Category Archives: Friends

Surviving with Gumption & Grace: Everyday Magic, Day 875

14570306_10154659715690159_959994163246427131_nToday, I had the honor of giving a keynote note at the Days of Caring event in Hays, Kansas — a luncheon and fashion show to raise awareness about breast cancer. Here’s the talk I gave, drawing on my experiences and writing as well as what I’ve been witnessed to witness through facilitating writing workshops and being with community. Thanks to Juno Ogle, who chaired the event and invited me to participate, and the others who made this happen (Brenda, Andrea, Donna and everyone one else). P.S. I also got to mosey on the catwalk in my first fashion show ever. Thankfully, I didn’t trip.

Surviving With Gumption and Grace

Your Life is Your Life

Know this when you must lie

completely still on the steel table

while the glass plate presses down

on your chest. Your life

obviously your life. Dream it back

into your memory for when

the kool-aid-colored chemo

is pumped into the plastic port

in your clavicle. Tell yourself

this when the doctor comes in

to talk with you, carrying

a small box of tissues. Don’t

forget then how your life is

your life, not when the phone rings

at the wrong time, or the biopsy needle

inserted in your left breast shoots

its click near your heart. Your life beats

loud and often. Your life

surges against itself

in at least some cells so tell it

your life is your life

when you sit, naked from

the waist up on the examining table.

Your life there talking with

the pharmacist or here on the couch

is your life. Pick it up

and hold it close

especially when the wait

is long and the news is bad.

Tell your life what it is.

I wrote this poem in the middle of my cancer when I was learning a whole lot about a word I didn’t know at the time: sisu. This Finnish word with no English translation loosely means grit, bravery, guts, resilience, perseverance, in short, all the spirit and imaginative courage of the word gumption. Grace speaks to that illusive quality of aligning ourselves with the blessings and sacredness of life. Altogether, gumption and grace names for me what it means to make and re-make our lives out of the materials we’ve been given. In my case, and for many of you too, cancer is part of what we work with, and no wonder given that the latest statistics indicated that one out of three of us will face some form of cancer.

How to grow gumption and grace in our hearts, lives and communities? One of the big things I learned through cancer – having it, being with loved ones who survived or didn’t, and facilitating writing workshops for people with cancer for many years – is how much we need to steer by our own feet and flashlights through dark times. Advice from others is often over-rated, especially when you face big decisions. So for the sake of this talk, I’m going tell you my story, aiming toward what lessons I learned about grace and gumption, with the caveat that your life is your life.

Listen to Your Story

“Everything can be survived if it’s part of a story” goes an old Yiddish proverb. Our cancer tells its own tale as we live our own much-larger-than-just-cancer story, intermingled narratives that can’t help but change one another. I both expected breast cancer, given that my mom and aunt each had it twice, and didn’t until I was much older. But when I was 42 with three young children, the news landed in me and began changing how I understood being a body and woman, a change, as my oncologist Dr. Matthew Stein told me, would keep unfolding the rest of my life. Here is the beginning of that story from my memoir, The Sky Begins At Your Feet.

We were completely lost in the Flint Hills of Kansas, and I didn’t care. All we could see were the wide expanse of hills, sky, cows, and the occasional rock, skeleton of a windmill, or fragmented stones from pioneer homes. I stared out the front passenger side window, marveling at the lush green rising and falling all directions, hardly any power lines because there was so little for the lines to power. The land looked surely as it had appeared for hundreds, thousands of years. Tall grass sloped all over itself on what felt like the top of the world, and everywhere the wind conspired with the sun to make the grasses gleam. It felt like being at very high altitude, only instead of mountains, windmills.

Expansive as galaxies, the Flint Hills lay down all directions like long, lanky bodies rolling away from or toward each other. “The sky begins at your feet,” writes essayist Anne Herbert, and there’s nothing like wandering around the center of Kansas to prove this, and also to find out how easy it is to get lost in the sky.

Early this March morning, the sun illuminated the curves of the land and long shadows of trees and rocks in such a way that we let ourselves get lost without a second thought. My friends and my nine-year-old daughter and I were driving all over Chase County, looking for the ranch of a woman we were to visit for an event we were organizing the following fall. Now we were driving eight miles in the vibrant hills down the wrong road.

None of us spoke when we reached the dead-end. Instead, Joy just u-turned the car around, skimming some of the grass, and we headed back in the direction from which we came. We were all too taken with the sensation that this land went on forever….

I didn’t know that once we righted ourselves, found the woman we were to meet, delighted in driving all over the county for a few more hours, and eventually made our way home, I would begin another kind of trip. I didn’t know that while I was merrily lost, a technician from our local hospital’s mammography department was leaving a message on my answering machine that would lead to an old doctor, white-tufted and shaking his head, who would say, once he saw the mistletoe-shaped lump in my breast, “Yes, this looks very worrisome indeed.”

I just knew how alive I felt, and how the world seemed, at that moment of being lost, to be forming anew, which, it turned out, was also true.

I believe in those first glimpses as well as hard-won, long-term truths. In that first glimpse of being lost and alive, I saw something that would lead me: the beauty of the always-in-motion world, friends and community, land and sky. Within a short time, the wonder my big-picture wonder turned to fear and what many of us diagnosed with serious illness experience: a disconnect between the life we thought we were leading and the one that turned up, between who we saw ourselves as, and who we are at this moment. I wrote this poem, printed in Reading the Body, about that moment.


Not what you’d expect, not in this ordinary body:

the phone message on the machine that says,

mammogram” and “irregular,” the technician’s voice

later who tells you there’s something

to look at, make sure, check, just in case.

Then it’s that moment alone in the bedroom,

the chair so large and forgiving, the panic

that suddenly seems extraterrestrial, the incessant

questions while the wait stretches its beginning

to meet you.

Until the second x-ray hangs on the lit box

singing out its small constellation of calcium, until the

surgeon’s receptionist touches your shoulder kindly

and nods, until you lie on a still table

while a nurse looks, shrugs just a little,

until that call, and those words which come

by the time you already know them, you

already know the walls of your body falling away,

this dropping down to your seat, to your notebook

where you write it down because you’re supposed to,

to your fingers looking so normal

as they hold the pen and paper, unfurling

this new script, this open page

of a body where, without moving an inch,

you’ve become a flesh-and-bones double

of who you always were – one who has cancer,

one who can’t believe it, and both of you

standing up, shaking the hand of the doctor,

walking out into widest sky you’ve ever seen.

I thought cancer would be quick and not interfere with my life too much – a lumpectomy, some radiation, and I’d be back in the saddle again as if nothing has changed but a little less boobage. But after my lumpectomy, the bad news kept getting worse. I had Stage 2 cancer with metastases in the lymph nodes under my left arm. When the word “chemo” was first mentioned, followed quickly by “oncologist,” I was terrified. I threw up easily and was very sensitive to medicine. Hell, I can’t even drink a beer without a migraine, so how could I possibly do chemo?

I reluctantly went to Dr. Stein, a compassionate and wise oncologist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, with my husband and a lot of paper for note-taking After meeting for two hours, I was skeptical about chemo but in the face of statistics that mapped out a very shortened life without chemo, I agreed.

