Category Archives: Kansas

Save the Humanities!: Everyday Magic, Day 894

Photo by Stephen Locke, used with permission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kansas Just Wants to Be Kansas”: Everyday Magic, Day 887

“Southern California Wants to Be Western New York” is the title and subject of one of Dar Williams’ songs about what happens when the left coast suffers from yearning for a post-industrial crisis. On January 4, I got to read this poem along with other poems I wrote that riff off songs from Dar’s “Mortal City” album. Given that one of my most ardent fans (my son Daniel) said I should share this on my blog, here we are, and here’s a video of this incredible song.

Kansas Just Wants to Be Kansas

Southern California may want to be western New York,

but Kansas just wants to be Kansas, large and hidden in plain sight.

Too bad the earthquakes have migrated north, fracking us out of bed

to land on ground not used to shimmying. Too bad about the politics too,

shocked out of their long stay of sensibility, and smelling like

the aftermath of tragedy. Yeah, Kansas just wants to be Kansas,

weather-weary and not taking any prisoners, ready for whatever

the sky between the Rockies and the rivers storms together

past, present and future in the sweet smell of rain and heat lightning.

Kansas doesn’t want to be San Diego, swanky and silk in its

Mediterranean rags. We’re just not a picturesque Vermont town

ambling down the side of a mountain, or Texas where the heat is as intense

as the chutzpah. Kansas certainly doesn’t ever want to be Iowa,

all dressed up in its big-box statehood but with brighter ribboning interstates.

We just want to continue to be your friendly waitress at 2 a.m.,

able to carry six different slices of pie cascading down one arm,

and in the other hand, a pot of coffee, fully-loaded, ready to serve you

something that makes you forget about the desire to be what you’re not,

and remember the beauty of the wind, an old train that arrives

ahead of schedule to say, “yes, you’re finally home.”

Why Would Anyone Leave Lawrence, Kansas?: Everyday Magic, Day 869

Last night I dreamed that we had just moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where our oldest son now lives, because Ken got a kick-ass job directing a nature center. As soon as we arrived at some friend’s house and brought in a suitcase, I started crying uncontrollably. Ken was sad too, and eventually, a friend from Lawrence showed up for a walk that ended up at the curb outside a Walgreens, where all three of us were very sad. I woke up thinking what I often think when anyone I know leaves Lawrence, Kansas, center of the universe as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t mean to put down anyone’s decisions to live elsewhere and call it their own center of the universe, but there’s something about Kansas that got a hold of me a long time ago, and there’s no place I would rather live. Yes, there’s the politics, more despicable these days that the worst most of us could imagine. There’s the weather, sporting stretches of summer where the temperature barely falls below 90 and can top 100 for days, tempered by ice storms and sub-zero winters. There’s the chiggers, public enemy #1 for many of us who step into fields in summer. There’s also far too many conservative Christian Republicans for my taste, and slim chance of finding a real bagel, let alone a bialy. There’s rattlesnakes, cougars, and too many mosquitoes.

But there’s also this: the wind right now pouring through the Osage Orange around the porch. There’s people throughout the state who would, if your house caught fire or car broke down, show up to help build you a new house and trouble-shoot your car for hours. There’s pie to die for. There’s long and curvy roads as well as endless horizon roads where your own company is the tallgrass prairie, wind, sky and an occasional coyote. There’s a panoramic view of wild weather, the thrill of lightning striking all around you, the purple flash it ignites, and the very rare tornado that wakes us all up and sends us outside to watch (close to a basement of course). There’s our Free State history along with the history of the Kaw, Osage and many other tribal peoples so resonant in this land. There’s Castle Rock, the whole town of Lucas, wonderful neighborhoods in Wichita, amazing Vietnamese food in Goodland, and the best fried chicken in the universe in a St. Francis gas station.

In Lawrence especially, there’s long brunches at the Roost while sitting outside on Mass St., the most beautiful floor tiles I’ve ever seen at Kring’s, astonishing fabric at Sarah’s, and coconut cream pie at Ladybird after a great pizza at Limestone. There’s the river and our many walks across the Kaw alone or with big groups of friends. There’s swirls of goldfinch reflecting back the light, bluebirds and eagles in winter, and indigo bunting exploding from tree to tree to summer. There’s the gorgeous Snow Hall building on campus with Snow White lettering, and thousands of iris in spring down Jayhawk Drive. Of course, there’s basketball, fireworks, the old-fashioned Christmas parade, the Final Fridays when the streets fill up with art and a building in east Lawrence is flooded with blue lights. There’s Clinton Lake in kayaks while the moon rises, and the Baldwin Woods in early spring when the Spring Beauties appear. Mostly, though, there’s a sense of community and magic made of knowing many of us are in for the long haul and eventually, we’re run into each other at Liberty Hall and dance to the music of Kelley Hunt like there’s no tomorrow. There’s also tomorrow.

