Jerry: Everyday Magic, Day 829

10858376_10152644835063208_4719828656362117011_nWe were unlikely friends. He talked slow, walked slow, thought slow and deep. I tend to run fast. I can’t even say when I met him, although I know it was through the Kansas Area Watershed Council, our local and long-lived bioregional community, and sometime, somehow, we became great pals. By 2001, we were doing the lion’s share of the work to organize the Continental Bioregional Congress on the Prairie — Jerry in charge of bookkeeping, travel arrangements and registrations, and me in charge of the program, publicity, and the overall coordination. For the next two years, we spoke on the phone or emailed often 4-5 times each day, just about finishing each other’s thoughts about how to handle any issue that arose.

10858644_10152644832843208_4356927544652366850_nHe went from Jerry Sipe to Jerry to Jer, aka #7 (his and my favorite number) on my speed dial. He was around us often, and quickly became the only adult my three children — through teenage years and beyond — always hugged. I hugged him a lot too, both of us close to the same height, as I felt his heart beat in mine.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, I discovered what many already know about wandering through the world of serious illness: some people fall away, and some people run toward you, ready to help in any way possible. Jerry just about moved in with us, joining us so often for dinner that when I fetched groceries, I aimed for his favorites along with our own. He was quiet, patient, and utterly present. The night before my final surgery, he called to find out what time I was going to the hospital. “But don’t you have to work?” I asked, knowing he had taken off a lot of time already for my previous surgeries. “Work? There’s no way I can go to work tomorrow,” he answered, and sure enough, he was there with other close friends and family, praying, singing, chanting and lifting me through surgery and its aftermath.

From there, he built our front porch with Ken. The project that was supposed to take a few months took over two and a half years, and although it was slow-going, the craftmanship is superb as was his installation of our pellet stove, which kept him hanging out at our place for months. There are signs of Jerry everywhere, not the least of which are the photos he gave us over the years,IMG_2135 each visionary and perfect in what he shows us of wind, spider webs, the moon and sky.

Jerry seemed quiet from a distance, but up close, he could be a regular chatterbox, although not in the conventional way. When he started to tell a story, like the time he went AWOL in the early 1970s because he no longer believed in the Vietnam War, it was advisable to get comfortable because he had a lot to say. When it was his turn in the circle — at KAW Council or other bioregional gatherings — he often had a lot to say about what the earth and sky were saying to him. It was obvious he had long conversations with the natural world. He often told me of fields, including the field just south of our house, that he was friends with, and how, in the presence of such places, he entered into deep communion.

10858388_10152644834493208_8539725373344188220_nEach morning, at least for many, many years, Jer would step outside, lift his arms overhead, close his eyes, open his heart and then his arms out wide, asking the living earth to tell him what its will was for him today. “Thy will be done,” he answered the call.

For many years, I counted him as one of my besties, yet in the last three or so years, we were at a bit of a distance. To be honest, I was pissed at him for not getting all possible medical and other healing help for what sure seemed like major memory issues to me. I wanted him to put up a good fight, reach out for support, and be relentless in his own healing. Like others close to him, I was also worried about him living alone and how, in time, he might be found close to death in his apartment. I didn’t understand that he, being himself and not me, was making his own choices and/or that his health issues may well have precluded him from choosing differently. A man close to the earth, he basically, as one dear one of his remarked to me recently, went to the woods to die. He was found last Sunday in his apartment, profoundly dehydrated, having lost close to a third of his body weight, and suffering from double pneumonia and other issues.

This last week, any distance dissolved. I’m eternally grateful to Jerry for this gift of forgiveness, intimacy and friendship. He held tight to my hand while, in his hospital room, I sang prayers and chants, off key and scratchy-throated, to him. One night, I sat close to him for a few hours, sharing song after song from my phone. When I got to James Taylor, particularly “Blossom” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” — music I knew he loved — he opened his eyes, lifted his eyebrows, and looked for moment, even while on a ventilator and in ravaged body, peaceful. He also looked into my eyes as well as into the eyes of many of us who visited with a kind of intensity I’ve only seen in the eyes of my son Daniel right after his birth and in the eyes of my father a few months before his death.

