The bed is covered in piles of clothes, the hungry suitcases are chomping at the bit, and I’m eager to clean out the car. There’s something immensely satisfying loading a little car with everything from winter coats (never know — it could be snowing on the top of a mountain we’re exploring) to trail mix. Conversely, unloading that car in 10 days isn’t quite the same, but then it’s wonderful to be with cats and dog, birds and changing leaves, and back in our own bed.
As someone who loves planning, often more than what happens after the planning, I’m looking toward cultivating a vacation mindset as soon as we hit I-70. The funny thing about planning a vacation is that when I think I’m going to go out of my mind unless I take a real break from things, planning is a kind of nirvana wishing ground. Then, in peaceful stretches like this one — right before leaving — I realize that while I’m thrilled to be exploring, I’m fine with being here to catch the monarchs starting to come through and the hummingbirds still at the feeders. Those two so-human impulses — the call of the open road, and the song of home — play simultaneously, two radio stations that sometimes harmonize in the distance.
At the same time, adventure and homecoming are two sides of the same falling leaf. I think of this especially when seeing the full moon rise, which will be tonight, and remembering how a friend once told me if I look at the full moon when he’s looking at the full moon, we’ll be connected in our gazing. So wherever the moon is, there we all are! Home beats in the center of our chests and can surround us, a cloak of shelter, wherever we are.
So it’s off to stuff things into suitcases and podcasts onto the iphone as I slide toward leaving tomorrow, and getting things ready for our housesitter and animals. Yet just like the title of one of Ursula LeGuin’s marvelous novels, I know we’re also Always Coming Home. I wish everyone joy in travel, and in the landing in your own bed again.
A bunch of hummingbirds is called a charm, a delight and an adornment, and for the last few months, I’ve been blessed to have my view delighted and adorned by a charm of hummingbirds. At this time of September, it’s a teenage charm with the ‘rents having gone south already for their tropical vacation, and the kids, some of whom are still hanging out at my place, partying at the sugar-water hanging kegs like there’s no tomorrow.
After a usual summer of a few Ruby-throated hummingbirds hanging out at the edge of woods and near the feeders, right around early September, they seem to multiply overnight on their way south to winter in southern Mexico and northern Panama. My friend Pam, who sat quietly on our front porch with me yesterday to immerse herself n the buzz-chirp-rush of the birds, told me that the full-grown birds take off first, leaving behind the teens, who are old enough to be on their own without causing too much of a ruckus, and happy as the day is long and the feeders are full.
While the ways of the teen are somewhat mysterious in humans, when it comes to hummingbirds, that mystery deepens because of all we don’t know about them. According to some sites I perused, hummingbirds are too little (weighing about 3 grams, smaller for the teens) to carry radio transmitters, and of course, these birds are difficult to catch, handle, and band, let alone recover the banded ones. It also sounds like we just don’t know a lot about their fall migration, except they are very much creatures of habit, returning to the same feeders around the same time each spring, and the males — the ones with the beautiful ruby-colored throats — don’t linger long after mating. What we do know is hummingbirds beat their wings 53 times a second, they weigh between 0.1 and 0.2 an oz., their hearts beat the fastest of all beings — 1260 beats per minute, they can migrate about 1,500 miles in a season, and they make an outrageous amount of song and sound.
As I write this, these tiny, feisty miracles race-buzz by, then suspend themselves mid-air to stare at me, the dog, the cats — who stare back in amazement but are smart enough not to even try to get closer — before shooting off to the feeder. Sometimes there are a dozen or more zipping diagonally past each other from power line to feeder to high branch on the Osage Orange tree back around. Sometimes they squeak long dialogues before vanishing into the woods with a flash. Each swirl and angle of their flight, each call and wild rush of their wings charms all of us living this porch (and beyond) life.
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.
27 years ago today, I was in labor at the with my first child at Topeka’s Birth and Women’s Health Center. It was wicked hot. The waves of contractions had been knocking me down for many hours since my water broke at Liberty Hall in the middle of a nightmare-ish film about the Bubonic Plague. A lot was going out the window quickly, foremost the plans I had about how childbirth would be a challenge I could manage, the birth would be quick, and the baby would be born healthy.
27 years ago tomorrow, I was in a nearby hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, my fabulous midwife and doctor from the birth center having recommended this and now wrapping their arms around our family along with other great supporters. Our newborn, Daniel — who tends to not take the easy route in life for most things — inhaled amniotic fluid on the way out and was born unresponsive to things like breathing on his own quickly enough. Ken and I were standing by his incubator, our hands through the openings so he could hold our fingers with his small fists. He was full-term, strong and relatively healthy, but we wouldn’t get to bring him home until July 14, Bastille Day. As it turned out, it was the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day, and public radio played many renditions of the Marseillaise (click here for musical accompaniment to this post). The whole day, we kept telling him, “You’re free!”
