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.

Saved by an Enchilada: Everyday Magic, Day 858

“You were saved by an enchilada,” Kelley said to me the other day. Often profound things we stumble into become the basis for songs we co-write, but this statement landed me here where I tell you, yes, it’s true.

What happened was, the same night I was to make enchiladas, I decided to start transferring all my data from an old computer to new one, which is a lot like a brain transplant but without all the blood, and with plenty more glitches of mysterious nature. I called the computer tech support person, a very kind woman we’ll call Maria who was somewhere in lovely Northern California giving me instructions. “Plug the transfer cable into the USB in each computer,” she said. “Done!” I called back happily only to realize the call dropped. Did I mention I was only hold for 27 minutes before I heard Maria’s voice?

I tried to reach her but had no luck, so I headed to the kitchen to finish sauteeing onions and mushrooms for my self-proclaimed famous spinach enchiladas, which I was making for our friend Doug who miraculously survived an horrendous car accident with his spirit not just intact, but high-voltage shining. I stirred the refried beans into the melted Alma cheddar cheese until Maria called back. Wisely, I shut off the burners and dragged Shay the dog, who would like to make the enchiladas his own way, into my office with me and closed the door.

“I’m so sorry the call dropped. Did you get the computers connected?” Before I could answer, the call dropped again. She called back and gave me her number for when it happened next. We went back to data migration land where all the highways were closed, and the map didn’t match the journey. She had an idea though, and she was about to tell me when the called dropped again. I tried to call back, but couldn’t reach her, so I returned to the enchiladas.

I turned back on the burners, and started mixing everything together with the steamed spinach and salsa into a gloppy and delicious mess. I was about to start rolling the glop into the tortillas when Maria called back. Back to the office with dog and all manner of fire off.

This time, we got five minutes before the called dropped again, and when she called back, she explained something (not a surprise to me by now) was wrong with their phones today. We continued a staccato dialogue of starting one thing, losing the call, getting re-connected, and finding out that what we started wasn’t working. In the end, it was impossible to migrate my documents, music, photos and more with the cord I had (days later, I would discover it was impossible with the cord Maria suggested instead too), and the call dropped another 5 times.

By the time it was over, there were just the enchiladas to attend to, and because I was making them for a friend who had been through such trauma and danger, I had to let go of attending any bitchfest, and instead, sing into those tortillas as I placed them, side by side, in the pan. As I poured shredded cheese and more salsa on the whole of them, I realized how grateful I was to able to escape the virtual world for the real one, which — I know because I made another tray of enchiladas for us too — tastes far better.

Why I’m a Crazy Bitch Sometimes: Everyday Magic, Day 857

I think of myself as a peaceful person occasionally booted off the stage of my life by a crazy bitch who takes everything too personally and speed-walks in circles, planning defenses of attacks by the world not yet (or ever) launched.

In those moments, what runs through my mind and, when I’m not disciplined enough, out my mouth is more than a little appalling, landing me in morasses of guilt over feeling, being, or acting like a crazy bitch while still shouldering whatever triggered the calm, happy woman of me to go to crazy bitch town in the first place. The trigger could be a phrase someone casually says, an angry offspring, an email (oh, the woes of inflammatory screen-based communication!), or a mysterious and persistent physical symptom. Whatever it is, I’m hooked, my inner brat is sure the sky is falling, and somebody ought to be made to pay for it.

“Shenpa,” a Tibetan Buddhist term popularized by Pema Chodron, speaks to that moment when we take the hook, and all hell breaks loose in our little beings. While she speaks to how human this is, and how — instead of catapulting into habitual responses, e.g. going to town on some little or big stuff that we have no control over in most cases — we can remind ourselves that this is a shenpa moment, then, with all the strength we can muster, aim toward a different response or simply not act out at all. That’s all well and good, but for me, the best I can often do (and Pema Chodron says this is a good enough start) is to yell, “shenpa!” while packing the war chest.