I remember telling Jerry about that moment with my father, and how my father asked if I recognized him. “Yeah, you could have said, I finally recognize you,” Jerry told me. With Jerry, it wasn’t an issue of “finally” recognizing him or being recognized by him. Jerry was born to see, evident in his photos of the prairie as well as his friendships and family connections.

10347556_10152644834623208_7289269370764009355_nHe was also born to make it rain. He once told me that according to a native person he knew, each of us had to make it rain at some point in our lives — we had to save lives and land in some small way. Jerry said that shortly after learning this, he was marching with others to save the Haskell Wetlands when a car sped through the intersection toward the marchers. Jerry saw that the car was about to strike a woman and her baby, riding in a  stroller. He left his slow ways behind and raced into action, positioning himself right in front of the car to save the mother and child. Then he stared into the eyes of the driver, who hit his brakes in time. “I made it rain,” Jerry told me.

Tonight, a little over a day after he died, he may be making it rain again, in the hearts of many of us who love him and also all around us as a very unusual December thunderstorm moseys on in, slowly. It hurts so much that he’s gone, but I’m so grateful for this rain, feeding the parched earth and and reminding me that love heals, always.

Carry On, My Wayward Son (and Daughter): Everyday Magic, Day 828

Kansas was singing “Carry On, My Wayward Son” with all their heart on my car radio as I stood outside the car, having accidentally locked myself out of a vehicle that makes locking oneself out just about impossible. It was dark, misting rain with an edge of ice, and my cell phone and AAA card were in that car, smiling up at me from my warm, happy purse. Given the kind of week I’ve been having, this moment barely rated although it was wickedly inconvenient, made even more so when, inside the nearby grocery store, I couldn’t reach my husband, the only person with another key to my rock-and-roll singing car.

“Whatever,” told myself as I went back out with a coat hanger, only to find the car impossible to penetrate. I turned to go back to the store when a chirpy clerk rushed out to me. My husband called back the number calling him, and he was on his way. So I returned to the dark, hands in pockets, and rocked on my feet.

In the last week, I’ve driven through what feels like charcoal tunnels of night to arrive at one ICU or another to be with people I love who’ve been hugging the edge of close calls. My mother-in-law is doing much better after giving us quite a scare, and I look forward to seeing her soon. My dear friend Jerry has been on a ventilator, fighting many health issues, and may be doing better. That’s the thing about being in critical condition, one doctor told us: it’s a roller coaster ride, and you don’t know where and how it ends.

Meanwhile, there is voice and touch, waiting and sitting, pulling back the give-me-a-clear-answer thoughts to dwell in the open air. “Anything can happen,” I told one of Jerry’s sisters this morning. “That’s what makes life so interesting,” she said.

Life has been very interesting, including the moments of utter tender beauty and connection, like when, alone with Jerry for a few hours recently one night, I played him song after song from my phone. He opened his eyes wide for James Taylor singing “Blossom,” a version he recorded live with Carole King. “The crowd goes wild,” I told Jerry at the beginning of the son. Jerry lifted on eyebrow, and when Taylor started singing, it seemed like Jerry, for the first time in many days, actually was happy. “That’s the real medicine,” the nurse said as she came into the room.

Friends and family — including the ones in hospital rooms — are carrying on, and I more cognizant than usual of how we are all wayward sons and daughters, not sure where we are some or much of the time, but, to quote a dear friend recently, all walking each other home, no matter what home is.

“Listen, This Day is MAGIC,” She Said: Everyday Magic, Day 827

“Listen, this day is MAGIC and I’m not kidding,” Kelley Hunt wrote today on Facebook, and I knew at once the truth of such moments.

It helped that I’m tunneling out of one of those bad colds that makes a gal feel like she’s been lost in the underworld with only some chicken soup, a lot of over-the-counter meds, and old movies of a young Brad Pitt fly-fishing in Montana (which isn’t a bad way to be lost). It also helped that the first phone call of the day was from one of my dearest and oldest friends who, that several projects I’m involved in are going remarkably well, and that the bath was the hot and coffee was strong.

