Category Archives: seasons

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.

Just-Doing-That-Moon: Everyday Magic, Day 893

Snow, do you forsake the forsythia?

This land’s Osage Indians, like many tribal people, named each month for its ecological context, bestowing upon March the name of “Just-Doing-That Moon” If it rains, it’s just doing that. If it tornadoes, it’s just doing that. If it’s crazy wind and wildly hot, it’s just doing that, and if it snows, it’s of course just doing that.

Today, after a week of thunder storms, hot and wild wind, balmy breezes, and an explosion of magnolia, daffodil, hyacinth, forsythia, and all manner of blooming trees, it’s time for snow. Here is a poem I wrote about this stretch of the season from my book Landed:

Just-Doing-That-Moon

The cupboards licked clean by grief,

I open the front door anyway.

Ice wind, hot sun – too much or too little.

I close the door.

Give me an hour, and the cupboards

fill again with cans and boxes ready

to warm the belly, add weight

to the thin blue glass dinner plates

while the wind turns balmy,

the sky seamlessly white,

both of which scour the ground

which wants something planted

but not just yet.

Close my eyes, the dreams bleed

and quicken, just like this March weather:

a rush overhead as if the bare sycamore

is a canopy of faces, all the ancestors

at their tea party. Open my eyes,

and I can’t remember anything

but this old dog grief, chasing rabbits

Yup, the blossoming peach tree

in his sleep, always hungry.

When I open the night door to the

Just-doing-that moon, I forget all but

the surprise of snow at midnight

that falls so lightly, it can rest on

the lip of the first daffodil.

Winter Solstice and the Shortest Day: Everyday Magic, Day 882

Nora Jones sings on my computer, Natalie naps under a Tardis blanket on the couch, and Miyako the cat bird-watches in the windowsill. It’s mid-afternoon on the shortest day in the year, but the sun fills this room as if it’ll always be here.  A crescent of blackbirds shoots out of the far-off cedars, crisscrossing some of the other birds in flight. On the highway to the southwest, car windshields gleam to broadcast news of their adventures.

I love the winter solstice, and how it brings us into close-up witnessing of the effects of light and darkness as well as what is right now. The snow on the fields in the distance tells of weather past and to come. The pacing dog wants only the usual affection or food. The light in particular is exquisite on these annual bonsai days.

For all of us, I wish peace most of all, and all the gumption and grace to make and keep re-making that peace.  I also share this poem from my book Landed to mark the world gathering up more light.

 

Winter Solstice: 4:22 p.m.

 

The blunt air morning-stark,

a glass light that levels everything,

makes me forget my intention for this or that,

the insistent hands home to roost

even if my walk is sodden.

Trees gleam like bronze etchings

rising from the cacophony of

cell phone rings, car tires’ turnings.

The night must have its way

even against the snow geese slightly lost

until they find their rut in the wind.
The solstice is a bird with feathers so black

they mirror the buildings, then lift

to land back to this date in time as if time

never left its perch. The motion of breath,

or a wayward finger tapping on the wooden desk

aged by light. The inward turn of stillness,

a slight sway as if standing on a bus, holding

tight to the bar when the wheels mount a sharp corner

and something completely new appears.

Solstice and then the world at this point

flips over, begins arming itself

with light.

Beyond the Dark Tunnel of Mid-December: Everyday Magic, Day 881

As a kid, I dreaded the stretch between New Jersey and New York City when our family station wagon would descend into the underworld, otherwise known as the Holland Tunnel, to cross through the dark waters of the Hudson River. Since then, every mid-December, I feel like I’m transported to the way-back seats of that station wagon to watch the lights of the tunnel sweep over us at regular intervals, all the time praying we make it back to the open air and neon swirls of what’s on the other side.

Part of it has to do with the truncated length of each day, only about 9 and a half hours long near the winter Solstice, but a bigger factor is the quality of darkness. When it gets dark, it gets really dark: a black charcoal darkness that makes driving home past sunset feel like I’m back in that tunnel, especially when I’m beyond the reach of street lights, and the inky clouds wrap tight around those on earth.

This year, the nights seem longer because the son of dear friends, someone we had watched grow from boy to man, died suddenly. I look into the big blanket of gray, frigid air with sadness in my heart — for the sorrow of a beautiful man’s life cut short, and for the seasons of pain my friends and their family are inhabiting. The anniversary of another big loss approaches in a few days, and despite the warmth and lights of winter holidays, I often experience December as having a particularly hard underside.

December has a way of reminding us of what despair echoes within and around us, but it also calls us to see anew in the dark. I think of how David Abram, in his writings, teachings, and in  conversation with us, talks about “the good darkness.” In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, he writes:

The story [of the sun’s journey] follows a kind of perceptual logic very different from the abstract logic we learned at school. It attends closely to the sensuous play of the world, allowing the unfolding pattern of that display to carry us into a place of dark wonder.

