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Inspired by this year’s 400th anniversary Shakespeare celebrations, #wordswelivein explores the words we encounter every day and the stories they tell about our lives and communities. The initiative comes to life through live events, social media and text-and-image works by writers from around the world.

Find out how to participate in #wordswelivein.

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Barnegat Lighthouse

At the top of the stairs, spiraled as the core of a nautilus,
safe in the iron light cage, I look down the coast
my grandfather guarded, winter, 1942, pacing the sand
with bayonet, or from the watch tower. He fished eels and crabs
out of the Atlantic, “good eatin’,” and human bodies,
“can’t write much of it.” His letters dwell more on hitchhiking:
“the only way to travel,” and handball: “all the rage, eh what?”
He loved to walk this beach after a Nor’easter to see what washed up—
airplane wings, ship beams, two dozen pillows and a dead-man’s-eye,
which he allowed himself, briefly, to write to his mother, “speak of disaster.”

Deadeyes, he later taught me, on another rockbound coast
are used for rigging, and to tension shrouds of sailing ships.
Made from lignum vitae, “wood of life,” wood so dense it sinks in water,
sometimes called ironwood, holy wood, or bastard greenheart.

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In Praise of Brown

In a forest full of bluets, who notices the soil that nourishes their roots, or the dark wings of swallows alighting the branches of ancient camphors? Who examines the snail, or beetle, or budding bamboo?

A survey says only 17% of the world has blue eyes, but yesterday, in Taichung, I met a 94-year old Chinese veteran whose eyes had paled with the passage of time. The backs of his palms were mottled, dusted with age spots, but still surprisingly soft when he grasped mine. When I asked him where in the Mainland he was from, he spoke to me in the dialect of his birth.

Sometimes I explain my mediocre Mandarin to Taiwanese shopkeepers by apologizing for my American birth. My tongue can make the sounds of my mother language, but still I find the words often don’t come, trapped between my head and my throat.

If I told you as a child I fervently wished for my brown eyes to lighten, to transform into beautiful, the color of angels, would you believe how much I love the country of my parents’ birth? In New York, I’ve lied about my love for Asian dramas, afraid my blonde coworkers would never understand. Here in Taiwan, I eat a tea egg, a bowl of beef noodle soup, minced pork over rice: food I once enjoyed in secret.

Today, I helped a heavy-browed Atayal woman pick velvet-headed mushrooms from logs she’d notched by hand. The cicadas whirred a shaded song. I listened.

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Buenos días, Miami

Everything here is from somewhere else: the coffee, the milk, the woman bending over her lunch; even the fresh-cut gold of mango running between her fingers; even the ocean gathering itself and its children from the streets paved with palm fronds and heat. The turtles are not from here; the manatees, the alligators, even the heat is from somewhere else: Puerto Rico, Haiti, Ohio. Dwayne Wade is from somewhere else; Dwayne Johnson, Celia Cruz, Romero Britto. Pitbull was from here, with his 305 anthem, and then he wasn’t. Carl Hiaasen wasn’t. Andy García wasn’t. I wasn’t. And suddenly I was. Now, it seems, I am part of this nation of heat that drives down into the lungs of this magic city every day, storm-sky in the rearview, I ♥ Café Bustelo cortadito sweet with sugarcane steady in the cup-holder of a car I drove down from New York. Here, every morning I shake my head to the man selling limes or guavas or roses beneath the red traffic light. Every afternoon I walk to a little café window for empanadas, one carne, one ham, practicing the rollout of r’s in a language meant for somewhere else. Every night I drive back out of the throat of this city, where even the walls say adios, as if they know I’m not from here, as if they know I am already halfway gone.

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Maybe After

Maybe after all this time, we are still riding the R train.
Instead of the automatic doors, there is only a voice
that says PLEASE KEEP DOOR CLOSED after each stop.
I can see you lying on three seats. I can see your eyes
shiny from the extra shots, so cold and sexy, we had to
drain them with our lips. But where are we going now?
Are we going home, did you leave a book at school, what
are you in the mood for: Szechuan, Pancho’s or pizza?
Maybe that night that didn’t end, still hasn’t ended,
when you dipped like a toad into its hole from my embrace
and hid behind the column on the platform, we stayed
in the subway, at night and underground, and you ran
from me, like a child who knows his real mother, then
you took me, you took me here, to this, our black precipice.

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Because there are handwritten signs that say Strawberries 4 Sale,

Love, I will stop along the road and buy us little hearts to eat.
And if, while driving on Snake Hill Road, there are Fresh Cut
Flowers and Strawberries (again) it will only take a moment
To gather a centerpiece for our table. (We’ll even eat shortcake).
Look, I see CUTE BUNNIES 4 SALE so I’ll stop here too
To get you the cutest one, a little cottontail to feed a carrot to
Every day, unless she too likes strawberries. Everywhere,
Strawberries 4 Sale. Along Windy Tor and Forest Hill Road,
Where summers we visit my parents, only twice we’ve stepped
Foot at an Amish stand. Twice. But lately, I wonder
What it feels like to fly down the long winding road
In a buggy, and waving to the blonde boy in his father’s lap,
He must be wondering the same about us speeding down
The lane, passing him, our faces sweet and sticky and brown.

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Your Other Address

Welcome to your other address, the one where a raven
swoops from a pine, swoops like a pendulum,
no, a swing after a tremendous underdog to impress
the one on the rooftop.

A raven carries a stickand you are free to say nest in any language you choose
without fear the stick will become a spear arcing toward you.
This place also for new and expectant mothers
where running is for joy not flight, and the only wall  
is the chest you put your ear to to hear a child's heartbeat.
You are free to think what you will, ask what you must.
The door is open for any encounter, the light
splintering through glass into hues.

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In Pursuit of Magic

I'll tell my children that Aloe plants
can soothe a fist better than tears.

Some colored girls chase rainbows,
Indian hair, beauty like the last buffalo—
don't follow the herd.

When the grease bubbles put the fish in,
hands get use to the burn— but feed yourself
first, all coconut husks need to be filled.

Some people know how to leave, forget
handprints, cheek-bones like bare shelves,
but others will mold your shine scarlet-gold
so bright it echoes like Cariso music.

There's no sweetness without the brine,
keep searching for mermaid water.