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.
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.
Last 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.
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.
This 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.
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 branch 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.
Little wonders abound, and in the last week, here are five I experienced:
1. Mothra! On Sunday we found this guy just off the side of our porch, a giant moth (over six inches across) who blended beautifully with the porch siding and ceiling. Sometimes the amazing is in plain sight, life camoflaged in life. Walk softly, and carry a measuring stick.
2. Flower Power: I caught sight of these gorgeous purple coneflowers aka echinacea right outside Plymouth Congregational Church
while strolling around Lawrence with Ken and our friend Stephen Locke. Mostly, we were pausing to listen to the nighthawks dive at dizzying speed while digesting superb Indian food and our lovely time presenting Chasing Weather at the arts center. The flowers grabbed my attention, and how could they not? They were bundling fountains of pink, happy as the day is long, and given that we were just past the summer solstice, the good day was long indeed.
3. My Name in Lights….in a Bathroom: Nothing like some recognition, but what a surprise to find this in the classy bathroom of the Kansas City Sporting (our local soccer team) fancy and friendly conference center. I was there on Friday to give a writing workshop to about 45 advertising professionals taking part in “Gas Can,” the American Advertising Federation Kansas City chapter’s annual conference.
4. A Merchant Ivory Moment: Hanging out with friends, especially handsome ones, and one in a particularly spiffy hat, is a little like being in one of those luscious Room with a View-like films, only with more chiggers. We paused at the end of the woods after trekking around part of the hill to watch the sky, the moon rising just a little to the south of Venus and Jupiter, so close together. Nothing like being outside with friends to talk poetry, the mysteries of life, and tyranny of ticks.
5. Dessert Nirvana: Sometimes when you order
something without understanding what it is, what you get is made of amazement. This dessert, at the end of our Oriental Bistro dinner and Power of Words conference committee meeting, was composed of 80% snowy ice and 20% ecstasy. My friends were as amazed as I was; in turn, I begged them to help me eat it, which
I’m an expert at the pre-exemptive. If a beloved is dying, I’m all over pre-emptive grief. If I anticipate a struggle with someone, I’m processing pre-emptive anger and/or shame (and rehearsing what I’ll say or how I’ll apologize). When it comes to vacations, I’m an ace at enjoying the planning more than the execution. So it’s no wonder that when facing an empty nest sometime in the third week of August, I’m revising the house, starting with my office.
When Natalie moved out, my inner administrative assistant rejoiced to have a place of her own to work, plan and ponder. It seemed that there were only about 10 minutes between taking possession of said office and Daniel moving back in, and taking possession bedroom he shared with Forest. Ten minutes later (or so it seemed), Forest moved out and and into Natalie’s room, and my frilly little office was man-caved. Now that Forest tends to sleep exclusively on the couch (something I don’t understand but have no power to change), and he uses his/Natalie’s/my room as a closet, I decided to reclaim the space. Add to this that Ken’s current/ my old desk is the same height as my art table — so by swapping I could speed swivel in my chair from one to the other. Also, my/Natalie’s old desk better accommodate a big rubber ball that he would rather have as his chair. Desk-swapping is not for the uncaffeinated.
The bulk of the resorting and moving of hundreds of small and big things took about four hours. I fortified myself with cold water, and occasionally ate one of the graham crackers that Ken bought for his mom. Wisely, I started with putting a tiny air-conditioner in the window of the room, then turned it to high because most home renovation projects entail a 96-degree day. Let’s just say there were many things in many drawers, including hundreds of unsorted business receipts, dozens of packets of seeds, flash drives with unknown contents, and too many pencils. There was also a mega army of dust bunnies. The cats sat on high and laughed at me. The dog tried to help.
While the project is not quite done, it’s done enough that I’m studying the walls in the living room and music room/Ken’s office/old kid’s playroom to consider what color they should be. I know life is about to change for the better and for the worse. I’ll rejoice, once Daniel isn’t grazing on all manner of vegetables and tortillas, in finding in the refrigerator exactly what I bought earlier that day to make spinach enchiladas. I’ll feel sad, probably even a little empty at times, to not hear my sons and husband laughing loud at a video involving watermelons and a bb gun. As with any big change, I’ll probably experience emotional weather patterns I couldn’t have anticipated, but in my own way, I’m preparing: one wall, one desk drawer, one struggle to sweep up the dust while the ceiling fan spins it back out again.
On Saturday, we scattered the ashes of Jerry, called the “cremains,” on the prairie with family and close friends. Gathering mid-day on the Akin Prairie — a place Jerry loved intensely — we followed the Kansas Area Watershed (KAW) Council water ritual that Jerry had participated in dozens of times over dozens of years. This ritual, which ends most of our KAW Council gatherings — whether on the prairie Camp Hammond (between Lawrence and Topeka), where we’ve held weekend gatherings every spring since 1982, or beside Castle Rock in Western Kansas or other places we’ve explored — is a way to honor where we’ve traveled, where we’re going, and most of all, where we are. We stand in a circle, begin with chanting three Kaws (kind of like om but to the tune of Kaw), and then each person, as he or she feels moved, can step into the center and offer up a prayer, song, gesture, poem, memory or wish.
Along with what people say or do, we invite everyone to bring water from their travels to pour into the center, and this time, we had the water from Jerry’s travels. Danny found several bottles with water that Jerry had collected from the Southwest, his home state of Minnesota, and within and beyond Kansas. His daughters brought a box containing baggies of his cremains we could scatter right in the center, out in the prairie, or in other places.
The skies danced panoramic of storms to come, and the prairie was alive with blossom and sharply-green grasses. Jerry’s family, superb at both speaking from the heart and self-organizing, instantly started coming into the center, from the oldest to youngest siblings and their families, then his oldest to youngest daughters and their families. Then friends and other family member stepped into the center. One sister invited us to turn to the person next to us and dance for a moment since she had promised Jerry they would go dancing soon when he took a short-lived turn for the better in the final days in the hospital. One of his daughters asked us to open up our arms to the sky as she had seen her father do countless time. Some people told stories, like how he attached a camera to a kite, bringing together two of his passions, to get some aerial photos. One friend sang out the word that speaks to her most of Jerry: sweet.
At the end, many of us scattered ourselves through the prairie to leave some of his ashes or say our own goodbyes. I didn’t realize how incomplete his leaving was last December until I watched his family and friends fan out across the luscious green and blooming prairie, and earlier, right at the end of the circle, how we all called out, “Jerry on the Prairie!” This is where he is, and he’s also right here with us, alive in the stories we told later at the Unitarian Fellowship for a celebration of his life and spirit, the next day on our porch that he built, and for many days to come.
Jerry loved the wind, and as I write this, back on the porch, I’m surrounded by wind, birdsong, frogs are chirping, and one owl just called out, just like the one owl we heard while in the water ritual circle on Saturday, singing to us despite it being the middle of the day. We’re now in the after of Jerry on the prairie, landed in beauty, loss, sweetness, and something beyond mere knowledge that my friend Kat Green wrote so perfectly about in this poem:
Sometimes knowledge is not enough.
Nor is knowing in your bones.
We make our choices.
We live or die.
We scattered Jerry’s ashes at Aiken Prairie,
The crest of a hill by the Aiken family cemetery
but not in it.
We encircled his large family with unfamiliar ritual,