“What It Takes”: 63rd Anniversary of Brown Vs. Board of Education: Everyday Magic, Day 899

This weekend, I had the honor of being part of the Voices of Freedom Festival, celebrating the Brown vs. Board of Education supreme court decision that ended “separate but equal” policies in public schools and beyond. It was a joy to hear the music of Kelley Hunt, Isaac Cates and the Ordained, Maria the Mexican, and Injunuity, and to read with fellow poets David Baumgardner, Tava Miller, and Ashanti Spears. Here’s the poem I wrote for the occasion, held in downtown Topeka, Kansas.

What It Takes

It takes years of waiting on polished wooden benches

outside trembling courtrooms. Thousands of meetings

in church basements or someone’s living room,

sipping lukewarm coffee on folding chairs.

Centuries of nights up late worrying, or puzzling out

how to change what’s unjust and breaking us all,

then early mornings to make the oatmeal, pour the

orange juice, and remind the children to take their homework.

It takes 16 blocks to get to the black school instead of

the white one on the corner, and hundreds of new signs

for another march, hours on the phone, and dressing up

to meet with the senator who sends his aide instead

and says, don’t push, change takes time

as if that’s not obvious as daylight after decades

of waiting in chains, standing in the back of the bus

and swimming in the smaller mildewed pool

surrounded by weeds and broken beer bottles.

It takes gumption and guts, grief churned into anger

that makes a tired man head to the newspaper office

to tell a reporter, it’s past time for justice, and just in time

to turn supposed equality into walkaday freedom.

It takes all those lawsuits before judges blinded by habit

and their own inadequate stories, and all those potlucks

to break bread with people who don’t look like you,

and tell them what it’s like for mothers to count the minutes

between the school bell and the front door,

and fathers whose hearts fall when hear

their beautiful daughters say, it’s nothing, I’m okay,

when she’s not okay. It takes piles of briefs that sway

the sidewalk leading up to the school where

a little girl walks, hand in hand in a federal agent,

ready to cross the threshold into the world we should have

inhabited all along, each step a way to sing, “Stand Up.”

Even then, it’s not over, and it’ll take all this and more

to make it safe to drive, or cross the street, or ask

for help without the risk of seeing eye bullets and

all the secret lashes that separate us into a lesser people.

It takes the patience of water to turn mountains into rivers,

then find the courage to sing while the healing waters flow.

Mothering Hacks Picked Up Along the Way: Everyday Magic, Day 898

First day home from the hospital

We were exhausted and exuberant when we brought Daniel home from the hospital intensive care following some complications in his birthing center debut. We were also wildly ignorant, especially about what we were wildly ignorant about from the complex and profound, to the ordinary and necessary. So when Joy dropped within hours of us landing at home, just in time to change his diaper, I paid close attention.

We had cloth diapers, what we carefully researched and planned, but for the last week, it was disposable ones. Now it was time. “Let me,” she said, and I studied her every move in folding the diaper and how she inserted the safety pins to avoid sticking herself or him. As soon as she left, I called out to Ken, “I just figured out how to diaper the baby!” He rushed over, “Show me before you forget,” neither one of us having had a clue before she arrived.

This is just the first of thousands of mothering hacks I picked up along the way, which was important because my usual ways of learning things by reading books didn’t work out so well when Daniel was born. My experience of being a mother who suddenly found her baby encased in a plexiglass neo-natal unit box with all manner of tubes coming out of him just didn’t match the pile of books I had read to prepare myself. Then this first child, as he grew into a speeding and singing toddler, continued to defy convention, so much so that I actually ripped up a mothering book into tiny shreds one day out of exasperation.

Instead of books and the conventional wisdom of the day, I found my answers through family and friends to questions such as:

  • “Will he ever sleep through the night?” Answer: “Eventually.”
  • “How do I sleep through the night and still nurse on demand?” Answer: “Put that baby beside you, plug him in when he wakes up, then go back to sleep.”
  • “When should I feed him solid food?” Answer: “When he grabs it off your plate.”
  • “Which daycare, school, and which teacher?” Answer: “This one, and that one.”
  • “Is this when I call the doctor?” Answer: “Not yet,” or “Yes!”
  • “Should I let her join a soccer team just because she wants the trophy?” Answer: “It can’t hurt, and she’ll get good exercise along the way and learn more about teamwork.”
  • “What is this rash?” Multiple answers involving roseola, heat rash, poison ivy, and reaction to insect bites.
  • “How can I make him be a better student?” Answer: “You have no control over what kind of student he’ll be.”
  • “What if she doesn’t want to wear clothes right now?” Answer: “As long as you’re not leaving the house, pick your battles.”
  • “Is it okay to have ice cream for dinner when it’s 100 degrees?” “That’s what I’m doing tonight.”
  • “Am I doing too much or being too controlling?” Answer: “If you have to ask, probably.”
  • “Am I screwing this whole mothering thing up?” Answer: “We all feel that way. You’re doing fine.”
  • “How will we ever get through _____ (fill in the blank)”? “This too shall pass.”
  • Most of all, “Is this normal?” Answer: “Yes,” or “Who the fuck cares!”

