This land’s Osage Indians, like many tribal people, named each month for its ecological context, bestowing upon March the name of “Just-Doing-That Moon” If it rains, it’s just doing that. If it tornadoes, it’s just doing that. If it’s crazy wind and wildly hot, it’s just doing that, and if it snows, it’s of course just doing that.
Today, after a week of thunder storms, hot and wild wind, balmy breezes, and an explosion of magnolia, daffodil, hyacinth, forsythia, and all manner of blooming trees, it’s time for snow. Here is a poem I wrote about this stretch of the season from my book Landed:
In the two-plus years since our dear friend Jerry died, I’ve occasionally resumed my search for my Ipod mini, a little music player I loaded with songs I knew Jerry loved, and brought to him in the hospital as he was dying. While I was sure his siblings returned it to me to take home after his death, it seemed to have vanished the moment it was placed back in my hands. I emptied the catch-all kitchen desk drawer, looked in corners of closets, and even checked behind the washer and dryer where good socks go to die. Eventually, I forgot about it.
In the two-plus months since our family has been upheavaled by Ken’s loss of a beloved job and journey to the next best thing, I’ve thought of Jerry often. He had an amazing ability to be present when the shit hit the fan, not get swept into drama, and stay long after dinner was over to listen to whoever needed to say anything. He did this with panache throughout my year-plus cancer treatment and surgeries, serving as a rock we could huddle on as the waves swept through. The most excited I saw him get was the night before one of my surgeries when he called to say he would be at the hospital the next morning with us. “But don’t you have to go to work?” I asked. “How can I go to work when this is happening?” he answered.
I also thought of him because part of how we’ve been navigating haphazard big waves is by chatting up the ancestors, of which he’s one, and asking for help, mostly in the form of greater clarity and peace with wobbly or disappearing ground under our feet. Because this particular turn of events is made of mystery, of which uncertainty is the byproduct, the biggest challenge is just being with what we don’t know. Jerry is the patron saint of just-being, a good teacher for me who tends to worship at the altar of over-doing.
Yesterday, Ken went to work at his new job, both of us thrilled that he landed in the best possible environment and position for his callings at this point in his life. The light in and around our home lighted up a few degrees, and sometime after his left for the office, I opened the cabinet above the toilet where we keep soap, floss, some vitamins, and things used rarely, such as our daughter’s make-up remover. There, right in the center of plain sight, was the Ipod mini in the pale blue gift bag that I put it in to bring to the hospital long ago. It was accompanied by the USB cord and the two sets of ear buds I put there also.
It makes sense that the goddess of lost things hangs out with the patron saint of just-being because how else can we find what we’ve lost than by truly dwelling in the emotional and other geographies of where we actually are? So now that the old music has returned, with enough ear buds for two, it’s time to get up and dance. Thanks, Jer.
We just had a thermometer contest: whoever had the most normal temperature won, and I lost. Both Ken and I have what’s likely a wicked incarnation of the flu despite earnest flu shots and sincerest wishes not to be lying on beds or couches for hours while our half-dreams bleed Excel spreadsheets into family members long gone into recipes for cakes made of fruit and abstract equations. First I came down with it, spending the weekend and much of today horizontal, then Ken caught up with me because when it comes to true love, misery really does love company.
The kitchen counter is full of various over-the-counter de-mucus-ers, the knightly Tami-flu, and each of one our own bottles of Recharge, a great electolyte-inflused drink without all the sugar of Gatorade. My plan to fly to Vermont tomorrow flew away very as quickly as my fever so now I have a re-booked flight for Thursday. And we just watched one of the great films for any sick people (in addition to The Big Lebowski), Groundhog Day, taking special care to count all the days Bill Murray woke up again to Sonny and Cher (42 in the film although I researched how it would actually take over 8 years for him to be an expert at piano and ice-sculpting).
