Becoming American

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Today, for the first time, I celebrated Independence Day as an American citizen. A week ago, I stood in a large reception room along with a hundred and seventy-two others and our families, representing forty-seven nations, and we took an oath of allegiance to this country.

For me, it had been a long time coming. Twenty-seven years to be exact. The majority of us come looking for a better quality of life than we could have expected if we’d stayed in our country of birth. Some cannot wait to shed the shackles of an oppressive government, or a miserable life of poverty and violence. I was one of the lucky ones. Leaving Dublin in the late 1980’s, I became part of the brain-drain—college graduates looking for challenging job opportunities that were not available in a depressed economy. The path across the Atlantic was a well-worn one.

But unlike many immigrants, my family had no desire to follow me. Instead, I make the pilgrimage home a couple of times a year. And part of me remains firmly rooted in Ireland.

It’s always irked me that although I’ve long been active in my community, and paid taxes for decades, I could not vote, not even on local issues. The importance of this privilege was brought home to me when my oldest children turned eighteen and took on the lifelong responsibility. With all the international political turbulence, the tenets of a democracy are all the more important to uphold. I needed to show my children that I respect their country of birth and embrace the extraordinary document on which it was founded.

As a family we’ve never been big on fireworks and barbecues. So I found myself pondering how I should celebrate this day, and what being an American really means to me. The USCIS calls the process of becoming a citizen a naturalization process. Adapting to a way of life, and adopting a country’s social mores takes time. But becoming enmeshed in a landscape, taking ownership of a space and calling it home is a more subtle and binding tie.

This morning, finding the patch of sunlight waiting for me on the bench at the top of the garden, I understood that I have found my natural place in this landscape. Season by season, I’ve raised my family, made friends, planted a garden, put down roots. I belong. And what better way to celebrate than to sit there and enjoy the bounty of this amazing country.
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Narrative for a May Morning

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Mist lying in the deep valleys,
sunrise on white windmills, fresh cool air
blowing down from Canada after the rain.
Heard the mate-seeking brag of the rufous sided towhee
before I spotted him posing at the top of the thicket.

On my walk home, I passed a pair of teenage girls
boarding the school bus, talking animatedly
oblivious to the morning chill
in their summer shorts and tiny tops.

A kid pulled out right behind the bus in a banged up Toyota.
He grasped the wheel at ten and two,
wearing a frown of concentration and a baseball cap pulled low.
His studied air made me think he had timed it just so!
Because who wants to be stuck behind a school bus?
Except a guy with a shiny new driver’s license and a second hand car.

Did he hope that every time the bus wheezed to a stop
the girls would turn in the back seat and sneak glances at him,
gazing casually off into the distance,
and note the slight bob of his head keeping time
with the rock tune playing loud through his out-sized speakers?

Perhaps he dreamed of catching a small finger ripple from the redhead,
a half wave that could be turned into a hair flick if not reciprocated.
Did he hesitate for a second – who me?
Before realizing that yes, there was no one else around,
so that yes, that slight dimple in the cheek and finger flutter
must be for him. And yes, I imagined the slow creeping grin
and the deep hollow of lust and loneliness in his gut
flooding with happiness.

Cardinal Sin

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Dear Cardinal, I am so sorry
the cat who we keep as a pet
ate your partner.

You advertise for a mate
all over again
from the top of the forsythia.

Is it my guilt that detects a sad note,
or does that beating nugget of flesh
pump regret through your veins?

Either way, I absorb your loss,
buried no doubt as cat shit
under the earth freshly dug for peas and spinach.

Wonder Valley

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The cottage pulls itself apart at the joints in the heat of the day
settles back into itself at night

high desert wind clatters in the fan palms
fine dust coats the mirrors

In the yard husks of coyote melons
blow into the roots of the brittlebush

small things scurry across the wash
leaving shallow indentations in the sand

lizard, ground squirrel, jack rabbit
burrow under the creosote

beyond, a crust of manzogranite
oceans of baking salt flats

garrulous hunkered down shrubs
with the resilience of rock

a feral landscape of burnt out, boarded up cinder block
half-savage dogs behind chainlink fence

transient human purchase
slippery as sand

the highway lined by salvation—
liquor stores, animal shelters, churches

sun bleached cars drift
from one side of the yellow line to the other

air too dry for ghosts
signs scoured bare of their messages

crouch, bristle, burn
hold tight, bend with the wind

learn to pull yourself apart at the seams with the heat of the day and settle back into your bones under an exhalation of sky.
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Joshua Tree

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In late March I had the great pleasure of staying in a cottage on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, California. Each day I hiked and explored with my family. Having never spent time in a desert before, the landscape was a totally new environment for me. What made it even more amazing was that we had arrived at the cusp of winter and spring.

Everywhere I looked I could see new life bursting out of seemingly dead plants and shrubs. It was breathtaking to watch the full moon sink behind the snow caps of the San Bernadino mountains as the sun rose, blushing the mountains of the park. My ears soon tuned in to the noisy cactus wren that sang from the top of a telephone pole and the courting of white winged doves. Each morning  I watched for the Anna’s humming bird that visited the new blooms of the manzanita tree. My son and I would visit the wash behind the cottage to examine the footprints in the sand–ground squirrel, jack rabbit, lizard. We learned the names of the many cacti in our yard as they came into flower. And chasing him up and over the huge golden granite boulders in the park, I felt like a little kid all over again.

I came home renewed and not a little in love.

Bear

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Bear belly crawls out of her den
limbs heavy with winter lassitude
paws her way up through rootball, fieldstone, clay
two wide-eyed young nudge her flanks:
this bright new world is safe?

She noses the air
examines numerous scent trails
wild garlic, beetle larva, dead deer
food sources for her depleted body

Too many options

For a moment she sits and basks
black coat a magnet for a patch of sunlight
The muffled thrum of her own heartbeat—
sole companion under the snow—
quickens now with the sap pulsing through green wood
and the call of the cardinal from the top of the maple

She shakes her head, sending dust flying
swats away the young nuzzling for a teat
sways to all fours and sets off
pushing through briars
burrs catching in her winter fur
April wind cutting a ruff around her neck

She leaves a path of scuffed loam and flattened leaves in her wake.