Chemo, like everything else, is not what we think. I could still work as a teacher and workshop leader. I could still write, throw a frozen pizza in the oven for the kids, and watch chick flicks while guzzling iced water. I was, and this is what surprised me most during the six months I did a rather aggressive regime of chemo, still me, not erased by my treatment, just dampened down. Sure, there was discomfort, pain, fear storms that blew in from seemingly nowhere like dust storms that covered everything, lots of doctors appointments, impressive projective vomiting, a rush to the hospital with an infection, and all manner of side effects, which I compared in my memoir to a walk through the Princess Bride’s fire swamp. There were mouth sores, headaches, queasiness, blasts of steroid-induced cleaning spurs that left me listless the next day, and massive mood swings that could have been from chemo, temporary menopause chemo catalyzed, depression or all of the above.

There was also meals delivered by friends and family so regularly for six months that we had to beg people to bring less food, surprise guests from other periods of my life who wrapped me in love, strangers who carried my bags to the car and hugged me, my children and husband especially being there in ways that kept bringing me back to the real life, and a whole lot of humor, one of the most important ways I found to feel almost normal. Here’s another excerpt from The Sky Begins At Your Feet.

The Tattooed Lady

After my buzz cut, right after the second chemo treatment when my hair was supposed to fall out, it fell out in such slow motion that I started to look less like a Holocaust victim and more like a very confused duckling. That was when I called Courtney and Denise. Veterans of shaved heads, and lured also by the promise of spaghetti and meatballs, they came right over.

While the pasta boiled, Denise shaved a checkerboard on my head, telling me it looked awesome. Courtney nodded, but Ken, walking in the door after a long day at work, told me I looked like a gang member. The kids trailing behind him just gaped at me.

I went to the mirror. White supremacist. Not really my look. So I asked Denise to shave it all off. Sometime after spaghetti and meatballs, with Courtney and Denise joking about my cool new look….I found my hand reaching for a pack of fake tattoos. Birds. All different kinds – cardinals, blue jays, eagles, owls. Some of the birds had wings outstretched, mid-flight, and others were perched. The tattoos were my nine-year-old daughter Natalie’s, and neither she nor I could remember where she got them.

Tattoos. Bald head. A flash of electricity jumped between them. I knew what I had to do.

I put a cardinal right over my left eye, a goose over my right, and the others became part of the garland around my head. Flight. Wings. Color. Beauty. They just seemed to belong there.

When I came back to the table, where Forest, was passing out ice cream bars, he started giggling. “Are those permanent?” Daniel, aged 12, asked.

“Oh my god,” said Natalie, but she was smiling. “Mom, you’ve got freaking birds on your head!”

The tattoos were indeed temporary, and within a week, my birds started to tatter, but I found a toy store that carried temporary tattoos….It became a ritual: Once I week, I would shave my head smooth of the nubs that had started to erupt, and then carefully, with a wet washcloth, apply a circle of mammals, amphibians, butterflies, or sometimes flowers. The ring of flora or fauna lightened up the chemo for the kids and for me and took the bald edge off my life. Once, as I lifted a bag of groceries, a woman called out, “Hey, I like your fishies.”

I turned and looked at her, trying to smile as I said, “They’re whales.”

I walked into the hall of Forest’s elementary school where some kindergartens stared at my head, so I bent down.

“Wow! Dogs,” one said.

“That one looks like our puppy,” said another.

For a chemo appointment, I wore flowers, small delicate pansies, daisies, and roses. For a taco dinner at Ken’s parents’ house, I sported small woodland creatures, a fox over my third eye. For getting the oil in the car changed, I wore wolves….

One day, when a teacher saw my bald head as I picked Natalie up, he looked at my garland of galloping horses, and called out, “Hey, who did you lose a bet with?”

“God,” I answered.

But it turned out that at least God had a good sense of humor, and there was something about wearing a ringlet of kittens around my scalp that made chemo seem a lot less like a pact with the devil.

No pact, but a pack: the pack of people I come from who, it turned out, seemed like sure bets to have the BRCA genetic mutation for cancer – breast cancer widespread, pancreatic cancer that killed or would kill my dad and his brother. When my genetic test came back, I was positive for BRCA 1, and so had some big, or rather, size B-cup decisions to make about whether to have my breasts, ovaries and uterus removed. With an 87% chance of recurrent breast cancer and a 44% chance of ovarian cancer, I decided, with ample support from many nurses, my oncologist and surgeons, and most of all, Ken, family and friend, to let it all go. From Reading the Body:


The day after they cut my breasts off,

just home from the hospital, not even

napping or talking on the phone yet,

that day, I walked on my own two legs

down the dirt road over the slope

of loose rocks, cradling, as I walked,

the broken body, the large orange handled

clippers, the big wind holding me,

the man I loved behind me getting ready

to start his car to come get me,

that day beginning the healing

from all of it – unslashed

from the expectation of what knife or infusion

comes next


was the day I made my way to my mother-in-law’s

old-fashioned dark purple lilac, and reached against

the tightness of gauze and paper tape, against

the odd sensation of parts removed and scars

just making themselves, against my sore arms reaching

toward their old strength


to gather and hold,

to cut and cut and cut

all I could fill my arms with,

all the dark purple alive with death and

birth, loss and blossom, and the white ones too.


My arms filling with the explosion of lilac,

my life filling with wind and weight of branches,

all of it against, upon, my open chest,

all of it ready to be carried

into the next life

that starts right now.

After 14 months of chemo, three major surgeries and a few minor ones, dozens of casseroles delivered with love, countless long talks with my husband about every angle of this journey, three surgeons, one oncologist, and a bevy of holy nurses, I was done. “Am I cured?” I asked Dr. Stein. “We won’t know for sure for five years,” he answered, and when it comes to mortality, we’re never completely cured, yet hanging out with it catalyzes many responses. Here is what I wrote about my one-year anniversary in The Sky Begins At Your Feet:

Happy Anniversary, Darling!

Anniversaries are major deals for survivors, and often the way we introduce ourselves to doctors, support groups, and other survivors….it seems like something that would fit well on a stick-on name tag, yet it carries the weight of healing and defiance, hope and fear, the future and the past….

Still, I cling to my (cancer) anniversary date, March 21st, the spring Equinox, as another fence post I’ve reached in my life’s wandering through the wide prairie lands – no path often present – of struggles and arrivals. Since my cancer treatment ended, two conflicting impulses have been released into my bloodstream: to hold tight to the wider view of life that cancer gave me, and to get as much done as possible, because who knows when I’ll die.

Let’s just say that, at first, the “get as much done as possible” gene was dominant, which isn’t so surprising given my history of packing my schedule to fill each pocket with something to do, my workaholic father, and my infatuation with starting new projects. I shot out of the cannon at high speed, adding to my life more administrative work related to my teaching job, and more writing projects, workshops, groups, and volunteer obligations.

But just like the earlier rise and fall from the chemo steroids, after flowing with this jet-stream for a while, I crashed into the ground, where I found my second impulse taking deeper root.

