The Compassion Anthology

This is a beautiful collection of writing about disasters, refugees, loss. I find it both uplifting and inspiring. I’m honored to have one of my poems included in the latest edition. Please click below:

http://www.compassionanthology.com

https://www.compassionanthology.com/gabriella-brand.html

You might also like to check out the CHARTER FOR COMPASSION with which this anthology is affiliated. This is a document which urges the peoples and religions of the world to embrace the core value of compassion, inspired by Karen Armstrong, the writer and religious scholar.http://www/charterforcompassion.org It is available in thirty languages and embraces forty-five countries around the world.

UNI….a travel story about sea urchins



Stone Bridge Press focuses on Asian-themed literature. I am delighted that my piece entitled "Uni!" was selected for the February 2017 Stone Bridge Café website. Urchin, anyone?  Check it out here: http://stonebridge.com/…og/stone-bridge-cafe-uni

or Read it here:

UNI

The old lady waved to me as I backpacked through her seaside village on my way around Shikoku. She was clearly happy about something she had spotted off the end of the rough wooden pier.

Look over here! There’s uni!” she said, pointing below the surface of the water.

The Seto Sea gently slapped the shore. The water was the color of green tea, with a splash of cerulean. I glanced down, but I saw nothing. She pointed again.

“You eat uni?” she asked, looking into my foreign eyes.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ve never tried it.”

As a walking pilgrim, I was mostly eating in the dining halls of the Buddhist temples where I slept. There was never sea urchin on the menu. I supplemented the temple food with cheap udon, veggies, and plenty of Shikoku’s ubiquitous citrus fruit.

I knew that fresh uni was a beloved Japanese food, a creature prized for its privates – not the roe but the testes…which were reportedly as soft as what? Sweet butter, lemon custard, a baby’s thumb?

“Ah, just wait, chotto matte,” said the old woman as she looked around on the dock for a spear.

I gathered that she was about to procure us some urchin. 

Perhaps she was offering me this delicacy as a form of o-settai, the special gift which Shikoku people bestow on walking pilgrims. I had already met hundreds of residents bearing o-settai, as I made my way along the circular 1200-kilometer route starting at Tokushima. They had come running after me with their blessings and their small presents: hand-crocheted Kleenex holders, ball point pens, hard candies, hard-boiled eggs, oranges, freshly made omigiri.

And now, today, I was being gifted with an opportunity to taste sea urchin. 

My Japanese was hesitant, but my palate was willing. I suddenly remembered an expression from a Japanese textbook. Waku waku shiteiru. I’m excited, I told the old woman. I hoped she could sense my gratitude.

I watched as she creaked to her knees, and then leaned over the water. At her age – she had told me she was almost eighty – her agility was remarkable. I understood that her fisherman husband must have died long ago, leaving her all alone in the little house by the sea.

I started to puff up at the thought of my good fortune. A chance meeting with someone who was kind enough to offer me a Japanese luxury. That’s the kind of thing that happens to real adventurers, I gloated to myself. In the moment, I completely forgot about my goal of being a humble o-henro on a spiritual quest.

The old lady stabbed once and missed. Then stabbed again and whooped like a schoolgirl.

She raised the spear out of the water and showed off the carapaced globe, symmetrically radial and as spiky as a garden teasel.

To arrive at the meaty jewel, she covered her hands in thick rubbery-fabric gloves, and worked slowly, but deftly, like a heart surgeon. 

A lone spine brushed her bare forearm and sliced a thin crimson trough in her skin. She stopped the bleeding with the edge of her apron and kept on working to pull apart the exoskeleton and expose the living treasure.

Mo sugu. Pretty soon,” she said, pulling off her gloves and rushing into her house. 

She returned with soy sauce and a plate. A single plate. Heavy stoneware with a dull finish, chipped on the side. 

Her plate. 

She placed the naked flesh in the center and bathed it in shoyu

“Now you can see how we Japanese eat uni,” she said. 

After a quick itadakimasu, she swallowed, before my very eyes, 

the entire delicacy in one quick mouthful.

 

UNI!

Hurricanes, love, and music

Allegro Poetry is a publication based in the United Kingdom and archived by the British Museum. They published my poem, Houston’s Ark, in their December 2017 issue.

allegropoetryhttps://www.allegropoetry.org/p/issue-15-december-2017.html

I wrote this poem after reading about a Houston man living in a flooded public housing project who was able to save his family piano.

HOUSTON’S ARK

When the river rose, and water came knocking like a stranger,

the family got out, somehow, to higher ground, leaving behind

the second-hand furniture, the neatly-folded clothes, the new

toy elephant, and hardest of all, the old piano. Well-loved, but missing its pedals,

obtained for a song, a while back, from the local church, where the pastor

wanted to see it find a good home. Now, the spinet would be orphaned once again,

abandoned to the flood.

