Category Archives: Sky

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

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

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

The view from my hotel room

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

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

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

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

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

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Endings and Beginnings at Midnight: Everyday Magic, Day 906

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Insomnia with Stars, Rain, Thunder, and Lightning Bugs: Everyday Magic, Day 866

There’s something to said for seeing in the dark especially when the first rain in weeks makes both a dramatic and gentle entrance, adorned with lightning bugs filling the fields, stars to the south, and lightning flashes turning on and off the vista of clouds.

There’s something also to be said for listening closely when thunder echoes within echoes, opening up caves within caves of the sky, the wind barely trips leaf against leaf, and filling it all are thousands of tiny pings of rain.

It’s a still life for the senses, only instead of a canvas, it’s life being life in this place at this moment. A crooked bolt shines on down before vanishing. The car hoods glow metallic every few moments. Inside, the dog stands up very concerned, then lies back down. Outside, the tomato plants out back and hostas out front drink it all in, me too sitting on the porch, awake when I should be asleep.

Sometimes life rocks us into its beautiful cradle, and eventually, I hope, toward refreshing sleep. But for now, this is enough.

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.

Counting Stars, Time, and Remembering Jerry: Everyday Magic, Day 880

10801514_10152411963826315_5462935666005367948_nLast night, I stood on the wet back deck of our house in my leopard-print fleece bathrobe late at night, head tilted back, counting the seconds between falling stars. It was late, the sheer clouds dissipating after a day of enormous rain. Inside, the clean house hummed its happy song after the warmth and light of the Hanukkah party, the air still enhanced by what frying potatoes and onions can do for a home.

All day, I had been thinking about a year ago when our dear friend Jerry died after either a short or long illness, depending on how you count. I heard the news in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s in Kansas City, just after leading a writing workshop at Turning Point for people living with serious illness. Hanging up my phone, I was shocked although the doctor in Jerry’s intensive care unit told us it would be a roller coaster when it came to knowing if he would survive. I remember walking into Trader Joe’s and putting various things in a shopping cart, but not whether I actually checked out or just wandered out of the store.

At our Hanukkah party a year ago, another way to count the time from there to here, still in shock about Jerry’s death, we sang two of his favorite songs–James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and Chet Powers’ “Get Together.” This year, right before we lit the candles, we had a moment of silence to remember Jerry and/or whoever we loved who was gone or far away.

Yesterday, the Turning Point writers gave a public reading where they shared startling images and enduring stories of what it means to find courage, meaning, even joy in the web of mortality. The reading, held on a Saturday, resonated with Jerry dying on the Saturday I was with these writers, another way to count time. Like the Turning Point writers, Jerry struggled with serious illness. Unlike them, he didn’t go on to share his story of coming back from this brink.
Considering Jerry in the year in between his death and now has brought me surprising joys, such as finding friendship with Jerry’s sisters and brothers (he had six!) after we bonded in a hospital waiting room, telling stories of him as a boy and10858644_10152644832843208_4356927544652366850_n man around a fake fire while drinking mediocre cups of coffee. I’ve seen them at his moving memorial (“Jerry on the prairie!“), and for meals and even some music several times in Minneapolis. I tell them that we’re each other’s Jerrys now.

At the same time, it hurts when someone you love dies, especially in a scenario that, had any of us known all the pieces of the crazy-quilt puzzle, we might have prevented. I’ve ferried my guilt through many layers of rationalization, disappointment in myself, and big-picture framing, understanding both that he chose this, and I still wish I had intervened more. I’m beyond grateful for the days we had during his last week, especially the night I played James Taylor and other songs I knew he loved from my phone, held his hand, told him I loved him, and chided him, despite and because he was on a vent at the time, for not holding up his end of the conversation.

Yet the conversation doesn’t end. Shivering but determined to see more falling stars, I scanned the sky, wondering where best to aim my eyes, and how to better open my peripheral vision to catch the ride of a particle of dust from the stars to the earth. “You didn’t fail me,” I dreamed Jerry said after his death. The Geminid meteor shower didn’t either although there was a long stretch between the first two falling stars and the next. Just as I was about to give up, a large white meteor flew east to west, dissolving in the dark. I wrapped my robe tighter and went back into the warm house where sleep and the rest of my life awaited me.