The second impulse led me to others’ stories, the veil gone as they spoke and wrote about what mattered most in the writing workshops I started first at various hospitals before settling into regular writing retreats at Turning Point: The Center for Hope and Healing in Kansas City. From The Sky Begins At Your Feet, here is one of those sessions, incidentally, on my third anniversary:

I look at the square table surrounded by seven faces, and remember that the group last year had 12. Gone is an elegant retired nurse and lover of piloting planes, who came last spring wearing beautiful pink sweaters and accented scarves, saving her energy all day from her breast-to-liver metastasized cancer for a chance to write stories about her life. Gone is the young mother of two small boys who had been told she was probably going to be okay only to find….she had a particularly aggressive kind of cancer that moved at lightning speed all through her organs. Gone is the woman who gave other members tremendously wry and wise support while she was caught in extensive treatment for rectal cancer. “I’m just a pain in the ass,” she reminded us, months before her death.

We spend a lot of time in these groups laughing and crying….Often, just introducing ourselves brings tears of relief – here, people can write about whatever they want without having to protect loved ones. Those tears also come from the caregivers, who feel that monumental pressure to hold up the other, to put their fear and dread on a shelf so they can get in the kitchen and cook up something good to eat, feed the life that feeds them.

But it’s the laughter that stays with me – the jokes about “You look great!” and the comebacks of, “What do you mean? That I usually look like shit?” The way Katie begins one of her poems with, “Don’t give me that look, that look that says I have Rumsey Funeral Home on speed dial.” The cracks about how sexy we look without boobs or hair….wearing compression sleeves or carrying our canes.

When I get home one summer night, Ken asks, “Doesn’t it hit on all your own cancer issues to do this work?” He thinks it might depress me, but no, it does the opposite.

I think of Linda, a writer and photographer who has been taking my Kansas City workshop throughout her late-stage ovarian cancer. Last week, Sue said to her, “You know, my breast cancer was caught early, and it’s nothing compared to what you have. When I’m with you, I feel like I’m really okay.”

I’m glad my dying makes you feel better,” Linda said with a straight face, her page boy wig distinguished, as she catapulted us all into the kind of laughter that takes your breath away.

Maybe my ease has to do with how Linda’s dying helps me cultivate perspective, give up sweating the small stuff so much (by the way, it’s 12 years later, and Linda’s still alive). But I suspect it has more to do with the courage I witness, week after week, in all the workshops I do: the way that people are willing to take great risks in the stories they write and tell; how the veneer of what we think keeps us safe is gone in such workshops. What really matters is unearthing meaning, clearing the obstacles out of the way, including fear and doubt, insecurity and low confidence, to feel more alive in the process of creation.

It also has something to do with the stories I hear and the stories I witness. The man who reads a poem he wrote to his wife, who just finished breast cancer treatment, about how strong she is, crying throughout his reading while reminding us, “Hey, I’m an engineer! I never cry, and in this workshop, I can’t stop.”

I remember Linda’s words, “I don’t believe we were writing toward specific endings. They just happened serendipitously and wonderfully.” She reads me one of her favorite endings, “Every fiber of me begs to wake up—to wake up, electric, stunned, and newly alive.”

It’s everything Linda says, that new life available at any given moment for the looking. The faint breeze that comes through us as we get ready to leave one place and land in another. All the time.

At the same time, I realize that who gets to live through cancer has nothing to do with personal goodness. I see women who have similar diagnoses to mine face recurrence or sudden death. While treatment choices, lifestyle, diet and attitude certainly weigh in on mortality, cancer is also so catalyzed by a complex web of what we know and what’s beyond our knowing. A spin of the dice as to why Marla survives stage four breast cancer for five years, and why Edie endures three recurrences of what was supposed to be caught early and easy to treat. So often cancer has nothing to do with character, fairness, risk or daring.

Given the poisons infused in the soil, water and air, in our bodies and the bodies, stems, trunks and cores of other species, all I know is how much humans are not exempt from the earth. Some of us have a little more of the canary in the mineshaft in us than others, but we’re all in the mineshaft together.

We live in a dangerous world. We live in a beautiful world. What is essential in our stories can save us from and for something, but often we have to wrestle with the story to find such treasure. Throughout my chemo, I told myself the story of Jacob and the angle from the old testament. Jacob didn’t just wrestle with the angel until he was freed but until he could exact a blessing from that angel. Each chemo treatment, I told myself, thanks to good advice from a healer and friend, to take it all in deeply, then not release it until my body received the blessing of bad cells dying so good ones could flourish. After treatment, I realized that wrestling with challenges to find the blessing isn’t a bad way to dance with gumption and grace. We can puzzle out with what comes enough blessing to transform trauma, loss, pain and uncertainty into whatever meaning there is for us.

Looking for meaning entails getting cozy with where and who we are, including our interior weather, which can change on a dime, especially during moments of great compression where mortality is more than an abstraction. We might feel numbness, disconnection, even denial, which can be a mighty helpful tool when letting the floodgates open would drown us or we just need to take a break from the pain, terror, or confusion.Whatever comes, the last thing we need to pepper it with is shame for what we feel. I’ve seen so many people, including myself, needing to go through momentary pity parties and hate-the-world bouts, and while we can likely agree this isn’t a good place to live, I believe part of growing our gumption and finding grace is not avoiding our own souls.

In the middle of my treatment, I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Oh no! Not another learning opportunity!” “Oh no” is right as well as “oh, well.” Each moment, each project, each relationship, each life has its own calling – something we can engage in to bring this to its highest manifestation. The lessons are in having a conversation with the callings.

My cancer told me, in billboard-sized lettering, to take better care of myself, extend my awareness well behind my frontal lobe to encompass my whole body, and love that body even if cultivating this love is life-long and more prone to show itself in glimpses. I learned not just about my own resilience, but about the resilience of my family and community, and how it was a gift to me to accept help as well as a gift to those who give it. I’m still learning how vulnerable, fragile, strong, and surprising I am, how I’m not always who I thought I would be, and neither is anyone else. I have the rest of my life to study how to be fully human and alive, to notice the great beauty and power all around me possible in love and care.

What astonishes me is the courage we’re all capable of, not just to endure chemo, radiation, surgery, and losses, but to continually discover more of what the world in around and within us. John Willison had paratoid cancer, slow-moving as a lonely and overloaded freight train, he once told me. In the Turning Point writing workshops he attended for six years, sharing writing of such magic and exactness in naming what is that everyone in the group would routinely lean forward and smile when it was his turn to read. As he was dying, a friend as well as a workshop participant by then, I worked with him to publish his first and last book of poems, I Have My Home in Two Worlds. Here is an excerpt from one of his poems about loving whatever comes – feeling what you feel, and embracing the lesson:

Reasons to Love Grief

You should love grief, because, chastened so,

when it goes out, if it goes out at all,

into the assault of the world,

it’s under cloak and veil, too ashamed,

too raw to reveal itself, all rag and bone.


Love grief, because there are moments when

it decides to go some distance away –

to a lonely cabin by the lake, which it considers

jumping into because it’s always wondered

what it would be like to drown.


You should love grief because it isn’t itself anymore.

It goes out to bars, drinks all night, hurls insults,

gets into fights and comes home, all cut and bruise.


Love grief because when it looks in the mirror,

it does not see itself reflected back.

