Chamber Music

For many of us, reading is a magical thing.

That is why we are so hard on our own writing: we judge it by magical standards, which can be hard to live up to.

I am surrounded by books in this room; if you were to look at them, you would conclude (a) that I have not thrown away a single book I’ve owned since childhood; (b) that I studied philosophy; and (c) that my literary tastes are somewhat eclectic.

You would be correct on all counts.

Reading is an intimate experience: there is just you and the writer. Writing, however, is not: there is you and (sometimes) many multiple readers.

I don’t know about you, but, for me, relationships are relatively easy with one person at a time. Introduce more than that and it is like the “three body problem” in physics – i.e., too complex for us to solve.

So, reading can be less stressful than writing, particularly for the introverted among us. The dynamics are more straightforward.

Blogging attempts to solve this problem by changing the rules: we are, in the original parlance, keeping a “web log”, i.e., a private journal, where there are no other people we are writing for. The inherent contradiction – that our private log will be kept on the web, which is not notorious for its privacy – is one of the casual tricks we play our own psyches to make the dynamics manageable.

I do know, of course, that many people write looking for the widest possible audience: in fact, if you are a person like that, you naturally assume everyone else is.

However, along with the writers who would fill up stadiums or large concert halls with their prospective audiences, there are the writers of chamber music: meant for smaller groups of people in a more intimate setting.

The poets, in other words.

My father used to joke that many more people write poetry than read it. Well, that’s just fine, if so. It’s much less intimidating.

With the crowds come the critics. I hate critics. Almost as much as I hate crowds.

For National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) I joined a group who are supporting each others’ efforts to post on their blogs everyday. This means reading something like seventy blog posts a day as well as writing. As well as working a job for nine to twelve hours a day, six days a week; trying to maintain a marriage; and watching all my sports teams be vanquished on their various fields of battle.

Oh, yes, and eat and sleep.

Reading, it turns out, is every bit as challenging as writing, and I do both fairly quickly.

I tend to get emotionally attached to blogs –  I tend to get emotionally attached to everything – so I loyally and doggedly read certain blogs, even after their authors have long since altered these blogs from what attracted me to them in the first place.

I’ve now added more to that list as a result of this month. Which is a very good thing.

Reading and writing, both, are among consolation’s many forms: we read and write for any number of reasons, but at least one of them is to affirm that we are not alone: neither in what we think, nor how we feel.

Life is lonely, painful, disjointed, and loud: sometimes, we need a little chamber music to soothe our souls, allow us to take some breaths, and share the experience with a group too small to risk becoming a mob.

Finally, if you are unhappy with your own writing because the magic doesn’t seem to be there, take heart: there is music in you that no one has yet heard.

Magical music.

So just keep writing.



For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.


Reflected Cellular Diatribe

Synapses firing under-utilized employees
Of privately held public institutions
Of higher yearning to breathe free
Trade or betrayed by our baser instincts
For self-preservation of sacred
Reservations not made far enough in
Advance of our inevitable
Retreat into the shadow of the valley of
Debt instruments of mass discretionary
Spending our moral capital
Of the civilized
Whirled into

The Smallest Trace of Necessity

Sometimes, you would barely know she was there, but she was enough to keep me going.

At that age, I was a mess. I had been sick, I had been out of work. I had no money. I lived 200 yards from the beach and it meant almost nothing to me. I was on antidepressants, but they weren’t working. I felt like there was this kind of dull, gray tarp over everything: nothing looked right, nothing felt right.

Still, there she was, and she needed me.

I had borrowed money from my parents to get me through. All of my savings was gone; all my plans for a better life seemed a hundred lifetimes ago. I had just enough for she and me to squeak by. Because of her, though, I was hoping to get back to work. I didn’t care about living or dying, truthfully, but I cared about her.

It’s silly I know, but, when your feelings don’t work right, you can’t live right, because feelings give us reasons to do things. Knowledge only gives us ways to do things.

I had been encouraged to get out of my apartment and try to walk daily; this wasn’t something she would want to do. I would walk down the beach, indifferent to the sunset, often forgetting to even wear shoes. Earlier that day, I had walked across the street to a grocery store, so I started thinking about what we’d do for dinner.