“Doesn’t it feel like you’re dying?” I asked Ken earlier. “Yes, that’s exactly how it feels,” he answered, leading us to ponder if, at the moment of death, we would remember this crazy strain of flu. Yet there’s also the living that goes on regardless, and little moments of gratitude in spite of headaches, body aches, sinus aches, sore throats, and crazy coughing tirades, like when we visited with friends via a phone conference in Columbia, MO. and Plainfield, VT. to compare notes about who’s got snow (one of us), who’s got the flu (three out of four of us), and whose crocus are blooming (three of us). Or when ate the incredible soup a friend brought over and re-affirmed the power of soup to change and save lives. We’ve found our fat cat trying to stuff himself into a small box hilarious as well as the new John Oliver “Last Week Tonight.” We’ve sprawled across our facing couches saying stupid things that made us laugh or fall asleep, and we’ve drunk tea.
When we’re hit by particularly uncomfortable and even painful illnesses, it’s easy to say what each of us have said: “how do I get through this?” But the answer, like the answer to any stretch of time, is that you just do, and since this is the deal, why not find between the squeezing and sleeping whatever specks of joy are all around?
Since the inauguration our family has been living out a microcosm of the macrocosm. While the details aren’t mine to tell, let’s just say that we had one of those unjust life incidents in which we discover that, contrary to popular human opinion, there’s sometimes (translation: often to always) no real ground when it comes to what we can count on and control. Macrocosm-wise, this also feels true for many of us who are partaking of the buffet of letter- and email-writing, phone calls, marching, and all manner of resisting unjust policies stinging our hearts, violating our values, and crashing apart our ideals and safeguards.
In such times, I go back to Pema Chodron, particularly her anchoring-to-reality book, When Things Fall Apart, in which she writes,
We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
I remember when some close friends of ours were going through major marriage re-evaluation, both of them hurting but shining. They told us, “Then you realize there truly is no ground, and it’s terrifying and exhilarating.” They made it through and have been together for the likes of close to 40 adventurous years, and I’m so grateful to them for their example of courage and clear-seeing at the fall-apart times.
Yup, it’s a panoramic swirl of falling apart and together, and along the way, often all at once, there’s a careening dance of agony, ecstasy, anxiety, heartbreak, hope, amazement, and many moments when we can really feel our beating heart. Sometimes it all comes together at 4 a.m. when one of us wakes up to exhaustion, freak-out, and wonder. Sometimes the calm of trembling cedar trees against overlapping clouds reminds us to breathe. But always, there’s both groundlessness in such times, and the real ground, where we will walk soon, in a hurry to get from house to car on a cold morning, so that we can aim ourselves toward (what else?) love in whatever form shows us why we’re here.
Today I was given the enormous honor of speaking at the Women’s March in Topeka. I’m blown away by the speakers, all of whom opened our eyes and gave us new insights and courage. Thank you, Women’s March of Topeka organizers, and thank you to fellow speakers Elise Higgins, Fatima Mohammadi , Stephanie Mott, Dr. Glenda Overstreet Vaughn, Dr. Dot Nary , Ana Maldonado, Paulette Blanchard, Representative Barbara Ballard , Heather Ousley, Alise Martiny , Reverend Sarah C. Oglesby-Dunegan, and the spectacular emcee Dr. Beryl New.
I dedicated my reading today one of our local heroes, Dr. Josie Norris, who has helped thousands (tens of thousands perhaps) women do right by their bodies and babies by founding the Topeka Birth and Women’s Center (where our three kids were born). Here is the poem I wrote for today:
This is for your grandmothers and mine,
one who left a Midwestern home where she was abused
to work in a Brooklyn button factory and make a new life,
the other who boarded a ship at nine years old,
not knowing from English or America,
to escape the pogroms that killed her mother.
This is for your mothers and mine, who joined with
other suburban moms to fill buses with their children
so we could march against the Vietnam War,
and who taught me that be a woman meant to be a feminist.