Since our oldest son was born close to 28 years ago, I’ve hit the wall on this mothering thing more times than Trump has tweeted. But I’ve had great role models to help me find the path through the bramble, hand me clippers to clear some of the bramble away, or console me on how it’s normal to be very lost on no notice so often. From my own mother, I learned the value of perspective and humor through hundreds of conversations when she burst out laughing, reminding me that kids doing this or that was completely part of the deal, and in time, things shift. From my mother-in-law, I’ve witnessed the power of unconditional love, a good rocking chair, and Shirley Temple videos.

Dixie taught me I could get Forest to sleep by counting backgrounds from 1,000 each night, naming each 10 numbers for one animal (999 sheep, 998 sheep….). Weedle showed me the importance of game nights, and especially the games “Taboo” and “Apples to Apples.” Kat and Nancy exemplified how sharing stories of your wild young adulthood could make your kids rebel by being less dare-devily in the all the worst ways. Kelley told me stories of how her mother gave her freedom to create. Kris reminded me on many a brunch at the Roost how the human brain isn’t fully developed until the kid is at least 25, and when I called her freaking out about my worries about my something my kids did, she shrugged and reminded me how we did crazier shit. Judy listened deeply however long it took. My sister-in-law Karen continually modeled deep generosity and engagement, especially when the child in question feels isolated or confused. My sister Lauren reminded me of the importance of making everyone feel welcome. Victoria laughed with me at the outrageous corners, and helps me tilt whatever worries I have toward greater light. Suzanne demonstrated how essential both adventure and gardening are in a life. There are surely dozens others I could name, but all these women have given me another line or page in the book I’m living on how to be a mother.

So on this Mother’s Day, I’m indebted to all this lantern holders along many a dark path full of ticks, projectile vomiting at 2 a.m., chiggers, overdue library books, sudden immersions into diseases I never knew more than the names of before, listening to the cassette tapes of The Wizard of Oz on many a road trip, late-night trips to the drug store, and a thousand drawings from adoring children who also gift-wrapped forks to show their love. Thank you, and may all of us find such help when we most need it no matter what or who we’re mothering or being mothered by in our lives.

When Self-Care Isn’t Enough: Everyday Magic, Day 897

I used to beat myself up for bad self-care. After all, it’s the common and actually excellent wisdom of the day that most of us need to practice better and more consistent ways of taking care of our precious selves, particularly in a world lit up with hand-held and hands-on screens, bringing us new things to do 24/7. But there’s far more to what ails us than just our inability at times to eat, sleep, work, exercise, socialize, and meditate right, and sometimes the popular push for self-care, all good-intentioned, can leave those of us who have chronic issues feeling like we failed once again.

Case in point: I’m sick now, nothing very serious, and after struggling against a virus or something like it for six weeks. I had to leave a yoga class yesterday, a restorative yoga class at that, because I realized in no uncertain terms it was time to get treatment and get horizontal. Like none of us, I can’t say my life is always (or often) stress-free, I do sleep 8-9 hours each night, eat healthy and often organic food, get together for loving lunches with friends, enjoy a replenishing and humorous marriage, work in the sunshined garden regularly, entertain myself with meaningful work, do yoga and take long walks, and watch my share of stupid-funny movies. We even have a new air-purifier and ionizer in our home. I’m also working with a great integrative physician on improving my health, and at times, making strides. (Note: please, no further advice at this point.)

