Three Rattlesnakes and Three Kids Gone: Everyday Magic, Day 865

FullSizeRender“You’ve removed three kids and three rattlesnakes from the house as of this week,” a friend said although at least one of the kids managed to remove himself (the one with a car), and we can’t take credit for physically removing the rattlers (Hank did the snake-catching). I also don’t want to imply that our kids were like rattlesnakes: true, some of them ate whatever they encountered, but none of them, thank heavens, had fangs and venom (although there was certainly excessive rattling over the years).

On one hand, all is good. My heart is full and calm this morning as a hidden pond as I sit on the porch surrounded by soft rain, cats and a dog lounging on the furniture, and piercing bird song. On the other hand, Ken and I now have some reason (translation: three rattlesnakes) to think there may be more rattlers just outside our bedroom window. Plus, from past releases and re-catches of our offspring, I know how fast we can get into a groove of living with three or four, and then, voila! It’s Thanksgiving, and there’s five again, which is wonderful, but also ruffles the water of the pond.

Still, this is a moment. I feel a little safer knowing the rattlersnake in the kayak is gone. I feel a little unsafer knowing all my kids are walking, driving or being driven, and making choices in the arduous sea the world beyond home. May they be safe, and may all the rattlesnakes living too close to houses (for the comfort of humans) find new safe ground.

See Hank catch the third rattle snake here:

Predictably Crazy in Unpredictable Ways as the Nest Empties: Everyday Magic, Day 864

Daniel showing us the native prairie plant greenhouse on his last day of work there.
Daniel showing us the native prairie plant greenhouse on his last day of work there.

I knew this was coming, but sometimes knowledge isn’t as useful as we wish it was. This week, within two days, Ken and I go from people who have lived with their kids in varying configurations for 26 years to empty-nesters. On Aug. 18, Daniel moves out to begin his masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. On Aug. 20, Forest moves out to immerse himself in journalism school at the University of Kansas.

From past bouts of grief-crazy nest-emptying I’ve learned how much being a parent means being an animal connected to another animal. Eight years ago, I cried on and off most of the way home from Newton, KS, where we left Daniel to begin college, and for the next week, found myself curling up in his bed and sobbing in between opening the fridge with great joy that all the groceries I bought were still there. Five years ago, I did it again, this time driving Natalie on my own to the Twin Cities. While she attended vibrant orientations at her college, I multi-tasked: I cried hysterically and got lost all over St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Now, just back from Vermont, I’ve landed at home in the middle of mayhem, laundry, and the dance of desks. Turns out the massive, oak desk a friend gave Daniel fit into my car (which involved unbolting seats) but wouldn’t fit into his, so yesterday, we moved that surely-heavier-than-a-refrigerator desk into Ken’s office, Ken’s desk onto the porch where it quickly found a home with a friend, and Ken’s grandpa’s old green metal desk into Daniel’s car. Meanwhile, there were hundreds of t-shirts to fold while sorting things into staging area #1 (Daniel’s), and staging area #2 (Forest’s).

When I’m not doing such things, I feel lost and confused. Today as I drove to meet Kelley for pizza, I wondered what I would eat because I wasn’t the least bit hungry. Half an hour later, I had eaten most of the pizza we were sharing, plus dessert, and I could have kept eating, all sensors broken on what’s enough or too much. Later, I took too much time picking out laundry detergent for Forest and ended up missing yoga class. I froze in an aisle of Target, wondering what to do. Go home and pack more for Daniel? Clean the basement and re-arrange all the furniture? Drive to that frozen custard place at high speed? Take a nap?

I couldn’t tell so I aimed myself to a thrift store, where a man in the next aisle sang out to me, “I am standing in the middle of the field of mystery.” I wanted to sing back that I was standing in such a field too, but it turned out he wanted my opinion on whether an embroidered foot stool was worth $10, and the last thing I could do was conjure up an opinion. I gathered the flannel pajama pants I found for Forest, but fled the store after finding that a woman in line in front of me had at least 50 items in her shopping cart.

Forest in front of staging area #2 (his stuff)
Forest in front of staging area #2 (his stuff)

Instead, I made myself go do something physical, which seems like the only sensible thing to decide when a person can’t decide anything, and in 20 minutes, I was in the pool swimming laps. I wish I could say the motion and water calmed my ramped-up mind, but it was more that my ramped-up mind found a great rhythm for keeping its pace while I swam. What was I thinking about? How to pack Daniel’s car, which I just did, playing to my strength of squeezing too much stuff in too little space. I delighted in piecing a down comforter into a tiny space between a toolbox, violin, and computer speakers.