This is your aunts and mine who gave up a singing career
for marriage because she had to choose, and this
is for your daughters and mine, who never had to think twice
about belting out her songs on the streets and in the clubs.
This is for your nieces and mine, who were abandoned
at railway stations in India but made it through the needle’s eye
to an adoptive family in Missouri where they found
love, education, and a future. This is for your sons and mine
who grew up washing dishes and laundry, and learning to use
their privilege to hold open the door of justice and opportunity
for those previously locked out. This is for the men we love—
your husbands, friends, allies, coworkers and nephews, and mine—
who stepped back to make room for us to step forward,
who have asked instead of answering, who are here today
in body or spirit, ready and already breaking open their hearts
alongside and because of us. This is for your sisters
of origin, of choosing, of fate and mine, all of our beloveds
who keep turning the trauma of sexual abuse,
the micro and macro violations of catcalls in the street
or silencing in the office, and the fear storms that come
from not having enough safety, food, shelter, healthcare
and access into a greater capacity to march or roll,
to speak solo and in chorus, to love who we are called to love
with our widest and deepest dedication to this life,
the generations before and ahead. This is for us:
this moment of knowing how alive we are,
and how this life is rising in us and raising us up
together from this moment on.
I also read “I Will Not Be Afraid of Women,” which you can find right here. Please also consider signing up for my blog (see link on the right) and my email list (I promise not to give the list to anyone and not to send out more than one email a month) by clicking here. You can see all the powerful speakers and musicians (yay, Skirts!) from today at this link (I’m at 1 hour, 33 minutes or so).
For days, it’s been overcast with an active sky varying hews of gray in between tossing out ice pellets, a bit of sleet and freezing rain, a lot of regular rain, and a smoky sense of being. Although we avoided the potential big ice storm in this town, thankfully keeping our electricity and most trees intact, there’s no sunshine to be found for miles, which doesn’t cheer me.
But what there is: a dog napping on the couch behind Christmas lights adorning shelves for the cats to climb and sleep on, skillet corn bread baking in the oven, and Ken typing on his computer to my right, and classical music on the radio to my right. The ice-encased tall grasses around our house are free to shift slightly in the warming air, and for the first time in days, there’s some variation of gray with darker clouds on top and foggy horizons lightening up to almost white. There’s also hot tea in the mornings and warm piles of quilts at bedtime, piles of books, a happily-used sewing machine and lots of colorful fabric, and a lovely time to pause and watch the junos and chickadees eat the birdseed on the deck.
Eventually, the clouds will dissipate, but for now, here we are despite whatever human-made turmoil rolls into and out of form close by or far away. In the distance, here is also a lone great blue heron winging her way back to the water as whatever is changing unfurls in its quiet and active ways.
“Southern California Wants to Be Western New York” is the title and subject of one of Dar Williams’ songs about what happens when the left coast suffers from yearning for a post-industrial crisis. On January 4, I got to read this poem along with other poems I wrote that riff off songs from Dar’s “Mortal City” album. Given that one of my most ardent fans (my son Daniel) said I should share this on my blog, here we are, and here’s a video of this incredible song.
Kansas Just Wants to Be Kansas
Southern California may want to be western New York,
but Kansas just wants to be Kansas, large and hidden in plain sight.
Too bad the earthquakes have migrated north, fracking us out of bed
to land on ground not used to shimmying. Too bad about the politics too,
shocked out of their long stay of sensibility, and smelling like
the aftermath of tragedy. Yeah, Kansas just wants to be Kansas,
weather-weary and not taking any prisoners, ready for whatever
the sky between the Rockies and the rivers storms together
past, present and future in the sweet smell of rain and heat lightning.
Kansas doesn’t want to be San Diego, swanky and silk in its
Mediterranean rags. We’re just not a picturesque Vermont town
ambling down the side of a mountain, or Texas where the heat is as intense
as the chutzpah. Kansas certainly doesn’t ever want to be Iowa,
all dressed up in its big-box statehood but with brighter ribboning interstates.
