Yesterday, I jumped into the Gulf of Mexico in my clothes because it was there, the water was shining and warm, and occasionally I’m no fool. Today, I waded into the Atlantic Ocean, this time with in a bathing suit thanks to my mom reminding me I might want a towel (which made me remember that the swimsuit is also a nifty idea).
Living in Kansas, where both swimming in salt water, let alone oceans, and seeing dolphins (which I saw both days) is usually something only accomplished through lucky dreamed sleep, I didn’t want to let all that seawater slip away from my skin, let alone the wild and swift rolling surface. Today, Ken and I were slammed by wave after wave coming up behind me. Sometimes we jumped in time, sometimes the rush of salt water soaked our heads at high speed. Whatever the case, I felt more than my body lifting toward shore and pulled back out by the undertow. Although I could be bias from having grown up near the shore — close to Coney Island in Brooklyn, and later the Jersey shore — I believe our beings have evolved with a yearning to home in when it comes to large bodies of water.
Such bodies also help me remember my own in the literal meaning of remember: to bring back together our extending-outward members (legs, arms) to the oneness we are individually, and in the case of breathing, swimming, or otherwise interacting with the world, the oneness we are with this planet. When I walked into the quiet Gulf waters yesterday, everything blue lit gold by the light, I was a little frightened to lean forward into swimming, which is a lot like leaning forward in a dream so that we can fly. Maybe it was the baby shark we saw a fisherman tossing back in earlier, but I suspect it was simply that process of forgetting and remembering ourselves at once in surrendering to such a large being: the life force of ocean. Once I did, my feet were hesitant to reach for the ground again.
Today, each wave that broke right before it gathered me up, and each wave that rose me up in its breaking felt like what it was: such a gift. Two days, two bodies of water that are really one (not to mention all those the water gives life to in the sea and land), and I can still taste the salt on my fingers. Within a few days, back in the prairies, which once were an inland ocean, I’ll remember this, and as best I can, keep remembering myself back together.
Over the last month, I’ve been time-travelling backwards through fall. I started October in Vermont, where the temperatures lingered in the 30s at night and barely crested the 50s in the days. The cooler turned the maple leaves green to rust, occasional splashes of yellow and red up and down mountainsides. I’m told that sometimes in Vermont, if you hit the fall foliage just right and if the magical balance of rain, sunshine, cool days but not too cold all coalesce, the mountains look psychedelic. The fall trips I’ve taken to Goddard College, where I teach, tend to land me there in more muted years, but still, mountains of maples in fall create an autumnal world of wonder, color, and light.
Going backwards in fall a bit, we drove the long way up and back last weekend to Madison, Wisconsin to see our son. The roadside greenery get distinctly yellower. By the time we got to Madison, the trees were dazzling red, orange, and tumbles of every shade of gold and green. The prairie we walked last Sunday, just east of Mount Horeb, shone blond with the grasses starting to show glimpses of red. I shivered some standing on a porch without a coat one night, yet by mid-day, the crisp air warmed and cooled me at once.
Now it’s edging toward the end of October, and Lawrence, like all the other places I visited, is late is autumn. Our mid-October peak hasn’t yet arrived, and what has is quieter than many years because of a very dry September and not quite the perfect balance of temperature and moisture. Yet the slowness of fall falling shows its speed across trees that span dark green to dark orange in one fell sweep.
All my life, I’ve loved fall, watching the waking world swirling itself from one thing to another. Sure, there’s the hit-over-the-head symbolism of age and death coming, beauty changing to bareness, and all that letting go-ness. But there’s also “a certain slant of light,” to quote Emily Dickinson. The blues of the blue sky are bluer, setting sharp the contrast with all that brightening, fading, and falling.
Last night, instead of going west to the new route home, I turned left, following a line of cars down a new road without being sure if I was heading toward a dead end or back to my favorite old road home.
For 16 months, Louisiana Street — the best way for me to get from home to town and vice-versa — was closed, not just for repairs but for a partial vanishing act. Part of the wrangling for the new trafficway resulted in increasing the wetlands that were previously on the east and west sides of Louisiana Street, consequently erasing a long stretch of Louisiana Street. It’s not often roads was unpaved and plowed under to allow for migrating wildlife, but this is precisely what happened*. When that new road curved back to where Louisiana Street starts again (a mile of it to the north now wetlands full of egrets and tall grass), I felt a surprising blast of joy and sweetness.
I know it’s just a road, but it’s the road that runs through the core of my life for many years. I drove up and down this road ferrying babies and toddlers, then a gaggle of little kids, and eventually teens to various schools, piano lessons, doctor appointments, and mostly downtown where they could treat the library like their personal rec room. We drove late at night down this road after too-long road trips for work for family. I drove through blinding snow, piercing sunlight, lines of blossoming trees with billowing thunderheads to the west and great blue herons overhead. Many years ago, I sadly hit and severely injured a deer who the sheriff had to shoot to put her out of her pain. Once I stopped to herd a cow back over the fence. I taught, or at least, tried to teach, my kids to drive on this road. Thousands of days and nights, I took in the familiar markers: the bungalow on the corner, the row of pear trees, the ridge thickly wooded to the east and full of cattle to the west. I drove this route in great despair, utter joy, thorough boredom, obsessing over little stuff, at peace with all of life, and outrageously confused; sometimes I saw the real life vibrating all around, and sometimes I drove this road on instinct and memory, not taking in anything but what I was thinking.
“The road is just a river/ it can’t help to bring you home,” Kelley Hunt and I wrote in one of my songs, and I felt this truth as I returned to my old road. Like a river, you can’t step into the same place twice, but like a river, you can rejoice in the old comforts of place in its flux. I’m grateful to be back on this road.
*For those of you locals with a dog in this fight, I haven’t been a fan of the new trafficway, and I wish there had been another solution. Then again, it’s good to see wildlife inhabiting the solution that landed. Thanks to all of you who put years into advocating for saving the Haskell wetlands and sacred sites — my heart is with you.
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, sitting 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.
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.
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.