When Prayers Fall

When your prayer falls
weighted and dull
at your feet,
betraying all your
brave and fragile
hope,do you kick it
scuffed and dusty
to the tangled ditch
or do you kneel
beside it on
that sharp gravel,
breathe on it
the heartbroken
breath of a child
collecting, with
tenderness, the hollow
bones and feathers
of a dying bird?

M and her new friend tiptoe to the edge of the brown river that cuts deep into the ravine. They find a place to push through the bramble at the waters’ edge, lower themselves slowly into the cold water, take sharp intakes of breath as the water reaches their bellies, their shoulders. They swim across the water, work against the current that pulls them towards the rest of us, the shallows where younger siblings are splashing rocks. They are determined to cross the moving water, set themselves apart as brave and capable, reach the ledge on the other side that no younger siblings have touched. When they scramble on the far shore, they look small against the tall edge of the ravine, crouch in the dirt near some rocks, all elbows and knees pressed side by side, play tic tac toe in the dust.

We squeeze into the shade at the edge of the river, hand out crumbly scones and warm white wine. We listen for hippos, remind the children to beware of the current, pass around a ukelele.

P doesn’t want to go to school, cries and refuses to stand up when we start to leave. She wears a green bow in her hair, polka dot socks pulled high up her shins. I pick her up though she is too heavy, this baby of mine that has become a tall girl. She wraps her arms and legs around me like a small monkey, buries her tears in my shoulder, allows me to carry her up the hill.

There is a crowd of children playing tag in the backyard. Night has fallen and their shapes are blurry in the darkness, though their squeals and shouts are magnified. I watch the outline of J dart through the shadows, dodge the reach of the older kids. When she reappears at the edge of the pool of porch light, her hair is wild, her forehead glistening with sweat, her smile proud.

We sit on the porch and eat spicy olives that I’ve marinaded myself, my surprise for Phil after his long day. The dusky light slides through the leaves of the banana trees, through the blue and green glass beads hanging in long strings from the roof, through the Moldovan wine bottle Phil brought home from the store. The girls are playing at their friends’ houses. The yard is silent, the day folding in on itself for another night.

M wears a purple hoodie, lies beside me as I work, reading a book she’s read a dozen times already. She looks up every few minutes to comment on the sky, the ivy, the taste of her tea. I think of Rilke reminding us to love the things as no one has thought to love them.

P is eager to get to school, impatient with my conversations along the way. She needs to get to her new friend, needs to play with her as soon as possible. I get a quick goodbye kiss, then she runs to drop her backpack in her cubby, skips over to her friend who is being pushed on the swing. Soon P appears beside me, her face crumpled. She leans into me, whispers “She doesn’t want to play with me”. I hold her on my lap, watch tears slide down her smooth cheeks, am helpless in the face of so much heartbreak, such explicit rejection.

High in the burned out trunk of a eucalyptus tree above the labyrinth where I meditate each morning, there is a small brown stuffed monkey. Its lofty seat makes me laugh, puzzled. I call it the Prayer Monkey, nod hello to it when I arrive at that quiet place, hope some day I learn what it waits to teach me.

We walk to a small pond in the middle of the forest.Green lily pads like fat hearts rest on its glassy surface. Purple lilies, tall and surprising, reach straight to the sky, leave drops of colour on the water mirror. M and I sit in the shade on an old kikoi, watch the Jacanas strut in the shallows, their throats preposterously white. Just before we leave we recognize a Little Grebe with its long crimson neck diving into the water and we cheer at our good luck, our first Little Grebe, our place in this hidden society.

J and P come to the supper table covered in red dirt and sand dust. They are breathing heavily, disheveled and hungry. “We’ve just had a war.” They reach for the pot of rice and recount the afternoon’s battle with the middle school boys at the playground. “We used bows and arrows. We won.” They grin over their plates with pride.

There is a plastic food container with a lid in the fridge, filled with a purple-brown liquid that I can’t identify. Before I taste it I remember P, the day before, gathering petals from our flowers, picking small needles of rosemary, asking for a bowl. I smile at her beautiful soup, nestled comfortably among the vegetables.


I read ancient words
from a borrowed bible
to a room of squirming,
squirrely children,
and when Jesus says
Consider the birds,
their young bodies
rise off the
dusty carpet
and their arms
remember the wings
their shoulder blades
once held.
They have forgotten
the bible and
become the birds.
I consider the girl
in the corner of the room,
her mouth and eyes
perfect Os, her arms
slow and angular,
like a pterodactyl or
a baby owl.

The Foolish Questions

I ask the vast uncaring blue
above my head what great
adventure I am meant for,
what beautiful significance
waits for me,
but the sky only opens its
pale wide face, welcomes
the sacred ibis with its
stark white lines, startling call,
unselfconscious as it follows
the current of wind or
its own mysterious urge
to fly again this morning.
Below, the bark of the eucalyptus
cracks imperceptibly into
thin sheets of paper
that no one will gather into
careful piles, that will
become the damp softness
of death and earth.
The tree asks no questions
of its sky, soil, rows of climbing ants,
only reaches peeling arms
into the deep pool of space,
waiting for life to have its way.