He was free, and we were beginning our long fall and rise to freedom from whatever we thought becoming a parent was, a lifelong unfolding of how deep, hard, rewarding, joyful and heartbreaking love is, and how little control we have over just about anything but watering the garden, doing the dishes, and making a strong cup of tea.
Now that we have three 20-something children, the surprises continue, sometimes picking up speed, and sometimes lulling us into the notion that humans have real ground their feet. I mean, we do have the real ground of the earth, but when it comes to thinking we always know best where to step next, not so much. Becoming a mom has immersed me in a kaleidoscope of intensives, from learning about various physical ailments from epilepsy to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, to studying the nuances of SAT applications, healing modalities off the beaten path, car insurance policies, best inexpensive motels without bedbugs and with pools, and IEPs (Individual Educational Plans). We’ve tutored our kids (and ourselves) on how to balance a checkbook, what not to say to your boss, where to find the best yard sales, how to facilitate a meeting, and why great movies, kickass enchiladas, and dark chocolate matter, especially when the chips are down and the stress is up.
We’ve collected irreplaceable stories together, like what could go wrong after driving in mountains for seven hours, then eating too much before getting into a flimsy tent during a thunderstorm. We’ve driven, flown and taken the train all over the country to see relatives, attend funerals or weddings, and try to relax at the Grand Canyon or in the Rockies when our kids would rather fight over the remote control for the hotel room TV. We’ve also had thousands of long talks, including a good many Jewish versions of “come to Jesus” talks (as they call them in the Midwest) about grades, honesty, chores, habits, crushes, friendship, and the screwed up world we’re leaving to them, broken with ecological devastation, racist killings, war-torn countries driving immigrants to risk dying on flimsy rafts, and widespread trauma.
It’s exhausting and overwhelming, glorious and dismal at times. There’s no end to this job as my friends with kids in their 40s and 50s remind me. There’s no end to the piercing hope and desperate prayers for each child to find his or her own best way. Luckily, there’s no end to the love, and the capacity I didn’t know I had to begin again, especially when it comes to edging out another inch of forgiveness for all of us.
So on this birthday of starting my climb, fall, and long walk through a great many parenting parking lots and prairies, I want to celebrate freedom, folly, and wish my oldest son a sweet birthday. Nope, being a parent is not what I thought it would be. It’s vaster and better and, like this day that turned from cold thunderstorms to hot clear skies, always in motion.
Quilting is like climbing into a time machine and disembarking in the future with a magic treasure. You start the quilt in one season, end it in another, each step holding its stories, terally for me since I listened to a lot of podcasts of The Moth, This American Life and Radio Lab while sewing these babies together.
I started the bright blue quilt with the crazy quilt squares — controlled chaos is how I see this design glimpsed and phone-photoed from a quilting book — at the end of the summer, thinking this would be a good transition project. I had just finished organizing the Power of Word conference for two years, and with the last of my sons moving out, it was empty-nest heaven, trembling and confusing heaven at times, but nevertheless a time of extra time. I felt like I suddenly gained an extra hour each day. So off to the fabric store I went.
I cut the squares for hours one night while listening to “A Night on the Town” on public radio, then whatever came on after that, and after that. Thanks for my sister-in-law, Karen, who is a superb quilter, I learned how to use that great see-through plastic ruler and fabric cutter (just like a pizza cutter, but smaller with no crusts left behind).
We laid out the squares — Ken helped since I needed his eyes for the best color arrangement — on the floor of the playroom. This was the room where once babies tried to eat Legos, and bringing in piles of sharp pins would have been unthinkable. It was hot out and in, and it took a long time to figure out how to place fabric together in ways that didn’t clash or repeat too much. Then I started sewing, and here’s where the mistakes came in.
A helpful woman in the sewing store enthusiastically handed me a flyer featuring upcoming quilting classes when I told her how inexperienced I was. Sure, I’ve made about five other quilts, but far more simple ones and always without knowing what I was doing. Yet when it comes to learning new crafts, you’ll find me in the corner with a seam ripper, undoing a six-foot-long body of tiny machine stitches, rather than actually going to classes or reading instructions. Some of us learn best by mucking around in the mud, and I got to learn about the muck generated by terrible mathematics errors that meant re-cutting and re-sewing big sections, and lots of time rushing back to the store to get more fabric.
In the end, I delivered the whole enchilada to professional quilter Kris Barlow, who did a gorgeous job turning this big hunk of fabric into a nuanced and three-dimensional piece of beauty.
But while the quilt was with the quilter, I started getting itchy to make another quilt, especially after I spied some stained-glass window quilt designs.