It has been hollowed and emptied out

and simply wants to drop down

into the stone cold ground.


You should love grief because it is a lost girl,

abandoned by those who should have loved her.


Even her friends just chit and chat,

talking about their next meal,

getting their fill of the world

while sitting next to them,

there is someone starving.


It is all that, but it is also this:

the tenderest thing just a tear away

from breaking wholly open,

letting the deepest love it has ever experienced


come spilling out.

And love your grief because

if not you, who then.

When it comes to serious illness or any of the ways life can kick us when we’re down, it’s especially hard to stand back up so no wonder there’s a lot of talk of cultivating resilience – the ability to bounce or bend instead of crash-land and break. I think feeling what you feel – discovering more about who you are through what life gives you – is the other side of finding our resilience. We see how low we can go and how, against the odds, we get out of bed, stumble toward the kitchen, and pour ourselves a cup of lukewarm coffee, each day beginning again.

At the same time, there is this: this moment, right now tumbling into autumn around us as the fields yellow and grasses redden. Right now in this room lit by the faces of those who know surviving might come breath by breath, but thriving comes by being with those who have eyes to see and hearts and to hear. Which also speaks to how we can’t often sustain gumption or grace without community, family, friends, a circle of people who really “get” us, witness our story, invite us into theirs, and share the wealth of our collective courage, insight, and examples. Listening to one another enhances our ability to hear ourselves, to see our own story as part of the unfolding mosaic of our days and lives. In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Julie Cowdin, a participant in both my Turning Point and Lawrence Memorial Hospital writing workshops, wrote this poem, published in My Tree Called Life:

To Other Survivors

I am never alone.

You heard the words, “You have cancer” before I did.

I am never alone

You were afraid before I was.

I am never alone.

You cried rivers before I did.

I am never alone.

You once had poison running through your veins.

I am never alone.

You were bald once too.

I am never alone.

You’ve had the same surgeries.

I am never alone.

You tried to soothe your burning flesh.

I am never alone.

You were beautiful, gracious, living survivors before I was.

Survival often gets confused with heroism as if not surviving cancer means failure when in my book at least, it’s what we do with our lives that lifts us and others around up. Julie’s cancer returned, and she died, leaving behind young children and a loving husband as well as her writing and humor – she often called herself the Edgar Allan Poe of our writing workshops. In her words about how we’re never alone, we can also look around right now and see in each other, look within and see in ourselves, our love we carry all of our days for those now gone. We can carry that love into our work and play, art and solitude, dreams and understandings. As anyone who’s suffered a big loss knows, the relationship doesn’t end with death; it continues on over time, a conversation in and with our souls even if the one gone doesn’t speak up enough to hear what he or she is saying most of the time. Memories bubble up through the surface or flow down from the heavens, bringing ache and yearning as well as sweetness.

I watched and loved a great many people – my dad, my stepdad, numerous people in the writing groups I lead, and most recently, a dear friend – die from cancer, and what I found is how important it is to be present with and listen deeply to those we care about, no matter the situation. Going on in the cloud of big losses calls on us, perhaps even more than the daily challenges of cancer treatment or its aftermath, to grow our gumption and grace. That is how we wrestle with the angel to honor the memory, find the blessing, and keep on going. That is how we open ourselves to the beauty of the world as it’s happening. That’s what makes us weak and strong at the same time.

We carry our stories and losses, our triumphs and heartbreaks, our pasts and futures in our every step. Doing so with gumption and grace points us toward the fierceness of embodying how our lives are our lives, yet softening and opening our hearts to chat regularly with our purpose and callings, and embrace our people, the ones gone, the ones still here, the ones to come.


All that year of cancer and surgeries,

of my father’s cancer and death as I held

his knee, of his chemo and mine,

long waits for injections or test results,

I dreamt of bridges – large suspension bridges

I had to scale with my hands or climb over

gingerly with trembling legs.

Slim wooden slats stories above certain

rocks, and always a slat or two

missing in the high wind. Crossing

expansive spaces made of water

or shifting ground, junkyards or rivers,

untold distances to master.

Sometimes there were ways to stop climbing –

a phone call or a plane ticket, another needle

in my forearm, the gleaming ceiling of the

waiting room while the magazine spread itself

across my lap, telling me of other destinations.

Or there was the occasional fall as I sat on the bed,

the fear storming through me like shards

of nightmare, the reaching out for help

from that sensation of going under.

I do not have words big enough for how far I traveled.

I do not have language intimate enough

for how I arrived here, to the world more itself

than it ever was before, tender as the last breath

of my father, fierce as the woman

waking up again on the other side.

Please support my publishers! Get a copy of The Sky Begins At Your Feet at Ice Cube Press here, and you can pick up Reading the Body at the Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, KS, or by contacting me at John Willison’s book is here. You can also pick up a copy of My Tree Called Tree: Writing and Living With Serious Illness, which I edited, published by Turning Point: The Center for Hope and Healing here.

Ocean View to Porch View: Everyday Magic, Day 868

Yesterday morning, I walked acrosIMG_1758s the narrow beach into the ocean, dipping my toes into the cold Maine waters until, scared and hesitant, I dropped in and swam like crazy to warm up until the sea carried me with ease.

This morning, I walked to my front porch, put my feet up, and stared into the Osage Orange tree and other things in my view, like my car that got strangely covered with bird poop while I was away. I let the chartreuse padded rocker (found years ago in a small-town Kansas thrift store) carry me into quiet.

In between, there were airports, a very strong cup of iced coffee, a narrow plane seat 30,000 feet off the earth with a view of the Jersey island (Long Beach Island) where I fretted as a teen, and IMG_1813surrealist naps between the captain’s garbled announcements. There was the ride to the Portland Jetway with an old friend/ Goddard student who shared the moving, drastic, and ultimate healing story of losing his home to a fire. There was a lobster roll and very salty potato chips at one airport, and a Philly pretzel at the other. There was the baggage carousel with finally Jerry’s suitcase to grab, the luggage left to me by my dearly-departed friend who still travels with me. There was Ken late at night and the beautiful and car-fumed air of the home airport, then the ride where as usual, I alternated between talking at high speed and staring into the blur of familiar highway sites. Then there was the house waiting for me, complete with cat vomit in the entry way, a very happy dog, my beautiful sons, a clean kitchen counter, and a whole lot of mail.

Balanced precariously on the ledge of these merging views, I recover from close to two weeks away and all the beauty and exhaustion that filled that time. I run to the garden in the morning in my nightgown to graze on tomatoes and consider what to plant for a fall garden. I nap deeply for hours, then find out it was just 10 minutes. I plant a big dinner while watching the many hummingbirds from this porch, then decide yogurt and fruit is best.

The view behind, the view ahead, and the view now hangs mysteriously together when I see a fast orange butterfly reminding me that just yesterday how a bunch of us in the ocean pointed up and laughed when we saw a black butterfly. Motion links us.

Charles Is A Force of Nature: Everyday Magic, Day 862

IMG_0873Just now, the wind picked itself up and gusted up to 40 mph after the very still, humid and over-the-top hot day of Charles’ death. No rain, no storm, no big wind expected, but as I write this, in the dark on the porch, the sky flashes all directions in dark purple and curls of lightning, a lone cricket sings his song, and the wind is moving some of the furniture just a little. Thunder rumbles to the west, some young trees go horizontal, and I know this force of nature has a name: Charles.

