts, or maybe the Ayatollah Khomeini,

(it was the late 70s after all.)

Mr. Nelson chalked the number of days on the blackboard

that the hostages were held in Iran,

erasing the last digit or two each day, then adding one –

the number stopped one day at 444.

I didn’t ask why, that’s just how the world was, people got held hostage

in places like Iran, and we put the number of days on the chalkboard

until they were free.

(Later they’d make a movie about it, but the part about Mr. Nelson’s chalkboard isn’t in it.)


But nevermind all that, what I really learned was that the world was not as it seemed, that

Shawn Smith, the farmer’s kid with large rectangle teeth and straw-yellow hair

(the one who brought in a cow’s eye for show and tell that one time)

could stand in front of all of us and sing “Stille Nacht” in German,

unaccompanied, nervous, resolute.


(Education lay etherized and spread on the table;

learning was stolen, tucked into your drawstring Panther school bag

and carried home on the bus.)


ii. At Marinette Middle School

I learned the Pythagorean theorem, the language of clouds:

stratus, cirrus, cumulus, cumulonimbus,

the water cycle in its journey of Sisyphus:

pausing in snow storms, churning in ice in the Menominee river, waiting in muddy fields.


I came in second in the 8th grade spelling bee.

(Basilica.  I can spell it now.)

I learned the slippery magic of photography paper

sliding into a tub of pungent chemicals,

images resolving from white nothing into Pickles, my cat,

sticking his head into a hollow stump.

(Who knew that you could get prizes for art for something you’d done

just for its own sake?)

The art teacher smelled of coffee and cigarettes and bitterness of place.


But nevermind that, what I really learned was how the world saw me,

that taping your bangs to your forehead at night did not

guarantee a Farrah Fawcett look the next day,

that husky Wrangler jeans were uncool,

that boys were an open book and girls did not like the page they were on;

but that being pushed off of a snow pile by a particular boy

during winter carnival could be the highlight of my year.

(That’s you, Mark Benson).


I learned that the world could crack like an egg

And seep sticky into my life, perplexing:

Reagan was shot, (even the president was not safe.)

The English teacher’s wife died, but he still

showed up to teach us, swimming in grief.


iii.  Marinette High School:


The usual:

Romeo and Juliet, solving for X, computer programming,

chemistry, pre-calculus, French, Great Expectations;


But nevermind any of that, I learned how I saw the world as it came fully apart around me:

the space shuttle Challenger exploded in a blaze of light on national TV,
the AP teacher told us her life wasn’t fun anymore, the guidance counselor killed himself,

the math teacher stood too close to all of the girls, hovering over their desks,

the English teacher warned me that if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas,

and then put a scarlet A+ at the top of one of my essays.


And I wrote the story I told myself of who I was;

Underneath all of that, always, a pulsing current,

I learned about power that came from being a little taller, a little thinner,

having hair a little longer –

But I learned the fear too, when it’s all gone too far,

when I’d wandered far from the restroom with my hall pass,

behind the stage in the dressing room with another wanderer,

no one watching but God.


I learned that book learning was easy but life lessons were unannounced and hard:

I took out a mailbox on an icy road,

then knocked on the door to apologize late in the night,

I drove my date to prom and then drove him home again in the middle of it,

coming back to dance within my circle of friends, my shield against the world.

This is who I told myself I was.


iv.  At UW-Eau Claire I learned


Maslow’s theorem, statistics, Latin, religions, The Long March, biology,

Poli sci, how to draw naked models.

I wrote poems for NOTA in the library.

(I won a prize, not first, but close enough.)


Nevermind all that, though, I learned that the world didn’t know me.


I rode my bike through Carson Park and far into the rolling green countryside,

and on my way to orientation, I ran straight into an open car door.

(I still went, knees and palms bloody.)

On Water Street I smoked my first cigarette in the back room of The Joynt,

danced on the tables at Shenanigan’s, swore, probably.

No one stopped me;

my drunken roommate walked home one night carrying a bar stool,

and no one stopped her, either.

We were invisible.


I learned that hard work doesn’t equal good pay:

I pulled guts from chickens at the MegaFoods on Hwy 53,

I tutored Latin, I worked with Hmong immigrants

(Bee Xiong, their leader, carefully wrapped English words

and took them home like apples);

They taught me how to say “I’m hungry” in Hmong.

They were even more invisible than I.


Also in part because no one was watching, I learned freedom and consequences:

I met Jesus at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship,

I saw Edie Brickell sing in the cities,

I rappelled down the side of a six-story parking garage, drunk

on something that was bright red and served in a garbage can,

which I do not recommend,

(also please pass up the pot offered by my roommate;

I had one hit after another until time stood still,

Van Morrison played in a loop,

and I asked my boyfriend to drive me to the hospital to “fix time.”

He did not.)


There were eight of us in the house on Chippewa, and we learned to be adults, sort of:

we thawed a turkey in the bathtub, paid our cable bill on time;

one roommate fell from the top bunk, one lost her father to cancer.

(I only lost my childhood dog, but I stood at the sink and cried and cried into the night

Thinking of her dying in the back yard without me.)


I dated by long-distance the man I would soon marry and have four children with;

I thought that it would make me more visible.


(Three of them would live.)


v. Finally at the University of Cincinnati College of Law


The avalanche of reading buried me:

Torts, Crim Law, Ethics, Evidence, Con Law.


But nevermind the reading or Socratic methodic,

I learned that I knew nothing but myself and that it was almost but not quite enough:

in the wake of that lost child, I bundled his sister,

three years old, into her car seat for the hour drive to school –


I learned that there is no sorrow that cannot be multiplied, but that

you can and will find your people, and if you can’t hold on,

they will.


I know that education is that boat in the waves

that carries ideas you may remember if you are lucky,

that it’s not given, it must be taken,

that the lesson only unfolds when you are finally turned out of the boat,

when you are fast sinking in the heavy water,

when you ask why, and why, and why,

watching the light recede.


It’s who you are

as you fight your way back


to the surface.



Metal Detector Man

Eau Claire looks good

but shaggy, like Jason Segel

or some other not quite A list actor needing a shave

and a few days without beer,

the grass is just now green

and the University is torn up,

the Sprites statue in an unfamiliar place

or maybe I just don’t remember where

it was, it’s been 25 years after all, and

my bike and I drift through Putnam park

and along the river behind Water Street where

the Camaraderie was, where we let our parents

take us to dinner

I ride by the three houses I lived in,

Chippewa, Union, Niagara streets, staring at

the windows of the rooms where I slept, trying

to see if something of who I was

before I finally decided, is left behind –

and here now Carson Park, where we tailgated,

and that’s where I see the metal detector man

slowly swinging the pole with its great disc eye

in neverending arcs, Cs across the uneven grass

looking for lost coins, for

anything forsaken of value

that he might collect and add to his pile,

to add to who he is,

while I have been looking up at windows

for any clues that I left behind

to tell me why I am

who I’ve become.