But there’s far more to being healthy than is in our control. There’s hereditary, environmental, karmic, and everyday tendencies and exposures beyond our control. I think of the husbands of two of my closest friends: one of them is undergoing chemotherapy in preparation for a bone marrow transplant to treat late-stage lymphona. The other just had an emergency heart aneurysm surgery to repair what would have ended his life. They’re both guys who take care of themselves and practice, in many ways, what many of us would define as good self-care. I think the Turning Point writing workshops I facilitate for people living with serious illness: altogether, participants are a delightful and vivid crew who face late-stage cancer, M.S., Parkinson’s, heart disease, diabetes, or other illness. One of them worked as a personal trainer for years until cancer changed her life. Another leads a model lifestyle for health and well-being, but being exposed to Agent Orange while serving as a nurse in Vietnam gave her Parkinson’s disease. Some, despite the eternal presence of M & Ms in our sessions, eat whole grains and 5-7 servings of vegetables each day. Yet here they are.

I believe so much in finding our own best self-care, and constantly dialoguing with these vibrant and aching bodies of ours to discover what, in this moment, is the best way to go forth: weed a garden or watch a movie, take a nap or whip up a giant salad, call a friend or read a novel. I’m glad that among my friends and in many of the articles I read, the term “self-care” frequently makes an appearance as we grapple with how to incorporate this more deeply into the core of our lives.

What I’m trying to release, however, is the damaging message sometimes buried in how we talk about self-care that getting sick or diagnosed with something serious indicates our lack of effort or discipline. Sure, I have lots of empirical evidence that eating too many desserts is detrimental to my health, but I’ve seen plenty of people with pristine diets go through chemotherapy or radiation because cancer showed up anyway.

It’s not just the messages we might give ourselves (Caryn to self: I’m sick again; self to Caryn: What did you do wrong now?). It’s occasionally the subtle or not-so-subtle messages we convey to each other. Yes, there are very effective supplements to bolster our immune systems, anti-inflammatory ways of eating, and exercise protocols to strengthen our muscles and our spirits, but they’re not always enough. Let alone the cliche and truth that life is a terminal illness, we each have our own Achilles heels, and mysterious lesson plans to be revealed as we live them.

So when the chips are down, the body too, there’s a whole other aspect of self-care to embrace: compassion toward ourselves, and tenderness toward this life that stops us in our tracks at moments, reminding us that while there’s a lot we can do for ourselves and others, we’re not in ultimate control.

 

Only-In-Lawrence-Kansas-Moments: Everyday Magic, Day 896

Lately, I’ve had a lot of only-in-Lawrence moments when wandering around downtown, and I feel compelled to share them with you:

  • We love music and poetry in this town, so of course, a panhandler needs to use a Leonard Cohen quote, “Love is the only engine for survival.” In exchange for this photo of him, I contributed to his cause.
  • We love animals and babies, so of course, I spied a woman pushing a stroller with a chihuahua in it, kept safely in place under some netting. The dog sat up happily, taking in the sites.
  • Speaking of strollers, we also tend to love Dennis, one of our Lawrence characters, and Dennis loves Sheryl Crow, his life-sized doll that he often wheels around town. I saw him last with rolled-up short shorts, and the top half of another life-sized doll. I almost talked with him, but I wasn’t in the mood to be cursed out, as is often the price of getting close to his celebrity. You can learn more about Dennis at the Friends of Dennis Facebook page, that asks, “Are you a friend of Dennis? Are you crazy for cats, Sheryl Crow, Las Vegas, big head posters? Share your love for our sweetest grouch and most brilliant stylist.”
  • Speaking of brilliant stylists, there’s also the Queen of England, who graces us with her life-sized cardboard cut-out, at Brits (sharing a wall with Au Marche, the French store). Here she is with Kris, who’s clearly about to ask her if she prefers sugar or honey in her Yorkshire Gold tea.
  • When it comes to tea, how can we not invoke the name and artistic brilliance of Anne Patterson, who, among her many other talents, has constructed a stroller-sized teapot for the annual Art Togeau parade, Lawrence’s wheeled art gala, held each spring? Here, she certainly hasn’t flipped her lid (photo by Craig Patterson).
  • Assorted other entities and happenings I’ve heard about downtown in the last few weeks: a fire hydrant wearing a zebra-print bar, someone who regularly brings a rabbit to poetry readings, glitter on the sidewalk leading to coconut cream pie nirvana at the Ladybird Diner (coincidence? or work of the pie gods?), and a sign on a power line pole that says, “I am a citizen of a country that does not exist yet.”

If you’re around here or have been through here, feel free to add your sightings.

Poets Laureate of Kansas Call For the Humanities

In the past few weeks, I’ve been working with three other former or current poets laureate of Kansas to craft our statement in support of the Kansan Humanities Council, and the National Endowment of the Humanities. As Wyatt Townley says, “Kansas is a microcosm of the national arts-and-humanities landscape and the plight it faces.” Please do what you can, and pass it on!

