Jerry on the Prairie!: Everyday Magic, Day 850

IMG_3741On 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.IMG_3749

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.IMG_3754

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.

Our porch that Jerry built with a heaping portion of his sibs and friends.
Our porch that Jerry built with a heaping portion of his sibs and friends.

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,

his ashes in the center.

We cawed, three times.

They looked a little uncomfortable.

But then we began the water ritual.

Dan had found a bottle of water

Jerry had collected on his travels

throughout the Great Plains:

Minnesota, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico,

The Texas gulf and other places.

We took turns stepping into the center.

We spoke from our hearts

took a little of his ashes

and poured a little of the water.

His brothers and sisters stepped into

the circle with their families

from oldest to youngest.

Did I mention many of them wore cameras?

His daughters and their families spoke next.

Two of Jerry's sisters and one marvelous brother-in-law o top of the world, or at least Wells Overlook near our place to see the aerial view Jerry loved.
Two of Jerry’s sisters and one marvelous brother-in-law o top of the world, or at least Wells Overlook near our place to see the aerial view Jerry loved.

We wept.

We listened.

We remembered a stubborn, kind man

noted for leisurely and complete story telling

and exquisite photographs of the natural world.

We surged into the center of the circle and back

out, three times

And scattered.

~ Kat Greene

Thank You, Wyatt, and Hello, Eric!: Everyday Magic, Day 849

The fabled four (out of five) past and present poets laureate: Denise Low, Eric McHenry, Wyatt Townley, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg (photo credit: KHC)

Last night Wyatt Townley, outgoing Kansas Poet Laureate, bonked Eric McHenry, incoming Kansas Poet Laureate, with a sunflower as is our tradition in these parts. Although the Kansas Humanities Council officially launched his term earlier this month, nothing’s official (at least to me) until the sunflower hits the head.

Wyatt’s term, as she told KHC, was full and expansive:

We laughed, we cried, we got chills. We put over 10,000 miles on our 16-year-old van, never breaking down and managing to dodge all blizzards and tornados…..Internally, I found a path from private to public that I could travel, and made new friends along the way. It was all poetry, all the way down.

10408668_649256315179408_3148655472865763695_nOver the last two yeas, Wyatt gave over 70 presentations, helping a myriad of communities explore home from what she calls “the mobile home of the body” all the way to the cosmos as home. She also curated the Homewords project, encouraging Kansans to submit American Cinquains about home as body, house, land, and sky, and out of the submissions, she created columns featured in newspapers around the state. In the end, she featured 105 poems for the 105 counties of Kansas. Here is one of Wyatt’s Cinquains, a form that invites us to write poems five lines long, with two syllables on the first line, four on the second, six on the third, eight on the forth, and two in the final line:

The sky

the silo and

I, a set of nesting

dolls with a surprising poem


Wyatt’s generous, tender, wise, and deeply contemplative ways inspired many of us not just to start writing Cinquains (my friend Danny has now written hundreds), but to more deeply consider how we dwell here — in community, on the land, within our bodies, as part of the swiftly-changing skies, and of course in poetry. But any gratitude for Wyatt also goes to her partner in crime, First Dude Roderick Townley, himself a very accomplished poet and children’s book author, who accompanied her all over Kansas. Having taken some poetry road trips with both Wyatt and Roderick, I’ve seen firsthand how much his presence and help can turn a crazy challenge into a walk (or drive) in the park.
Now we mosey on forth with our fifth Kansas Poet Laureate, Eric Henry. Here’s one of my favorite poems of Eric’s, published in 150KansasPoems:

Here’s what I remember: Coleman Hawkins

and I are sitting at a mahogany table

in the Village Vanguard, quietly talking.

He’s finished a set in which he was unable

to summon even one unbroken tone

from the bell of his once-clarion saxophone.

But now that’s over and he feels all right.

He’s smoking because he’s wanted to all night,

drinking cloudy cognac from a tumbler

and coughing ferociously; his voice is weaker

than his cough; he’s barely audible, mumbling

to me because he knows I’m from Topeka.

He says, “That’s where I learned to tongue my horn.”

I know, and that’s the only thing I hear.

It’s 1969; in half a year

he’ll be dead. In three years I’ll be born.

