Tag Archives: Kansas

Eclipse in Our Midst: Everyday Magic, Day 909

A few days past the Great American Eclipse, I’m feeling my way through the sheer joy, possible meanings, and wild vitality of this experience. An eclipse holds and moves through many metaphors as the moon moseys toward, on top of, and past the sun, showing us new angles of light, and re-making the sun into a crescent-moon-shaped force. Day turns to night in a flash, shushing the birds and revving up the crickets. Shadows play out in unusual ways, framing light in winks, slivers, and crescents. The human world, at least many of us whether near totality or not, stops the ramble of everyday life to look up at the sky instead, flimsy eclipse glasses and cereal boxes in hand.

Didn’t have enough eclipse glasses, so we split these

This eclipse, the first one in 99 years crossing the whole country, soared its moon shadow at speeds from 2,410 mph in Oregon, to 1,502 mph in South Carolina, translating into a minute or two or three of darkness, depending on where you were. Heavily anticipated in these parts due to our proximity to 100% totality, and weather-layered with herds of rambling storms, the eclipse, like most things in life, was not what we all expected. Some locals found the overcast skies completely dissolved the value of witnessing midnight at 1:06 p.m. Others, like my son Daniel, witnessed new glimpses of glory, as he wrote the other day on Facebook. His words capture all I experienced too, as stood with friendly strangers atop picnic tables near historic buildings and a long row of antique windmills in Hiawatha, Kansas. Here’s Daniel’s word:

The sky became darker and darker gradually, just like the 2 partial eclipses I’d seen that passed through KS over the last few years. The sun was maybe 80-90% obscured before clouds from a developing storm covered it. It became a grey gloom, lit by the brighter clouds near the Western horizon. Then totality happened, without warning.

It was a quick, smooth 3-4 seconds where it went from dusk to almost complete blackness. Looking toward the Southeast (a gorgeous vista of soybeans and glaciated hills), I saw utter blackness, lit feebly by a couple farm lights that popped on. But it was our horizons that were jaw-dropping.

To the west, the only truly open patch of sky exploded into a vivid constellation of colors, with a clarity I only see in the clearest sunsets. This sunset/sunrise though was pure orange, with amber pink rising above it, before shifting to deep blue, then black. In other spots of the horizon, more light was able to shine through. Due south, the developing storm that obscured our totality took on a rich, wet golden orange – The clouds hazy with light. Rain and verga from other storms was lit up from behind, producing a sharp but gentle gradient of color. The north was also lit up, where a line of violet/orange ran up the sides of young thunderheads, before sharply halting at the edge of the black above our heads. We jumped on the picnic tables around us and shouted at the sky, I couldn’t keep my eyes from the Western sunset/sunrise.

As totality ended, it was another 3-4 seconds of rising light – like a blanket being pulled out from me while trying to sleep. The southwest (where the eclipse was traveling towards) became blue-grey, the speeding, enveloping darkness making the small storm there look like a flood-wrecking monster. The sun then peaked out, and for just a second I swear I saw lumps of light instead of a pure crescent – the quick pulse of Bailey’s beads and diamond ring effect before the jagged line asserted itself and returned the elegant crescent of fire.

I can’t truly describe how quick the transition from light to dark and back was. With no distracting countdowns, eclipse apps, or selfies, these moments were short in their immediacy and long in ecstasy. Hell, even the sun was removed as a distraction. With the sun wrapped in clouds, there was no way I could time when it became completely covered. This gave our moment of totality a visceral shock of electric surprise and wonder. I will never forget this.

Like Daniel, I agree that “even the sun was removed as a distraction,” and instead, we experienced the fullness of the moment without the climax of a corona (although that’s obviously a stunning experience in its own right). Standing in the bowl of the sky, we were part of the vanishing and returning day as well as the wild lines, curves, and downpours of storms that, in the hours after, had their own kind of eclipse with thunder so loud and long that we were jumped out of our sleep and beds to take notice.

