All posts by Individual Poet

Hope on the Last Day of the Old Year: Everyday Magic, Day 912

I’m perched on this lovely porch on the last day of the year, at least the last day according to the Jewish year, which ends at sundown. The wind and crickets thread sound through the Osage Orange tree, leaning over the driveway with its heavy hedge apples (think lime green brains the size of grapefruit). A few hummingbirds dive-bomb each other on the aerial path to the feeder. I’m comfortable in a hideous chartreuse recliner with iced coffee within reach. It’s just another beautiful edge-of-summer day in Kansas for me, but for many it’s far more heartbreaking and threatening.

I think of people in central Mexico, working frantically to unearth possible survivors from collapsed buildings from the 7.1 earthquake yesterday. I’ve watched videos of people coming together in the streets, crying in each other’s arms, or staring at buildings that have sloughed off into big piles of concrete and steel.

I think of thousands in Puerto Rico, right now, enduring Hurricane Maria, which hit the island as a category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 mph. I imagine the terror so many must feel right now as the winds batter their homes or shelters, bending palm trees horizontal and tossing cars across flooding parking lots. At the very least, they might be worried about having enough water and food, knowing how likely it is that they could face weeks or longer without electricity; at the most, their lives might be danger because of storm surges, crumbling buildings, and mud slides.

I think of millions in South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Guam, and many other places living with the searing threat of nuclear attack due to two immature and reckless leaders, one in North Korea and one in America, talking trash about the other and escalating a historic conflict. With rhetoric about destroying these countries and many more, those within easy reach of missiles bearing nuclear warheads must be living with overwhelming fear as the war of words builds.

Meanwhile, the fires in the west burn millions of acres of forest and change the faces of many a gorge, valley, and mountain. Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar has led to hundreds of villages being burned to the ground. People throughout various chains of islands and many on our mainland are still without electricity, or are busy with the sad work of stripping out of their homes all the water-logged furniture and family treasures.

Fire, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria), and war rage on, sporadically or worse, and much of it (excluding the earthquakes) due to the worst of human behavior: ignoring or denying the effects of climate change, and escalating the conflicts between tribes or nations to the point of no return.

It’s the end of the world as they know it for so many, human and otherwise. It’s also, as seems to have been the human habit, a time for the best of our beings to come forth. People in Texas made human chain to transfer elderly people out of flooded homes, thousands (or tens of thousands) of people driving to Texas or Florida to help with feeding, clothing, rebuilding, and reconnecting electricity for those in need. People in Mexico worked in the hot sun for hours, then all night, and still continue today lifting shards of concrete, digging with their bare hands, and listening carefully for one trapped beneath. I think of my brother-in-law in Florida, an electrician, who has worked long hours in the heat along with countless others to restore power for many communities. I marvel at the photos of humans throughout the Caribbean and Bahamas who lost everything, but also gave every ounce of their energy to rescuing others. A cruise ship ended its trip early, giving passengers the option of staying on to help evacuate islands in the path of Hurricane Irma, and over 70 vacationers did just that along with many cruise lines that sent ships and cash to the islands. Firefighters in Montana, Oregon, Washington, and other states worked themselves to exhaustion doing dangerous work to save lives and places.

At sunset, we cross over into the new year, but millions around the world have been forced to do this already, leaving behind all that was lost in the old year. For them, and for the blessings we can be when we reach out to help those facing the end of their worlds, my deepest wish is that we find hope in action that shows us what we’re capable of. Let us mend what’s broken, lift who and what is fallen, and act always on a love for life, and all that being and staying alive entails. L’shanah Tovah — a good and sweet new year — for everyone.

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When Miriam Finishes Wandering the Desert: Everyday Magic, Day 911

Late last night, as I sent my novel Miriam’s Well to my wonderful publisher, Steve Semken of Ice Cube Press, I reworked a summary of this 500-plus page book that’s been at the heart of my writing life for 13 years:

In this modern day retelling of the biblical story, Miriam wanders the political and spiritual desert of a changing America, torn between her roots as the Jewish daughter of a Black father and white mother, her yearning for home, and her brothers, Aaron, a successful New York City attorney, and Moses, a Kansas autistic artist. An astonishing cook and singer, Miriam has a knack for showing up to feed and help people at at landmark events, including People’s Park during the Summer of Love, the Wounded Knee encampment in South Dakota, the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. As she seeks the promised land, she shows her people, and eventually herself, how to turn the chaos and despair of our times into music, meals, and meaning.

