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.
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.
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 place 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).
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.
Roaming around Brooklyn and the city for about five days yields not just astonishing things to behold (two Chinese multi-generational bands jamming in a park where dozens of people play table-top games at high speed in between yelling in Catonese at each other) but also snippets of things people say to each other. Not knowing Catonese or any of the probably 22 other languages hummingbirding past us as we walked, I could only catch these intriguing phrases in English, some of which Ken, Ruth or I may have actually said but most of which we heard:
They’re taking over an area that used to be HORRRRible!
In Dublin, Van B and Van C are far superior to Van A.
I basically made it sound like you’re the only reason the city could sell the company, so you should thank me.
He’s turning into you.
….Or like a passive aggressive British woman.
The thing about her is that I could actually feel her aura vibrating. It was that intense.
The Paris Metro is far superior to this subway.
Waiting for the bathroom is a fucking nightmare at this theater.
I could sell him anything if he’d just answer the phone.
They do the voices really good, but it felt bad anyway. I didn’t get anything out of it but squeaks.
It wasn’t just that the penis was elevated.
They’re great at growing rocks here.
Bagels are for losers.
I loved him but not really.
I’m like the healthiest person on the face of the planet because all I eat is Chinese food, that and some salad.
Person 1: Watch it! Person 2: I don’t have to watch it. You watch it.
The rats all know about the third rail. It’s passed down. It’s in their DNA by now.
Father to 5-year-old daughter: What did you see? Daughter: Money!
The olive oil cake is sublime.
You have to go down to go up.
Don’t open your mouth. The devil is going to trick you.
So I’ll close my mouth now and go find some Chinese food, that or salad.
I spend a lot of time on my calendar, trying to ensure that I’m not putting myself out there too much at the expense of taking care of myself in here (this body, this home, this balance). Yet this year, somehow the convergence of all I scheduled for April eluded me. From February on, once I saw the totality of my over-commitment — 17 gigs — readings, talks, workshops, a keynote involving four flights, 1,400 miles of driving, and 7 states — I felt scared. How would I keep from getting sick and exhausted? Answer: I wouldn’t, and on April 29, I can say, that’s okay. Then again, for a poet and former poet laureate, plus someone who wrote a Holocaust book, April is kind of the bread-and-butter month of freelancing, thanks to the blessed and cursed poetry month designation, and Holocaust remembrance events. I’ve been telling friends that it’s a kind of obstacle course: run fast through the hoop, shimmy down and crawl under the rope, hoist myself up the pole, and go face-first down the water slide into the pool to swim 18 laps. I think running up and down small mountains while balancing an egg on a spoon is also involved. Each time I return from another journey, I high-five everyone I know, then begin re-packing my books, clothes, and notes for the next gig.
Some of us are hard-wired to leap over the cliff without remembering that’s a long way down, and it would have been wise to have packed wings. I’ve long realized that berating myself up for over-committing is a silly endeavor. I suck at beating myself into submission, and I wouldn’t want to give up these confluences of such meaningful work, beautiful stretches of mountains in the fog, loud music to sing to while driving across farmland, or people I get to meet and love in faraway places. In the last month, I’ve read tornado poems in a soulful Minneapolis bookstore to friends, family, online students I was meeting in person for the first time, and a Goddard student I hadn’t seen in years. I’ve laughed hard over gyros with old and new friends in Minnesota, complained about lunch and praised the beauty of the dogwoods while re-uniting with poetry therapy pals in North Carolina, watched spring leap forward in blossom and leaf from the northern to the southern border of Iowa, listened to people living with chronic pain read their powerful poems in Kansas City, and marveled at the dozens of prom-dress-attired couples filling Falls Park in downtown Greenville, SC. I’ve tasted nettle pesto for the first time in a Kansas library right before Stephen Locke and I presented our virtual tornado chase and associated poems and stories. I lucked into a private tour of Jay and Barbara Nelson’s stunning Strecker-Nelson gallery in Manhattan, KS, and just Monday, talked with a WWII veteran and a woman who grew up in Nazi Germany while presenting an Osher talk on Needle in the Bone. There
has been strong tea, too many carbs, occasional yoga, a round of antibiotics, a lot of hot baths, and serious thought about what kind of Spanx to wear. There’s also been an abundance of hugs, tears, deep talks, selfies taken with many a friend, and many manner of reunion or first-time connection. I would want to grow a bit more wiser when it comes to leaving spacious stretches of spring open. Maybe next year, I tell myself, and no matter what happens, even these blossom-weighted days and too-short nights have their gifts.