She would always be right there waiting for me when I got back from these walks. I would look at her and think, I could never do what I tried to do again. I can’t leave her.

For love, in whatever form, introduces just the smallest trace of necessity in what can otherwise seem a pointless existence.

The Smallest Trace of Necessity (2)

For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.


The Neverlasting Call

Countless buildings are abandoned, and many of those are torn down, but few are abandoned in the process of being torn down. I happened upon one, a few winters ago, out walking in the snow.

It got me thinking about how change works in our lives. There may indeed be “a time to build and a time to take down”, but we do a lousy job at both. When we get married, for instance, we are told of all the work it takes to build a marriage; but, notoriously, we don’t do the work. Similarly, but less less famously, people don’t do the work it takes to disassemble a marriage either — or any other relationship that ends, for that matter.

Wanton destruction is easy. Deliberately disassembling something takes care and time, whether it is a friendship, a job, business entanglements, or anything else that takes time to build.

One of my best friends described to me closing a greeting card and gift shop she had operated for years. She walked around the empty place, looking at the now empty card racks and shelves*, remembering the excitement of opening the store. Days of picking out inventory, choosing lines to carry, family and friends crowding in the new store, hopeful sales and dreams of expansion — just faded memories now.

“Still, it was mostly good, right?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said. “We had great hopes for the business that didn’t come to pass, but they were worth having. All of it was worth it. You can only lose when you have something to lose, but, ‘something’ is all we ever get, in this life.”

I have come to see that we are called to build the neverlasting — with our actions, with our choices, even with our words. I think back to that day walking in the snow, and realize: we may come upon the ruins of someone else’s dream, and when we do, we need to remember, that hope is a precious commodity, and we should never do anything in this life to lessen the supply of it.

*A beautiful scene like this was shown in the Movie “You’ve Got Mail“.


For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.



the voyage is long,
and marred with both
chaotic beauty
and decorated ugliness

but such is our desire
for belonging, that

we’ll go where we’re told
and carry what we’re handed

just to know

that the others
deem us acceptable:

in opinion,

or appearance,

or whatever other
random criteria

some group of humans

might choose

That Empty Feeling

I wanted to work at a food bank because I’ve had to use them.

It’s strange for someone who spends as much as time as I do, online, writing poetry, but: I don’t like abstractions in real life. I don’t think it’s productive to talk about “people”, there is just this person, or that person, and they have names. I don’t like to talk about “hunger” as some kind of principle: I am more interested in the fact that Verna and her two sons, J.J. and Raj, who live over across the way, can’t afford to buy food because Jay, Sr. left them with nothing in the bank and a mountain of debt due to a heroin habit.

When I see her at lunchtime, and she realizes we have fresh vegetables today, I can tell that is a welcome relief, since J.J. is such a good athlete, and she wants to get him to a sports program where he can develop it. She hasn’t given up on any aspect of being a mother, and doesn’t seem likely to ever do so: there is no richer mom across town with access to doctors and dietitians and exercise equipment who thinks about it more. She’s always looking for that edge, that little bit of difference to lift her kids away from the life that consumed their father.

Raj, the younger boy, is a favorite of mine: I’ve never seen a child so fond of… well, everything. Everybody, every kind of food, every day, seemingly. He is a favorite of everyone’s there, both the workers and the guests, and he asks his mom, every time, when she will let him go back and work in the kitchen.

“When you learn to wash your hands properly,” she said, laughing, last time I heard him ask.

“When you do, show me,” I whisper to him, as I’m passing through wheeling several boxes back to the kitchen.

One of the ladies in the kitchen, Sierra, seems to know everyone’s story already when they walk in. She is, with the exception of my mother, the least judgmental person I’ve ever met in my life. I’m envious of that ability – to love virtually everyone, almost all the time. She points out two lost looking men to me who I’d never seen before.

“That’s Ken Malhotra, and his brother, Lindsey. They’re really nice guys.”

I look at her, expecting to hear more, but she’s working on adding something to the chili.