Now that Daniel is ready to roll first thing tomorrow morning, I’ll be aiming my attention to staging area #2 in between bumping into myself coming and going, all the time pacing, swimming, packing, hauling, and standing around very confused, sad, excited, stunned and perhaps even joyful in a field of mystery.

A Perfect Travel Day: Everyday Magic, Day 863

Goodbye, Vermont!
Goodbye, Vermont!

I travel a lot. Consequently, a lot of things that go could go wrong do go wrong: three-day stints  flying from Vermont to Kansas City; cancelled flights or long delays; truly awful airport food served in restaurants blasting the kind of hard metal music that makes me work off a past lifetime of bad behavior; and a whole lot of caffeinated-to-a-fault anxieties over how much in this world is beyond my control.

Rarely, everything goes right, and yesterday was such a day. Although I was so tired, I worried about staying awake during those intervals when a traveler needs to be alert, I found my propensity for 8-15 minute power naps fit well in the nooks and crannies of having the taxi take me from Goddard to the airport, falling asleep on plane #1, and falling asleep twice on plane #2.

My awake time yielded ample magic, beginning with waiting to go through security. “That’s an unusual way to spell ‘Caryn,'” the security person said to the woman in front of me. Soon she and I were comparing driver’s licenses to see that both of us spelled our name with a C and a Y. Given that I’ve met less than a handful of people my whole life that spelled their name like I do, I took it was a sign of good will from the universe that this Caryn was right next to me.

Then, as I was walking to where my plane to Philadelphia boarded, I thought I saw Bernie Sanders, IMG_4725sitting alone and waiting. No, I told myself, it just must be a guy who looks like Bernie Sanders but after seeing several people, mostly young people, walk up to him and shake his hand, I bolted over just as Jane, his wife who started as interim president of Goddard when I started teaching there, appeared. She remembered me, we caught up a bit, and I even got my picture with Bernie. On the plane, it turns out that Bernie was in the seat in front of me flying in coach, no entourage, working on a speech he had hand-written, smiling at the airline attendant, and even helping a woman with her suitcase when we disembarked. I ended up having another conversation with him and Jane, and found out they were flying to Minneapolis so Bernie could, as one would expect, go to Iowa. “Come on, Bern, the gate is this way,” Jane said as we wished each other well after Jane talked about how Goddard was her beloved alma mater.

Next was the challenge of getting just the right lunch in limited time before the longer plane ride to Kansas City. I have failed this challenge many times, ending up with sometime too greasy or tasteless or rushed. This time I paused in front of Legal Seafood and let my eyes land on “lobster roll.” Expensive? Yes, but given the abundance of charm already (a Caryn, a Bernie!), I told myself not to think and just to order. On the plane, when I opened the box, I was delighted to find an exquisitely overflowing lobster roll, some fries, and coleslaw.

The flight went without a hitch, yet when I landed, I found out Ken was stuck in traffic on I-70. No matter, I went to wait at baggage claim, grabbing Jerry’s (now my) suitcase before pausing at the Starbucks to get an iced green tea. Stepping outside into the 80-something degree day (not 90-something, another gift), I sipped my delicious tea, looked to my left, and there was Ken pulling up.

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Hello, Lawrence!

Once back in Lawrence, I stepped through another set of doors, to our marvelous good co-op, the Merc, where I settled my way toward home by putting a lot of ripe peaces into a bag and doing other shopping before the rest of the way home to happy cats, an ecstatic dog, smiling sons, and a house not a complete wreck after being left to very busy men and very active animals for 13 days. Now I’m home with nothing to complain about when it comes to getting from point A to point B, and that’s about as perfect as travel gets.

Travels with Jerry: Everyday Magic, Day 862

Ready for another trip with Jerry's suitcase
Ready for another trip with Jerry’s suitcase

Since my sweet and dear friend Jerry died 12/13/14, I’ve been traveling with just a bit of him. No, not his ashes — a small baggie of those are on my shelf next to his picture, to be scattered in the field near our house that he loved at right time (and after chigger season). It’s one of his suitcases, which I’ve been packing my stuff in and out for its excursions to Vermont (twice), Minnesota (twice), Iowa, Missouri, both Carolinas,  all over Kansas. and the far reaches of West Texas.

