Yesterday morning, I walked across 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 surrealist 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.
Just 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?
The 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.
Now 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.
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:
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 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.
I 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 amazing 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.
We 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.
“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.
Sometime 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.
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).
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 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.
Last 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.
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.
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 place 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).
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.
Little wonders abound, and in the last week, here are five I experienced:
1. Mothra! On Sunday we found this guy just off the side of our porch, a giant moth (over six inches across) who blended beautifully with the porch siding and ceiling. Sometimes the amazing is in plain sight, life camoflaged in life. Walk softly, and carry a measuring stick.
2. Flower Power: I caught sight of these gorgeous purple coneflowers aka echinacea right outside Plymouth Congregational Church
while strolling around Lawrence with Ken and our friend Stephen Locke. Mostly, we were pausing to listen to the nighthawks dive at dizzying speed while digesting superb Indian food and our lovely time presenting Chasing Weather at the arts center. The flowers grabbed my attention, and how could they not? They were bundling fountains of pink, happy as the day is long, and given that we were just past the summer solstice, the good day was long indeed.
3. My Name in Lights….in a Bathroom: Nothing like some recognition, but what a surprise to find this in the classy bathroom of the Kansas City Sporting (our local soccer team) fancy and friendly conference center. I was there on Friday to give a writing workshop to about 45 advertising professionals taking part in “Gas Can,” the American Advertising Federation Kansas City chapter’s annual conference.
4. A Merchant Ivory Moment: Hanging out with friends, especially handsome ones, and one in a particularly spiffy hat, is a little like being in one of those luscious Room with a View-like films, only with more chiggers. We paused at the end of the woods after trekking around part of the hill to watch the sky, the moon rising just a little to the south of Venus and Jupiter, so close together. Nothing like being outside with friends to talk poetry, the mysteries of life, and tyranny of ticks.
5. Dessert Nirvana: Sometimes when you order
something without understanding what it is, what you get is made of amazement. This dessert, at the end of our Oriental Bistro dinner and Power of Words conference committee meeting, was composed of 80% snowy ice and 20% ecstasy. My friends were as amazed as I was; in turn, I begged them to help me eat it, which