Off to the fabric store again, then out with the ruler and fabric cutter. The problem was that this quilt was, to a person to could only do basic multiplication, more like advanced geometry. I spent far more time than you would expect drawing squares and rectangles and counting out inches for what I would need to cut. Then I realized I forgot to figure in the fabric between all the colorful windows, and since some pieces would be long rectangles alongside shorter squares (each with fabric between them), the addition quickly got beyond me.
In the end, though, I found that quilting seems to be 90% adding and subtracting numbers, and cutting fabric. The sewing part, aside from the bothersome refilling of the bobbins just when I’m on a roll, was a lot like, once the car is packed after weeks of planning, hitting the open road for the much-awaited vacation.
The end of any great sewing project is just a pause in between one kind of weather and another. A trip to see the sandhill cranes in Nebraska landed me in front of a pile of golden and gorgeous crane material, and now there’s a whole pile of fabric to measure and cut. That lure of what different things will look like wedded together by many stitches is irresistible. So I’m climbing inside this springtime-leaving, autumn-bound time machine to see where I land. No doubt I’ll be wearing a new quilt like a super-hero cape, pretending I can fly.
In my long-time bioregional group, the Kansas Area Watershed Council, we regularly have a water ritual. Standing in a circle around some springtime prairie plants in the middle of a large native prairie, we step forward, one at a time when we feel moved to pour a little water from parts close-by or far-flung onto an emerging milkweed or verbena, and say a prayer or wish, ask for help, give thanks, or just take a breath. I’ve seen people share water from all over the continent and world, sometimes mixing wishes and songs with water from Walden Pond, someone’s kitchen in Kansas City, a stream in central Mexico, and a spring in southwest Kansas.
Yesterday, as I drank the last of the water from my traveling Goddard cup, I realized I had been flying across the country with my own water ritual. This red container had water from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., melted ice cubes from the Skinny Pancake (great crepes) in Burlington, VT as well as what was left from my drink 30,000 feet above western New York. I added more from a water fountain in the Detroit airport, then had a flight attendant while high over Illinois pour in more water, before coming home to Lawrence, KS, where I poured in water from home. The cup traveled half a continent with me, sometimes very high in the atmosphere, and sometimes underground, like in Detroit when I got to cross through a tunnel of singing lights before emerging into the white light that led to another plane.
I find air travel to be somewhat discombobulating. After being high above the earth at 500 mph, I’m always a little here and there, waiting for all of me to arrive and settle in. This time, I just finished my water from many states and altitudes, mindsets and attitudes, grateful for the replenishment along the way. Sometimes there’s a party on your plate or a ritual in your cup. Drink up, the world seems to say, and so I do.
“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.
Stay around long enough, and you’ll meet yourself and everyone else you love coming and going, sometimes even more so, like all of 2015 for me. People and places seemingly long gone and far away rolled through my life, or I rolled through them all year long, from friends I haven’t seen in over a decade to landscapes imprinted in my imagination a very long time ago. Oh, reunions, how I love thee, especially when guided by serendipity, surprise and the awesome magic of picking up just when we left over 4 or 40 years ago.
Some of the reunions were well- engineered, such as a long-planned trip to Big Bend National Park in extreme (and I mean “extreme” in every way you can imagine) West Texas, where Ken and I honeymooned 30 years earlier. It was the first time I experienced desert, and let’s just say I wasn’t a happy camping (I do mean camping, which was on the side of a mountain surrounded by javelinas). This time, we stayed in a lodge in the Davis Mountains, a place we discovered in ’85 when we only had an afternoon in this savannah, a lush and dry at once landscape mixing prairie and forest with big expanses of mountain behind mountain. “Let’s go back here and spend more time,” my 25-year-old self told my 30-year-old husband. Turns out, we just needed three decades to make that happen, and upon returning, it was all brand new and deja vu at once. We marveled at the land and sky, I didn’t complain about how stark the landscape was (I’ve grown to love desert), and while we didn’t hike 17 miles in day (oh, our strong younger selves!), we walked ourselves silly and even waded in the Rio Grande.
Other places I threw my happy arms around included a usual reunion hangout — my often-annual trip to New York and Brooklyn, this time walking across the Brooklyn Bridge my parents crossed regularly with my siblings and me back in the 60s (in the back of a wood-paneled station wagon) when we lived in Brooklyn, and our dad worked in lower Manhattan. Of course, I also visited the old subway arcade, closed since 9/11, where my dad’s store was long ago.
Some re-meetings were more far-flung, like going back to Madison, WI a mere 27 years after we trekked up there in a baby blue VW van with friends for the wedding of Catherine and Peter. Amazingly enough, Daniel (our oldest son), upon settling in Madison for graduate school, at a barn dance ferreted out Catherine, who he had never met, because something about her seemed familiar. Reunion ensued with great joy, amazing food, and a vengeance!
