Wednesday, February 26, 2020

And Now We Bow Our Heads in Prayer

Dear Lord,
it’s me, Barbara Czernicki.
But of course, You knew that.
Unlike some people here,
You hear from me pretty often.
I bet when Norma Pfeiffer deigns
to show up for Mass,
You say, “Norma who?”
Or those O’Briens.
They always seem to have
five children between the ages
of four and twelve,
no matter how much time passes,
all those children in their soccer uniforms,
if they bother to show up at all,
because little Maddison or Addison
or Aiden or Braden or Jaden
has some kind of soccer tournament
500 miles away,
and back in my day,
none of that nonsense was scheduled
on a Sunday,
but parents these days can’t say no
to anyone, let alone some fanatic coach,
but when they’re here,
I’m sure everyone in a three-pew radius
is just praying for a stiff drink,
all that fidgeting and whining and sighing
and chattering and punching
when their parents aren’t looking,
and their parents are never looking.
You’d think the older ones
would be altar boys or girls by now,
but no, we can’t miss any soccer practice,
and Father Zerbinsky wouldn’t even be able
to give them the smacks on the head
they all so richly deserve.
Of course, Lord,
You see Ben and Diana Tannenbaum sitting there,
right in front of me,
trying so desperately to hold it all together,
and Ben tries to sneak looking at his cell phone
during Mass because he has no respect for You—
is it work he’s obsessed with
or a certain female coworker?
The one he calls his “work wife”
while Diana rolls her eyes—
I can’t tell because Diana nudges his side,
hard, with her elbow,
and he quietly sighs and puts the phone away.
Like a teenager, I swear to You, Lord!
And Lord, I really have to have a talk
with Your servant, Father Zerbinsky.
He’s been having us sing
all the verses of the hymns lately
and has been choosing
the extra-long Eucharistic prayers,
and his sermons have been rambling and—
I’m sorry to say it—
almost political lately,
and that’s not what this parish is all about.
We are devout to You, Lord,
but also efficient,
which is what I imagine pleases You most
with all the long-winded services
You must attend every week,
like the ones with those miserable Slovaks and Greeks.
Father Zerbinsky needs to understand
that just because his predecessor has retired
doesn’t mean Father gets to change everything
and start encouraging teenagers to lead
the Responsorial Psalm with their horrible guitars
and forcing us all to hold hands
during The Lord’s Prayer,
Your prayer,
when I’m sure You’d rather these people keep
their grubby little hands to themselves
for once.
Dear Lord,
as this moment of silent prayer,
which has gone on far too long already,
comes to an end,
I just want to thank You
for the gift of patience
You have given me
so that I can suffer my fellow believers.


My parents sent me to Catholic school
so I could “learn discipline.”
What they meant was,
I would learn to be quiet,
behave in church,
do my homework,
not act up,
not talk back.
But what I failed to learn
was a daily discipline.
Instead, I roll over
onto my side and
hit snooze
for the fifth time
because I want to see
how my dream,
rudely interrupted,
plays out.
My resolve crumbles
in front of the candy bar display
at the cash register.
I see the vibrant red lipstick
or the new t-shirt
or the best-selling paperback,
and I figure,
what’s ten, twenty bucks?
I keep buying the reusable cup,
the cloth tote bag,
to save the world!
Then I forget them at home
and return with even more plastic,
and I think with regret
of the choking turtles
and strangled seabirds.
I rue my laziness
and shame my spendthrift ways.
Because although maybe I didn’t
learn discipline at Catholic school,
I sure did master guilt.

Begging Your Pardon

I’m sorry.
I’m sorry I’m a few minutes late.
I’m sorry—I almost forgot this appointment!
I’m sorry, I took a nap and overslept.
I’m sorry, what was that? Could you spell it?
I’m sorry, I didn’t get that message.
I’m sorry, I can’t find that information.
I’m sorry, did you say something?
I’m sorry, ma’am. Ma’am?
I’m sorry, but we close in fifteen minutes.
I’m sorry, is there something else I could get you instead?
I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with that at all.
I’m sorry, but I just have to say something.
I’m sorry, my bad.
I’m sorry, I really shouldn’t have said that.
I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.
I’m sorry, I’m very sorry to hear that.
I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.
I’m sorry, there was nothing else I could do.
I’m sorry—I kind of zoned out there a minute.
I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry, you know?
I’m sorry.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Shape Shifter

Like a lot of people these days,
I’ve got a superpower,
but I leave the hero-ing
and the villain-ing
to others.
I simply don’t have enough time
with work and the kids
and my yoga classes,
and besides,
my superpower isn’t all that practical.