Poets Laureate of Kansas

Statement of Support for the Humanities

What does it mean to be fully human, and what is it worth? It is difficult to quantify the value of the humanities, but we know that investment there yields a big bang for the soul and for the buck. In the current cost-cutting climate, the value—indeed, the very existence—of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has been called into question, though it costs the average American 50 cents a year.

 

One local beneficiary of the NEH is the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC), with its 45-year track record of strengthening civic life. In 2016, KHC provided over 700 free programs to nearly 400,000 people in all 6 sections of the state. The benefit in terms of education, history, and culture is immeasurable, but the real crop KHC grows is community.

 

KHC’s Poet Laureate of Kansas program, adopted in 2013 from the Kansas Arts Commission, is one of our nation’s 44 state poet laureateships. These programs point to poetry’s ability to explore essential values in an age of distraction. Poetry helps us find common ground and develop greater understanding of our shared home, from the tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills to the windy high plains.

 

As poets laureate, we’ve crisscrossed the state many times, dodging blizzards and tornados to talk with fellow Kansans about things that matter. We averaged 50 public appearances a year—some at colleges, high schools, and grade schools, but most at small-town libraries and community centers. Anyone who thinks of poetry as elitist should ride along with us to Colby (pop. 5,387), or Kinsley (1,457), or Glasco (498), and see how many farmers, miners, nurses, children, and retirees fill up rooms.

 

Having a poet laureate costs Kansas taxpayers almost nothing (the modest travel stipend we receive is paid for entirely by private donors), but the position could not exist without the tireless support of the Kansas Humanities Council, providing staff and resources to help us reach new audiences, particularly in underserved and isolated areas. KHC supports the state economy, bringing people together—often across great distances—which in turn bolsters hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses.

 

Our state poet laureate program has a national reputation for excellence. We have organized conferences that brought dozens of other state poets and hundreds of participants to Kansas. We’ve published regular columns in newspapers statewide and produced award-winning anthologies featuring hundreds of writers for thousands of readers. Our thriving regional literary scene led the Association of Writers & Writing Programs to bring its 2020 conference—one of the biggest writers conferences on Earth, drawing some 13,000 attendees from around the world—to the Kansas City area.

 

We believe in poetry as deep literacy—an experience that engages mind, emotion, body, and spirit. We also believe in Kansas, and the essential work of our superb state humanities council and our national treasure, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Please do all you can—contacting legislators especially (https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials)—to ensure their continuation for the good of us all.

 

Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2015-17

Wyatt Townley, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2013-15

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2009-2013

Denise Low, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2007-09

We’re All Such Delicate Creatures, But At Least We’re In Good Company: Everyday Magic, Day 895

Everyone I know has something hard to live or live with: the everyday heartbreak of going on when a greatly beloved is dead or gone, a scattering of demeaning jobs or not-so-sweet sweethearts, tunnels of depression or roller coasters of anxiety, or chronic illness or cumbersome disabilities. Maybe we’re hard-wired to have an Achilles heel, some weak spot named for Achilles of ancient Greek mythology whose mother, Thetis, dipped him into the Styx river to make him immortal. To keep hold of him, she held him by one heel, which became his vulnerable part.

My Achilles heel is chronic illness, mostly of the sinus-infection-whatever-mystery-virus-is-this-fresh-hell variety. While I’ve struggled since childhood with getting sick more than the average bear, ever since I went through cancer and chemotherapy, this vulnerability has gotten more airtime. I won’t bore you with the long list of conventional, alternative, cutting-edge and/or traditional treatments I’ve sought, and I’m certainly not asking for advice — I have what feels like a good and long-term treatment plan in place now that may lessen the and-she’s-down-again days, and I’m honored to be working with a great integrative physician. But there are days, like this one, when I’m limping around on my Achilles heel.

One problem with vulnerabilities, especially the chronic ones, is that it’s hard to get beyond self-blame, or at least, it’s hard for me. When I get sick, my first impulse is to scan my days for what I did wrong and to feel like I’m failing at life. But this is just the my thinking and thoughts, not reality. What is reality? I’m hardly ever completely sure, which I believe is kind of the essence of intersecting with reality, but I do know that life is far more mysterious than we can fathom. We don’t know what will happen, and by extension, what this symptom or that one truly means all the time. We don’t even know all the details of our life lessons, except that sometimes those lessons are relentless intensives. While I believe very much in the power of healing, and siren song of health, I also know it’s beyond my control to have the ultimate power to fix what ails me, or the world.