As they were leaving, the man raised a wet fist to the storm, and

cursed the housing project built too close. And he counted his children,

by head and number. Four, four. Thank God, there were still four.

And then the rains stopped.

And the man and his brood returned home, to the place where the windows were now

shattered from the wind, and the bedding and walls were plastered with frog-green scum.

But the old piano had stood its ground, up to its knees in brown liquid, its guts still dry.

And the man, shaken, but safe, sat down to play,

his feet keeping time on the soggy floor, the linoleum squishing.

And all around him the air was damp, stenched, sweaty as an armpit.

And the man released music, like a dove, into the sky,

and it flew out the broken window and circled above the swallowed city,

and the bayous, and it cleansed the muddy places of his heart. And two children

clapped and two children cried, and the man kept playing because he could.

 

 

The Wild Cherry Tree

BioStories.com is a great place for reading memoirs and recollections.

My piece, The Wild Cherry Tree, appears in Volume 7. Number 1. It was also subsequently reprinted in a BioStories anthology, published in 2018.

Read it below:

Mother hated that tree. The messy wild cherries that fell over our bluestone patio, the undisciplined way that the thin branches spread out like unkempt hair, the crookedness of the limbs.

“We should just chop it down,” she’d say every spring, when yellow-white tentacles of blossoms appeared, then gave way to small, pea-sized fruit.

“But it’s beautiful,” I’d say.

“We have other trees,” Mother would insist.

It was the 1950’s. We were living at the time in a historic valley in New Jersey, settled by Dutch colonists in the 17th century, rapidly becoming suburban. Our yard was full of mature maples and oaks, a solid hickory, a couple of weeping willows down by the shallow drainage brook that bordered our property.

In August, when the small reddish-purple cherries ripened, Mother would repeat her threat.

“This year,” she’d say. “We’re going to get rid of that monstrosity.”

Mother liked order. Precision. Cleanliness. Everything that the Prunus Serotia was not.

As the wild cherries fell, the air around the tree would smell slightly sour and fermented, like a child’s lunch bag left behind in a school locker.

 “Couldn’t we eat the cherries?” I once asked.

“Of course not,” said Mother, “They’re barely fit for birds. It’s a totally useless tree.”

I found that hard to believe. The cherries looked perfectly delicious. Besides,wasn’t Mother always talking about how people back in Europe, starving during World War II, had eaten shoe leather and bread made from cellulose? Animal carcasses?  Cats, even.

It was odd that she considered wild cherries to have no value.

But Mother had her firm opinions. I knew better than to try to sway her mind. She could give the impression of being steely or cold, but underneath, she was sensitive and emotional, largely ruled by melancholy, not meanness.

Even as a child, I knew that she struggled with inner ghosts. She was estranged from her far-away family of origin, with its traditional codes of honor and shame. Clearly something had happened, maybe during her childhood. There was the uncle whose name she refused to say, the distant cousin whose letters she destroyed.

Nor did her marriage seem to bring her happiness. Although she tried hard to be a dutiful mid-20th century American homemaker, collecting recipes from Good Housekeeping, decorating the house for Christmas, her heart clearly wasn’t in it.

“I don’t belong here,” she’d say.

But where was here? In suburban America? In the comfortable house with the cherry tree? In the big double bed she shared with my father, although she never spoke of loving him.

“If it weren’t for you kids,” she would say, but she would never finish the sentence.

She had lost one of us. One of her children. A little boy, my baby brother. I vaguely remembered his tiny coffin, fitted with brass handles like two half moons and a smooth satin pillow. Perhaps, because of that loss, she held a personal grudge against the wild cherry tree, so prolific and careless with its bounty.

Fortunately, Mother would always forget about chopping down the tree by the time autumn came around and the leaves had turned a lovely, benign shade of yellow. With the arrival of cold weather and the diminishing light, she would no longer go outside. Like a bear, she would hibernate within the thick walls of the house.

I, on the other hand, loved the outdoors in all kinds of weather, even in the grayness of a late winter afternoon. Out in the fresh air, I could breathe freely and sing silly songs and make snow angels and lie on by back looking up at bare branches creaking in the wind.