The dark green suitcase with the rainbow yarn tied on the handle has been to 13 presentations of Chasing Weather, my book of poetry with weather chaser/photographer Stephen Locke, and also the last book Jerry bought at the last place I saw him a month before his death. It’s rattled in the backseat of a rental car zooming from the Davis Mountains in West Texas over the ridge into beautiful Alpine, TX, and eventually, along the Rio Grande during one of the best wildflower seasons in decades on our way to Big Bend. It sat without complaint in the passenger seat beside me as I drove through South Carolina to North Carolina to the poetry therapy conference. It’s been checked in on planes or stuffed into overhead compartments. It’s rested on luxury hotel beds and cardboard-like motel beds while I rifled through it, looking for my toothbrush. It’s reclined happily in the backseat on the way home from Minnesota in April, leaving the snow for the lilac weather, and it’s never fussed at being overpacked or zipped too fast or accidentally knocked down a flight of stairs.

Jerry, your suitcase made it through baggage again!
Jerry, your suitcase made it through baggage again!

Every time I see that suitcase, especially the rainbow yard, I can’t help but think of Jerry, and wonder if he would enjoy the adventure of the day — climbing a long trail through the Chihuahuan desert mountains in Texas, eating a large amount of hummus and gyro meat with some of his family in Minnesota, or wandering the streets of Montpelier, Vermont to marvel at lilies in bloom.

The sad part is the obvious: it’s just a suitcase, and not Jerry himself who is who-knows-where. Sometimes, like all of us who love a lost one, I just miss him. But it feels good to touch the yarn he strung together and tied into the handle, and to think of the found places where this talisman of his has traveled, me in tow.

Ken Irby, Rest (Travel, Drink, Read and Write) in Peace: Everyday Magic, Day 861

IrbybyRobertAmoryLast night, unusually cool and refreshing for this time of year, I drove home late in the dark, remembering another such summer night over 25 years ago. My husband Ken and I were hamboing — a  Swedish couple’s dance more akin to flying than waltzing — across the Meadowbrook apartments parking lot while Ken Irby clapped his hands together, calling out, “Marvelous!” We were in the middle of one of those sublime Ken Irby evenings back then when we would go to his apartment, partake of a perfectly-prepared roast chicken, some wicked dessert, and for those who drank, too much wine and after-dinner sherry while talking of books and poets, adventures and more books. Somehow the topic of folkdancing, which Ken and I do, came up, and I said something about the miraculous hambo. Not having room between the roving stacks of books in Ken’s small apartment, we took to the parking lot.

Last night I got to join some of Ken’s closest friends, some of whom have been devoting themselves to his health and comfort over many months of illness, in a hospital intensive care room. I walked in to find Robert reading a passage from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (the 1855 edition, which surely would have mattered to Ken), on Joe’s cell phone, and I soon caught on that we were passing the phone around, each reading a passage, nine of us in a semi-circle around Ken. Whitman never sounded so strong, meaningful or relevant to me before although I’m a long-time fan. Hearing this poetry in different voices brought it thoroughly alive as we watched Ken raggedly breath, his pulse and heart rate slowly dropping on the monitor.

Ken and I met when I was assigned to his basement office in the bowels of Wescoe (before it was renovated) on the KU campus in 1986. A new teaching assistant in English, I was thrilled to know I would be sharing an office with a “famous poet” as well as another office mate. I was also told Ken could be difficult. But that difficulty wasn’t such an issue as long as I didn’t contest him using 80% of the bookshelves and file cabinets for hundreds of book he had out from the library on long-term loan based on the premise that who could possibly appreciate these books more than him?

Our third office mate changed regularly, beginning with a quiet, religious, sports-minded, weightlifter from Texas, who, upon meeting us, said, “You can tell a lot about a man by how he fills out his shirt.” Other office mates rotating through until our last, and best one, Andrew, who had a crazy enough sense of humor to match ours, and also supported me when I complained about Ken.