While I love visiting the places my work and kids have drawn me to in my life — amazing cities like Burlington, VT., Minneapolis, and Madison — along with the city I’m from, New York — it turns out that this place, battered by history and politics and once a microburst, is my place.

The Melancholy Before Leaving: Everyday Magic, Day 860

Nothing like packing a suitcase to make me wish that suitcase wasn’t leaving the house. That pre-trip sadness, lyrical enough to be deemed melancholy, even when going some place exciting (meaning: less than 96 degrees and 90% humidity), always snags me as I walk through rooms, collecting what goes into the suitcase. It also feels like packing for time travel as I journey ahead into what Vermonters call summer and Kansans call early fall. But I realize it isn’t the time travel that jars me; it’s the simple separation of self from home.

I was comparing variations of this melancholia with my friend Kelley, who just left today for almost two weeks on tour, singing with all her heart and soul from Colorado to British Columbia. For me, the music is far quieter, mostly having to do with trying to facilitate some harmony from multiple voices gathered from all over the country for the Goddard Graduate Institute residency. This is a different kind of Goddard immersion for me because I’m acting program director of the institute for six months while my boss is on leave, which has the domino effect of putting me on leave from teaching students directly after doing so every semester since 1986. While I’m definitely feeling the heightened whatevers catalyzed by this job, mostly manifest in popping out of my hole in the ground with great alertness every morning to behold the dozens of emails needing immediately attention, I’m also facing my usual oh-is-it-almost-time-to-leave-again blues. At the same time, I love going to Vermont (who wouldn’t?), which is kind of a satellite home for me.

Yet these are minor blues, more the sky blue of summer that will wheel me back to Kansas in mid-August, where the heat will welcome me with open (and sweaty) arms. Then I’ll unpack the suitcase I’m packing today, putting long pants and light jackets away until the season I’m traveling to catches up with me in late September, all the time delighted to be reunited with the mother ship of home.

Five Wonders at the End of June: Everyday Magic, Day 855


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

Purple Coneflowers
Purple Coneflowers

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.

Bathroom Notoriety
Bathroom Notoriety

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.

Sun set, moon rise
Sun set, moon  rise

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

An Astonishing Dessert
An Astonishing Dessert

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

Celebrate This Kansas on Happy Kansas Day: Everyday Magic, Day 836

20110520_1115In honor of Kansas statement turning 154 years old, while Kansas land and sky is tens of thousands of years ago, I offer this poem, and one of Stephen Locke’s photos, also published in our collaboration, Chasing Weather: Tornadoes, Tempests, and Thunderous Skies in Word and Image.

Celebrate this sky, this land beyond measured

time that tilts the seasonal light. Dream the return

of the stars, the searing rise of summer or fast spread

of thunderheads, the secret-holding cedars and

witness rocks that migrate across the prairies.

We breathe the air of those who spoke languages

forgotten as the glaciers. We walk the fields

that once fed the fish of inland oceans.

We turn our heads away from where the raccoon

hid his family from the storm hundreds

of generations beforehand. This rain was once

a man’s last wish, this heat what warmed a weathered

rock enough for a woman to rest on with her baby,

these fossils, love songs of memory and longing

after the beloveds die. This horizon the homeland

of butterfly milkweed oranging in ancient sun.

This creek’s trail rerouted by deer and wild turkey.

This wooded curve the one favored by bluebirds

following last summer south. All we see,

the ghost and angel of billions of trails

through grasslands, the remnant of hard rains

where the grandmothers and grandfathers sang

of weather and loss, wars and births.

The bones of this land and the feathers of this sky

know us better than we know ourselves.

The Tender Side of Loss: Everyday Magic, Day 824

Ken in the deep woods
Ken in the deep woods

In the past two weeks, the Royals lost the World Series, my favored candidate for governor (when the stakes were outrageously high) lost the election, a dear friend lost her daughter and several other friends lost their lives or are reeling from the loss of their best beloveds in recent months. The tumble of leaves from trees don’t help, but this bright and abiding sun does, as does hugging each other, and leaning into the tender side of loss.