A professor at Washburn University, and a poet published far and wide, Eric recently told the Kansas Humanities Council:

There’s nothing I love more than sharing poetry with people, and I look forward to doing that in every corner of Kansas over the next two years. I think we’re all grateful when we encounter language that’s equal to life’s richness and complexity. Poetry can provide that.Eric_BW_headshot

Listening to Eric recite poems he memorized — something he does frequently to show us the value of getting that language into our bodies and psyches — I have no doubt that he will shine the light on a lot of poetry — and moreover, what poetry can do to spark magic and insight — throughout and beyond his poet laureate term.

So thank you for the wild, beautiful, and vivid road trip through poetry, Wyatt! And Eric, we’re now riding shotgun with you for where you take us.

Poetry, Miracles, and the Path to the Beloved Community: Everyday Magic, Day 848

With poet therapists and community beloveds Nick Mazza and Perie Longo
With poet therapists and community beloveds Nick Mazza and Perie Longo

Toward the end of April, I had the honor of giving a keynote presentation at the National Association for Poetry Therapy national conference in Black Mountain, N.C. Thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call for us to craft a beloved community throughout our lives — an endeavor that brings into being “a reconciled world by raising the level of relationships among people to a height where justice prevails and persons attain their full human potential” — and the power of writing, reading, and living poetry as key to that reconciled world, I wrote this talk in six parts, exploring ways to find and join our people on this path as well as the path’s mythic, healing, and ecological dimensions.

IMG_3427Poetry is the phone line between the surface of our lives and our deepest callings, a lifelong conversation full of confusion, clarity, trespasses through fear or delight, and a whole lot of divining for water with some sticks out in the wilderness. It’s our flashlight in the dark woods, showing us where and how to step next.

Here is the full talk: NAPTTalk2015pdf

Listening, and Getting Rid of Stuff: Everyday Magic, Day 847

Thunder, then a long stretch of wind shaking up Cottonwood Mel outside my window. A plane overhead from faraway heading faraway. The dampened drone of the highway in the distance while my sons sleep, the dogs snores, and Miyako the cat performs another one-act play about killing a mouse cleverly disguised as a hair tie.

It’s been too long since I’ve been able to listen to the sounds in between and around rather than the sounds coming straight at or straight from me. Not surprisingly, this replenished ability to stop and enter the clearing — instead of focusing on the trail — comes more easily to me after I’ve been moving things out of the way, specifically lots of little and big things in drawers and shelves. Yesterday, I cleaned out my desk, which doesn’t sound like much work, but indeed it was. I sorted hundreds of objects: coins, paperclips, stamps, greeting cards, and so many pens, markers and pencils I tested to see who was still up to the challenge of making marks on paper. Hauling bags to the car — what’s to find its way to the city dump, what will end up on some thrift store shelf, what’s to land in the home of a friend or family member — I felt quieted, also tired.

Everything I’ve been reading about clearing clutter lately rings through my body with a kind of freedom. Freedom to give up waiting to fit into something that, at the moment, makes me look like a multi-color stuffed sausage. Freedom to acknowledge I will never use the piles of holiday cards I never send. Freedom to say, “I have enough” to the worlds of colored paper. Freedom to release myself from the not-reading of books I bought by mistake and the not-fixing of broken flashlights. For weeks, in between travel and presentations, I’ve been hauling out the old stuff not to make room for the new, but just to make room.

In the end and in the beginning, there’s room for this listening that makes me feel like I’m just a cleared-out drawer of treasures in one of the many houses of the universe, and all I hear is a kind of music.

The Obstacle Course of April: Everyday Magic, Day 846

Oy vey!

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.

In person together again or for the first time at Eat My Words in Minneapolis
In person together again or for the first time at Eat My Words in Minneapolis

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

Sometimes a bagel is your destiny (named so here) at blurry-o-clock in the morning somewhere in South Carolina
Sometimes a bagel is your destiny (named so here) at blurry-o-clock in the morning somewhere in South Carolina

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.

Why Are We Busy When It’s So Astonishingly Beautiful? Everyday Magic, Day 845

Kelley of the Lilac
Kelley of the Lilac

Every April I land in pure and blossoming enchantment every direction I look. Trees barely hold up their rain-weighted branches of all that’s pink, purple and white in flower. Tulips sing their quiet little songs of cheer. Driving down any particular block, I see no less than 30 shades of pale green, composing out of the whole world an impressionistic painting in motion.

