When Self-Care Isn’t Enough: Everyday Magic, Day 897

I used to beat myself up for bad self-care. After all, it’s the common and actually excellent wisdom of the day that most of us need to practice better and more consistent ways of taking care of our precious selves, particularly in a world lit up with hand-held and hands-on screens, bringing us new things to do 24/7. But there’s far more to what ails us than just our inability at times to eat, sleep, work, exercise, socialize, and meditate right, and sometimes the popular push for self-care, all good-intentioned, can leave those of us who have chronic issues feeling like we failed once again.

Case in point: I’m sick now, nothing very serious, and after struggling against a virus or something like it for six weeks. I had to leave a yoga class yesterday, a restorative yoga class at that, because I realized in no uncertain terms it was time to get treatment and get horizontal. Like none of us, I can’t say my life is always (or often) stress-free, I do sleep 8-9 hours each night, eat healthy and often organic food, get together for loving lunches with friends, enjoy a replenishing and humorous marriage, work in the sunshined garden regularly, entertain myself with meaningful work, do yoga and take long walks, and watch my share of stupid-funny movies. We even have a new air-purifier and ionizer in our home. I’m also working with a great integrative physician on improving my health, and at times, making strides. (Note: please, no further advice at this point.)

But there’s far more to being healthy than is in our control. There’s hereditary, environmental, karmic, and everyday tendencies and exposures beyond our control. I think of the husbands of two of my closest friends: one of them is undergoing chemotherapy in preparation for a bone marrow transplant to treat late-stage lymphona. The other just had an emergency heart aneurysm surgery to repair what would have ended his life. They’re both guys who take care of themselves and practice, in many ways, what many of us would define as good self-care. I think the Turning Point writing workshops I facilitate for people living with serious illness: altogether, participants are a delightful and vivid crew who face late-stage cancer, M.S., Parkinson’s, heart disease, diabetes, or other illness. One of them worked as a personal trainer for years until cancer changed her life. Another leads a model lifestyle for health and well-being, but being exposed to Agent Orange while serving as a nurse in Vietnam gave her Parkinson’s disease. Some, despite the eternal presence of M & Ms in our sessions, eat whole grains and 5-7 servings of vegetables each day. Yet here they are.

I believe so much in finding our own best self-care, and constantly dialoguing with these vibrant and aching bodies of ours to discover what, in this moment, is the best way to go forth: weed a garden or watch a movie, take a nap or whip up a giant salad, call a friend or read a novel. I’m glad that among my friends and in many of the articles I read, the term “self-care” frequently makes an appearance as we grapple with how to incorporate this more deeply into the core of our lives.

What I’m trying to release, however, is the damaging message sometimes buried in how we talk about self-care that getting sick or diagnosed with something serious indicates our lack of effort or discipline. Sure, I have lots of empirical evidence that eating too many desserts is detrimental to my health, but I’ve seen plenty of people with pristine diets go through chemotherapy or radiation because cancer showed up anyway.

It’s not just the messages we might give ourselves (Caryn to self: I’m sick again; self to Caryn: What did you do wrong now?). It’s occasionally the subtle or not-so-subtle messages we convey to each other. Yes, there are very effective supplements to bolster our immune systems, anti-inflammatory ways of eating, and exercise protocols to strengthen our muscles and our spirits, but they’re not always enough. Let alone the cliche and truth that life is a terminal illness, we each have our own Achilles heels, and mysterious lesson plans to be revealed as we live them.

So when the chips are down, the body too, there’s a whole other aspect of self-care to embrace: compassion toward ourselves, and tenderness toward this life that stops us in our tracks at moments, reminding us that while there’s a lot we can do for ourselves and others, we’re not in ultimate control.

 

Only-In-Lawrence-Kansas-Moments: Everyday Magic, Day 896

Lately, I’ve had a lot of only-in-Lawrence moments when wandering around downtown, and I feel compelled to share them with you:

  • We love music and poetry in this town, so of course, a panhandler needs to use a Leonard Cohen quote, “Love is the only engine for survival.” In exchange for this photo of him, I contributed to his cause.
  • We love animals and babies, so of course, I spied a woman pushing a stroller with a chihuahua in it, kept safely in place under some netting. The dog sat up happily, taking in the sites.
  • Speaking of strollers, we also tend to love Dennis, one of our Lawrence characters, and Dennis loves Sheryl Crow, his life-sized doll that he often wheels around town. I saw him last with rolled-up short shorts, and the top half of another life-sized doll. I almost talked with him, but I wasn’t in the mood to be cursed out, as is often the price of getting close to his celebrity. You can learn more about Dennis at the Friends of Dennis Facebook page, that asks, “Are you a friend of Dennis? Are you crazy for cats, Sheryl Crow, Las Vegas, big head posters? Share your love for our sweetest grouch and most brilliant stylist.”
  • Speaking of brilliant stylists, there’s also the Queen of England, who graces us with her life-sized cardboard cut-out, at Brits (sharing a wall with Au Marche, the French store). Here she is with Kris, who’s clearly about to ask her if she prefers sugar or honey in her Yorkshire Gold tea.
  • When it comes to tea, how can we not invoke the name and artistic brilliance of Anne Patterson, who, among her many other talents, has constructed a stroller-sized teapot for the annual Art Togeau parade, Lawrence’s wheeled art gala, held each spring? Here, she certainly hasn’t flipped her lid (photo by Craig Patterson).
  • Assorted other entities and happenings I’ve heard about downtown in the last few weeks: a fire hydrant wearing a zebra-print bar, someone who regularly brings a rabbit to poetry readings, glitter on the sidewalk leading to coconut cream pie nirvana at the Ladybird Diner (coincidence? or work of the pie gods?), and a sign on a power line pole that says, “I am a citizen of a country that does not exist yet.”

If you’re around here or have been through here, feel free to add your sightings.

Poets Laureate of Kansas Call For the Humanities

In the past few weeks, I’ve been working with three other former or current poets laureate of Kansas to craft our statement in support of the Kansan Humanities Council, and the National Endowment of the Humanities. As Wyatt Townley says, “Kansas is a microcosm of the national arts-and-humanities landscape and the plight it faces.” Please do what you can, and pass it on!

Poets Laureate of Kansas

Statement of Support for the Humanities

What does it mean to be fully human, and what is it worth? It is difficult to quantify the value of the humanities, but we know that investment there yields a big bang for the soul and for the buck. In the current cost-cutting climate, the value—indeed, the very existence—of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has been called into question, though it costs the average American 50 cents a year.

 

One local beneficiary of the NEH is the Kansas Humanities Council (KHC), with its 45-year track record of strengthening civic life. In 2016, KHC provided over 700 free programs to nearly 400,000 people in all 6 sections of the state. The benefit in terms of education, history, and culture is immeasurable, but the real crop KHC grows is community.

 

KHC’s Poet Laureate of Kansas program, adopted in 2013 from the Kansas Arts Commission, is one of our nation’s 44 state poet laureateships. These programs point to poetry’s ability to explore essential values in an age of distraction. Poetry helps us find common ground and develop greater understanding of our shared home, from the tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills to the windy high plains.

 

As poets laureate, we’ve crisscrossed the state many times, dodging blizzards and tornados to talk with fellow Kansans about things that matter. We averaged 50 public appearances a year—some at colleges, high schools, and grade schools, but most at small-town libraries and community centers. Anyone who thinks of poetry as elitist should ride along with us to Colby (pop. 5,387), or Kinsley (1,457), or Glasco (498), and see how many farmers, miners, nurses, children, and retirees fill up rooms.

 

Having a poet laureate costs Kansas taxpayers almost nothing (the modest travel stipend we receive is paid for entirely by private donors), but the position could not exist without the tireless support of the Kansas Humanities Council, providing staff and resources to help us reach new audiences, particularly in underserved and isolated areas. KHC supports the state economy, bringing people together—often across great distances—which in turn bolsters hotels, restaurants, and other local businesses.

 

Our state poet laureate program has a national reputation for excellence. We have organized conferences that brought dozens of other state poets and hundreds of participants to Kansas. We’ve published regular columns in newspapers statewide and produced award-winning anthologies featuring hundreds of writers for thousands of readers. Our thriving regional literary scene led the Association of Writers & Writing Programs to bring its 2020 conference—one of the biggest writers conferences on Earth, drawing some 13,000 attendees from around the world—to the Kansas City area.

 

We believe in poetry as deep literacy—an experience that engages mind, emotion, body, and spirit. We also believe in Kansas, and the essential work of our superb state humanities council and our national treasure, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Please do all you can—contacting legislators especially (https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials)—to ensure their continuation for the good of us all.

 

Eric McHenry, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2015-17

Wyatt Townley, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2013-15

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2009-2013

Denise Low, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2007-09

We’re All Such Delicate Creatures, But At Least We’re In Good Company: Everyday Magic, Day 895

Everyone I know has something hard to live or live with: the everyday heartbreak of going on when a greatly beloved is dead or gone, a scattering of demeaning jobs or not-so-sweet sweethearts, tunnels of depression or roller coasters of anxiety, or chronic illness or cumbersome disabilities. Maybe we’re hard-wired to have an Achilles heel, some weak spot named for Achilles of ancient Greek mythology whose mother, Thetis, dipped him into the Styx river to make him immortal. To keep hold of him, she held him by one heel, which became his vulnerable part.