We just want to continue to be your friendly waitress at 2 a.m.,
able to carry six different slices of pie cascading down one arm,
and in the other hand, a pot of coffee, fully-loaded, ready to serve you
something that makes you forget about the desire to be what you’re not,
and remember the beauty of the wind, an old train that arrives
ahead of schedule to say, “yes, you’re finally home.”
Tonight, I have the delight of opening for one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Dar Williams, in her performance at the Lawrence Arts Center. To get ready, I wrote a bunch of new poems, all inspired by Dar’s lyrics from songs on her Mortal City album since her current tour is a 20th anniversary celebration of that groundbreaking album (“Iowa,” “The Christians and the Pagans” and lots of other Dar classics are on it). While I’ve spent the last month writing these poems, the one I’m sharing here — dedicated to my sister-friends — came in a rush while taking a break from revising other poems). If you’re in Lawrence, come on down tonight to the arts center at 8 p.m. and join us! This poem steals lyrics (italicized) from two songs — “As Cool as I Am” and “Iowa.”
I Will Not Be Afraid of Women
Because I learned early and often that when it comes
to all those falls from great and gruesome heights,
there is no one like a sister, and it’s worth driving all night,
ten miles above the limit, and with no seatbelt,
to sit at her table and drink her tea while she agrees
that we’re here to dance out of the lines even if it means
we singe our hair in ways we can’t remember the next morning.
I will not be afraid to go to her, and to her, and her, and her
my whole life: the ones who hold my stories
like Christmas ornaments, careful not to drop the glass ones
or make fun of the ones made by my children’s baby hands so long ago.
I will hold her 3 a.m. phone call, when she says,
“it’s all broken or it’s all better,” and when I call,
she’ll remind me why we’re lucky in this life,
sistering me away from hoarding the horizon, and toward
the new song we’ll write, then sing over and over until we’re sure
it always existed, just like this friendship, and this one, and this one—
each made of of cedar and wind in the long walk at dusk,
lukewarm coffee we drink anyway because it makes us laugh,
or a long nap on her couch in the middle of a December day
when I didn’t know where else to go, so I went to her
with my tattered heart and shining breath, to say, “please,
gather me up,” and she did. I will never be afraid of the mirror
she is or holds up, and the real life beyond that mirror
where we get in her car and drive for the love of motion.
I know the Dalai Lama says his religion is kindness, but it took a while for this truth to catch up with me. As I get older, it overtakes me: intelligence, creativity, initiative, even happiness and many other qualities, without kindness, are hollow at best, dangerous at worse.
While I am stripped and spotted with many flaws, the flaw I’m most ashamed of is when I’m unkind, that is, when I catch such moments. It’s easy enough to see when I lose my temper (mostly catalyzed by stuff with family, or any headline involving he-who-will-not-be-named-but-will-in-inaugrated-soon). But there’s also those micro-aggression moments when I’m dismissive or simply not aware of someone or something, and striving to be kinder means getting realer so I can do less harm in this world.
There’s also the issue of balance and boundaries. Sometimes I struggle with what the kind thing is to do when I’m struggling to take care of myself (an essential foundation for kindness). As an Olympic gold ribbon champion of overfunctioning, trying to decide how to be kind can stop me in my tracks, and often, there’s no clear answer. I breathe, and try to choose wisely, which inevitably leads me toward a hot bath before I leave the house, do the task, make the call…..or not. Being kind to my young adult children has a whole lot to do with doing less for them and conveying how much I know (or desperately hope) they will find their own best answers (although I often trip into offering more than enough advice).
There’s also what I label in my little head as “black hole people” who are so damaged and hurting that they need — or seem to need — every ounce of attention possible. As a former black hole person (hello, early 20s!), I can relate, but I know how being kind entails sustaining ourselves, finding and holding healthy boundaries (confusing since those fences have a way of moving), and in the whole complex enterprise, being kind.