Then there’s the other side of April. Between the poetry month status bestowed upon this month, the urge to stick something in the ground quickly, and all manner of opening out and spreading wide the wings of many events, there’s barely time enough to do what I want to do, IMG_3306which is stop doing all else but wandering down one street after another. There are magnolias still exploding their pink boats on north sides of old houses, forsythia towering yellow into green, and crazy-ass parades of cherry blossoms, pear blossoms, and whatever those ballerina-pink delicate flowers are that I see on quiet little trees doing their annual pirouettes. Don’t even get me started on the fuschia-purple redbuds, and especially lilac.

Every April I over-book myself with commitments and then hate myself for it. I should know better: all of this is fleeting, reminding us how fast paradise turns into a string of 95 degree days when we pray for rain and sanity. Every April I make myself a promise, a little like the Passover prayer we say at the end of the seder: “Next year in Jerusalem” (although for me it’s always, “Next year south of the Wakarusa), that next year, nothing but this. Even this year as many moments of watching, breathing and taking in beauty beyond beauty beyond beauty.

Big Bending Toward the Desert: Everyday Magic, Day 844

Hiking in the Big Bend almost 30 years ago

People say you either love or hate the desert. For me, it turns out to be both/and rather than either/or. When Ken and I first drove the many, many, many hours to Big Bend National Park for our honeymoon almost 30 years ago, my first response was crying, but not tears of joy. “We drove all that way for this?” I said. The despair that took over my stomach spread to the rest of me, including my eyes, which made it hard for me to see any value in being there, least of all for my honeymoon. Moreover, I had the very clear sense that this place with its heat, many plant beings made of thorns and needles, rattle snakes (especially the one I almost stepped on) and isolation from humans could kill me if I didn’t pay close attention.

Ken way back when
Ken way back when

Over our week camping in Big Bend, my hate softened. Maybe it was the wild horses, the eight-foot high bamboo forests we discovered in remote areas, riding a donkey while a little drunk in Mexico, sleeping under the stars, or lying on the ground while vultures wheeled over. By the time we left, I kind of liked the desert: the cooling air in the mornings and evenings, the radical sunshine, the blazing blue of the sky, and the flowering of the cacti. I would return, I decided.

Getting back to a remote place takes time, decades in this case. But the return was now love for the desert unfurling in stretches of wavering light and vertical rock. What was brown, gray, prickly, and otherwise not imbued with water didn’t push me away but drew me closer although I was careful where I stepped or what I leaned toward. It helped that, according to some of the locals, it was the best wildflower

The mountains long ago
The mountains long ago

season in 40 years, which meant we walked and drove through carpets of cacti and color, yellow, blue and white blossoms all directions with occasional Octotilla opening its high-off-the ground buds while the yucca went from pink to white to spent beige.

But it isn’t just the flowers. The desert is the desert, a place where you have to both give up control over the landscape and pay close attention to what actually is (rather than what you think is) according to the wonderful writer Gary Paul Nabhan,

Ken today
Ken today

who we had the pleasure to hearing twice during our trip. Ignore the reality of the desert at your own peril. Respect what’s here, and you arrive.

Yet recognizing that reality, which entails releasing agendas and clearing the mind of ideas about who or where I am, opens the door to the place without doors: the heart-breaking deep blue framing and infusing the mountain forged from sediment and volcano, balancing all manner of ochre and rust, bleached out or saturated with hue. The soft cold touch of the Rio Grande on the toes. The towering walls of time, rock and story

Just a few days ago
Just a few days ago

coming together in a narrow canyon that only allows the sharpest light through. The tumbling overhead of the stars and more stars even as the moon obscures some of them. The stillness punctuated by the mockingbird. The mule deer beneath the junipers. The fields peopled with forests of prickly pear, which can also grow just about upside down off the sides of rock walls. The preciousness of water and the ingenuity of what can live with so little.

IMG_3092_2As a 26-year-old touching the desert for the first time, I was afraid. It was a place I had no reference point for except in the yet-unexplored back fields of my psyche. As a 55-year-old returning, I was satisfied. Life has shown me as precisely as the needle tips of cactus how little control I have over anything, anyone, and even to a great extent over myself. It’s also shown me what magic might spring forward when I fall back into reality, with care of course when it’s in a desert. So we climbed and walked, drove and paused, drank outrageous amounts of water while stepping rock to rock to rock to where the desert IMG_2715led.

Maybe life itself, like the name “Big Bend,” is all about letting ourselves learn to bend, sometimes in a big way over a lot of time, to find our place in the wild and dangerous, the dry and distant, the stinging and blossoming turning of the light.