[encore] 511: Present Tense

[encore] 511: Present Tense

[encore] 511: Present Tense

This episode was originally released on September 28, 2021.


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

I have spent a long time thinking about what the word “family,” means. I was asked by a stranger once if I had a “family.” I was at a writers conference and she wanted to know if I had a “family” to go back to. At the time, this was deep into my own issues with infertility and I kept thinking of my husband and my dog and of course the answer was, Yes!  I do have a family!  And I have parents and two brothers, a lineage, birds and trees, and why must we limit the word “family” to only ever mean one thing. For as much as I love words. Words can be exhausting.

It seems everyone around me is always talking about the power of words and yet we are often careless with our language. Family is a word that is expansive, undefinable, full of connections that go beyond time, beyond the grave, beyond the future of possibilities. It is about what we choose and our bloodlines. All those things move through us when we think of that word. 

To be human is to be a part of a lineage whether we like it or not. I remember the look on my face when the woman asked me if I had a family. She clearly meant children. She didn’t know that I couldn’t have them. That I would go on to be happily childfree, but she also didn’t know that her question gave me the gift of doubling down on what it means to be interconnected with each other. 

One of the many reasons I love today’s poem is that in the idea of new life there is old life. We think we come into this world alone and yet all around us, signs point to the opposite of our aloneness. Is it strange to point to a bird or a tree and call it family? I think not. We are the present tense of this life and because of that, the past tense runs through us, and the future tense runs through us. That’s the idea of reciprocity, community, and it’s something we so desperately need to recognize right now. Simply to live is to be a part of something bigger than our own needs.

Present Tense
by Maya Pindyck

Today I am my sister’s sister, 
my father’s brow, 
my mother’s squirm,
urging my spirit to light.

I touch my abdomen,
each daughters’ doorway
opened for a few fluorescent minutes
then sewn shut
for good, if not for now.

I remain here,
even when my form bruises, blooms,
or falls away, by way of what it does
or does not say.

Instead of saying It’s getting out of hand
won’t you say I need it in my hand
won’t you say
my hand

—a cardinal startles.
I do not mistake it for another red thing:
the flower on the soup bowl’s bottom
blurred by golden croutons.

With twitch of beak & eye,
the bird returns me to any tree,
a family.

"Present Tense" by Maya Pindyck. Used by permission of the poet.