Charles was one of the first Lawrencians I ever met, in about 1981 when I was a member of the Kansas City Sufi community, where Charles and his wife Khabira would sometimes visit. I was dazzled by Charles’ exuberance about Dances of Universal Peace and, as I learned over the years, most things. It’s an understatement to say he’s one of the most enthusiastic people on the planet, embracing many paths and many communities. Charles was a Jew, a Sufi, a Shaker, a Quaker, a Buddhist, and likely felt kinship with many other spiritual traditions. He dealt in Volkswagen repair, real estate transactions and management, mentoring men, and lots more. A father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, he was especially excited about his family, and he bowed with his hands together at heart center whenever he saw us as if we were each his favorite human.

Charles died this morning at our local hospital after years of cancer and months of an especially difficult end. I was going to visit him in the afternoon with Ken, but because of a mix-up regarding differing news of his condition, I went over earlier to find Khabira and the lovely hospice people sitting quietly. I plopped myself on the stool next to Charles, and asked how he was doing. “Oh, did you not know?” Khabira asked. When she told me, I burst out crying, shocked that a long-time-coming death could actually come.

Sitting by Charles, I was struck by what I’ve experienced at other deaths, including my father’s: how death seems strangely ordinary. Dying? Not so much, and especially not in Charles’ case after weeks of intense pain, love, holding on, letting go, and the combination of uncertainty, morphine and cancer that spins everything into a vortex. But death, this fresh and close-up, as many remarked over the day, is so surrealistic. How could someone alive be dead when life titters on its meanderings, noise and heat all around us?

IMG_0875The time in the hospital was infused with peace and sadness, forms to fill out, calls to make, and puzzling over what of our collective vehicles was the best way to get Charles from hospital to home where the family was doing its own home-grown funeral direction. We settled on a van even though seats had to be removed, and soon, some of us were carrying Charles into his office, a separate building behind his home. We had a cardboard insta-coffin to fold together after deciding to put the “handle with extreme care” side on the inside so that tomorrow, friends and family can decorate the outside with messages and images of love and goodbye.

In little time, off the cuff and steering by the heart, we made a ceremony of washing the body, moving Charles into the cardboard coffin, and with lots of hard work and engineering (and a pair of scissors), getting him into a beautiful robe he’s worn for many religious occasions. Ken and one of the hospice people lifted his head and shoulders enough for me to wrap his Tallis, a Jewish prayer shawl he had for years and that Jews are customarily buried in, around him. I even wound one of the fringes of the tallis around his finger, a sign of active prayer. Throughout the work of our hands, we sang one of my Charles’ favorite Sufi songs — “Listen, Listen, Listen to My Heart Song,” read some blessings for the body and four directions, burned sage, sprinkled holy water and rose petals on him, and learned how to activate bags of dry ice. The whole thing was simple, spontaneous, necessary and tender.

UntitledNow Charles the Storm envelopes us, breaking the heat wave for this moment with cool wind and sweet rain. “I’ve never seen a storm on radar like this one,” Ken says right now as he sits beside me in the dark.

“What is this storm like?” I ask.

“Indescribable. It’s like there’s a mega storm with a huge center, just west of here spinning off all these thunderstorms.”

We look at radar, and see a wheel of weather, sending change many directions at once. Not an ordinary storm but a force of nature, like Charles: original, life-giving, exuberant, and full of magic. All around, there’s lightning bugs and lightning, wave and particle, a big fireworks display across the clouds in the shapes of fast-moving rivers or tree branchings, and in the fields, thousands of small lanterns blinking on and off like heartbeats. Dance in peace, dear friend.

Saved (Again) By Music: Everyday Music, Day 860

Celebrating Claudia's birthday at the concert with Michel Loomis
Celebrating Claudia’s birthday at the concert with Michel Loomis

Listening to the astonishingly spirited Claudia Schmidt perform a house concert in Old West Lawrence last night, despite the sauna-esque glow of where I was sitting, I felt tapped on the shoulder to turn around and change. For the last few months, alternately freaking out, napping on the porch, guzzling caffeinated beverages, hugging good friends, complaining, breaking open my heart, talking with Ken while we lie in bed exhausted and overwhelmed, eating too many cookies and other new normals of Deathwatch 2016, I’ve tended to forget that every living moment is not consumed by intensity and crisis. Thankfully, somewhere in the middle of one of Claudia’s songs, reality broke through and said, “Snap out of it, Caryn! It’s just right now.”

Right now varies of course, and lately, it can especially seesaw from a F4 tornado to light-breezed blue-skied views. But right then at the concert, it become abundantly clear that I could drop the 62-pound backpack of grief singing at the speed of emergency, and sit happily on a small folding chair, letting Claudia’s high and low-pitches woos, scatting, and shimmering voice, guitar or dulcimer, and presence of tenderness, freedom, friendship, justice, awareness and welcome shine through me. Each note, each breath, helped me tilt just enough to catch the present and remember how much I love this life, this music, these people, this place, this time even.

Music also holds memories and holds us. When Claudia sang “Hard Love,” I followed the river of the last 35-something years from when I first heard this song, concentrating then as I did last night on the words, “the only kind of miracle that’s worthy of its names/ because the love that heals our lives is mostly hard love.” I also got to talk about that song with Daniel, now 27, but probably a baby when he first heard it, about what hard love can mean. Another song, “These Stairs,” brought me back and forward as I thought about what it means to die at home. “The Strong Women’s Polka,” a newer song she wrote and sang, brought us together in laughter, recognition and singing along with the chorus, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes me you wish you were dead.” It also reminded me of the power of music to knock us into hysterics, the happy kind, and make community out of audiences and performers.

Music has saved me all my life, from the first songs my mother sang me that made me feel less fear and more beauty, to what I’m listening to right now, “When the Deal Came Down,” a song I co-wrote with Kelley Hunt sung by Kelley right here. This morning in the bath, I listened to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s gorgeous rendition of “10,000 Miles,” which imbued the movie “Fly Away Home” with deep waves of healing and homecoming. I cycle through long stretches of the guys too: Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Leonard Cohen as well as more show tunes than perhaps a person should ingest in a day. On the way to town today, I was thrilled to hear Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story,” music that picks me up and puts me back down as a more coherent human. Altogether, music reminds me that I’m a buzzing, changing, churning and rhythmic body held in the larger body of community and the earth.

Music — just as the song Kelley and I wrote, “Music Was the Thread” — has held together my story and held me together continually, a heartbeat sounding in the background and center of life as I know it. Here is a poem I wrote in the last year about that thread:

The Thread


My mother singing “Tora Lora Lora,”

the Irish lullaby even though we were Brooklyn Jews.

The vacuum on the shag carpet. The singular birch

shaking over the hapless window sill. The humming refrigerator.

The chants encasing me in each swayed note as I wrapped

my thin arms around my cold chest in the cavernous synagogue.