I can turn into different animals,
which sounds pretty cool,
but unfortunately, I never seem to
transform into the types of animals
that would be helpful
in saving someone from a burning building
or capturing a bank robber
or foiling a plot to end life as we know it.

Lying on the grass
and staring at the clouds above,
I’ve turned into a slick gray earthworm,
barely escaping the beak
of a giant robin
by burrowing into the black earth
until the danger passes,
my aortic arches pounding.
I don’t even know which end
is supposed to be my ass.

While putting laundry in the dryer
in the basement,
chilly on a winter’s day,
I’ll transform into a centipede
and horrify even myself
as I scurry around the basement
on my impossibly tiny legs.
Again, I can’t tell
which end is my ass.
I scream,
inaudible to you,
because it’s just so hard
when you can’t get anything done.

When I’m in the bath,
I can become a small coelacanth
and swim from one end to the tub
to the other.
Then when I hear a shrill “Mom!”
from the other side of the house,
I’m back to my normal self,
with wrinkled fingers
mousy brown hair dripping wet,
ancient fish thoughts
shifting back to my own.

I rise on pink human feet
that now seem foreign to me,
dry myself off with my pink towel,
call out with a ringing voice,
Then a small voice replies,
“Never mind.”
I turn into a fat green kakapo parrot then,
pacing and slipping on the wet tiled floor,
a small flightless bird
with a perpetual dumbfounded expression.


My time machine shudders to a stop,
and I step outside,
blinded by daylight,
and things look much as they did
before I left,
so I wonder
for a moment,
did it even work?

Then I hear a terrible,
thrilling sound,
a crowd running towards me,
surrounding me in seconds,
Desperate grabbing hands,
lunging towards their prey,
knocking me to the hard pavement,
stepping over and onto my body,
curled into the fetal position.
Then someone,
a young girl,
helps to pull me up,
and I stare for a moment
into her wild widened eyes,
tear-stained, flushed cheeks.
She just looks at me
and starts shrieking again with the others,
pulls away from me,
and runs again with the crowd.
I sit for a moment on the curb
after they pass,
my knees skinned.
I pick gravel out of the palms of my hands.

They press forward,
then surround a black car
that has stopped in the middle of the street.
The wailing intensifies.
Some of them climb on top of the car;
some try to strip the vehicle where it stands.
I wonder what the occupants inside are thinking.
From the shrill din,
I can hear cries of “John! John!”
And “I love you, Paul!”
Police officers appear,
try to press back the crowd,
as a young man 
in a black suit
emerges from the car
with a grin and a wave.
Camera flashes popping,
the crowd swelling
like an unstoppable tidal wave,
the howls turn into a roar.
A girl faints from within the mob,
and a brave officer
wades among them
to carry her limp body away.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Bad News Sonnet

I wonder if you could go back in time,
if you had the power to choose,
that day when you were at your prime,
would you have opted to hear the terrible news

or would you remain blissfully unaware,
your head a foot deep in the sand,
that life is inherently unfair,
nature never guided by a gentle hand?

Wouldn’t you agree
that the worst thing is to have no power
that the door has no golden key,
that there is no bridge leading to the dark tower

and you have no choice but to accept it?
There’s really nothing I can do? Well, shit.


Cassandra was twenty-three,
and she knew everything.
Everything, it was all so clear,
but she was unable to persuade a soul.
Certainly not her parents,
whose only topics of conversation
were money and taxes.
Certainly not her uncle
with his mind
like a rusty bear trap
slammed shut.
Certainly not her aunt,
with her furrowed brow
and shaking hands,
who just wanted to make
everything nice,
Cassandra’s little sister, still
too young to know anything,
believed in fairy princesses,
waved her plastic wand around,
sometimes smacking people in the head
when she cast her spell.
And the middle child,
her brother,
now at sixteen,
some kind of feral animal.
He’d speak only of sports
and the latest superhero movie
and disappear for long stretches
and fought with his parents
over the car,
and maybe soon he’d know everything too,
but for now,
he was moved only by the basest
biological urges.
So Cassandra was alone,
with her sighs and eye rolls.
And her uncle would take the bait
with a sneering mouth,
spitting out flecks of food as he talked,
and after a couple of minutes,
when voices started to be raised,
his wife would lightly touch his arm
and forbid him with her eyes.
Let’s just be nice,
be nice.
But Cassandra had no time
to be nice.
When she dreamt at night,
she saw visions of burning cities
and blasted landscapes,
and starving refugees
while her family sat at the dinner table,
as always,
passing butter and Hawaiian rolls.
The worst part of it all
was there would be no one left
at the end
to whom she could say,
“I told you so.”