Yet what Kelley wrote spoke to me not just about this day. Everyday, without cliche-ing the point, is magic in its would-be form, kind of like what I describe poems as for students: those little capsules you drop into water so they can expand into a sponge animal you couldn’t have anticipated. In a sense, every day given to us is its own poem: something we can open our wide perception and soften our big heart toward to find what’s beyond the obvious, hear the rhythm of the life force in our most local realms, and see image after image of reality in its singular, moment-by-moment originality. It takes a tilting of the head, willingness to let go of what we think the world is to connect with what actually is, and, most of all, gratitude.

I don’t say this lightly. It’s been a helluva fall with many deaths, lots of funerals, sad stretches of news, heart-breaking wreckage of the world in Ferguson, Syria, Liberia and other points, and sometimes, anguish in watching our beloveds suffer. Because of how fragile we are, how unpredictable life is, how difficult the journey and how strange the changes that insert themselves in our days, the gratitude to feel the magic of a moment, any moment, matters more. It helps us see in the dark, and as William Stafford writes, “It will take you into/ yourself and bless you and keep you.” So here’s to listening to the day and its magic even and especially when it’s hard to hear beyond what hurts.

For My Young Friends Who Are Afraid

There is a country to cross you will
find in the corner of your eye, in
the quick slip of your foot—air far
down, a snap that might have caught.
And maybe for you, for me, a high, passing
voice that finds its way by being
afraid. That country is there, for us,
carried as it is crossed. What you fear
will not go away: it will take you into
yourself and bless you and keep you.
That’s the world, and we all live there.

~ William Stafford

Why It’s Better to Talk to Yourself Than to Listen to the Common Thinking of the Day: Everyday Magic, Day 826

“They told us that in the 90s that thousands of professors would be retiring, so anthropology would be a good field,” Ken told me the other day after he ran into a good friend from his anthropology days at K.U.

“Same thing for English too,” I told him, then we started laughing, so lucky that neither of us had bought that line, despite it being the common thinking of the day. As many of us know, especially people who spent seven, eight, ten years getting doctorates in fields like anthropology and English, herds of professors did retire, only to be largely replaced with adjuncts who now, according to common statistics of the day, compose up to 75% of many university’s faculty while often living on poverty-level wages.

Our conversation made me think of how the common thinking of the day, what “they” say about what will happen, sometimes can lead us down the rabbit hole to a whole lot of nothing. Because of such thinking, I went to journalism school in 1979, convinced by my father and many other people that the only choice I had as a poet was to go into advertising or journalism. It turns out that I didn’t go for journalism (I got thrown out of the school with only one course to go for my degree and left instead with a history degree), but to land in the Midwest, where I found my true home, community, future husband and close friends. I think I was following an instinct beneath what I thought were my plans, which were to simply get a journalism degree, return to Jersey, and live near the shore while writing for a local newspaper by day, for myself by night.

Other experiences of following what people say didn’t always turn out as well. When, from 1983-85, I was coordinator of a non-profit in trying to coordinate and advocate for all the social service agencies in Lawrence, I listened to what people said about our funding, supported by a government grant program, drying up soon. Our board decided that we needed to take the risk of not applying for that grant, and instead, work with the city and county to fund us. Everything was lined up — we had the support of most of the city and county commissioners at the time — and the county quickly approved its half of the funding. Then something happened — a backroom deal to purposely collapse us, I suppose (I never found out for sure) — and funding vanished. Our group ended, I was out of a job, and that government grant program that was supposed to end in 1985? It’s still going.

I’ve had myriad other such experiences, all of which show me how what people say is going to happen often doesn’t happen or happen the way we think it will. Grabbing hold of the future is like trying to catch a greased fish. In the end, and the beginning and middle too, what keeps coming back to me is how important is to talk to ourselves, to actually converse with our whims, notions and inklings, particularly the ones that won’t go away no matter how much logic we throw at them. Altogether, I consider these to be callings, what we are meant to do, and what we can divine by listening hard, talking back, finding where we’re led by taking the next step.

Ken didn’t go to graduate school for anthropology no matter how much he loved the field. Because he planned to not leave the area, and being an academic means traveling the university freak show to find a tenure-track place, if you’re lucky, to settle, he instead ran a lawn service, made tofu for a living, and when we decided to have children, went back to school for a degree in occupational therapy. He spends his days building and modifying wheelchairs for people, and helping those with developmental disabilities live with greater meaning and dignity. In his own way, he lives anthropology.