The creak of the swing as I turn horizontal, defying gravity

in the static of the transistor radio. The loud slap on the bass notes

of the body that make bruises, then the slow breath

of forgiveness, pacing until the danger is gone.

All the possibilities in each library novel about a girl,

afraid at the start, but about to do something

to swirl the calm pond of her life. The first kiss in the back

of the school bus broken by applause. The sound of thunder,

an interior roar like hunger. The old staccato of my father’s anger

before it dissolved into the tenderness of defeat.

The way some mornings rev up like motorcycles

coming point blank toward us. The exhaling speed

of rivers, starving for new ground, or betrayed

by sudden shorelines that break the water into remembering

willows. Bike tires on wet pavement, downhill,

at dawn. The happy rhythm of the subway rocking my spine

in and out of alignment with the dark as we tunneled

through water back to air, the miracle of one rushing animal

carrying us all. This buzzing body ferrying millions of cells into sound.

For the Claudia Schmidt concert, big thanks to Burdett and Michel Loomis for hosing us in their beautiful home, Bruce and Peggy Kelly for bringing Claudia (and bringing her back to Kansas!), Kat for all the home-made goodies, and for hauling in and out many chairs and a big sound system, Forest, Daniel, Thomas, Bruce, Burdett and others. Bouquets of gratitude to Claudia too!

The Growing Pains of Wild and Woolly Too-Muchness: Everyday Magic, Day 859

IMG_0984The grass of our lawn is so high that I can’t find our push mower, but since it’s likely broken, what’s the use ? Another thunderstorm pushes toward us, and once again, the humidity soars and the wind picks up energy. All night I dreamt of my dying friend after a weekend that includes many varieties of the wild, the woolly and the too-muchness.

This Memorial Day weekend, I wrote and revised an obituary and memorial service after meeting with my friend’s family, organized some of the tools in the basement, shepherded ingredients for a barbecue to my dying mother-in-law’s house and occasionally tried to get her to engage in almost saying “yes” as she becomes increasingly non-verbal, swam in the too-luscious but also too-warm pool waters with my delightful sister-in-law, hauled a bunch of boxes of broken things to the trash, spent inordinate time on the interwebs to find one great b &b in Kansas City for an overnight escape next week, made mashed potatoes, talked to several people about the close ones dying in our lives, watched videos of otters eating cereal, wrote a letter to a student, swam some more, and entertained bouts of “when-will-this-too-muchness-end?” despite the futility of wondering. I almost cried, almost wrote a poem, almost started a mosaic with newly-found old tiles (nothing like cleaning out the basement), almost finished the top of a new quilt, and almost freaked out (or maybe I actually did that).

There are times when everything grows exponentially from the lawn, to the sourdough starter our son is making, to us, but like most growing pains, it can be crazily confusing, uncomfortable, and over-the-top intense in how long it takes to get footing on new ground. It’s also hard to imagine a day of low humidity, clean-cut grass, and the dying loved ones dead and missed, and what it will be like to walk through that next life. I look out the window for a reminder of how much the scenery changes, one seasonal tilt at a time.

Four Funerals and a Wedding: Everyday Magic, Day 885

IMG_0896I used to have more of a “Four weddings and a funeral” life, but get old enough, and things start to shift. In the last month, I’ve attended four funerals and a wedding: celebrations of life, memorial services and the like for a friend’s mom, one of Ken’s uncles, and two local artists who gave so much to our community. Then there was the wedding, one I officiated for some very intelligent, charming and beautiful 20-somethings. The funny thing is that the wedding and the funerals were quilted out of the same crazy collection of colors, shapes, and textures.

At all these events, we told of how the newly or dearly beloved met his or her mate, mused on their quirks and surprising tendencies, NS listened to short speeches about what made this person exceptionally gifted in sharing kindness, attention, inspiration, friendship, and creative pizzazz. I learned how Uncle Murle joined Aunt Edna’s choir to get to see her on a regular basis, and when they were apart for 18 months, how he wrote her a letter every single day. Turns out newlyweds Apollonia and Gabriel wrote a lot of emails back and forth when they were half a continent apart. George catalyzed  a whole community to not just embrace their impossible dreams of what to build or sell or create, but dove right into the necessary details, even if they included hauling (or trying to haul) giant stones home from Italy. Sally collaborated with other artists and writers throughout her final months, and entertained us all by instructing us not to post prayers on her Facebook page but truly fun and 10155789_10152318025726840_3221947869372601182_n1amazing things, such as cats dressed up as turkeys, squirrels performing interpretative dance, mice cuddling up with miniature teddy bears, and even a man wearing nothing but pumpkins. Alice’s mom loved Klondike bars, playing a mean game of bridge, and she even got to fulfill her dream to lunch in the Russian Tea Room. In all of these celebrations, there were photographs and videos, images of the newly-departed in a smart 1940s suit, complete with pillbox hat, or sitting on the patio in the sun, covered in his grandchildren, or the bouquet flying backwards over the bride’s shoulder down the stairs to land in the arms of a woman recently engaged.

What makes a poem a poem are the images: the specific details that connect to our senses and give us a specific door to enter into, walking on the feet of our own specifics. The same is true of a life, and although the abstract words (generous, kind, committed, loving) trying to sum up a life also speak to us, the take home for me are the small moments we share or make: how Murle measured the height of his tomato vines, or when Apollonia and Gabriel had everyone at the wedding, one by one, plant a succulent in a square of soil so they could bring home a miniature cactus farm of their wedding. We toss out and catch stories from one another, and in those stories, we see what love and living well really look like up close and ultimately personal.

886887_2629304770423_817875570794742639_oWe also dance to the Crumpletons, singing along while leaning into old and older friends. We marvel over a giant box of fried chicken from Chicken Annie’s (yes, that Chicken Annie’s of Pittsburg, Kansas fame). We giggle over tiny glasses of chocolate mousse and baby photos of the dearly departed learning to walk in black and white. The pain of loss — with the reality of what Theodore Roethke says – “What falls away is always/ and is near” — is acute as well as the lingering goodbyes to people soon to leave us to travel across the country. What’s also and always real is what we make and enter into when coming together, at a wedding or funeral, to  dwell in the house of love.

Generations: Everyday Magic, Day 884

IMG_0823“In 40 years, I’ll take my kids to Amherst, and walk them around with my old friends and their kids like we’re doing today,” Adin said after we did just that in Columbia, MO.

Columbia was where we met in college, or more to the point, because of what we did in our many non-college hours: potlucks with too much carob (what were we thinking?), romantic romps deep in the fields of experimentation, and protests calling for divestment in South Africa by yelling “The People! United! Will never be defeated” until we retired to another carob-warped potluck to sing Holly Near’s “It Could Have Been Me.” There was a lot of loud Rolling Stones or Supertramp music in between analyzing the socio-economic biases in Mary Popins’ “Let Go Fly a Kite,” and passionate debates about anarchism, social democracy, feminism, how we could save the labor movement, and why poetry, drumming, and organic zucchini could redeem the world.