The amazing painting (sunset on the Platte River) by Anne Burkholder that will be on the cover of the novel.

This morning, waking up to the first day in the many years when I wasn’t finishing this book, I realized, that for all intensive purposes, the Miriam of my imagination is done wandering the desert. I got off easy compared to biblical Miriam’s 40 years of wandering, after which she never even got to the promised land (at least in that telling of her life). I’ve gotten lost, and eventually found, in many sentences in the writing and revision of the book, thanks to my tried-and-true process of writing what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” then reworking my words for eons. I’ve read the in-process book in entirety aloud to Ken twice, and parts of it to Brave Voice participants occasionally, but from here on, the “in-process” part of the process is finished.

It’s a strange feeling to complete a big book that takes everything you think you can do, and asks of you to do more and go farther. So many times, I couldn’t figure out how to develop a scene, flesh out a curve in the plot, or show, with greater transparency but still enough mystery, who a character is. As I tell my students and workshop participants, sometimes you just have to tell yourself you’re not just smart enough to write something at the moment, shrug it off, write something else, then return to the page. Also, writing is a way of knowing: my hands on the keyboard had led me often to language that was far beyond me thinking into words.

Now I’m sitting on the porch in the rain during a morning thunderstorm, reminding myself I don’t need to rework something in the book that I loved writing so much. Despite the glory of being finished, I’m sad. Then I remind myself: I’m only leaving the writing of it. I’ll be doing readings from this novel for anyone who will listen for years, and I’ll be talking at length about its nuances, and what might happen to Miriam after the end of the novel (although I wish I fully knew). Of course, there will be many more times to proofread the book, even after the advance copies are printed and distributed this fall in time for us to garner some reviews for a Passover 2018 release date.

In time, just like Miriam, I’ll be done wandering, and in the case of such a long-term project, wondering how to shape each paragraph, lift and close each chapter. Miriam will find her next story, and so will I.

An Expansive Kansas Road Trip in a Concise Time: Everyday Magic, Day 910

You can drive a long way in Kansas and never leave the state, like 340 miles west from my home to western Kansas, and still be a ways from a state border. That’s just what I did to give a Kansas Humanities Council talk on wild weather in poetry, photography and our lives at one of the great community jewels-of-a-library, Pioneer Memorial Library (astonishing array of programs for all ages, and even a coloring night!)

The trip was fueled by coffee, of course, plus, because I’m trying to give up my M&Ma-and-Cheetos road trip habits, an entire box of Nut Thins (don’t judge me), hummus, a perfect Pink Lady apple, and an over-ripe banana. Getting over a cold necessitated a lot of over-the-counter meds and turmeric interspersed with those great Ricola cough drops. Between miles 107 and 200, I believe pretzels were involved while blasting podcasts of “This American Life” or singing loudly to “Now I Have Everything” from Fiddler on the Roof.

The view from my hotel room

I love the open road, and there’s few better ways to experience it than to drive to western Kansas where the locals consider it a little jaunt to go 50 miles, and where the sky widens and deepens all directions. The traffic is often non-existent, and it’s easy to get lost in all that open space, speed, and splendor of sky. I also love western Kansas where my mind relaxes, and the air is brighter, cooler, and often clearer.

The downside of losing track of things is that, instead of remembering to fill my tank in Hays, I got too caught up a podcast about a prison nurse falling in love with an inmate. Just as my caffeine- and cold-medicine-induced panic was about to rise, I saw an exit leading to a clearly abandoned gas station. The sign had been hollowed out from years of wind, and the building’s windows were whitened from the inside to block out viewing. But something told me to take the exit, where I found a red sign that said “Credit Card Pumps.” I pulled out my credit card, and took my chances. When the gas started flowing, I lifted my arms to thank the god of abandoned gas stations.