In summertime, I remember climbing up that wild cherry tree with a cloth bag slung over my shoulder. The pink bag was supposed to hold ballet shoes, toes shoes actually, the kind with small tufts of rabbit fur inside. A delicate, girly-girly bag, it was. But I preferred using it as a mountaineer’s back pack. I’d twist the bag around, depending on how I needed to maneuver as I climbed. Inside the bag would be a few books, maybe some colored pencils, a sketchpad, and contraband candy such as Necco Wafers or a Bonomo Turkish Taffy. About half-way up the tree, maybe ten feet or so, after scraping my knee against the coarse bark a couple of times, I’d stop and settle into a sort of seat that my older brother had helped me fashion out of hemp lashed between two limbs.

All morning long, I’d keep my nose in the silence of The Betsy-Tacy Stories, but I’d be serenaded by chickadees and warblers. They’d grab the purplish fruit and fly off. Sunlight would dapple the oblong leaves. I’d run my fingers along their fine, serrated edges. The cherry tree was my own cathedral, my sanctuary. Solid, tall, sheltering. Like a protective parent.

Did Mother, burdened with grief and memories, really know where I was? I don’t think so. Back in those days, most kids in small towns were largely unsupervised. When I wasn’t with friends or at summer camp, I left the house after breakfast and showed up at lunch time. I’d take long bike rides by myself, sometimes stopping at the candy store for fresh supplies of  forbidden sweets. Sometimes I’d walk along the brook that bordered our property. But I always made time to sit in the tree, invisible to the rest of the world.

Every day our town blew a whistle at the fire station at twelve noon sharp. The siren would crank up and the German Shepherd who belonged to the neighbors on the other side of the creek would start to howl. That’s how I knew to get down from the tree and show up at the lunch table, wiping the traces of Necco Wafers and wild cherries off my lips. By then I had discovered, through my own experimentation, that the fruit of the Prunus Serotia was perfectly edible.

One night, the year I was eleven, a particularly heavy summer storm blew through our valley. When I woke up in the morning, Mother began talking about storm damage. She had been worried about the brook overflowing and heading towards our house, but now the rain had stopped. I ran outside to explore.

Almost immediately, I saw what was left of my tree.

Lightning had sliced the graceful wild cherry down the middle, leaving a black slash in its wake, like the old movie character, Zorro. Higher limbs had fallen onto lower limbs. Branches had flown off, torpedo-like, across the lawn, and ripe cherries had bombed the patio, like small red grenades.

I came rushing back in, breathless.

“But you didn’t tell me about the tree!” I said. “The wild cherry tree!”

Mother shrugged. “Nature accomplished what I had meant to do years ago.”

I could feel myself on the verge of tears, but I didn’t want Mother to see me crying. I ran back outside and stared in shock at the destruction.

In those days our family had a book called Life’s Picture History of World War II. Black and white photographs of Normandy beaches. Dunkirk. The London Blitz. I sometimes would take down that book and leaf through it. Mother usually discouraged me from staring too long at the wreckage of war.

“It was a horrible time,” she’d say.

Now I knew, even as an eleven year old, that a tree struck by lightning was not in the same league as the bombing of Dresden. I knew that I shouldn’t be crying over a tree. A wild cherry tree was not a human being. The loss of one tree was not the same as the loss of a baby or the devastation of an entire city.  I wiped my tears and went down to the brook to calm myself down.

A couple of men with chainsaws arrived later that day. They clumped around in their heavy work boots and discussed the best way to clean up the heap of ripped greenery and split bark. Then they started cutting until only a stump remained.

Mother and I never talked about the tree. Eventually she planted herbs where the cherry tree had stood, and the smell of mint and tarragon and rosemary seemed to give her pleasure, but it was hard to tell for sure.

A second breakfast….

images

I’m fortunate to have old friends, who have known me through the different stages of my life. I examine one of those cherished friendships in a poem entitled “The Lakeside Diner” which appears in January 2017 issue of Poetry Breakfast.   Check it out at:http://poetrybreakfast.com or read it below:

The Lakeside Diner

The LakeSide Diner, homemade donuts, no lake,

just a pond, slick and thick as the Navy Bean soup

offered as a lunch special with a half grilled cheese on the side.

We greet each other in the parking lot, admire the October

foliage just turning yellow like a old wedding dress,

a few fallen leaves slippery under our sensible shoes.

We take a seat by the window, two old and good friends

meeting in a strange town, equidistant from our current homes,

hungry for news and reassurance that the other still

breathes and lives and reads, but not as much as she used to.

Once, decades past, we watched our little boys

placing gumdrops on the roof of a gingerbread house,

racing toy trucks to the sofa, while we, then as now, and for years in between,

talked about sacred and quiet things.

Today we order scrambled eggs, no butter, tea,

each weighing private matters of digestion,

trying not to stare too long at the other’s face growing wiser by the minute,

preferring at times to look out at the mallards gliding along

the surface of the scummy water

carrying on as if there will be no winter, no ice, no need to fly south.