Bins at the curb, I pause
in a night of deep quiet
the thought that no-one else is here.
Sleepy suburban street rarely parties;
nights are seldom wild around here.
Yet silence catches with surprise:
no-one walking home from shops,
no night-time joggers,
no cars coming home.
No feet sharing this curb with mine.
And this weekly domestic act becomes
a moment of strange resistance,
a heartbeat-long yearning
to see other neighbours lugging their bins,
to duck down the street to No.16 and say,
"This package is yours. The postie
dropped it here by mistake."
But it's after 8 and I've no mask;
the edge of this block is the wall for my feet.
To love my neighbour tonight is to go
back inside and pray.
First you will learn about smiles,
how much you smile,
what's contained in a smile,
what's implied in the different degrees of smile:
in a curl of the lip at a funny thought,
in the mouth's outstretched corners
to greet the close acquaintance,
in the sardonic phrase,
the empathic moment.
All these things you will learn
when they cannot be seen.
And eyes. You will learn about eyes.
How readily you can recognise eyes
across a courtyard or carpark, how
much you can guess of a heart or a day
from the eyes poking out above the nose.
And breath. You will learn about breath.
You will taste it, smell it, absorb it all day.
You will choose your words and your silence to preserve
moments when you can simply breathe.
You will long to stand
in the garden
beside your office
and do nothing
in that afternoon air
but take off your mask and breathe.
And faces - you will catch, in their absence,
the beauty, the wonder of faces,
the heart-catching, God-splendoured glory of faces.
You will long for the faces
that you loved and despised,
will search the room for these faces,
will wish that these faces
could transfigure their otherness straight into yours.
You will cover your face
and stifle your breath
and halve your smile
in hope of the day,
to work for the day,
when all of our faces are back.
Yes, it takes our freedoms
because sometimes love does that:
for neighbour, for stranger,
for one who walks the same streets,
walks by your desk,
shops where you shop,
shares the same air.
Sometimes love lays down
rights - freedom of movement,
freedom of assembly,
freedom to smile and have others see -
because sometimes love judges
the more needful thing,
the truer way to be free.
Love, sensing Self flex muscles,
Circumvents the question, takes a detour
Along a Jericho road,
A thoroughfare often taken, seldom observed.
Love stretches the story out,
Beyond expectation, beyond our trust,
Defeats its stock of righteous men,
Then surprises with a foe.
Love befriends the enemy,
Gives face and heart to the hated one.
Love helps us up the donkey's back,
Carries us safe, far from home.
Love takes flexed muscles, unflexes them,
Unwinds Self's tautly wrought syntax.
Wrong question, Love says. True question is:
Whose neighbour am I?
At the shops and in the street,
We look at faces, look at feet,
Breathing quickly as we pass,
Lest the germs should get to us.
Seeking family on a screen,
Craving you and us and we.
What will each tomorrow bring?
(Can we handle one more thing?)
In this and each new instance,
Can we love, safe from a distance?
Hiding within my son's clothes,
it lay unseen until bedtime when
it scurried out from his sleeve, explaining
his tears through dinner and
the nick on his wrist spotted
only moments before.
It was not the night to visit Emergency.
Wind and rain buffeted the drive, as
unidentified spider in jar beside me,
I punctuated my frantic breaths with
comma prayers and apostrophe thoughts
of the worst that could happen
in a waiting room at night.
Arriving to warnings plastered on doors,
I tried not to gawk at the three who were kept
behind a sealed door, faces masked,
breathing an obvious chore.
And while we waited, my son
calm, no swelling, spider determined
to see out the night, I pondered
risking it and going home,
but stayed instead, and tried to love
my neighbour from a distance,
sharing smiles that said,
"We're in this together," while mind returned
again, again to the microbes that may,
may not circle the air, and tried not to fear
the pestilence stalking the night, or the day
that I may become one others fear.
I stubbed my toe on a London bus;
it stood in the doorway, just under us.
And by the door a bright Tonka truck
lay just where an unsuspecting limb got stuck.
And in the night a train might stray
far from its tracks into my way;
and you, dear you, might show up right
when I would rather turn in for the night
yet love is seldom a smooth affair,
and ground is better than ideal air.
True, I’d prefer to not stub my toes,
but love must bleed; that’s the way it goes.
Today, as well as the day for the year’s biggest sales, is also Boxing Day and, as the mysterious carol “Good King Wenceslas” should remind us, St Stephen’s Day. Most likely the Stephen commemorated today was the one martyred in the Acts of the Apostles, so one tradition of today is to sing carols that remind us of his faith. It’s also a day traditionally not about spending but of giving: boxing up gifts to give to the poor, hence the name “Boxing Day”. Today’s poem, for the second day of Christmas, draws together these themes, via an old St Stephen’s Day carol of indeterminate age, played beautifully in this version.
Never Faint Nor Fear
The tree still stands, the presents gone;
They’re boxed and put away.
We rest our feet and pick at food
Left over from yesterday.
Saint Václav and his squire walk
Through snow and in Christ’s footsteps;
We follow signs instead that tell
Of bargains and tax offsets.
If Stephen sat amongst us here,
He’d wonder at our tinsel.
The red, perhaps, foreshadows blood?
So sing the old-time minstrels.
O never faint, and never fear,
Unless your debt be looming.
Pay back your credit card and watch
The lowly rose e’er blooming.
The child soon will mount the cross;
How well St Stephen knew this.
Yet do not dwell so long on that,
Lest it should ruin Christmas.
Instead, you might behold the sight:
The Son of Man is shining.
He climbed the tree, for you, for me,
In sin and error pining.
It is not yours to climb, and yet
The grace may prove contagious.
Let Christmas drive you out in storms
With love and gifts outrageous.