“I don’t know how I’m going to live through this,” my friend told me a few days after her beautiful 38-year-old daughter died. “Breath by breath,” I answered, easy for me to say because I’m not ripped apart by pain so deep that simply taking the next breath is hard, let alone getting out of bed. Yet this is what loss has continually shown me through my own experience and through what I witness of others surviving such agony.

IMG_1750There’s something about loss that’s utterly tender and bare. It brings us together to read the tiny nuances and big love in each other, to notice the flight of birds or sudden presence of moon and deer (as friends have noted lately on facebook). In reading one another and the world from the vantage point of loss, we find something often out of reach or not of note when we’re fat and happy with ease and plentitude — moments of poetry when life is compressed into its essence. As Adrienne Rich writes at the end of her poem, “Dedications,”I know you are reading this poem because there is nothing else left to read/ there where you have landed, stripped as you are.”

Some of these losses aren’t life-shakingly important (I mean, it was just a game, and the Royals may go all the way next year). Some change everything, a stone in the center of the pond that actually ripples out to change the shape and depth of the pond. Some make some of us want to run to a kinder land, but there’s no escaping where we’ve landed. All ferry us to the tender side of life where each moment is seeded with astonishing beauty, expansive depth, chevrons of geese calling us awake, and traveler moons charting us asleep. How we treat each other matters the most now (and always), witnessing one another’s impossible pain by letting our hearts and arms open.

Kansas, I Love You, But Your Broke My Heart Again: Everyday Magic, Day 823

Last night’s election sent me to bed with a tremor of despair and a dull ache in my head and heart. Once again, the people of my beloved state, my chosen home, voted against their own interests for reasons beyond my comprehension. My people have once again elected someone ruling by an ideology that excludes many if not most of us. Our governor, in his last term, slashed spending for public education, diminished teachers’ rights, destroyed the arts commission (shutting it down, essentially, in the middle of the night when it was still funded), cut funding severely to social services, and in every direction, dampened down public support for our most vulnerable populations.

I know and accept that Kansas has a long history as a Republican state, and I have many beloved friends and family members who identify as Republican, so I’m not, in any way, attacking the Republican party here or what I understand as some of the deeper values that might separate Republicans and Democrats. What hurts is how one Republican has pretty flagrantly disregarded due process, transparency, and democracy to put in place his goals. I share two such examples.

One of the governor’s first initiatives, when last elected, was to shut down the Kansas Neurological Institute, a state facility where people with severe disabilities live in family units, often with staff who have worked alongside them for dozens of years. Many of the people there are blind, deaf, on feeding tubes, in custom-made wheelchairs, and living with extensive developmental disabilities. In light of no comparable support in the community for many of the residents (and over the last decade, all who could be moved into community facilities were moved), the main option would be nursing homes, which aren’t (in most cases) set up to handle such care. Without such care, many residents wouldn’t survive.

Funding this institution is a drop in the ocean of the state budget, but the governor tried, without process, to close the doors in short term. Luckily, the families of the people living there, the legislature, and many citizens spoke up.

Another example is the now-defunct Kansas Arts Commission. Within a month of taking office in January, the governor issued an executive order to shut down KAC. Cooler heads in the legislature prevailed, and the legislature even went on to fund KAC for the upcoming fiscal year. All of KAC’s funding was matched 150% (from federal and regional arts funding), which, in turn, fueled tiny arts centers throughout Kansas, music and visual arts programs for teens and elders, community arts events in many towns, and small fellowships for artists. Within four months of taking office, the governor shut down KAC on a dime even though there was funding to keep the small staff going for several more months and more funding granted by the legislature beyond that. Then, to make sure KAC didn’t start again with the new fiscal year, on a Saturday morning after the legislature had finished its session, the governor vetoed the funding for the next fiscal year without time for the legislature to  re-assemble to consider overturning the veto.

Now, because of public support, we have a new arts commission, but in the meantime, we lost several years of federal, regional and state arts support, many smaller arts centers in rural areas closed, projects collapsed, programming diminished, and all for no good reason.

Multiply this examples across public schools, universities, social services, health care, environmental protection, renewal energy potential, and many other areas — all with case studies we could share of what’s gone wrong.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of good-to-the-core people in Kansas — people who would drop everything to help you fix your car, bake you a casserole in a flash, or reach out to you,  even if you’re a stranger, when you most need a human touch. Meanwhile, the sun shines with all its charm, the last yellowing leaves dance in the wind, the expansive blueness of the sky holds our view, and it’s a new day. A new day, but a hard day too in a place of such beauty and sweetness, such mystery and surprises, it will take your breath away.