In this time of more night than day, there’s exactly “the unfolding pattern” and the subsequent “dark wonder” now visible not just because of what this darkness reveals, but what it conceals, which for me encompasses a lot of bright and shiny distractions. These long nights make it easier to see in the dark, and to see how much our lives are patterned by forces and sources far more vast than our thoughts and habits of thinking.

It turns out this darkness isn’t really a tunnel, but a time to wander through the open and mysterious space on the other side of whatever we’re tunneling through in our lives. It’s also this: a call to learn more about the art and necessity of slowing down, and although I’m a slow learner, I’m looking toward how I can hang out more with what is in between cooking something hot to eat, sleeping more than usual, and right now, watching the dark cedars wave hello or goodbye against the darkening sky.

Birthdays, Graduations and Charmed Lives: Everyday Magic, Day 880

img_2834A month ago, I found my old charm bracelet that my parents gave me in 1972. It had two charms to start me out, one for my 12th birthday and another for my graduation from junior high school with room for charms in the future, such as marriage, children, perhaps even grandchildren. In the time I grew up, it was common for women to have charms for rites of passage and other markers mapping the trail into and through adulthood.

I’ve come across this bracelet before, like a treasure lost in a pond that comes ashore haphazardly, and put it away again as a relic of my past. But this time I realized it was time to wear it again. The only problem was that my almost 57-year-old wrist was bigger than my 12-year-old one, so off to Goldmakers we went where Monty managed to somehow make a few new links, not easy given that each tiny link is entwined very fine strands of gold. When I picked up the bracelet the other day and put it on, it felt oddly familiar, and within hours, I remembered how its tiny, sharp jewels had a talent for catching on threads of sweaters and shirts. But it also felt great to wear probably my oldest material possession.

Over the past few days, I realized I didn’t need to add charms to mark occasions and game-changers over the last 44 years because “birthday” and “graduation” pretty much say it all. There are new beginnings to celebrate, births of insight, starts of projects, and the old refrain that to live is to continually begin again. There’s also constant graduations: what we’re finally able to finish, release, or shed img_2837because it’s done or no longer serves us. Of course, not all graduations are liberating: we leaves places and people who are home to us, we lose friends and relations to change or death. Time is one big graduation and birthday machine, churning out opportunities for moving on whether or not it’s our will or desire, and if we’re lucky, celebrations of hard-won leaps and landings. The irony of graduation is that another word for it  is “commencement,” new beginnings, which circles us right back to birth and birthdays. Like seasons that birth themselves, then die into the next season, every moment can be a touchstone, perhaps even a charm to remind us to open our eyes to the vibrant life — even if bitter, painful, tender, or grief-stricken — happening right now.

Tomorrow, on my birthday, I’ll wear my charm bracelet again and try to remember how  I’ve been blessed with a charmed life eve if it catches on my sweater and pulls out a thread here and there. And for all of us today, I want to say, Happy Birthday, Graduates! Keep on shining.

A Beautiful Moment in a Time of Despair: Everyday Magic, Day 876

img_2686It’s hard to look at the news or social media without feeling like we’ve failed as a species. The Great Barrier Reef is dying, the bees — essential for the pollination that feeds the world — are endangered, and a presidential candidate not only brags about sexual assault but calls his accusers names, all the time unleashing America’s underside of horrendous sexism, racism, xenophobia and other social illnesses. Below the splay of horrifying headlines, I’m tuned into the stories of beloved friends and family, some of whom are struggling mightily with depression, debt, grief, and other ailments of our time and propensities of being human. Having had an on-and-off-again cold and some nightmares lately, I’ve dipped into the pot of despair at my most local level too.

As I turn away from the news of collapsing politics and ecology, I also see this: the sky to the west is filling with clouds, the wind is tossing around the heads of the big, leafy trees, and the last tomatoes have ripened on the vine. The moon, rising over the field last night, lit the tips of the grasses silver. Ten hours later, the horizon shines golden white. As Charles Bukowski says in one of my favorite poems, “The Laughing Heart” (watch this great little film here!):

be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the
darkness

Add to that one of our favorite Leonard Cohen (and all-time-ever) choruses from his song, “Anthem,”

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

So during this season of some very real despair and enduring danger all around us, I’m looking at this moment, another time of great beauty and promise, toward what light I can find, letting it penetrate the cracks I carry in my hope and heart.

Prevernal for the Vernal Equinox: Everyday Magic, Day 891

IMG_0172On this day of balance between winter and summer, I share this small poem about the just-on-cusp-of-changing prevernal world.

Prevernal

The dogs stop. The deer

over the loop of the field

pause. The highway rising west

clears. I wait. Let my breath make itself

visible. Count the turkeys frozen

against the cedars or mid-field

between woods and prairie.

The wheel of the season waits too,

then rolls toward its next click.

Time to go closer to what’s ready to bud out,

just last week milk deep in snow.

