So, an old cathedral’s on fire, the stained-glass glowing
hotter than it has in nine centuries, and half the globe
looks on stunned the way they did when two towering odes
to finance collapsed, not when 3 black churches burned
last week. As my students sleep soundly in a haze of meds
the state uses to regulate their violent leanings, inside
a bloated coma of correctional facility lunch, I wonder
how much can I care about anything burning outside this
room when shit gets heated in here. They’ve seen more death
than I have, and they know it. They tell me I’m a pussy
for crying at my grandmother-in-law’s memorial I attended
last weekend, even though I didn’t cry, though I tell them I do
quite often, more often than my wife, who, finally, did cry,
watching her father and his three siblings sift out their mother
like flour from a vase into a loosely-dug hole below the giant
redwoods they’d all planted as kids fifty years ago. One-by-
one they shook the handmade vessel and whispered hello’s,
the blessings they could muster, and we-miss-you-already’s.
The right time to cry is when you feel like you can
let scatter in the wind the embers scarring your palms
even if they sting your eyes. The youngest is left to pour out
a disproportionately small sum, but the eldest is the first
to test the wind, believing his mother inscribed “Peace
on Earth” in the bottom of the vase until he tips it over
and reads what he sees to himself, hands it off down the row.
Apparently, building codes dictate that these rolling hills
will forever prevent developers from building strip malls
since hills make lousy foundations but wonderful burial sites.
I tell my students it wasn’t the memories neighbors shared
of Nancy waving from her couch the last book she’d closed,
or even the blackberry pie the wind had forced her to wear
once to a party, where everyone comforted her, gave her
an apron to drape over the stains, and told her it was
all right. No, learning how the redwood grove above us
grew so tall in 50 years, I looked up and found the limits
of what I could grow in this world with the time I had left.
I could finally point to the peak of that grand canopy,
to the wild turkey flying through it like a spirit, to the cries
of a peacock atop a barn rustling its feathers further out
each millennium it survives, to the poppies still blossoming
in Frida Kahlo’s garden decades after her death and say that’s
how much I can grow if I start now, planting seeds of all
kinds and kindnesses in the ashes of everything burning
around me, despite me, because of me.
Living in Oregon but raised in Massachusetts, Michael Zinkowski teaches English and Writing to incarcerated high school and college students. He is a published poet and writer who holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Greensboro and a BA from Syracuse University in English & Textual Studies and Psychology.