But then, when a person is lucky, that’s what expansive travel can be. “Ask and it shall be given” came true for me throughout this little jaunt, such as when I realized I desperately needed a bathroom, and lo and behold, a rest stop appeared, which I had never noticed in the 213 times over 30+ years I’ve done this drive before. Or dinner, which can be dicey in rural communities on occasion when the only restaurant open is a gas station that sells stale pizza. I lucked out with one of the best Midwestern official fried chicken dinner (which always includes mashed potatoes, corn, and a roll) at the Welcome Home cafe (dinner also included a superb salad and fruit bar).

Wanting to stretch my legs after filling my belly, I wandered near the restaurant, which was in a kind of antique-mall-meets-strip-mall-meets-car-dealership, and I came up to what we know in Kansas as Wheatus Jesus, the haunting billboard I’ve seen from 75 mph for years but never stood beside. It’s very impressive, and so is the big field nearby at sunset. Right there, for a reason I couldn’t fathom, there was platform overlooking the field, but the steps to it were blocked by big pots of cherry tomatoes in the middle of a sunflower forest. I was going to climb the stairs to the forbidden platform, but my first step in set off some growling creature, so I jumped back just in time to remove a bunch of sticktites.

Now I’m home, the miles behind me, and the quiet of home all around me. Once again I’m glad to be home, but I’m also glad to have gone.

Eclipse in Our Midst: Everyday Magic, Day 909

A few days past the Great American Eclipse, I’m feeling my way through the sheer joy, possible meanings, and wild vitality of this experience. An eclipse holds and moves through many metaphors as the moon moseys toward, on top of, and past the sun, showing us new angles of light, and re-making the sun into a crescent-moon-shaped force. Day turns to night in a flash, shushing the birds and revving up the crickets. Shadows play out in unusual ways, framing light in winks, slivers, and crescents. The human world, at least many of us whether near totality or not, stops the ramble of everyday life to look up at the sky instead, flimsy eclipse glasses and cereal boxes in hand.

Didn’t have enough eclipse glasses, so we split these

This eclipse, the first one in 99 years crossing the whole country, soared its moon shadow at speeds from 2,410 mph in Oregon, to 1,502 mph in South Carolina, translating into a minute or two or three of darkness, depending on where you were. Heavily anticipated in these parts due to our proximity to 100% totality, and weather-layered with herds of rambling storms, the eclipse, like most things in life, was not what we all expected. Some locals found the overcast skies completely dissolved the value of witnessing midnight at 1:06 p.m. Others, like my son Daniel, witnessed new glimpses of glory, as he wrote the other day on Facebook. His words capture all I experienced too, as stood with friendly strangers atop picnic tables near historic buildings and a long row of antique windmills in Hiawatha, Kansas. Here’s Daniel’s word:

The sky became darker and darker gradually, just like the 2 partial eclipses I’d seen that passed through KS over the last few years. The sun was maybe 80-90% obscured before clouds from a developing storm covered it. It became a grey gloom, lit by the brighter clouds near the Western horizon. Then totality happened, without warning.

It was a quick, smooth 3-4 seconds where it went from dusk to almost complete blackness. Looking toward the Southeast (a gorgeous vista of soybeans and glaciated hills), I saw utter blackness, lit feebly by a couple farm lights that popped on. But it was our horizons that were jaw-dropping.

To the west, the only truly open patch of sky exploded into a vivid constellation of colors, with a clarity I only see in the clearest sunsets. This sunset/sunrise though was pure orange, with amber pink rising above it, before shifting to deep blue, then black. In other spots of the horizon, more light was able to shine through. Due south, the developing storm that obscured our totality took on a rich, wet golden orange – The clouds hazy with light. Rain and verga from other storms was lit up from behind, producing a sharp but gentle gradient of color. The north was also lit up, where a line of violet/orange ran up the sides of young thunderheads, before sharply halting at the edge of the black above our heads. We jumped on the picnic tables around us and shouted at the sky, I couldn’t keep my eyes from the Western sunset/sunrise.

As totality ended, it was another 3-4 seconds of rising light – like a blanket being pulled out from me while trying to sleep. The southwest (where the eclipse was traveling towards) became blue-grey, the speeding, enveloping darkness making the small storm there look like a flood-wrecking monster. The sun then peaked out, and for just a second I swear I saw lumps of light instead of a pure crescent – the quick pulse of Bailey’s beads and diamond ring effect before the jagged line asserted itself and returned the elegant crescent of fire.