Last week was a seven-day crazy shenpa-fueled bitchfest. Maybe  this had to do with the ill-advised timing of buying a new computer and embarking upon what’s known as data migration (moving vast parts of your mind from many sets of file cabinets and laundry baskets) at the same time I decided to paint two-thirds of the interior of the house, Ken was out of town, my son twisted his ankle, and my sleep was constantly ruined by a pouncing cat, a small herd of lightning bugs in the bedroom, and crazy-loud buzz of the dryer at 2 a.m. Maybe all the rain, the peaches I lusted after going bad because they got refrigerator-buried, the approaching space craft to Pluto, karma, bad luck, and something someone in congress did is to blame too. Most likely, there’s no one blame but my own pacing mind, so embroiled in fixing for a fight that it forgets how most of what it’s processing is self-generated.

Throughout the week, as a counterbalance to the big show playing in my mind, I was playing in the background Pema Chodron videos on shenpa in which she discussed how what freaks out us can also free us:

…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This very moment is the perfect teacher, and, lucky for us, it’s with us wherever we are.

To be honest, I rarely want to lean into my inner (and sometimes, god help me, outer) crazy bitch. I would rather banish her to therapy camp in the Adirondacks, telling her to return when she’s realized the futility of her trauma drama ways and is now ready to take up a new craft, like making vanilla-scented candles. Yet I understand how, even when we’re at our most unlovable and even deplorable, there’s something deeply tender about scooping up our crazy bitch, and saying, “I see you and hope you feel better soon.” Then it’s time to listen for what’s really driving the bitch bus which, unlucky at the moment, and lucky for us overall, comes right on time.

 

Pairs of Rattlesnakes, Kayaks, and Beloveds: Everyday Magic, Day 856

Mr. Rattlesnake just hanging in his pillow case (outside of course) before moving to his new home.
Mr. Rattlesnake just hanging in his pillow case (outside of course) before moving to his new home.

It was a weekend of unlikely pairs. First, there was the matter of returning the pair of rattlesnakes our friend Hank caught right against our house a few days ago. The Mr. and Mrs. had  just a little too close for comfort, pretty much on the other side of the wall of our bedroom, and although they were docile, because we wanted to welcome another pair–a pair of kayaks–to that area and didn’t want to accidentally step on rattlesnakes when loading or unloading, something had to give. After Hank drove around with them (contained of course) and housed them (he said Mrs. Rattlesnake rattled whenever he played the piano, but please know she was in a plastic tub with lid the whole time), he and Ken decided to put them back in our area, but far farther from the house.

The wrangling of snakes is not for the weary or timid. As I watched Hank open the tub where Mrs. had been angrily living for a few days, then hold her head gently down with a stick and reach in to grab her around the back of her head, I couldn’t help but scream. A lot. An experienced scientist and snake handler, he lifted her with ease, then dropped her in one of our pillow cases for the trek up the hill with Mr., already in his

Frank and Sandy say goodbye to their kayaks
Frank and Sandy say goodbye to their kayaks

pillow case. Ken, Daniel and Hank went on a great walk to find the perfect place near a rocky outcrop with the kind of habitat the rattlers prefer, and let them loose. They said Mr., a rather laid-back character, went straight into a hole in the ground. Mrs. coiled up and rattled at them until they were out of earshot.

The snakes out of the picture, we turned our attention to picking up the kayaks we were buying from friends Frank and Sandy, an endeavor that turns out to be almost as complicated as relocating rattlesnakes although not nearly as dangerous. After finding out weeks ago the cost of a car carrier, we set out to make our own, or rather Ken did while I drank tea on the porch. It took, as all home projects take, more trips to the hardware store thanIMG_4264 anticipated and a whole lot of “hold this while I hammer the nail” moments. Finally, tied into place on the CRV, we trekked to our friends’ house, and loaded up the kayaks. Let’s just say the tying of the kayaks into place would have earned most eagle scouts advanced badges. Frank and Sandy said goodbye to their old kayak friends, and we said hello.