There was a lot to complain about: Ken was arrogant, self-absorbed, and haughty. He regularly favored men over women, sometimes humiliated women poets in public, and got belligerent when he drank too much (which he did often). As one of my friends, and a fellow women poet, and I recently agreed, he could be a fucking jerk, but he was our fucking jerk.  In ten years of rooming with him, he never read my poetry, and he was even less enthusiastic about my growing family. As he held court with his students, talking enthusiastically about Duncan or Whitman, he rolled his eyes at me when he saw me nursing an infant with one arm while grading papers with another. When I told Ken was pregnant with my third child, he raised his eyebrows, sighed dramatically, and with his deep velvet voice, yelled out, “Not again, Caryn!”

We actually had a blast together co-habitating in an 8′ by 8′ space, packed with three desks, three file cabinets, and a whole lot of shelves. We shared every ounce of English department gossip, tended to love and hate the same people, and were easily outraged on each other’s account. If someone did me wrong, Ken properly trashed them with his acute verbal speed and expansive vocabulary. We puzzled over the quandary of teaching, celebrated the students we liked best, and wondered what happened to the ones who went astray. We praised Rilke, who we both loved, and Ken made it a point to give me Rilke poetry on my birthday, because Rilke and I share the same birthday. In fact, Ken knew every famous poet’s birthday, and commemorated it. We talked Kansas up one side and down another, Ken frequently telling stories about Fort Scott, where he grew up. In readings we participated in over many years, Ken read from his poems, so strong, it seemed they always existed in some form. He also knew literature in such great and vibrant nuance and depth that he could (and did!) talk at length about most dead or living writers I mentioned, which was particularly helpful for me when I was studying for my comps. Over the years in that office, and the many more years since then, we updated each other on children — my kids, and his very beloved brother’s children — and caught up on people we knew, travels, and what he had been reading lately. Whatever Ken was, he was never boring.

Reading Whitman to Ken last night, I realized — as we all realize in those last moments with dear ones — that in the end, only love matters. Here this dear, complicated, paradoxical man, poet (read this homage to visitors from the farthest star), Kansan, teacher, and friend was dying, surrounded by poetry. Although we switched from Whitman to Rilke before we got to this passage from Leaves of Grass, I believe these lines speak perfectly to the Ken I knew. May he sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the next world, our affection for him trailing behind.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The Melancholy Before Leaving: Everyday Magic, Day 860

Nothing like packing a suitcase to make me wish that suitcase wasn’t leaving the house. That pre-trip sadness, lyrical enough to be deemed melancholy, even when going some place exciting (meaning: less than 96 degrees and 90% humidity), always snags me as I walk through rooms, collecting what goes into the suitcase. It also feels like packing for time travel as I journey ahead into what Vermonters call summer and Kansans call early fall. But I realize it isn’t the time travel that jars me; it’s the simple separation of self from home.

I was comparing variations of this melancholia with my friend Kelley, who just left today for almost two weeks on tour, singing with all her heart and soul from Colorado to British Columbia. For me, the music is far quieter, mostly having to do with trying to facilitate some harmony from multiple voices gathered from all over the country for the Goddard Graduate Institute residency. This is a different kind of Goddard immersion for me because I’m acting program director of the institute for six months while my boss is on leave, which has the domino effect of putting me on leave from teaching students directly after doing so every semester since 1986. While I’m definitely feeling the heightened whatevers catalyzed by this job, mostly manifest in popping out of my hole in the ground with great alertness every morning to behold the dozens of emails needing immediately attention, I’m also facing my usual oh-is-it-almost-time-to-leave-again blues. At the same time, I love going to Vermont (who wouldn’t?), which is kind of a satellite home for me.

Yet these are minor blues, more the sky blue of summer that will wheel me back to Kansas in mid-August, where the heat will welcome me with open (and sweaty) arms. Then I’ll unpack the suitcase I’m packing today, putting long pants and light jackets away until the season I’m traveling to catches up with me in late September, all the time delighted to be reunited with the mother ship of home.

A Town That Changed My Life: Everyday Magic, Day 859

With old friends, from left, Steve, Dave, and John
With old friends, from left, Steve, Dave, and John

There was a moment in 1981 when I was driving from Columbia, Missouri to Kansas City, where I had just gotten fired from my first job out of college, crying so hard that I could hardly see the road. My friend had given me a key to the now-gone anarchist house, where I vowed I would move as soon as I packed up my KC apartment. As she gave me the key, she said, “You’re not coming back.” I told her she was wrong, but as I was driving and crying, I realized she was right although I couldn’t say why. Sometimes a single moment, informed by a compulsion that doesn’t make sense, can change your life just in the way coming to Columbia in the first place changed mine.

