The Songs We Sing

Sometime in the middle of May, in the blinking daylight hours between rolling fog and thunderstorms, the buildings along Lincoln Avenue inhale. The restaurant workers in their white aprons have thrown open the large, floor-to-ceiling windows that line the fronts of their buildings. You have to fight against the draw of their breath as you walk by, and the gift shop, and that store on the corner that sells running shoes, because suddenly the sidewalk can pull you inside to a waiting wood-trimmed bar or dance floor. But it doesn’t. Instead it pushes you farther up the street past a Bierstube (once upon a time this neighborhood was German Town) where a young man stops talking to his date long enough to appreciate a tendril of her hair blowing onto his wrist.

You feel an unfolding inside you.

The doors of the gift shop are propped open with heavy chairs. The greeting cards in the spinning racks at the front of the store whistle as the wind vibrates between them. They are reed instruments accompanying the bass of traffic noise rising from the busy street. They play a tune you find yourself wanting to sing.

A gaggle—or is it called a Fitbit?—of joggers stand outside the shoe store. They stretch, popping one foot up on the free-newspaper racks and light posts. Or they lunge, the hems of their matching yellow shorts almost make contact with the pockmarked sidewalk. The runners silently form a rank and piston their way down the avenue. Your shoulders square as you watch them. Your spine straightens. Intersection after intersection, they stop traffic with their presence until they turn left and vanish.

You walk the four blocks to Lincoln Square. Las Lagunitas, a new cantina, is raucous with 20-somethings. Its patrons spill neatly out onto the grid of tables formed on the patio. Chartreuse margaritas beckon from every table. On the other side of the patio gate, couples sit on benches gripping the handle of a baby stroller the size of a Humvee in one hand and a paper cup the size of a golf ball in the other. Inside the cups, mini-glaciers of coconut, chocolate mousse, and roasted-banana gelato peek at you over the rim. The parents chastise their sons and daughters to sit still, then they dip the tiniest shovels you’ve ever seen into their cups. You smile as they take their first bite.

The Fitbit of joggers thunder past you. You join their most informal of parades. They breathe loudly and rhythmically, and you match them. It is not a surprise that they take you back to the shoe store and assume their scissor and jackknife positions up and down the sidewalk. It is not a surprise to you because this ritual takes place every year: the birdsong, the echoes of laughter coming from inside the pub, the guitar riffs only audible when the School of Folk Music door swings open. None of it is a surprise. You breathe, you swing your arms, you glide up the back steps of your apartment ready to begin again.




a man can walk the Bering Sea
with ice stones placed strategic’ly
his breath would bead, then reappear
Kamchatka beaches slick and sheer
each rock-tipped isle an apogee

aligned amid my fantasy
that one would come and rescue me
no winter-coated crowd to cheer:
a man can walk the Bering Sea

a gorgeous garland it would be
if someone dared to cross alee
his wand’ring words would reach my ear
and spur the sides of trotting fear
oh, only then would I agree
a man can walk the Bering Sea




The horse’s tongue grazes the back of my neck. It’s soft, slick, with muscle behind it. But Jupiter’s always liked to lick the sweat off me on summer days. Kurt says Jupiter licks him, too. Says it’s because Jupiter considers us part of his herd, or he’s asserting his dominance over us or something. But I just think he’s sweating too much and needs the salt. I guess that makes me his salt-lick-slash-shit-shoveler.

I bend my knees a little, pitch the shovel forward across the stall floor, and walk to the wall. Jupiter waits a second before he follows. I hear him scoot forward, and then his tongue is under my ear, making me jump a little. I tell him “Hee-ahh,” all long and slow like the month of August. Jupiter obeys by keeping his tongue to himself and letting me finish mucking his stall. That’s when I hear a horse—probably Hester—at the other end of the barn let out a low hoot, a stomp like a two-step, and then the melody of a conversation.

“Sullivan’s all talk.” I recognize the machismo right away; I’d recognize it underwater and in space. “He won’t really tell your mama. He probably wants to read it as much as you do.”

“I don’t know. He’s not that into end-of-the-world stuff.” My brother’s girlfriend’s voice, Serena. She’s the only one I know that can make two syllables out of the word ‘world.’