We also said hello to a new pair, Dave and Marcia, ready to make the leap into marriage after four years of loving one another. It was my first time officially doing the marrying of a couple (I married another couple with my friend, Danny, who was the official Universal Life minister, and I married Courtney and Denise long before marriage equality was a glimpse in our Kansas eyes). We hauled a vase of sunflowers, a whole lot of black-eyed susans, a crystal bowl for a Buddhist water blessing ceremony, and accorded gadgets to make this computer loudly play Mannheim Steamroller’s “Sky” and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Marcia and Dave just before the wedding
Marcia and Dave just before the wedding

At the foot of Wells Overlook tower, we gathered in a crescent, starting with a smudging ceremony once Ken managed to light the sage they brought from their California home and the cedar for their Kansas roots. Their vows shined like a full moon on a summer’s night, full of beauty, steady light, and overwhelming awe in ordinary weather. The wind blew surprise gusts, tossing the little table we set up for wedding ingredients. The shade and sun mingled also, and when it was over, everyone hugged everyone, especially the new pair.

Now I will rest my pair of feet, drink a pair of glasses of water, and feed the pair of insistent cats, and later perhaps dream of kayaks, rattlesnakes, and a pair of beloveds happy in their new homes.

Catching Mr. and Mrs. Rattlesnake Right Now: Everyday Magic, Day 856

P1080333This is a live report: at this moment, just around the corner from where I sit on the screened-in porch, our friend Hank Guarisco, who is an expert at catching snakes (although he’s more of a spider man and one of the leading spider experts in the Midwest), Ken, and Daniel are entrapping a big rattlesnake. Hank is searching through the overgrown grasses, trying to hear the rattling that keeps warning them away. Daniel says, “I am 110% sure I heard the rattlesnake.”

“I think it’s probably somewhat near that hole,” Ken says. “So let’s not grab near that hole,” Daniel says as Hank leans toward it.

Sidney Iowa the cat and I, safely encased in our screened-in porch, watch with great expressions of concern. We are wisely very afraid. This is life in the country sometime.

Now they’re plotting how to catch the snake in the thick grass. “They’re not sticking their hands in there?” I yell out to Daniel. His answer doesn’t reassure me: “They’re getting to that point.”

At this point, I left this computer, ran to where they were, and found Hank holding up a 2-foot-long male rattler. “He’s so beautiful, and I love the way they smell,” Hank told us. My heart almost beat through my chest as Daniel and I took lots of photos while I couldn’t help but scream, “Oh my god” repeatedly.

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The Mrs.

After a few minutes, I returned to my safe spot on the porch, opened this computer again, and listened to Ken and Hank puzzle over what to do with the rattle snake after they put it in a cloth bag. Then I heard: “There’s TWO rattlesnakes!” It had all the urgency of a midwife yelling, “Hold the phone! There’s twins.”

Turns out that when Ken lifted up a long leftover black tube, which would make a great habitat for Mr. Snake, a second snake fell out of the tube. This one was Mrs. Rattlesnake, and boy was she pissed and big too. Hank managed to pick her up with a branchP1080338 and drop her into a plastic bin we had. He explained that because of how big and angry she was, it was best not to grab her around the neck like he did with her mate.

When I saw her, I recognized her. A little over a year ago, I saw her sunning herself a few feet from our deck one fine spring day right beside some of the copper-colored irises in bloom. Beauty and terror, and of course, at the height of spring.

Both snakes caught — one in a sack and another in a plastic bin — the guys spent a lot of time trying to figure out where a good habitat would be for the rattling pair. Turns out that it’s a tough world for rattlesnakes these days, and there’s few good and welcoming habitats for them in our area. “It makes me sad,” Ken says, “to take them away from their home at our place.”

While I want the rattlesnake tribe to thrive too, I’m not so sad about them being further away than actually just on the other side of the wall where I lay my pillow.

Tonight the snakes will hang out at Hang’s house. He assured me that snakes can lie around in bins and sacks for a few days without any problem, and I’ve got to say that each of these beings were fat and happy, at least until homeland removal commenced. In the meantime, Ken and Hank will look for the best rattlesnake refuge in the area so that the Mr. and Mrs. can unfurl and uncoil into new digs.