In 1979, having mostly finished a community college degree, I got on a plane with my friend Kathy, our combined 11 pieces of luggage, and no idea where I was going. Having grown up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, I didn’t know from the Midwest. Over 17 hours later — a blizzard, several delays, a flight to St. Louis, and a long bus ride in the middle of the night — I arrived in Columbia. It was dark, the streets were piled high with fresh snow, and it was crazy cold.

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First and only dorm I lived in

I didn’t know then that when I woke up, the next day and many others to come, that I was waking up to a very different direction for my life than what my 19-year-old mind had diligently planned (get journalism degree, return to NJ, live near the beach, be reporter, marry boyfriend, write poetry). In fact, the only part of the equation that stuck was the poetry.

What Columbia gave me, most of all, was gumption. I learned — by necessity at breakneck speed after my father retroactively cut off my college tuition — how to support myself and aim toward where I was led rather than the conventional wisdom at the time (as in, “Write poetry? Better become a journalist”). During my two and half years there, I worked as a Dairy Queen parfait maker and floor scrubber, movie theater concessions pusher, mom-and-pop store cashier, reader for a legally blind woman, and night-shift newspaper shuffler (catching newspapers off the conveyor belt, and shuffling their sections together).

I also worked somewhat at school although I didn’t make going to all my classes the habit it should have been. After my meeting a diet-coke-swizzling mentor, historian Dave Thelen, who told me, “You don’t belong in journalism school. They’ll ruin you!”, I added history as a second major, which became my only major after the J-school booted me out. Mostly, I majored in grassroots organizing, working with labor-friendly student groups with silly plans (“let’s organize all the secretaries on campus!”) but earnest intentions. What I was learning about broadcasting and newspaper writing in my journalism classes was very helpful for making flyers, press releases, and even, on fabled (and still going strong) community radio station KOPN, doing a socialist radio show, “Saturday’s Children (Must Work for a Living)” with the now-editor of In These Times (our theme song was “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins). Most of my free time was driven by trying to get myself loved in all the wrong ways, attempting to appear cooler than I was, and riding bikes in the rain at night with bunches of anarchists before splitting tubs of ice cream on the lawn of the V.A. hospital.

Columbia was my town, the IMG_4339place I felt increasingly like myself, and where I wandered at any hour in the night with a sense of freedom and friendliness. As Ken and I walked in the sweltering night (“200% humidity,” I told Ken, who later showed me how it was only 84%), I led us on a treasure hunt to find the places I loved. We stopped at the Heidelberg, where I tried my luck at being cynical with the other J-school students, and also partied with Spyro Gyra after their concert at MU (they were young, we were young). There was the corner where Shakespeare’s Pizza used to be; the now-defunct Chez Coffeehouse, where I volunteered by mixing coffee with hot chocolate for patrons while listening to Papa Joe, aka Joe Newberry; the ancient pin oak I hugged after my friend Gayle died from treatment for leukemia; and the Wilson Street house where I lived with Kathy and six other women (we told people it was the Feel My Thigh sorority), subsisting on Ramen noodles, cheap beer, and potatoes. The next morning, we found the dorm where I lived for six months with a lovely woman from a born-again Christian family, then the bungalow where I lived for a year, badly choosing to make the back sleeping porch my room (no heat in winter, so I ended up spending months on the floor of my roommate Gary’s room). IMG_4366

I also found my people in Columbia, and this week, I reunited with three of them: I hadn’t seen John in a mere 26 or so years, and Dave and Steve for over 34 years, but lost time didn’t matter. We ate breakfast burritos, shared orange-apple-grapefruit juice, and reminded each other of “the time that…” and “well, no one wore clothes then” stories in between passing phones around to show off grown kids.

Driving home, I asked myself why I hadn’t been back more, considering Columbia is just a 3-hour drive east, but then again, as with most Kansan-naturalized folks, I’m oriented to heading west. At least, I was until this weekend. Now with plans to reconnect there and go on adventures (“Let’s go to Yosemite! Let’s go see the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska in March! Let’s check out the Flint Hills!”), I’m home — in Lawrence, the other town that changed my life — with an unpacked suitcase and fully-packed heart, ready to return.