My Achilles heel is chronic illness, mostly of the sinus-infection-whatever-mystery-virus-is-this-fresh-hell variety. While I’ve struggled since childhood with getting sick more than the average bear, ever since I went through cancer and chemotherapy, this vulnerability has gotten more airtime. I won’t bore you with the long list of conventional, alternative, cutting-edge and/or traditional treatments I’ve sought, and I’m certainly not asking for advice — I have what feels like a good and long-term treatment plan in place now that may lessen the and-she’s-down-again days, and I’m honored to be working with a great integrative physician. But there are days, like this one, when I’m limping around on my Achilles heel.

One problem with vulnerabilities, especially the chronic ones, is that it’s hard to get beyond self-blame, or at least, it’s hard for me. When I get sick, my first impulse is to scan my days for what I did wrong and to feel like I’m failing at life. But this is just the my thinking and thoughts, not reality. What is reality? I’m hardly ever completely sure, which I believe is kind of the essence of intersecting with reality, but I do know that life is far more mysterious than we can fathom. We don’t know what will happen, and by extension, what this symptom or that one truly means all the time. We don’t even know all the details of our life lessons, except that sometimes those lessons are relentless intensives. While I believe very much in the power of healing, and siren song of health, I also know it’s beyond my control to have the ultimate power to fix what ails me, or the world.

Just like I practice the cello, I can keep practicing health like all of us can keep practicing ways to live with our vulnerabilities. Some days, I’ll make a sweet note, and some days, it’ll sound like shit. I can keep aiming toward ideal wholeness, but I have to remember that I’m already whole because being being a little bit broken in some way or another (aka Leonard Cohen’s “There’s a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in) is what it means to be a whole human.

One of my favorite songs, “That’s What Makes You Strong” by Jessie Winchester, tells us how what makes us weak, what makes us need someone, is what makes us strong. “That’s what moves our souls, and that’s what makes us sing,” the song goes, and I love this version by my friend Kelley Hunt. We are moving mosaics composed of all the pieces, edgy or smooth.

What helps us grow courage and compassion is the everyday Achilles heels of our lives, reminding us that, yes, we are designed by nature to be delicate creatures, and yes, we are also called to work, play and live with the materials life gives us. There never was a river of immortality, just us humans, sharing our stories of falling down and rising down, and in the sharing, remembering that we’re never alone.

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.

The Patron Saint of Just-Being Returns the Music: Everyday Magic, Day 892

In the two-plus years since our dear friend Jerry died, I’ve occasionally resumed my search for my Ipod mini, a little music player I loaded with songs I knew Jerry loved, and brought to him in the hospital as he was dying. While I was sure his siblings returned it to me to take home after his death, it seemed to have vanished the moment it was placed back in my hands. I emptied the catch-all kitchen desk drawer, looked in corners of closets, and even checked behind the washer and dryer where good socks go to die. Eventually, I forgot about it.

Jerry

In the two-plus months since our family has been upheavaled by Ken’s loss of a beloved job and journey to the next best thing, I’ve thought of Jerry often. He had an amazing ability to be present when the shit hit the fan, not get swept into drama, and stay long after dinner was over to listen to whoever needed to say anything. He did this with panache throughout my year-plus cancer treatment and surgeries, serving as a rock we could huddle on as the waves swept through. The most excited I saw him get was the night before one of my surgeries when he called to say he would be at the hospital the next morning with us. “But don’t you have to go to work?” I asked. “How can I go to work when this is happening?” he answered.

I also thought of him because part of how we’ve been navigating haphazard big waves is by chatting up the ancestors, of which he’s one, and asking for help, mostly in the form of greater clarity and peace with wobbly or disappearing ground under our feet. Because this particular turn of events is made of mystery, of which uncertainty is the byproduct, the biggest challenge is just being with what we don’t know. Jerry is the patron saint of just-being, a good teacher for me who tends to worship at the altar of over-doing.img_3166

Yesterday, Ken went to work at his new job, both of us thrilled that he landed in the best possible environment and position for his callings at this point in his life. The light in and around our home lighted up a few degrees, and sometime after his left for the office, I opened the cabinet above the toilet where we keep soap, floss, some vitamins, and things used rarely, such as our daughter’s make-up remover. There, right in the center of plain sight, was the Ipod mini in the pale blue gift bag that I put it in to bring to the hospital long ago. It was accompanied by the USB cord and the two sets of ear buds I put there also.

It makes sense that the goddess of lost things hangs out with the patron saint of just-being because how else can we find what we’ve lost than by truly dwelling in the emotional and other geographies of where we actually are? So now that the old music has returned, with enough ear buds for two, it’s time to get up and dance. Thanks, Jer.