When the world resumes in birds

and greening trail, all crosses over.

Meets or doesn’t meet at the other side

where dreams stand on all four new legs,

then jolt into steps without considering

the weight of landing.

The Light, the Dark, and a Road Trip to Western Kansas: Everyday Magic, Day 890

IMG_1217This week, we drove 350 miles west one day, 350 miles east the next, with a lot of darkness and light in between. Ken and I went to Colby, Kansas so I could talk about Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, the book I wrote about the lives of Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz.

I first presented the book to the marvelous Pioneer Memorial Library, which brought together close to 80 people in the basement for lunch and a journey into the darkness of the Holocaust and WWII, especially how both Jarek and Lou survived by their wits, unusual luck and grace, and went on to make lives of meaning in the U.S. Then it was off to the local high school, where I got to talk to 90 16- and 17-year-olds about it all again, this time focusing more on what it means to survive, the dangers of Holocaust denial, and the power of resilience.

After both talks, people came up afterwards to ask if it was painful for me to talk about this topic, which made me wonder why it isn’t. Maybe it’s because I’ve given so many talks and classes on the book since it came out three years ago, or that I’ve just numbed myself to the killing and torturing that I’m showing images of and reading excerpts about (although I tend to avoid the more horrifying details in one-time public presentations). What happened — how Lou’s father was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Jarek’s mother was shot during the Warsaw Uprising a year later — is still and will be horrendous, along with so many stories of lives cut short in brutal ways put into motion by the worst parts of humans.

Yet there is something else that I experience each time I talk about the books and the guys’ lives: that sense of blessing they gave me by entrusting me with their stories, by encouraging me to write this book and share it widely. I feel like I get to carry and display a beautiful artwork, a mosaic of broken glass threaded with deep blue, flashes of red, gold and green, altogether not quite a vase or bowl, but open to hold the remnants of lives well-lived. These remnants include Lou’s laughter as he told me about how he knew his school was taken over by Nazis because of the giant swastika flag, or Maura (Jarek’s wife) putting her arms around Lou and Jarek at our Hanukkah party years ago, saying it was good to have the lads together. There’s Jarek putting on his British corps uniform to show me it still fit, and Jane (Lou’s wife) telling her story of threading through Nazi Germany, thanks to the wits of her mother, to get from Budapest to America. I get to shepherd these stories and many more to people, some of whom have never met a Jew before, and all of whom are amazingly interested in IMG_1253what Lou, Jarek and others surviving the Holocaust and the Polish Resistance movement made of their lives. “Like a needle in the bone,” one of the high school students said when when we were talking about what most survivors of genocides carry with them. The students among him nodded in understanding, all of them attuned to how Lou and Jarek were teenagers like them during the war, and look at what these men were able to do.

On the way home, after downing some enchiladas while Ken drove, we hit the Smoky Hills at the same time sunset did, everything golden and lit from far-off light. We have hours more to drive, but I couldn’t stop taking pictures out the windows of everything illuminated, the contrast between light and dark so vivid.

Time-Travel into Fall: Everyday Magic, Day 870

Over the last month, I’ve been time-travelIMG_0056ling backwards through fall. I started October in Vermont, where the temperatures lingered in the 30s at night and barely crested the 50s in the days. The cooler turned the maple leaves green to rust, occasional splashes of yellow and red up and down mountainsides. I’m told that sometimes in Vermont, if you hit the fall foliage just right and if the magical balance of rain, sunshine, cool days but not too cold all coalesce, the mountains look psychedelic. The fall trips I’ve taken to Goddard College, where I teach, tend to land me there in more muted years, but still, mountains of maples in fall create an autumnal world of wonder, color, and light.

Going backwards in fall a bit, we drove the long way up and back last weekend to Madison, Wisconsin to see our son. The roadside greenery get distinctly yellower.IMG_0250 By the time we got to Madison, the trees were dazzling red, orange, and tumbles of every shade of gold and green. The prairie we walked last Sunday, just east of Mount Horeb, shone blond with the grasses starting to show glimpses of red. I shivered some standing on a porch without a coat one night, yet by mid-day, the crisp air warmed and cooled me at once.

IMG_0280Now it’s edging toward the end of October, and Lawrence, like all the other places I visited, is late is autumn. Our mid-October peak hasn’t yet arrived, and what has is quieter than many years because of a very dry September and not quite the perfect balance of temperature and moisture. Yet the slowness of fall falling shows its speed across trees that span dark green to dark orange in one fell sweep.

All my life, I’ve loved fall, watching the waking world swirling IMG_0275itself from one thing to another. Sure, there’s the hit-over-the-head symbolism of age and death coming, beauty changing to bareness, and all that letting go-ness. But there’s also “a certain slant of light,” to quote Emily Dickinson. The blues of the blue sky are bluer, setting sharp the contrast with all that brightening, fading, and falling.