I can’t truly describe how quick the transition from light to dark and back was. With no distracting countdowns, eclipse apps, or selfies, these moments were short in their immediacy and long in ecstasy. Hell, even the sun was removed as a distraction. With the sun wrapped in clouds, there was no way I could time when it became completely covered. This gave our moment of totality a visceral shock of electric surprise and wonder. I will never forget this.

Like Daniel, I agree that “even the sun was removed as a distraction,” and instead, we experienced the fullness of the moment without the climax of a corona (although that’s obviously a stunning experience in its own right). Standing in the bowl of the sky, we were part of the vanishing and returning day as well as the wild lines, curves, and downpours of storms that, in the hours after, had their own kind of eclipse with thunder so loud and long that we were jumped out of our sleep and beds to take notice.

A few days later, the rain gauge still tells of the almost 5″ that fell, the hummingbird levitating toward the feeder seemingly takes no notice, the cicadas go on, and I’m back in the hideous (but comfortable) chartreuse chair on the porch. But the eclipse is still very much in my mind and on my heart as I feel its meanings and possibilities unfold over time, even since time paused for two minutes and 37 seconds in the middle of Monday to show us something beyond.

Turning a Blog Into a Book (and Please Help Me Find a Great Subtitle!): Everyday Magic, Day 908

Yup, this is the photo that will wrap around the book cover. Thanks to Daniel and Ken Lassman for taking it together.

My posts are fewer and further apart at the same time that I’ve been thinking about this blog more than ever. That’s because I’ve been working on Everyday Magic, the book based on this blog. As with most things, it’s more work than I imagined, but a lot more fun too.

The first phase was wandering through over 900 blog posts to figure out what top 250 or so posts should make it into the book. Given the limits of what my mind can hold, let’s just say there were charts, lists, categories, earnest struggles between ego and what makes for perhaps better reading, then most lists and charts.

From there, I moved to revision land, a place many roads and bike trails lead to, but few seem to lead back out again. Revising a piece of writing is like weeding a vegetable garden so large that by the time you get from beginning to end, there’s been a monsoon and invasion of rabbits. What you thought was there is long gone, and what you cleared is now suffocating the once towering broccoli. Commas invade or seem to run off together in a huff, and then there’s the surprise gaps between sense and nonsense. I also wanted to find a good balance of funny and tender, hot and cold (literally with so many posts on weather), grief and joy, charged news of the day and breezy observations of a sweet evening.

Once I finished with that — although finishing is always an arbitrary moment a writer lifts her hands to the sky, and says, “enough….I think” — it was proofreading time. Thanks to my friend Rosalea, I relocated the herd of commas as well as easing out excessive bouts of verbiage. Punctuation can be illusive, people, so be on the watch. It’s also amazing common to type the word “the” as “the the.”

Now the book is with my publisher, Tracy and her fine Meadowlark Press, where more proofreading is surely a thing, then design, proofs, galleys, and hopefully enough time and clear eyes on the pages to catch what needs to be caught. Eventually this fall sometime, the book moves out of my house and into a dorm room of its own, hopefully remembering to go to classes and stretch its legs into its new life.

The view from here and now

There’s also been an adventure in revisiting the stories I tell myself and obviously you, the kind and patient reader. While there have been moments when I had to hit my forehead with my palm, despairing that I’m still hung up on the same meaningless crap (will I ever completely give up of yearning to lose weight?), there’s also been ample revelations about how outrageously blessed I am to be part of my family, community, the prairies of Kansas, and at this moment, the woods of Vermont that I’m sharing at just above the top of this computer. So thank you, thank you, thank you.

P.S. I’m still searching for a subtitle for the book. If you can help me figure one out, I’ll send you a free book once it’s out. Contenders currently are the following. Please feel free to say which you like, and/or to suggest other subtitles.