IMG_0833Sometime in the early 1980s, some of us left. I headed west to start as a reporter for a Kansas City labor newspaper before making my way to Lawrence to marry and have a litter of kids, Suzanne went to Vermont to work for Goddard College and raise a good son, and others scattered to Africa or Boulder, Minneapolis or Kingdom City, MO. Our friend John stayed, worked, raised two beautiful sons. Add in 30 years, and here we are – John, Suzanne and me — with some of our offspring, hitting the streets of Columbia to visit and revisit our old romping grounds with the new generation.

We lunched in a place new to some of us, passing around bites of potato knishes and thai ceasar salad. We tore up the stairs to KOPN commnunity radio, the station where all of us oldsters produced various radio shows back in the day (mine was “Saturday’s Child…..Must Work for a Living,” a Democratic Socialist show), and where we could now thrill in how NOTHING had actually changed (except for piles of CDS along with all the thousands of albums). We introduced our kids to the six columns from the old University of Missouri main building, all that was left after an ancient fire, and said to correlate to the number of virgins left on campus.IMG_0847

Mostly, we talked, catching up on old friends and watching our sons talk — all of whom have vivid and cross-pollinating interests in everything from ecological restoration to Buddhism to cultural concepts of the mind to what kind of revolution or evolution it would take to fix our broken politics. The boys, well, actually men, ranging from 18-26, were the same ages we were when we met, danced all night or rode our bikes in the rain. But they generated same kind of spirit, questions, and sparks we did at this age and still do, I hope.

There’s a lot to consider in terms of what actually has changed in 30+ plus years, most notably the climate, and much else that has gone to the big dogs, such as the corporatism we deconstructed over late-night explorations of new herbal tea blends 36 years ago. If anyone in our crowd even mentioned gay marriage, we would have been sure they were on drugs, but then again, reality isn’t always a strong suit for people eating ice cream at 3 a.m. on the lawn of the local V.A. hospital or asleep all day when they should be in classes (okay, so I speak for myself here). IMG_0843

What is real was this day when we got to walk across and wander along the edges of the bridge between generations, springing up in this place where we watched our kids exchange emails and cell phone numbers, promising to continue their conversations in their present or future places. I love the vision of them leading their kids past old bars, new eateries and well-worn paths where they met their oldest friends.

A Wonder Made of Time and Staying Put: Everyday Magic, Day 883

IMG_0935A few days ago while visiting friends in one of my old homes, Columbia, Missouri, I was delighted to see my pal John run into old friends, catching up just the way I might have had I not moved away. But then again, by moving, I landed in another college town where I grew and am still growing roots.

A few days later, while wandering through the Merc to get a crapload of delicacies for friends facing serious medical woo-hah, I ran into Danny, Mike and Walt, some of my oldest and most consistent friends. In the soup aisle, I turned to see Jill, someone I did a project back in the Pleistocene with, called “Midnight Poetry League” — we clumped together groups of teens and had them meet in dark and interesting places to recite their own or others’ poetry to get singles, doubles, even home runs. The night before, while meeting with old friends at Limestone’s ingesting Nirvana-esque vittles, we ran into waves of friends from various sedimentary layers of our lives. Ken even touched based with a guy he went to Kindergarten with before I gave a taste of my pizza to our friend and yoga teacher.

This kind of thing is an everyday deal (or meal) when you stay in one place for a while. Turn a corner, and you might see someone you partied with at college suddenly, after 30 years, woven back into your life. Cross the street and go weight-lifting, and voila! There’s your adult son’s favorite speech teacher from when he was a toddler. Wait in a long line at the post office and find three other people  you know from bioregional meetings, the annual January Christmas tree burning party, and the time we had that cross-dressing prom at the old Harmony Hall.

When I was a kid, I craved this kind of continuity, which is why I thrashed around so much during the stretch when our family left the old country in Brooklyn for the spanking new house in the ‘burbs where I didn’t know anybody. True, the kids in P.S. 251, my Brooklyn school, sometimes beat me up, and I didn’t have so many (e.g. any) friends, but I loved the sense of being known by and knowing people and places. While there’s jumbles of canons of literature about the fallacy of romanticizing small town or in-grown community life, especially for those who march to a different set of conga drums — and there’s ample issues with too many people knowing too much about each other’s business — there’s also a sense of homecoming in the expected and surprising familiar.

When I wander Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence, I don’t know who I’ll meet for the first or 3,141st time. I would say it’s like living in an unfolding tapestry, but it’s not always that coherent a design or linear a process. Maybe it’s like tossing a salad of dozens of ingredients and seeing what nuts, seeds and fruit show up on top. Or maybe it’s putting a message in a bottle, then seeing when or if it returns, and what the message means now. Whatever this phenomenon is, it’s a wonder made of time, presence, witnessing each other’s changes up close and from a distance, and stepping again into the fold of a hug or a conversation after a day or a thousand days of being apart.

There’s a simpler way of saying what makes this wonder: staying put. For those of you somewhere for a long time, I hope your roots and branches bring you stunning blossoms and nourishing fruit. For those of you just landed or in the process of landing, I hope you find good ground to plant yourself, and all you need to delight in all the wonders right at hand, right now, as soon as you turn a corner or open a door.

Ken Irby, Rest (Travel, Drink, Read and Write) in Peace: Everyday Magic, Day 861

IrbybyRobertAmoryLast night, unusually cool and refreshing for this time of year, I drove home late in the dark, remembering another such summer night over 25 years ago. My husband Ken and I were hamboing — a  Swedish couple’s dance more akin to flying than waltzing — across the Meadowbrook apartments parking lot while Ken Irby clapped his hands together, calling out, “Marvelous!” We were in the middle of one of those sublime Ken Irby evenings back then when we would go to his apartment, partake of a perfectly-prepared roast chicken, some wicked dessert, and for those who drank, too much wine and after-dinner sherry while talking of books and poets, adventures and more books. Somehow the topic of folkdancing, which Ken and I do, came up, and I said something about the miraculous hambo. Not having room between the roving stacks of books in Ken’s small apartment, we took to the parking lot.

Last night I got to join some of Ken’s closest friends, some of whom have been devoting themselves to his health and comfort over many months of illness, in a hospital intensive care room. I walked in to find Robert reading a passage from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (the 1855 edition, which surely would have mattered to Ken), on Joe’s cell phone, and I soon caught on that we were passing the phone around, each reading a passage, nine of us in a semi-circle around Ken. Whitman never sounded so strong, meaningful or relevant to me before although I’m a long-time fan. Hearing this poetry in different voices brought it thoroughly alive as we watched Ken raggedly breath, his pulse and heart rate slowly dropping on the monitor.

Ken and I met when I was assigned to his basement office in the bowels of Wescoe (before it was renovated) on the KU campus in 1986. A new teaching assistant in English, I was thrilled to know I would be sharing an office with a “famous poet” as well as another office mate. I was also told Ken could be difficult. But that difficulty wasn’t such an issue as long as I didn’t contest him using 80% of the bookshelves and file cabinets for hundreds of book he had out from the library on long-term loan based on the premise that who could possibly appreciate these books more than him?

Our third office mate changed regularly, beginning with a quiet, religious, sports-minded, weightlifter from Texas, who, upon meeting us, said, “You can tell a lot about a man by how he fills out his shirt.” Other office mates rotating through until our last, and best one, Andrew, who had a crazy enough sense of humor to match ours, and also supported me when I complained about Ken.