On a Nairobi Street

When the old woman
wearing black tire sandals,
her back bent under forty years,
maybe fifty, of stick bundles
wrapped with the frayed rope
that cuts across her forehead,
her neck bearing a weight that
should break it, has to hurry,
shuffle her feet more quickly,
lean into the wind with her immense load
and narrow limbs to make way
for the sleek roaring animal
that is the vehicle I control
from on high in an air conditioned
capsule of itunes and cupholders,
I think about the privileges of power
and I am afraid of the prophecies
in ancient texts.

Illy is Back

For those of you who have been reading my novel, Being Ilia, I apologize for its hiatus these last couple months. I’ve just posted two new chapters, and plan to be posting regularly in the coming weeks. Because of the page format I’m using, these chapters don’t appear in your Inbox if you’re following my site, so you’ll have to go through the effort of actually checking in.

If you’re just starting the novel, Chapter One can be found here.

Thanks for reading.

The sky glows pearly grey, blurry lines sliding above the tree line. The birds sing from behind leaves, their songs foreign and indistinguishable after my months away. I feel my absence, the way I forget to notice which bird is hopping through the branches of the dying potato tree, the way I see the trees as an indiscriminate crowd, forgetting names, details. There is a plant growing in a ceramic pot beside my porch that has grown so tall over these months that I can’t remember if it even was there when I left. Its red petals bend in clusters like Christmas ornaments,or plastic marbles. A flock of white birds dive low in the valley, disappear behind the banana trees before I can recognize them, remember their names. I have poured new millet seed in our terracotta bird bowl, but no birds are coming to eat them, wary of this stranger’s offering, not willing to pour out trust so easily.

We walk up the hill to the school, M dressed carefully in new jeans, new earrings. P skips beside her in yellow flipflops, her hair bending in unfamiliar curls. An Egyptian goose stares sidelong at us through its black rimmed eyes, lifts in a flash of white feathers. P decides it must be too cold here, it will fly somewhere warmer.

I drive my niece and her friend to an orphanage. The women there ask them if they are strong enough to lift the buckets of wet laundry, wait and watch to see if these teenagers will pass the test. The girls laugh, act nonchalant, walk away down the brick lane, young boys trailing them on tricycles. I drive away through the gate and wonder if I should be leaving them, if I’m running away from the tests I might not pass.

J is so excited to bake brownies for her cousin, a farewell offering before tomorrow’s departure. She heaves our biggest glass bowl onto the counter, collects ingredients from the cupboards, fills measuring cups like a careful scientist. It is only when we are about to bake the batter that she mentions casually how she used all the baking soda. We realize she has forgotten about teaspoons, has used only cups in this recipe…half cup baking soda, half cup salt, quarter cup cream of tartar. We lick the batter, grimace, decide this batch might do better outside. We walk together to the banana trees at the edge of the yard, dump the bowl into the grass. J hopes the animals don’t get stomach aches from eating it.

Two men walk back and forth along the edge of my yard, talking in quiet kiswahili, huge yellow rocks on their shoulders. They are carrying the rocks from the pile on the driveway to the other men sitting in the grass behind the hedge where they are making gravel by chipping at the rocks with small steel tools. I have never appreciated the immense effort of hand crafted gravel. Later, I walk gingerly down the graveled driveway, wonder about the hierarchy of jobs in this world.


Sometimes, after we have clattered
to the table, elbowed each other,
hungry and rushed,we pause a quick moment
to say grace,

as though grace is something to recite
and not something to pour over each other,
not something we gasp for and lean on
in the dark night.

I wonder if grace before these steaming pots
might not sound more like a poem,
or, by necessity, a series of poems.

One poem about the pig that spent
its dusty days in a thick and pressing barn,
left its mother too soon, ran too little,
grunted its lines in the creation chorus
as loudly as it was able, with only
the skinny farm boy to hear it,
tried to live its one destiny with
all the enthusiasm it could muster
before the day it was dragged
to the corner of the lot where
they do the slaughtering,
saw its first stunned glimpse
of that blazing light in the sky
before it fell into the deep black,
its blood running in rivulets
in the already red mud, its strong
hind legs sliced over and over,
thin into bacon strips
that we scoop onto our plates,
complaining about the rain.

The next poem would be about the nyayo beans,
grown somewhere by someone- how is it
I can’t recall ever seeing a field of beans,
don’t know if they are picked by women
with baskets in this country,
are snapped from vines when they are green
then dried in the sun for days or months, or are
already dark speckled purple as they grow?

Where are the poets of the bean fields
to describe the curving green vines,
the sweat between the shoulder blades
of the bean picker?

Of course my family would lose patience,
not staying to listen to the poem about the cow
pouring her rich milk into cold buckets,
not to sustain her young bleating ones,
but to be carried away in diesel trucks
to the places where cheese is mysteriously
coaxed from that creamy life,

or the poem of the black mud
cradling the rice field,

of the island that birthed
the surprising peppercorn.

Much easier to say the grace
than to bow before it,
indebted and bereaved.


When I walked,
this morning,
down a gravel path,
through trees lean and
indifferent, ivy climbing
up their bark like
lace, like hope,
I found my way
through the dampness
to a circle of flat stones
and knelt there,
noticed their hard edges
press into the hard edges
of my knee caps.

When the wind slid through
the branches between me
and the grey light, it
tugged at the frailest
leaves, the yellow ones
who had finished their
great role in the greenness
of things. They loosened
their grip on the branch
that had been their only home
and surrendered their
spot on the stage.

As they fell around me
like petals dropped
by a shy and distracted flower girl,
I bowed to their beautiful exit.