“How do you know them?”

“They have been coming to my church, starting about six weeks ago. I told them about this place. Go out there and tell them I’m back here working but that they are welcome, and just to come on up here and get some food. It’s good today, I guarantee it.”

I head out to do just that, shaking their hands, introducing myself and welcoming them before delivering Sierra’s message.

“Do you have fresh vegetables every day?” Lindsey asks, looking over at the line.

“No, I wish we did,” I said. “So help yourself.”

My duty today is mostly bringing things in from the truck, so I head back to do it. I’m only there another forty minutes, and then it’s back to my other job. The company gives me two hours for lunch on days I volunteer.



I was a relatively young man when I visited the food bank back where I grew up. A very unhealthy young man with no income.

The place was in an old cinder block building that used to be one of my favorite barbecue restaurants, back when I took eating for granted. I was scared to go in — but I was scared to go anywhere in those days. A scrawny, sickly twenty-something who “would jump at his own shadow”, as they say back home. Still, hunger has a way of motivating a person, so I went in.

There were no tables there; people were issued food packages to take with them. I got in line, trying to imagine what the place used to look like, full of bustle and customers and waitresses. When I got the front of the line, there were three people behind the counter, issuing only the food people wanted. I wanted whatever there was to take.

I thanked each one of the three workers individually, because it was all I had to give back.

The phrase “to give something back” has become so commonly used, it’s easy to forget what it actually means. Often, we are given things in life when we are in no position to return the favor. Eventually, we may be, but the people who gave to us are no longer available, which is where the concept of “paying things forward” comes from. We pass the giving on to others who are not, right then, in any position to give back.

I took my boxed up food and I headed back to my apartment, which was just over the bridge. I realized in the car that I had tried to dress nicely to go, because I didn’t want people there thinking… I wasn’t quite sure what. “That I had no pride” was probably the closest thing to describing what I didn’t want them to think.

I doubt anyone could tell I was trying to look good, but that little bit of pride was all I had; and all we have, no matter how limited, is the only base we can build off of.

So I had pride: what I didn’t have, was food. But I did now, at least for that day.

The people working there, the three workers behind the window (I wished I’d asked their names!) were very kind and gentle with us. Even at that age, I was never so much angry at people who were unkind as grateful to people for being kind. It was like that in the hospital, too; some workers are busy and detached and kind of indifferent, but there was no point being angry with them. I was just grateful for the ones who would engage me as a person.

I got three meals out of what I took home with me.



It’s November, 2016 again, and I’m driving back to work, thinking about what it was like in those days.

There are many things we do in life that we never imagined ourselves doing, and many things we become that we never imagined ourselves being. Growing up, I had never pictured myself physically and mentally ill, poverty-stricken, or starving.

No, I had imagined myself scoring the winning basket in the NBA finals, or becoming a world-famous (!) astronomer, like Percival Lowell or Clyde Tombaugh.

(What do you mean you’ve never heard of them? They were world-famous… at least, in the world I lived in.)

There are parts of our destinies we do not get to choose, though. We’re aware of it when those things are bad, but less aware when good fortune is our lot.

I’ve tried, throughout all the years since, to stay aware.

Sierra hung a sign in our food bank kitchen that says:


I am not God; I am not anyone, really. But I know that empty feeling, I have known hunger. I wanted to work in a food bank because I’d needed to use one; but gradually, I wanted to work in a food bank because other people need to use them: Ken, Lindsey, J.J., Raj, Verna — and many other names, some of whom I don’t know yet.

(If you have the time, you might consider volunteering to help feed people in your area. And if you have need, never be ashamed to visit them.)



For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.


what isn’t so

what isn’t so is there to see
awash in our humanity
the fabled price we’ve come to owe
the distance we have left to go

amid the many lies and smears
the finger paints of hands unseen
the manacle that holds us down
the last drop in the old canteen

i wish that what was never there
was always where it never was
but noble lies are still just lies
and truthful is as truthful does

the splattering is in full phase
the course: spaghetti bolognese
but some won’t eat or eat but slow
filled up with all
that isn’t