There was a lot to complain about: Ken was arrogant, self-absorbed, and haughty. He regularly favored men over women, sometimes humiliated women poets in public, and got belligerent when he drank too much (which he did often). As one of my friends, and a fellow women poet, and I recently agreed, he could be a fucking jerk, but he was our fucking jerk.  In ten years of rooming with him, he never read my poetry, and he was even less enthusiastic about my growing family. As he held court with his students, talking enthusiastically about Duncan or Whitman, he rolled his eyes at me when he saw me nursing an infant with one arm while grading papers with another. When I told Ken was pregnant with my third child, he raised his eyebrows, sighed dramatically, and with his deep velvet voice, yelled out, “Not again, Caryn!”

We actually had a blast together co-habitating in an 8′ by 8′ space, packed with three desks, three file cabinets, and a whole lot of shelves. We shared every ounce of English department gossip, tended to love and hate the same people, and were easily outraged on each other’s account. If someone did me wrong, Ken properly trashed them with his acute verbal speed and expansive vocabulary. We puzzled over the quandary of teaching, celebrated the students we liked best, and wondered what happened to the ones who went astray. We praised Rilke, who we both loved, and Ken made it a point to give me Rilke poetry on my birthday, because Rilke and I share the same birthday. In fact, Ken knew every famous poet’s birthday, and commemorated it. We talked Kansas up one side and down another, Ken frequently telling stories about Fort Scott, where he grew up. In readings we participated in over many years, Ken read from his poems, so strong, it seemed they always existed in some form. He also knew literature in such great and vibrant nuance and depth that he could (and did!) talk at length about most dead or living writers I mentioned, which was particularly helpful for me when I was studying for my comps. Over the years in that office, and the many more years since then, we updated each other on children — my kids, and his very beloved brother’s children — and caught up on people we knew, travels, and what he had been reading lately. Whatever Ken was, he was never boring.

Reading Whitman to Ken last night, I realized — as we all realize in those last moments with dear ones — that in the end, only love matters. Here this dear, complicated, paradoxical man, poet (read this homage to visitors from the farthest star), Kansan, teacher, and friend was dying, surrounded by poetry. Although we switched from Whitman to Rilke before we got to this passage from Leaves of Grass, I believe these lines speak perfectly to the Ken I knew. May he sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the next world, our affection for him trailing behind.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

A Town That Changed My Life: Everyday Magic, Day 859

With old friends, from left, Steve, Dave, and John
With old friends, from left, Steve, Dave, and John

There was a moment in 1981 when I was driving from Columbia, Missouri to Kansas City, where I had just gotten fired from my first job out of college, crying so hard that I could hardly see the road. My friend had given me a key to the now-gone anarchist house, where I vowed I would move as soon as I packed up my KC apartment. As she gave me the key, she said, “You’re not coming back.” I told her she was wrong, but as I was driving and crying, I realized she was right although I couldn’t say why. Sometimes a single moment, informed by a compulsion that doesn’t make sense, can change your life just in the way coming to Columbia in the first place changed mine.

In 1979, having mostly finished a community college degree, I got on a plane with my friend Kathy, our combined 11 pieces of luggage, and no idea where I was going. Having grown up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, I didn’t know from the Midwest. Over 17 hours later — a blizzard, several delays, a flight to St. Louis, and a long bus ride in the middle of the night — I arrived in Columbia. It was dark, the streets were piled high with fresh snow, and it was crazy cold.

First and only dorm I lived in

I didn’t know then that when I woke up, the next day and many others to come, that I was waking up to a very different direction for my life than what my 19-year-old mind had diligently planned (get journalism degree, return to NJ, live near the beach, be reporter, marry boyfriend, write poetry). In fact, the only part of the equation that stuck was the poetry.

What Columbia gave me, most of all, was gumption. I learned — by necessity at breakneck speed after my father retroactively cut off my college tuition — how to support myself and aim toward where I was led rather than the conventional wisdom at the time (as in, “Write poetry? Better become a journalist”). During my two and half years there, I worked as a Dairy Queen parfait maker and floor scrubber, movie theater concessions pusher, mom-and-pop store cashier, reader for a legally blind woman, and night-shift newspaper shuffler (catching newspapers off the conveyor belt, and shuffling their sections together).

I also worked somewhat at school although I didn’t make going to all my classes the habit it should have been. After my meeting a diet-coke-swizzling mentor, historian Dave Thelen, who told me, “You don’t belong in journalism school. They’ll ruin you!”, I added history as a second major, which became my only major after the J-school booted me out. Mostly, I majored in grassroots organizing, working with labor-friendly student groups with silly plans (“let’s organize all the secretaries on campus!”) but earnest intentions. What I was learning about broadcasting and newspaper writing in my journalism classes was very helpful for making flyers, press releases, and even, on fabled (and still going strong) community radio station KOPN, doing a socialist radio show, “Saturday’s Children (Must Work for a Living)” with the now-editor of In These Times (our theme song was “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins). Most of my free time was driven by trying to get myself loved in all the wrong ways, attempting to appear cooler than I was, and riding bikes in the rain at night with bunches of anarchists before splitting tubs of ice cream on the lawn of the V.A. hospital.

Columbia was my town, the IMG_4339place I felt increasingly like myself, and where I wandered at any hour in the night with a sense of freedom and friendliness. As Ken and I walked in the sweltering night (“200% humidity,” I told Ken, who later showed me how it was only 84%), I led us on a treasure hunt to find the places I loved. We stopped at the Heidelberg, where I tried my luck at being cynical with the other J-school students, and also partied with Spyro Gyra after their concert at MU (they were young, we were young). There was the corner where Shakespeare’s Pizza used to be; the now-defunct Chez Coffeehouse, where I volunteered by mixing coffee with hot chocolate for patrons while listening to Papa Joe, aka Joe Newberry; the ancient pin oak I hugged after my friend Gayle died from treatment for leukemia; and the Wilson Street house where I lived with Kathy and six other women (we told people it was the Feel My Thigh sorority), subsisting on Ramen noodles, cheap beer, and potatoes. The next morning, we found the dorm where I lived for six months with a lovely woman from a born-again Christian family, then the bungalow where I lived for a year, badly choosing to make the back sleeping porch my room (no heat in winter, so I ended up spending months on the floor of my roommate Gary’s room). IMG_4366

I also found my people in Columbia, and this week, I reunited with three of them: I hadn’t seen John in a mere 26 or so years, and Dave and Steve for over 34 years, but lost time didn’t matter. We ate breakfast burritos, shared orange-apple-grapefruit juice, and reminded each other of “the time that…” and “well, no one wore clothes then” stories in between passing phones around to show off grown kids.

Driving home, I asked myself why I hadn’t been back more, considering Columbia is just a 3-hour drive east, but then again, as with most Kansan-naturalized folks, I’m oriented to heading west. At least, I was until this weekend. Now with plans to reconnect there and go on adventures (“Let’s go to Yosemite! Let’s go see the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska in March! Let’s check out the Flint Hills!”), I’m home — in Lawrence, the other town that changed my life — with an unpacked suitcase and fully-packed heart, ready to return.