On Empathy

Picture yourself in a house. It is the house you grew up in, only different. Your mother and father are there, only they are young, and they wear smiles you thought existed solely in faded photographs. They look content. You wonder why your mother looks so different; you realize it is that the crows of time, of sorrow, of laughter, of anguish, have not yet treaded their tracks beside her eyes. You want to wonder a second thought — but I am already so tired, and if I am so tired already, how much more will I endure before I become her? — but you are distracted by the pull to explore the rest of this home; your home.

You walk, like a ghost, to your childhood bedroom. The covers on the bed are straight. Your body lays itself down on them, without permission. The air falling in from the window smells of milk and wet firewood. It reminds you of that time your brother took you fishing: your hand was cut by the gill of the fish as you held it and smiled for the camera he had borrowed from his girlfriend; you dropped the fish, watched it flounder on the boat’s floor as your weeping hand was bandaged; meanwhile, the fish swam madly through the air, collecting aluminum specs and dust particles that, when you squinted, looked simply like scales.

You open your eyes. On the ceiling there are faded plastic stars. You remember the green glow they once gave, the young dreams they once magnetized. Now they cling to the ceiling like starfish to wet rocks. Outside, it begins to rain. The air smells like nothing–or maybe you’ve just gotten used to it. You wonder how, in a world so beautiful, any wound could sear for longer than a second.

This is heaven. The red suede couch where you slept on Christmas Eve. A palace of friendly ghosts. Familiar neighborhoods. All of these things melted to warm liquid gold and stirred into the sea of love.

You can go there–to swim, to drink, to remember; you have, in your mind, just gone. You must go there, for this to make sense. This being the world, of course, and all of the miracles and mistakes within it.

The cackle of babies.

The forfeit of love.

Sweet sweat and aching guts and inexplicable heartache.

Botched surgeries, medical miracles, midnight coffee runs.

Prayers sung desperate, like the old-time hopelessness blues.

They are all simply poems in the anthology. And just as a poem is always a poem, no matter its author or age, a day is always a day, no matter the evil it might have hosted. You remember that the magic of poetry — a magic that cannot be denied, even by the most cynical of minds — is, of course, that it is eternal.

Homer. Shakespeare. Frost. Dickinson. Angelou. Poe. Neruda. Plath. Bukowski. You.

Your heart flutters at the sight of it on on pages, scrawled on metro station bathroom doors, scarred on ribcages and etched in minds — it recognizes its native language of beating. The days are poems and the poems are good and the poems are yours.


What I mean to say is: the world is made of sharp and tired things. Buildings moan at the task of standing straight. Secrets, like bricks in walls, ache with the friction of silence. Halfheartedly, sun chases moon, both of them sick of the race but neither willing to fall first. Your heart? It is recycled from stardust–it is a miracle of cosmic consequence. And still, like anything, it begins to wear thin. You are, after all, only human. This is only life.


Picture yourself in a chair. You are at work, and the carpet smells ever so slightly like rancid wine, and the office chatter sounds like an earthquake. Every second, you feel the sensation of falling; beyond that, the sensation that eventually, your feet will grow tired of catching up to the rest of your body. Your stomach is hot; your fingers are cold. You broke your favorite coffee mug this morning. Your father called to say: hello, we miss you, but what is it again that you’re doing with your life? This is your worst day. It is an ugly poem. And still, you file it with the rest. Because you must. Because that is how life works. You are, after all, only living.


It is twenty years from now. You call your daughter to say: hello, I miss you, but what is it ag-

You hang up the phone. You drive two hours to her apartment. The paint on her front door is peeling. You make a mental note: buy paint. You wonder if the color of the door is closest to eggshell, or oatmeal, or ivory. You remind yourself to put these thoughts aside for now. Your knuckles rap the door. Your daughter opens it. Her eyes are wide and bright and full of pain and hope. You see yourself. She does not ask you why you have come. She turns and sits on the couch; leaves a space beside her body for yours.

This is where you rip a poem from your ancient book, and make it hers. You read her a poem of hard times: times of no maps, and no cares, and no love, and no sleep, and no plans. You invite her to heaven: to swim, to weep, to finally understand the nest that Pain has built in her heart. You tell her that she is, after all, only human. This is, after all, only life.


The world is made of sharp and tired things — things that are painful to pass through and heavy to carry with you afterwards. Things you might willingly forget to remember. And they are simply beautiful. There is no other way to truthfully say it: these aches are beautiful, if only because they allow you to better understand the prick of pain; if only because they are the titles of the poems that allow your fellow earth-wanderers to look up from their loads and hear from your lips: I know; me too.

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