I turn 35 today. Slipping out the back door of our building in workout shorts and sneakers, I was weighed down with one thing: a copy of Count the Waves, which I had signed for my old boss, mentor, and now friend. She lives on the other side of the National Zoo. When I used to make mail runs for her, I would stop off by the cheetah enclosure en route to the post office. I fired up my iPod to a random album: Old 97's "Fight Songs."
I thought it was a random music choice. But as I paced up the paved hill toward elephants, I remembered the many months I walked through the zoo in the afternoons, pumping my arms to distract from the larger confusions of my life. The life I had dismantled, moving into my little studio; the life I tried to live in Mississippi from afar; the life I wanted to share with someone who was pulling away from me. I should have suspected when he gave me the Old 97's album that February of 2011. Cue the opening lyrics to the closing track, "Valentine":
Heartbreak, old friend, goodbye it's me again
Of late, I've had some thought of movin' in
Of all the many ways a man will lose his home
Well, there ain't none better than the girl who's movin' on
The National Zoo is not the finest or fanciest of institutions. Today, the sloth bear exhibit was bordered with caution tape, and I could not find one working water fountain. But I have always been loyal to this zoo, the way one is loyal to that slightly funky, odorous coffee-shop with the chipped mugs and diffident staff.
The 8.5 ounces of a book was not the only thing weighing me down. Now that these poems are in the real world, I have to explain them. I recorded a radio interview yesterday, and at a few key moments I panicked, Can I create a narrative that honors what the book captures, without exploiting it?
On so many days, the aviary--open until 4:30 PM in winter, 5:45 PM in summer--has been my refuge. After it was closed, I'd wind past the other bird enclosures. The opening poem features a flamingo. The closing poem features a peacock.
I found a wonderful man. I married him. I'm grateful for every moment that has led me here, even the painful ones. I dropped the book off at my friend's place and kept walking, across the Ellington Bridge and back towards what has been home. Tomorrow, we hope to sign a lease on a new place down by the waterfront, in a different quadrant of the city. For the first time in ten years, I will have to find a new refuge. Maybe these next few weeks are not about constructing the perfect, gilded cage. Maybe it is about setting these poems free to fly.