If 2014 was a mouse, I’d let my cats kill it, and then I would, like I do with all their usual triumphs, pick it up by the tip of its tail and fling it out into the cold, dark night. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s not any kind of mammal, but just another bundle of time nearing its expiration point. Yet when I think about this year, I land on wocrisis, near-miss, loss, death, outrage, fear, and the most challenging word of all, change.
In the last year, many family and friends experienced game-changing crises, catalyzing moves home or away, job changes, long stays in hospital rooms or short stints in triage, and a whole lot of funerals. Some of the changes or deaths were slow, full of healing, grace, pain, and release. Some were sudden and shocking. Some were utterly surprising although, in retrospect, we should have been it coming.
In my life, I’ve been slogging through the potholes of grief in the last few weeks since my friend Jerry died, and earlier this fall, six people I was a little or a little more close to left the planet. Last spring, there was a heart-shaking showdown between the union and management in my workplace, fueling a binge of insomnia for me. Some of my three children underwent big shifts in jobs, homes, relationships. My mother-in-law has been in the hospital for much of December, and the tunnel through heart issues to greater health and longer life is still very much in play. Some organizations I’m very involved in needed to rescued from the brink. And I’ve tried to be present for dear ones going through some of life’s most excruciating passages.
I’ve also had more than my share of blessing, whimsy, and laughter, including breaking my toilet, delighting in three books coming out, working in discernment and love with students at Goddard College and in workshops, and witnessing great unfoldings of beauty — in the skies, in the faces of people I meet, in the eyes of cats, dogs, and humans. I’ve traveled through Kansas and to Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Michigan (for the first time), Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, and three times to the Twin Cities and back. I’ve gotten too many colds and have eaten too few dark, leafy greens. I dragged a cedar tree into the house and strung it up with lights, capping it with a decorative squirrel. I’ve cleaned the house about 41 times, and even scrubbed the laundry room once. I’ve made and consumed a lot of enchiladas, and taken many naps with cats on my chest. I’ve read some great books, including many of the novels of Ann Patchett and Amy Bloom, and also surely gotten enough sleep, one way or another. I swam many laps, walked many miles, sat many hours on my ass, and pushed/relaxed myself into deeper downward dogs. I’ve also watched a whole lof to movies, aiming for inspiration, laughs (even when wedded to stupidity), and charm.
There’s no way for me to encapsulate any year, particularly this one, which often defied any single word, sentence or paragraph. So often, I’ve felt like I was climbing a roller coaster, and then holding my stomach for dear life as we plummeted down at high speed. What echoes and winds through all of it? Music, even if mostly of the wind. Attention, even and especially at the moments so hard there’s nothing left to do but focus on the immediate. Tenderness, which I keep finding trumps all else when the chips are the down, the storm is upon us, and the pain makes us want to jump out of our skin.
I come back to how the way we treat each other — no matter what is happening and particularly when it’s painful, confusing, and scary — is what matters most. We pay attention, which means listening enough to hear the music of the moment. Then we open our arms, even to whatever a year has been, and with hope, to the next year’s story.
Driving home from teaching Curvy Yoga tonight, I was delighted by the flashes to the north and south. A parade of storms was circling its wagons. Because I love a good storm (good thing too, considering I live in Kansas), I drove foot loose and carefree, despite Wagner’s dramatic “Tannhauser” blaring dramatic build-up on the radio. Barely to the southern edge of Lawrence, Ken called: a blinding rain was here, and I would be driving right into it. I told him it was dry where I was but he assured me that the road to our house, just three miles away, was barely visible for him a moment ago.
There’s nothing like listening to Wagner while lightning illuminates a vast, dark grey monster you’re driving right into at highway speeds. I was surprised at how quickly (in a flash, so to speak) my happy storm anticipation turned into wheel-gripping apprehension. By the time I turned onto our road, I realized I was in a lucky pocket, arriving between waves, skirting the fingers of intense downpour.