“But he is into knowing what everyone in class is talking about. Trust me. He wants to read it, too. And that’s too bad because you’re going to give it to me when you’re done, aren’t you?” I can only assume my brother tickles because Serena laughs and nothing he said was funny. I hear a quick grunt and then the unmistakable click of a kiss breaking apart. “Does that convince you?”

I can’t hear Serena’s answer; she’s all whispers. It takes two or three of their clicks for me to think to tell them I’m here. But then I get a better idea.

As quiet as I can I pull the latch on Jupiter’s stall—its creak blends into the other barn noises: whinnies and water pumps and bats in the rafters preparing for their evening chase. Kurt and Serena are still talking softly. I look at the horse standing a few feet away, twitching its ears at me. It’s the one time I can remember when he doesn’t charge me after I open the door. I offer up my arm, and he starts licking. Slowly, slowly, I inch Jupiter out of his stall and into the thoroughfare. Once he’s out it’s like someone’s riding him, I guess because he wants washing. He walks right onto the thick mats that line the shower stall. A surprised shout echoes off the roof.

“Damn it, Jupe, stop licking me for a minute.”

“How’d he get in here?” Serena says, sounding unphased.

“Hold that thought. I’m just going to put him back.” When Kurt turns the corner, flushed and missing his shirt, I make sure I’m giving him my widest grin. He skips right into a run. Then it’s my laughter bouncing around the barn, and I’m hiding in the orchard out of breath wondering how long I should wait before I go back in.



La Dauphine

They stand at the water’s edge staring at us. Thirty people barely clothed, but unembarrassed. An animal skin circles each hip, and a long plait of grass holds it in place. The wind plays with the pelts that they’ve tied to the belt. The man wearing  a garland of crimson feathers holds a spear out to this side, a signal to the children behind him.

Our ship, La Dauphine, would be one of many in the harbors of London or Lisbon, but here it towers over the ghostly white-barked trees that surround the savages’ village. A shadow in a bright pool. My shipmates and I are ordinary Frenchmen, a few Portuguese. The more experienced men assured me that the work on caravels headed to the New World was no different than those headed for Africa or Cathay, which proved to be true. But our reception in this place is silent and fragile.

Captain Verrazzano points to a group of men on the port side, me included. We are to go ashore. The others scatter to prepare the smaller boat and fetch vessels to collect fresh water, but I am singled out and told to fetch a box of gewgaws. I try not to think about my fear as I pad down the stairs to the hold. Tempted by the boxes of salt cod, I consider staying here until the boat leaves—no one would notice a missing dockhand—but I remembered my goal: to collect stories. These are the days I will tell my village about for years to come. I have already practiced the story of how the captain brought a few of us ashore, let us explore the land with its strange trees and birds. He picked a few red berries and told us to eat. Each man laughed as they made our cheeks pucker.

I trudge back upstairs and load the small wooden box into the boat.

Some of the natives walk back to their village after seeing our approach. The captain’s second-in-command, a man named Leclercq, gestures to the ones who stay. He holds his hands out, then brings them to his chest. He means it to look friendly. A few of the men sitting near me tell a story about the rogue waves that lash this shore. Like a blacksmith pounding iron, they say. Funneling my strength into rowing, I think only of the relief I will feel when I am paddling back to La Dauphine, back across the sea, back to my family. Then I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Boy, swim to shore. Offer them the box,” Leclercq shouts from the front of the boat.

I hesitate only a second, then scoop the box up and dive. The cool water washes months of dirt and sweat from my body. I feel a wave lift me up as I kick and chop the sea. The little box stays tucked in my breeches. Eventually, I can stand on the ocean floor, just my head poking above the surface. Dark eyes watch me. I throw the box toward them, see the small mirrors and bells scatter onto the sand, and turn back toward the boat.

Moments later, a large wave catches me off guard. I swallow seawater. I swim up, only to be pushed sideways and thrown onto sand, sputtering.