Just like I practice the cello, I can keep practicing health like all of us can keep practicing ways to live with our vulnerabilities. Some days, I’ll make a sweet note, and some days, it’ll sound like shit. I can keep aiming toward ideal wholeness, but I have to remember that I’m already whole because being being a little bit broken in some way or another (aka Leonard Cohen’s “There’s a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in) is what it means to be a whole human.

One of my favorite songs, “That’s What Makes You Strong” by Jessie Winchester, tells us how what makes us weak, what makes us need someone, is what makes us strong. “That’s what moves our souls, and that’s what makes us sing,” the song goes, and I love this version by my friend Kelley Hunt. We are moving mosaics composed of all the pieces, edgy or smooth.

What helps us grow courage and compassion is the everyday Achilles heels of our lives, reminding us that, yes, we are designed by nature to be delicate creatures, and yes, we are also called to work, play and live with the materials life gives us. There never was a river of immortality, just us humans, sharing our stories of falling down and rising down, and in the sharing, remembering that we’re never alone.

Save the Humanities!: Everyday Magic, Day 894

Photo by Stephen Locke, used with permission

The kids were already in the front seats when I arrived at the Coffey County Library branch in Gridley, Kansas to present “Kansas Weather in Life, Literature, and Photography,” a Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) program. In this town of 341 people, the library is the place to be, and not just for kids. By the time I began, people aged 9 to 90 filled seats, ready to take in Kansas poetry and photography (via Stephen Locke) about how our extreme weather shapes our lives and builds our character. We also shared their stories of communities coming together in the face of wild storms, close calls, beautiful vistas, and what our weather tells us about who we all.

One of many KHC programs, Water/Ways focuses on the impact of water (and by extension, weather) on our history, traditions, daily lives, and in the face of climate change, our very future. Such programs also bring together communities, helping us find the essential dialogue, diversity, and unity that is the bedrock of democracy.

Now a wild storm is threatening all of America, especially far-flung rural areas where there is little to no funding for arts and humanities programs except from state humanities councils. With the current U.S. president calling for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities, programs like the one I just did, that bring together people to share stories of hard-won wisdom and emerging visions, would vanish. As well, we would lose initiatives such as KHC’s “Migration Stories” on the experience of Africans in Midwestern communities, “Freedom of Speech in Kansas” on the importance of free speech,  “FLIKS” promoting short documentaries on unique stories in our state, a vibrant speaker’s bureau, a long-standing book discussion program that has reached people in every corner of the state, and the state poet laureate program (which is completely funded by private donors).

I’ve had the honor of being roving scholar with KHC since 1994, as a book discussion leader, speaker’s bureau presenter, and the 2009-13 Kansas poet laureate. Living in a 400-mile-wide state, I’ve rambled many miles to talk about everything from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, books that give us intimate portraits of American history, from African-American communities in the Everglades in the 1920s (Huston), to Japanese-American communities before, during and after internment in the 1940s (Guterson). Such discussions help all of us grapple with our collective identity as Americans.

I’ve driven through snowstorms and ecstatic displays of lighting, up and down the Flint Hills by starlight, and across the high plains on startlingly bright mornings to meet Kansans of all ages eager to talk about what the humanities tell them of how to live with greater verve and meaning. In traveling far and wide to also talk about books with Jewish content, such as Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City, I’ve shared traditions and history of my own faith, and by extension, participated in powerful interfaith dialogues about life and literature.

I’m a humanities scholar because I believe in face-to-face dialogue, community-building that includes many perspectives, and intergenerational exchanges about lessons learned or ahead of us. I love how humanities councils enable us to mek connections between urban and rural residents, and people of various faiths, ethnicities, and histories so that we can truly engage in forming “a more perfect union,” as stated in the preamble to our constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To keep forming that more perfect union–along with safeguarding justice, tranquility, liberty, and yes, even prosperity–we must save the humanities, which provide us the gathering ground to more deeply understand our birthright along with ways to learn how to better be true to ourselves and our communities.

If you believe in the humanities–in other words, please contact your legislators today. Here’s a link to find contact information. And join us at humanities programs wherever you live: here’s a link to find your state humanities council. It’s so easy to tear down programs that give us greater vision, and so hard to build such programs. Let’s not lose what helps makes us more human.