Now, some hours later, I’m writing in the dark while big wind pours across the land, the rain sheets down, and rapid-fire lightning powers from all sides. The weather radio makes it buzzing sound to say something is upon us. The dog in the back room, the one with few windows and my sleeping son, claws anxiously at the door. The cats rumble across the living room floor, attacking each other and then forgetting their attack in the hunt for another hair tie to kill.
Usually, Ken is out of bed, checking radar for any hook-shaped blotches threatening tornado or hail, but this time it’s me, occasionally pausing to run to the porch and feel the wind, watch the soft gray edges of the traveling clouds, and listen to tens of thousands of raindrops make ground fall. The storm of the storm, unlike the storm before the storm, is the real thing. As I wrote in one poem in Stephen Locke’s and my book, Chasing Weather, you’ve got to respect that.
Respect the Storm of the Storm
Watch like your life depends on it.
The first wave pushes the blackbirds
over the seam of the darkening west.
Uplifting wind multiplies and divides the world.
Flags tatter themselves in its speed. Then sirens.
From the overhang of your porch, wait
for the imprint of lightning to open your eyes.
Surrender to the wide yawning of thunder, the tendrils
trailing the supercell, and the one sweet songbird
at once unaware and aware. Follow
the storm of the storm, not the storm you expect.
When the rotation makes landfall, go inside swiftly.
Rush the stairs to the basement, grabbing the small cat
and photo albums on the way. Call the neighbors
from the crawl space. Press the anxious dog to your chest.
Turn up the weather radio and let the tone of danger
vibrate through your beating heart.
Obey the hunter you once were thousands of years ago.
Usually summer aims me west, the direction any self-respecting Kansan wants to go when the temperatures heads for the hinterlands of triple digits. This summer was a northerning thing instead with three trips to the Twin Cities (visit our daughter, help her move, and attend a newphew’s wedding), a lovely vacation in the northern pinky tip of Michigan (to see a friend), and the usual airport-infested trek to Vermont and back to teach. Whatever the reasons, it seems I as just getting back from one northern catapult when it was time to pack (or just not completely unpack from the last trip) for the next one.
There’s a lot to said for getting in a tiny car early in the morning, guzzling ice coffee, and driving from 90-something degrees to less than 80 degrees. Just that shift in temperature can shift perspective, not to mention what’s blossoming up yonder that thoroughly finished its gig here months before. I inhaled lilac in June in Michigan and July in Minnesota after lamenting it finishing in Kansas by late April. There’s nothing like a little travel to scramble seasonal markers and wake me up to how much “whatever is” isn’t necessarily so. Of course, there’s also the Twilight Zone restaurants in Northern Missouri or Iowa we have a talent for finding, but that’s another story.
Cooler bouts of air also meant wearing pants frequently all summer instead of shorts. I’ve lived many Kansas summers when slipping my legs into jeans in September felt positively exotic.
Mostly though, all this northerning brought me face to face woods and water. Everywhere I traveled, I inhaled the smell of pine and glimpsed (or waded hesitantly into) clear water.
The lakes of Minnesota spill out across the landscape and throughout the cities. A few weeks ago, as Ken and I walked a Minneapolis neighborhood, we happened upon one lake (Lake of the Isles), that seemed a pond until we turned a corner.
The northern climes of Michigan are surrounded of course by Lake Michigan, which I hadn’t really seen up-close before with its Caribbean blue of the turquoise water, the jewel tones everywhere. Having spent some time with Lake Superior, which is a living being that changes pastel tones all day, I was surprised by the different look of this lake. I wasn’t so surprised by the crazy cold of the water though, and only made it in up to my knees (although I did swim in a cold and white-capped pond later on).
In Vermont, I spent a day hugging the shore of Lake Champlain, one of the loveliest places I know with the Adironacks to the west and Green Mountains to the west. The wind is always big there, and I slept in a darkness interrupted by the heartbeat flash of a lighthouse. I also swam daily in this pond surrounded by woods and sky, and often shiveringly cold. Even when well-immersed and swimming for a while, I could skirt pockets of deep cold from the depths.
Back home, my northerning ways come full circle. The fog that enveloped the world this morning, the cool and damp air, and the recent rain bring me back and forward at once. The lakes around here are muddy and surrounded by a protective army of chiggers. The pine I inhale is only from an essential oil. I’m happy to be finished, for a while at least, with propelling myself north. As for that desire to get on I-70 and drive a long way west, I tell myself next summer can be for westerning again.