  1. Everyday Magic: Fieldnotes on Ordinary and Extraordinary Curiosity, Beauty, and Surprise
  2. Everyday Magic:: Fieldnotes on Curiosity and Charm in Life’s Wild Tumble
  3. Everyday Magic: True Stories in Search of Curiosity and Wonder
  4. Everyday Magic:: Living with Beauty, Verve, and Surprise
  5. Everyday Magic:: Curiosity, Beauty, and Surprise, One Blog Post At a Time

Update Aug. 31, 2018: Thank you everyone for your great suggestions! I’m going to go with Maril’s subtitle, which is pithy and comprehensive: Everyday Magic: Fieldnotes on the Mundane and the Miraculous.

 

In Gratitude for Nancy O’Connor: Everyday Magic, Day 907

Our local food co-op, the veritable Community Mercantile, just celebrated its marvelous school garden project at West Junior High School and the person who founded the project and has given so much to our community over the last 25 years, Nancy O’Connor. When Rita York, general manager of the Merc, asked me to do a toast, that toast turned into this poem. Nancy has inspired me for 30 years, not just about the beauty and vitality of a good carrot or ways to roast vegetables to make them irresistible. Her dedication to weaving together community, and feeding everyone in the process, has changed the lives of thousands of people in our region. She also brings to all she does enduring excellence, steady patience and humor, and expansive vision. Thank you, Nancy, and long may your flag fly and your spirit shine!

In Gratitude for Nancy

Let her near the food, and everything changes:

broccoli opens the pathway to nirvana,

beets show us new ways to glimpse the sunset,

quinoa leads the wooded path to the banquet

where everyone begins laughing without knowing why,

clinking our glasses to toast the goldness of the garden,

the kindness of the kitchen, the dream of the dining room.

Take a taste of life in gratitude for Nancy who,

dish by dish, class by class, carries all the ingredients

her car can hold to gather us together so we can see

who we are, and how we can make peace on the plate.

Listen to her speak through what she grows and cooks,

teaches and mentors, about the marvel of who we can be,

one meal at a time, our bodies chiming in time

with what the earth offers, how we can put

our hands and time to good use to feed the soul

of the world we inhabit that inhabits us.

Endings and Beginnings at Midnight: Everyday Magic, Day 906

It is 12:04 a.m., and I”m writing this from our back deck where I sit cross-legged in a chair and stare up at two enormous trees. The wind pours wave after wave through the tree to my right, Cottonwood Mel, and the moon rises through the the branches and thick leaves of the tree to my left.

I should be sleeping perhaps, but instead, I’m letting the wind bathe me free and watching the stars above and the lightning bugs below. It’s a time of big endings and beginnings for me, and the confluence of all, plus some misguided coffee in the afternoon, has landed me here, telling the field how much I love it, letting this land know how much it has healed and held me over many years.

Tonight, I had my last governing meeting for an organization I’ve been involved in deeply for 13 years, now on solid ground and blossoming, and me having realized close to a year ago that it was time to step off and make greater space for others. Following the Curve, a book of poems is at the publisher, another — one based on this very blog — is being proof-read, and my novel Miriam’s Well that I’ve been writing for 13 or more years, is coming out later in the year. Other endings abound, and all seem especially fortuitous. A chronic illness gig that has occupied me too often for many years seems to be, I hope I hope I hope, packing its bags and only making short appearances. The cars are almost paid off. The shed we wanted to build for 20 years is kinda sorta almost done. Bigger projects of the big dream variety in my life and work seem to be ebbing and flowing to new pulls of the moon.

But what is happening at this moment calls me attention: the wind suddenly surges like a standing ovation for the best concert in the world, an ovation that can’t stop itself. I think it’s over, but the fast air through my air and on my skin, the rocking branches of the trees, and the sound the sky makes tells me otherwise. Then, without warning, a few seconds of quiet before it starts all over again.

It’s a cliche, true that though, to say everything is beginning and ending at once, like the 19 minutes since I started this post, the moon climbing a few branches higher, a errant lightning bug sailing over the railing of the deck and back to the woods. While the endings are sometimes easier to see, at least in retrospect, the beginnings are especially mysterious, even tracking when the beginning begins. The chatter hum of the cicadas and the yawning roar of a distant plane tell me how little I know. Yet everything sings to and through me of how blessed I am to be here on a summer night with my best elemental friend, the wind.