I feel hands grab my limbs and drag me onto the beach. A woman tears my shirt and a man pulls my shoes and my breeches off. I am soon naked, still coughing. I hear the whooping of my shipmates some four fathoms off, but I cannot stand, cannot run. I hear stones scraping together; a flame ignites near my head. I hear myself yelp, believing I’m about to be roasted alive, but the woman is talking to me in her strange language. Her words are smooth. The native woman shifts me toward the fire and hugs me to her side. I am shivering; she is warm.

After a while, I stand and wave to the men in the boat. Leclercq no longer stands at the front. They have not paddled closer to save me. The native woman shows me six red berries in her palm. She slips one in her mouth, makes a face. I bow as I put one in my mouth. I am familiar with their bitter taste. I smile back at her.

This story is based on the letters of the explorer, Giovanni da Verrazzano.

garden hose on pavement/gratisography


Those glazed over eyes.

You know what I mean: that moment at a party when you realize you can’t remember how long you’ve been talking, and everyone that was listening is now either staring at hors d’oeuvres or smiling politely while internally wording their tweets about that boring guy who droned on for half an hour about the pros and cons of various genealogy tv shows.

It’s not happening to me as often lately, because I’ve taken genealogy off my list of topics to discuss with mixed company.

I know what you’re thinking: Screw that! Talk about what you want to talk about, and if they don’t like it, then they can just walk away.

Yes. But looking at it from the listener’s perspective, I get it. I remember history class, all those arbitrary dates and names. As someone who is not into sports, I have often found myself concentrating on suppressing a yawn at the back of my throat as some person I just met goes on and on about batting averages and World Series and I don’t even know what else.

I’ve realized that me and Sports Person were both making a mistake in presentation. We were trying to engage people with the particulars of our passions and not giving them any inkling as to what’s fueling it. Getting people interested in potentially eye-glazing subjects is all about the packaging:

“Hey, Sports Person, what is it about watching sports that interests you so much?”

“I guess I just really love seeing evidence of what people can do when they pull together for a common goal. I love following the stories of the individual players, knowing where they came from and how they found a place on a team, many of them having to travel to other countries in order to do so. Plus I connect to people when I see them doing something they’re passionate about.”

“Oh. I can completely get behind that. That’s exactly why I like genealogy. Tell me more about this sportsball thing.”

Yeah, that conversation would never happen around an hors d’oeuvres table…or anywhere else for that matter. That’s why I’m choosing to keep the subject in my back pocket except when I’m around other family historians. When I do mention it at parties, I try to keep it short and not bury the lede. But, since I have you here, let me tell you what I have decided to say:

My father didn’t know his parents. I started researching my family to find out more about them. I discovered stories and pictures and documents that filled in the holes of my family’s story. One photo I found was of my father as a little boy, a phase in his life that I’d never seen evidence of before.

Ralph Robert James206278_10150167032337612_6034898_n

I was surprised to find out I actually looked quite a bit like him (a fact that wasn’t obvious when I was a kid and he was a brown-haired and bearded adult).

Then I got a photo of my dad’s mother.

Mary Lou

I saw where my father and I got our blue eyes, and the way we set our jaw when we smile. I was dumbfounded by how obvious the connection was. I realized that the features I see in the mirror are hand-me-downs; they are not mine at all.

I learned that my grandmother lived in southern Missouri, and I read her account of living in the Dustbowl during the Great Depression. It made real those seemingly arbitrary dates and events I studied in high school: My family was there; they lived through it. I wish I’d listened better to those lessons in class, because they very much shaped my father’s upbringing.

That’s what I would say.

Or I might just tell the story of what happened to me last night. I received my paternal grandfather’s Social Security Application in the mail. The information it provides is fairly innocuous, but it is the first document I’ve uncovered that is written in his own hand. His signature ends the form like a period. The distinctive capital R, the serpentine curls of the e and s at the end of our shared last name.

It is my own handwriting.

The man passed away 2 years before I was born, and my father did not grow up in his house. But there it was plain as day: undeniable evidence of my connection to him.

To think that the chemicals in our cells can determine even the smallest details about our lives, like how we write our names. It’s just baffling to me. And these reminders that who I am is not completely in my control are comforting. Destiny, and all that. Making more of those connections inspires me to keep searching through my own history and to listen to the histories of other people’s families.