The Young Ascetic
by Tamara Madison

When I was seventeen
we moved back to the farm
near the fault line. From my bedroom
I could see the tops of the hills that lay
like stacks of overturned books;
all night I could hear bullfrogs
bleating in the moonlit reservoir.

I had mastered the art of self-discipline.
I exercised every day by walking
and running in the rows of citrus.
I did all my homework on time
and studied for all my tests.
I ate only what was absolutely necessary
and only when my stomach
had stopped its grumbling; I imagined
each bite echoing as it dropped
into my belly’s ravenous pit.
Once every month I had dessert:
one cookie or one scoop of ice cream,
which I would eat slowly, savoring each
touch of my tongue.

After a while people started to say I was too thin.
I looked at the photos and could see
they were right, but looking down at myself
I knew there was still fat to burn. I would look
at women who were slim but not skinny
and wonder how they did it. Sometimes
I would shovel golden raisins into my mouth
and suffer the gassy consequences.

At night I would lie in my bed and watch
the moon rise through my open window.
In spring the flowering trees in the orchard
lit my room with their scent. In the morning
the sun would peer over the pink hills
to wake me. I knew what mistakes to avoid
in the life that was ahead; meanwhile
I would live my days doing everything I felt
was right as I waited, peaceful and whole,
for my real life to begin.

PHOTO: The author’s high school senior photo, age 17.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: I was at the pinnacle of wisdom at age 17. In most ways, I still feel like the person I was then except that when I was 17, I knew what mistakes I would never make. As soon as I was launched into my own life, I proceeded to make all of those very mistakes. My consolation is knowing that, had I not made those mistakes, I would have just made other ones.


Tamara Madison
has been writing ever since she could hold a pen. Her work has appeared in various small press journals in the United States and the United Kingdom, and two of her poems have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. She is the author of the chapbook The Belly Remembers and the poetry collection Wild Domestic (both published by Pearl Editions). Tamara teaches English and French at a public high school in Los Angeles.