I did go for the doctorate in English, but not because I planned to throw myself on the academic job market afterwards. I just kept feeling, even when I failed my comps and needed to take some time out, that I was supposed to do this. When I asked myself why, I only got this animal sense that this way. It was. Had I not gotten the Ph.D., I would have never been able to teach at Goddard College, where I’ve found my people, deepened my calling, and learned so much working intensively with passionate people working to change the world. Had I not landed at Goddard, it’s doubtful I would have helped found Transformative Language Arts, which brings me into community with so many inspiring and wise people and communities who use the arts for healing, growth, connection, and social change. I was following a whim, and it led to some of my life’s work.

When people ask me if they should go to graduate school, move across the country for a job, have a baby, leave a relationship, I try to remember that conventional wisdom often has little to do with our callings. “What is your life asking you to do?” I might say, remembering the value of simply talking to ourselves as well as listening.

What Can a White Person Do?: Everyday Magic, Day 825

Ferguson, Missouri is about a four-hour drive east of where I live, and yet it seems a world apart. In my town, which is far more white, there’s no news reports of riots, burning drug stores, people shaken and weeping from tear gas thrown at them, or the hometown agony of what happens when a police officer kills a teenager for what’s commonly summed up as “acting out.” Like much of America, it might be easy to think Ferguson is someplace else, part of another, more broken country.

That’s the thing about privilege: it’s invisible. When I hear from friends of color that they often face discrimination, that — according to one friend on Facebook — “it’s just another day in America,” part of me is always surprised because as a white person, I don’t see racism on a daily, weekly or even occasional basis. Part of me is never surprised because I do hear about racism regularly when I read statistics about how men of color disproportionately fill our prisons, when friends tell about being pulled off “for driving while Black,” and when people I know tell me their stories, which isn’t about the occasional inconvenience of racism, but the enduring pain.

“You have idea how hard it is being Indian in this town,” a Navajo friend told me years ago. She went on to say how the police regularly pulled her over, a mother of three, to check her license and registration, and how some store owners watched her carefully when she perused the silk shirts. I was wrongly assumed that because we had the largest inter-tribal university in Lawrence, native people would feel more at home here, but this friend was only the first of many who told me otherwise. “It’s a daily thing,” another friend said. Sometimes it was subtle, just an eyebrow raised or head turned away, but it was often daily.

I had no idea, not because I don’t care or look away, but because it’s not something running through the screen of what I see each day. Sure, I experience sexism on occasion (don’t get me started on the publishing industry). Yes, I’ve run head-on into anti-Semitism, but never in ways that put me direct danger (hearing someone say, “Don’t Jew me down” or other little indignities). Overall, though, in a land where race and class play big time in the suffering of human kind, I have an abundantly easy ride. Not so for my Latino, Native American, African-American and other friends of color. Not so for my friends with children of color, who carry the immense weight of educating their sons especially on appearing to be as non-threatening as possible.

It is easy and outrageously common at the moment for people to jump into the Mike Brown murder and Ferguson riots with subsequent pontificating, one-dimension analysis, and lots of detailed scenario-playing. I’ve read reports and listened to people, for the most part white people, explain how, although Brown didn’t “have it coming,” he acted foolishly, and Darren Wilson, although impulsive, acted in self-defense; that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about racism; that there’s also black-cop on white-teenager abuse and black-on-black crime. All of this reasoning seems bent on 1) Not understanding the power dynamics of having privilege and not having privilege; 2) Not understanding what it is to be Black or Latino or Native or otherwise not-white in much of America; and 3) Not understanding that what lit the fuse here is the systematic fire, that this one incident follows so many others, not the least of which is Trayvon Martin, another Black teenager, and this one not “acting out” in any way.

This is all a way of saying that while it’s fine for white people like me to have our opinions, we are making up our opinions from a place of blindness. Most of us (especially if we’re not married to or parenting people of color) don’t get to see everyday what it is to be looked at with suspicion, judged by the color of our skin, or held to a higher standard. I’ve heard many white people say, “Well, I just treat everyone equally and with respect,” which is great and what the best in us should always strive for, but at the same time, those of us saying this don’t see, hear, know how white privilege comes at the expensive of people of color.

