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Mirror, Cape Cod

In the house my parents built. These mirrors have seen my face,
my naked body, for longer than any living thing: at twelve, sunburned

And skinny and flush with summer friendships from the beach;
at twenty-three, back from graduate school with the young writer

who’d become my wife, tired after walking ten miles from Hyannis
to Dennis to surprise my parents with a visit from Boston.

And now at fifty-six. Watching our three teenagers watch the sun
Set from the Cape’s highest point, stone tower a stone’s throw

From this house. O age inexorable and gentle has given me
A face weathered with seasons of gratitude. In this bathroom mirror is

An image of each time I’ve stood before it, in the same place,
Dripping wet, a little transparent, my selves seeing uneasily through each other’s

particular reflections. It took every second to get us all here.
No wonder the image wavers.

Outside and a mile away through scrub oak and sand the bay
glints with day’s embers, the slow ticking away of light

dropping through the horizon’s grate and the oncoming
Rolling rememberlessness of night, the countless

Reflections no one will see

Sesuit Harbor song

We never went to your father’s river
though far north of here we stood

on a jetty at the end of a normal day
while my mother took pictures of the sky.

Heartbreak is heartbreak at any age:
always too big to fit into a single person.

Pick any shell off this Cape Cod beach
and listen: the sound goes on forever although

every shell’s message is short: “I’m alive
and well” though it always arrives a lifetime

too late or should we assume the life is ours?
Sunset was so big, like a normal day’s sunset

with a bonus sunset for tourists, my mother
had to take another picture and another.

Still the sky wouldn’t fit. And in every photo
you and I stood among strangers like every

group that gathers by happenstance along water
and each held a shell and my mother took

their picture and wrote their names in a notebook
I found years later far from her photographs

and she told them how I laughed so heartily
as an infant people would interrupt my naps

just to watch me wake up and laugh and it
found its way into their heads so that even when

it left a memory had formed around it like a shell
and it was their own laughter saying I’m alive

and well and I wish you all well without your names
in my mother’s pictures with my father at her side

Near the end of a dark year

In the stressed syllable of the last month
sometimes I wake in the middle of the night

in the unstressed syllable of the third hour
and feel my heart moving around inside me

as if it is trying to escape when I am
not looking but where would it go?

It’s too early for the scrabble of starling
in the gutter above the open window

The cold air comes in, musical notes
the size of pillows. Like I haven’t

figured out how to dream yet
a window trying to be a wall

What magic changed glass into night?
Then today as the moon rose just after

sunset I found myself in a clearing
mind, thoughts scattered into the thicket beyond.

My heart circles slowly at the edge of the light.
I trust the trees like it trusts the trees.

Like a large cat it shrugs its shoulders
as it walks, like it’s forgetting to take

responsibility for anything like with each step
it’s a step further from what it’s done

Its fur glows at the edge of the circle of light
maybe waiting for me to turn my head

or for another like it to show up at the edge
then from the outside it will come for me

Standing in the sun by the church

Where the light falls may fail
something else along its edge

close enough to see it
but not be in it or of it

Sun streams through stained
glass but not to the people inside

under the shadows each of
their individual Gods

My bench in the shade got cold
but all I had to do was walk

a few steps past the walnut tree’s
highest eminence now just

shifting sparkle and shadow
at my feet — even on the ground

I’m higher than spires
my limbs bound to no rooted

trunk of belief — I know
I’ll float freely one day

but I’ll fall like we all fall
and the landing I have seen

against living’s gravity
is almost weightless

By this river

By this river

My river starts as a creek that idles like a train loading up kids at a park
then slides underground, quickening beneath the destroyed black neighborhood

beneath the cheap hotel and its parking lot that was supposed to be a mall
and on downhill past City Hall where it bursts into the open thirty feet below

the police station parking garage then sidles back under the concrete
and into the dark again beneath a parking lot called The Wharf though

it hid the only waterway in the valley so sometimes when I want
to touch the current of my life I feel a parking space stripe that

hand-wide line white or yellow painted over and over for years
until it’s a physical presence not just a visual guide the layers

of paint countable like tree rings when what I want is the rush
and gurgle of what’s just below our pedestrian lives

April 28

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April 28

A thousand miles up and over
a rough-hewn stone sits atop

the bodies of my parents
A smooth space on the side

for a name that will mean
Nothing to anyone in time

On this their anniversary
beside each other for

the first time in almost
a decade the rain has fallen

As if they planned this day
when they picked that stone

with the rough divot they hoped
would collect rain for the birds

Eulogy: my father

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Note: I gave this family remembrance in honor of my father Walter Schwaner at his funeral mass today in Lincoln, RI. 

“We have to follow the police officer,” my father told the family as he climbed back into the station wagon. It was the 1970s, we were on our way to Cape Cod, close to the Sagamore Bridge. Dad had been caught running a red light in the Friday afternoon traffic. The state trooper and my father talked for a long time outside the car while we sat anxiously inside.

The trooper pulled off the main road, and my father followed him. 

“Are you being arrested?” we asked him.