Scaring Ourselves At High Altitudes: Everyday Magic, Day 708

DSCN1355A few years ago at a Chelsea diner in New York City, I overhead a famous actor on the phone in the booth behind me testing out some new jokes with his agent. “Get this one,” he said, “Why do we go on vacations? Because life has gotten too easy, so we say to ourselves, ‘I know how to survive here, so I’ll go someplace where it’s harder for me and see how I do there.'” It wasn’t the best joke, but it is kind of true.

DSC_5734I’ve just returned from some extreme vacationing, the kind of rejuvenating activities that make a person understand mortality rather explicitly. There’s no place better for such experiences than at high altitudes in Colorado where there are many ways to know, in unquestionable and visceral ways, how vulnerable humans are.

DSC_5724White-water rafting in Brown’s Canyon through Class III and IV rapids? It seemed like a good idea beforehand and a spectacular one afterwards, but during the actual roaring drops and spins between big rocks, I was wide awake in both terror and joy. So was everyone in our raft, including our expert guide, a wonderful young woman who assured us dozens of times that “we were crushing it” every time we hit another rapid, some with descriptive names like “Widow-maker.”

The other rafts twice the number of people on them as ours with only Ken, Forest, our nephew Andrew, me and our guide. “Will that make it easier?” I asked her, wondering also if the water being so high would help us avoid big rocks. Actually, a light boat and high water equal speed on steroids, and it wasn’t until after the trip that she confided to us, “I didn’t want to scare you guys, but I’ve never seen the Arkansas [river] higher than today.” She didn’t need to scare us, especially when I flew out of the boat only to land back in, paddling like a DSCN1421demon the whole time.

I also faced vivid images of another kind of danger when horseback riding through three climates: high desert, aspen forest, and alpine-ish field. Three different habitats means big changes in altitude, which means leaning forward while going up a steep path through the trees, praying my lovely horse, Wonder Pony, didn’t slip. Even more heart-race-inducing was going down what felt like a vertical path. “Do the horses ever lose their footing and slide down the mountain?” I asked my guide. No, she told me, unless there’s a lot of mud. I looked down at the wet dirt, leaned way back and pressed my knees in as hard as I could (just as my guide told me to do) and prayed. By the time I got off the horse I could hardly stand up and could only walk cow-girl-bow-legged. But none of that mattered because I was ecstatic. Survival can do that to a person.

DSCN1410There were also the big drops to look down, especially at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a national park in southwest Colorado where the canyon is both narrower and deeper than the Grand Canyon. Sitting on the edge and looking to the ant-sized river below made my heart beat hummingbird-fast, as if willing me toward hovering position. Walking the two-mile loop down and back up simply made me grab hold of trees and pant hard, determined to keep going.

Now that I’m back in Kansas, I face our local dangers: chiggers, ticks, hail, humidity and state politics, as daunting as white-water and high altitudes but not quite as enticing, but that’s what vacations are for.

Falling in Love with Kansas Skies All Over Again: Everyday Magic, Day 706

It happens all the time. It happens every so often. I go outside or, while driving, turn a corner, and I meet the sky. On a spring day in storm season, that meeting can be so wildly diverse from hour to hour that encountering the sky here is very much like encountering Lake Superior up north: one moment it’s dark blue, then it’s black, then it’s pink, thedownsized_0530131404n it’s gray-purple, then it’s wild and woolly, then it’s calm as a a lamb (if lambs are, indeed, as calm as we say they are).

Today for instance: coming home from taking the recyclables in and buying bananas at Checkers (because Tuesday and Thursday are 19 cent banana days), I encountered these purple-blue-gray mammatus clouds moseying east. The sky to the west was turning that shock of blue that comes in between fierce storms.

Later, driving home from the Basehor Public Library, where I gave a talk on how downsized_0530132021poetry can help us see the world in new ways, I mounted the crest of a highway to see a dramatic unfolding in blue and gold, which made all the green below saturate itself with double-color.

Coming to where Hwy. 24/40 meets Lawrence, I shot this pink sky out the side window (without looking and while keeping one hand firmly on the wheel). It’s blurry because of the speed, but to me that makes it look even more like what it truly was: a watercolor of spring at its peak.

0530132039Summers can be hell here with weeks on end with highs of 100 most days. Winters can be punishing. The politics, particularly on the state level, can be overwhelmingly despair-inducing. But we have these skies marching through our days and nights, making me again and again fall in love with being a Kansan.