So what to do about this for most of us white people? Ask and listen. Open up our perception more to try to see what it’s like more to not have such privilege. Lean into the story behind the story. Learn what’s happening that fuels such anguish, such rage, such widespread feelings of powerlessness. Ask, when you’re in a room or meeting or community that’s mostly or all white, why that is. Start at the beginning of plans for events, readings, conferences, happenings to involve people of color who might otherwise be overlooked. Reach out of our comfort zones. Be scared and confused about what to do, but grapple with opening our hearts more to understand what life, in its minutiae, is like for people of color in our workplaces, groups, communities.

Ferguson is part of the broken heart of this country where we live, no matter where and how we live. How to heal this broken heart? Remember that it belongs to all of us, and we have all have something we can do.

The Astonishing Beauty of the Last Drop of Autumn: Everyday Magic, Day 824

IMG_1910There’s something about this afternoon: the autumn colors still brilliant, maybe even more brilliant than usual against the backdrop of the incoming cold front, still a few hours west of here. A few hours later, as I download the photos onto my computer, the cold front sweeps in with the flair of giant wind that rocks the house. Temperatures plummet. All changes right here, right now, inside and outside, for the people close to me who are the drop in the ocean of all the people I’ve yet to meet, and for this rolling land, having held summer and its aftermath close to the breast for months.

IMG_1880For some of the people in my life, this has been a watershed time with lots of swimming through hard stuff: deaths of people way too young and/or too beloved, grieving that doesn’t let go, health crises without easily-attainable answers, even trouble breathing or sleeping deeply enough. It’s all hard enough when the weather is lovely, the trees are loaded with coppery gold and rusting reds, and the squirrels are fat and happy. When winter lands big and fresh, what will happen?

IMG_1875Yet those of us seasoned by the seasons have a sense of what will happen: the big cold will come, the thaw will interpret that channel and remind us of fall lost to spring ahead, the weather will change again on a dime and a quarter and half-dollar, and before we can get too used to it, change for the worst or the better. And so on. The same for whatever’s hard, impossible or too distant to yet imagine.

IMG_1893Here we are, right on and over the cusp of the season, some of us feeling like we’re riding barrels over Niagara Falls, some of us lulling down the easy river, but all of us — if not now, later on — afloat. May we hug the shorelines soon, may we love the speed and rollicking swirls of the ride, and may we find home in whatever weather houses us.


The Tender Side of Loss: Everyday Magic, Day 824

Ken in the deep woods
Ken in the deep woods

In the past two weeks, the Royals lost the World Series, my favored candidate for governor (when the stakes were outrageously high) lost the election, a dear friend lost her daughter and several other friends lost their lives or are reeling from the loss of their best beloveds in recent months. The tumble of leaves from trees don’t help, but this bright and abiding sun does, as does hugging each other, and leaning into the tender side of loss.

“I don’t know how I’m going to live through this,” my friend told me a few days after her beautiful 38-year-old daughter died. “Breath by breath,” I answered, easy for me to say because I’m not ripped apart by pain so deep that simply taking the next breath is hard, let alone getting out of bed. Yet this is what loss has continually shown me through my own experience and through what I witness of others surviving such agony.

IMG_1750There’s something about loss that’s utterly tender and bare. It brings us together to read the tiny nuances and big love in each other, to notice the flight of birds or sudden presence of moon and deer (as friends have noted lately on facebook). In reading one another and the world from the vantage point of loss, we find something often out of reach or not of note when we’re fat and happy with ease and plentitude — moments of poetry when life is compressed into its essence. As Adrienne Rich writes at the end of her poem, “Dedications,”I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read/ there where you have landed, stripped as you are.”

Some of these losses aren’t life-shakingly important (I mean, it was just a game, and the Royals may go all the way next year). Some change everything, a stone in the center of the pond that actually ripples out to change the shape and depth of the pond. Some make some of us want to run to a kinder land, but there’s no escaping where we’ve landed. All ferry us to the tender side of life where each moment is seeded with astonishing beauty, expansive depth, chevrons of geese calling us awake, and traveler moons charting us asleep. How we treat each other matters the most now (and always), witnessing one another’s impossible pain by letting our hearts and arms open.