I found a town I lost by mistake — Columbia, Missouri, where I lived for some extremely formative college years when I was teetering between daily infactuations with all the least-likely candidates, too many part-time jobs (from making popcorn to shaking newspapers together), occasional schoolwork, and a whole lot of roaming all hours of the night through the town I claimed as mine. Nothing like brunch with three old friends to open my heart and remind me why it’s never a good idea to remind them about the time I said, “Anarchists, Socialists! What’s the difference?” It also wasn’t a good idea to lose a town less than three hours away, and in January, we have another mini reunion there with pals John and Suzanne.
Other reunions came swiftly by surprise, like when our old friend David called to say that, surprise!, he was coming to town in two days. We were able, although we were about to leave town ourselves early the next morning, squeeze in a beautiful visit complete with lingering dinner and catching up on everything from the nuances of our children to climate change. Our pal Stephanie was able to stop in on her way across the country for deep conversation and a lovely walk both in the country and downtown. In all cases, we talked, as the old cliche tells us, like no time had passed although we were sharing many vivid moments about what exactly happened (as much as we can conjure it) in some of that passing time.
Getting on the road sparked all kinds of reunions. I loved seeing old friends from Lawrence in Minneapolis, and also reuniting several times with siblings of my friend, Jerry, who died over a year ago, but left us one another. Various conferences threw me in the arms of it’s-been-too-long-since-we-talked friends in Black Mountain, NC, Minneapolis, and Kansas City. I got to hang out with my sisters and mom, niece and nephew, and new brother-in-law in Orlando, and a bevy of Ken’s family we hadn’t seen in a while.
Back home around Thanksgiving, I reconnected with one of my cousins who I grew up with but lost to family distance (both the geographic and emotional kinds) for 43 years. While we’ve talked some on the phone and have emailed in recent years, there’s nothing like getting back together in person after over four decades. It was hard to stop talking, and I look forward to meet talking to make up for lost time.
And just last week, my old pal and office mate Andrew visited from Macau (near Hong Kong) with his wife and 17-year-old daughter who was a toddler last time we saw her.
Everything circles, spirals, vanishes in the swamp of life, and then pops back up. This year, that included even the Kansas City Royals, who won the World Series for the first time in 30 years, reuniting us all with the Royals’ slogan, “keep the line moving,” which means just to get a hit, any hit, keep moving, and if everyone works hard, plays smart, and gets the right pitch, you’ll get to run back home. The line, it turns out, never was a line to begin with, and if wait at home long enough or wander far enough away, you’ll likely find out just how curvy and hilly time is. I couldn’t be more grateful for each homecoming.
Yesterday, I jumped into the Gulf of Mexico in my clothes because it was there, the water was shining and warm, and occasionally I’m no fool. Today, I waded into the Atlantic Ocean, this time with in a bathing suit thanks to my mom reminding me I might want a towel (which made me remember that the swimsuit is also a nifty idea).
Living in Kansas, where both swimming in salt water, let alone oceans, and seeing dolphins (which I saw both days) is usually something only accomplished through lucky dreamed sleep, I didn’t want to let all that seawater slip away from my skin, let alone the wild and swift rolling surface. Today, Ken and I were slammed by wave after wave coming up behind me. Sometimes we jumped in time, sometimes the rush of salt water soaked our heads at high speed. Whatever the case, I felt more than my body lifting toward shore and pulled back out by the undertow. Although I could be bias from having grown up near the shore — close to Coney Island in Brooklyn, and later the Jersey shore — I believe our beings have evolved with a yearning to home in when it comes to large bodies of water.
Such bodies also help me remember my own in the literal meaning of remember: to bring back together our extending-outward members (legs, arms) to the oneness we are individually, and in the case of breathing, swimming, or otherwise interacting with the world, the oneness we are with this planet. When I walked into the quiet Gulf waters yesterday, everything blue lit gold by the light, I was a little frightened to lean forward into swimming, which is a lot like leaning forward in a dream so that we can fly. Maybe it was the baby shark we saw a fisherman tossing back in earlier, but I suspect it was simply that process of forgetting and remembering ourselves at once in surrendering to such a large being: the life force of ocean. Once I did, my feet were hesitant to reach for the ground again.
Today, each wave that broke right before it gathered me up, and each wave that rose me up in its breaking felt like what it was: such a gift. Two days, two bodies of water that are really one (not to mention all those the water gives life to in the sea and land), and I can still taste the salt on my fingers. Within a few days, back in the prairies, which once were an inland ocean, I’ll remember this, and as best I can, keep remembering myself back together.
Over the last month, I’ve been time-travelling 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. 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.
Now 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 itself 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.