“No,” Dad said simply. A hint of a smile. “He’s going to show us a short-cut around this traffic.”

Skip ahead a few years. After Little League, where my father had coached my teams, I joined a Babe Ruth baseball team. I came home from one practice discouraged. The players had so little respect for the coach that the only thing they had done as a team was push his Volkswagen bug onto its side in the parking lot. Hearing this story over dinner, my father calmly said, “Huh. Maybe he needs a little help.” The next practice Dad was there, quietly standing by the bench and offering his assistance, and the mood of the team changed considerably. “Assistant Coach” Schwaner taught the kids how to sacrifice bunt, hit to the opposite field, steal a base, position fielders to help each other — and turned us unruly teens into a team. 

That’s Walter Schwaner. 

Nearly forty years later, on my last trip to Dad’s home on Cape Cod, I found myself taking photos for my wife of the many statues of Jesus of the Sacred Heart in my parent’s old bedroom.

My father built the house when I was a child and it has always been the family’s sacred ground to me; to my wife Mary, it’s a place of spiritual transformation. One day years ago she saw those statues on the dresser, the bookshelf, the sewing table and felt changed by their iconic open-hearted gestures. That June day also happened to be the Feast day of the Sacred Heart, and this idea of an open-hearted God has been central to her life since then.

If you’re here today you’ve probably been witness at some point or another to my father’s open-heartedness, his casual welcoming nature, his way of enabling others to do better, which is at the core of coaching, which he so loved to do.

For his open-heartedness, Dad was rewarded by a life surrounded by people whom he loved and who loved him— family, neighbors, long-time and new-found friends. 

He didn’t preach the positive, he just accomplished it. The last word I heard Dad say? It was “yes.” In a crowded room discussing his fate, he spoke up above the doctors when I asked over the phone from Virginia if he wanted to leave transfusions and chemo behind so he could go home. He spelled it out loudly so I could hear– “Y. E. S.” 

That “yes” to death is not easy. Because the hard work of dying must be done by the dying. 

The hard work done by survivors is an important part of being alive. It is in fact the main fulcrum of a faithful life— our faith in God, our faith in each other, our faith that being human is living a realistic, generous love in all our relationships— these elemental values teeter on our response to the deaths of loved ones. These moments try us, but reward us in manifold complex ways.

A wise young poet once wrote:

When joy goes to work
Sadness must take care of you.

I’ll let the sadness take care of me for the time being, until joy gets back from work, just as my dad would get home from work to my childhood home and bring with him a sense of things being right, and calm, and me being permanently in good hands.

During my trip to the Cape weeks ago, I stopped at a used bookstore I’ve been visiting for five decades, and found a battered translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao de Ching, or Way of Life. A stanza of this ancient poem seemed to express that openness to vulnerability we see in Jesus of the Sacred Heart, and that was so elemental to my father’s life:

A sound man’s heart is not shut within itself
But is open to other people’s hearts:
I find good people good,
And I find bad people good
If I am good enough;
I trust men of their word,
And I trust liars
If I am true enough;
I feel the heart-beats of others
Above my own
If I am enough of a father,
Enough of a son.

It doesn’t strike me as odd that I found these words exactly when I would most understand them. It strikes me as enough. That like my father often did, I can look around me, even in sadness, and find more than enough for a good day, a good life, if I am open-hearted enough. 

This message can be found in the gospels. It can be found in Ecclesiastes. It can be found in the writings of Lao Tzu, and doubtless in many other texts of wisdom and faith. 

I learned it from my dad.

Walter S. Schwaner, Jr. 1933-2019

Night song

Night song

Your god is the back of a bluebird
Song of the inside of night’s clear lid

Your god is the thing before it’s seen
Color of waking from the dream

With an image cooling like lava
Into the shape of an empty hand

as full of air as the starling’s wing
Yet solid as the slow shore of dying

Your faith the driftwood to which I cling
Established proof of land if not direction

Broken map of the edge of each breath
And the way back to morning

*

Note: Last night my wife Mary was preparing for her first Sunday as a eucharistic minister, Pentecost Sunday being a fitting time to start such a journey. As someone who has long ago abandoned any sort of communal religious ritual, I nevertheless find that many of my closest friends are those that undertake spiritual paths whose directions seem authentic to me in a way I can’t quite register but can feel. This poem was a nod of respect and admiration for how others’ faiths often keep me afloat.

End of January

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End of January

No invitations left for it.
I am all outside now

Beyond any framework for this god of doors
Its first face is four years long

I am tired of looking through its road-salt eyes
The month’s mouth is a boy’s knee

Punctured by a splayed root
Its voice is a wrist shattered like ice

Its ears a bird caught in a basement
On the coldest night of the year

Its other face is a choice
Nobody saw coming

November hymnal (6) / Trench cello

November hymnal (6) / Trench cello

When the box was out of ammunition
someone now dead made a cello of it

and tuned it to the trenches as mud spilled
over the edges and they played elegies

for themselves in the space between concussions
listening for those who’d not hear their voices

again unless they were as lucky as that
ammunition box outliving its usefulness

and becoming song