There’s also the very quiet opportunities for kindness as many sages note when encountering someone who can do nothing to benefit you. I’ve failed at this infinite times, yet striving toward kindness means looking at what the moment offers. Do I let the person in a rush get in front of me at the food co-op? Do I listen to someone I hardly know tell me a long story when I’m tired and just want more pita and hummus at the party? Yup, it’s back to boundaries here, but kind ones communicated without an edge in my voice.
Falling out of balance seems to me to be one of the leading causes of jerk-aholism. I’ve noticed for years that with organizations I’m part of, when someone acts seemingly cruel and mean, it’s almost always because that someone is burnt out, exhausted from working without adequate support or recognition, running scared, and/or too isolated to see the ramifications of bad actions. The same is true for me when I’m unkind, and given how life has a habit of throwing more at us than we can deal with at times, it’s inevitable that despite my best intentions, I will screw up again and again. I’ll land on the floor where I’ll need to cultivate a bit more kindness toward myself for failing, then get up again.
Being kind is a state of being: it’s embodied, and we feel it in our bones and organs (just as cruelty can feel like a kick in the stomach). When my heart is wrapping around another’s heartbreak, I carry a visceral sense of sorrow and yearning. It’s not easy. It can be tiring too, but what else are we here for? I think of being at Aaron’s memorial service (see previous post) a few days ago, and how all of us were held together in the active love a community can make when holding together the impossible. We cried at how he died. We laughed at stories of his kamikaze skiing. We hugged on another. It was a kindness to have been there (to have gone, to have been so welcomed): a door open into the ultimate meaning of belonging and purpose. It’s a gift to be part of collective kindness.
And it’s a gift to practice kindness alone and with others, in the light and in the dark, and in the kindly-emerging one-of-a-kind present.
Yesterday was the shining memorial service for Aaron Calovitch, our friend who died earlier this month. Held in Liberty Hall in downtown Lawrence, and officiated with great spirit and vitality by Rev. Michael Nelson, the service brought together hundreds of us to share stories (through Aaron’s friends Dave Johnson, Skylar Sterling-Simon, and Mike Doveton, and stepdad Frank Norman), and music (via Aaron’s uncle Gary Frager — with accompaniment by Sue Frager, and Lana Maree Haas). I also shared this poem I finished just a few hours before the service about the Aaron that was and is still one of our own. Here’s also the photo that got me started on the poem, a scene from KAW Council many years ago featuring Aaron and some of his closest pals (Aaron is in the center). Aaron’s gone (at least in this way of being), but our love for him binds us together for many adventures to come.
One of Our Own
He’s one of our own: a golden-limbed boy,
one hand on his hip, the other holding an ornate box turtle,
his open face shining like the lake behind him,
everyone laughing until the camera shuttered,
and he flew back into motion. There he is in a canoe.
There he is running the woodlands balancing two prairies.
There is is, cutting carrots in the kitchen with women his mother’s age.
There he is in our arms, no shame in hugging anyone ever.
He is the boy who watched falcons lift off the naked limbs
of a sycamore while he stood still as fallen leaves.
He is the man who knew his sauces as well as his snakes.
He could track the arc of a great blue heron, swim
the length of the wide pond, and return home with a story.
He is the artist leaning into the refrigerator to find
what’s forgotten, then swirl and saute it into dinner for all.
He is the man mowing his grandparent’s yard before
watching the big game, and he is always laughter
around the fire, in the dark with friends,
or in the living room at Thanksgiving.
He is the blown-over bluestem next to one butterfly milkweed
in the loop-sided circle we made with him in spring
to offer up water, wishes, prayers for prairies and lives.
He flew through hard landings and delicate losses
to go somewhere else. Our present one, our gone beloved,
we love him fiercely as drought loves rain even if
what we knew of his flashing smile didn’t reveal
his flight path across the blue to the golden horizon.
He is a river more than a highway, and wherever he is,