A few days later, the rain gauge still tells of the almost 5″ that fell, the hummingbird levitating toward the feeder seemingly takes no notice, the cicadas go on, and I’m back in the hideous (but comfortable) chartreuse chair on the porch. But the eclipse is still very much in my mind and on my heart as I feel its meanings and possibilities unfold over time, even since time paused for two minutes and 37 seconds in the middle of Monday to show us something beyond.


“What It Takes”: 63rd Anniversary of Brown Vs. Board of Education: Everyday Magic, Day 899

This weekend, I had the honor of being part of the Voices of Freedom Festival, celebrating the Brown vs. Board of Education supreme court decision that ended “separate but equal” policies in public schools and beyond. It was a joy to hear the music of Kelley Hunt, Isaac Cates and the Ordained, Maria the Mexican, and Injunuity, and to read with fellow poets David Baumgardner, Tava Miller, and Ashanti Spears. Here’s the poem I wrote for the occasion, held in downtown Topeka, Kansas.

What It Takes

It takes years of waiting on polished wooden benches

outside trembling courtrooms. Thousands of meetings

in church basements or someone’s living room,

sipping lukewarm coffee on folding chairs.

Centuries of nights up late worrying, or puzzling out

how to change what’s unjust and breaking us all,

then early mornings to make the oatmeal, pour the

orange juice, and remind the children to take their homework.

It takes 16 blocks to get to the black school instead of

the white one on the corner, and hundreds of new signs

for another march, hours on the phone, and dressing up

to meet with the senator who sends his aide instead

and says, don’t push, change takes time

as if that’s not obvious as daylight after decades

of waiting in chains, standing in the back of the bus

and swimming in the smaller mildewed pool

surrounded by weeds and broken beer bottles.

It takes gumption and guts, grief churned into anger

that makes a tired man head to the newspaper office

to tell a reporter, it’s past time for justice, and just in time

to turn supposed equality into walkaday freedom.

It takes all those lawsuits before judges blinded by habit

and their own inadequate stories, and all those potlucks

to break bread with people who don’t look like you,

and tell them what it’s like for mothers to count the minutes

between the school bell and the front door,

and fathers whose hearts fall when hear

their beautiful daughters say, it’s nothing, I’m okay,

when she’s not okay. It takes piles of briefs that sway

the sidewalk leading up to the school where

a little girl walks, hand in hand in a federal agent,

ready to cross the threshold into the world we should have

inhabited all along, each step a way to sing, “Stand Up.”

Even then, it’s not over, and it’ll take all this and more

to make it safe to drive, or cross the street, or ask

for help without the risk of seeing eye bullets and

all the secret lashes that separate us into a lesser people.

It takes the patience of water to turn mountains into rivers,

then find the courage to sing while the healing waters flow.

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.

Darling, Sweetheart & Baby in Pittsburg, Kansas: Everyday Magic, Day 648

Is it a Pittsburg, KS thing or just an tender roll of the dice kind of thing? I don’t know, but I liked it. Everywhere I went in Pittsburg, people called me darling, sweetheart, hon, and especially, baby. Paying for some clothes at the thrift shop, the woman said, “Thanks so much for coming in, Sweetheart.” Stopping in a shop to look at antiques, a woman called me darling four times in one sentence. Even as I paid for a delicious lunch at Harry’s cafe, the waitress said, “How did you like you meal, Baby? We’re so glad you came, Baby. You sure you don’t want pie, Baby?” and “Please come back, Baby.”

The endearments didn’t just happen in locally-owned shops either. The receptionist at the Holiday Inn Express when I checked in called me darling, and the one who checked me out the next day called me sweetheart. The pharmacist at Walgreens thought my real name was sweetheart too.

I’ve traveled Kansas up one road and down again, zigzagged across lanky two-lane highways and booked it down I-70 for hundreds of miles on a regular basis. But no place I landed ever embraced me with so many sweet names so often. Maybe it’s just an exceptionally friendly place, maybe I looked like I needed to be called Baby, or maybe it’s just the tilting and surprising ways of the universe on a particular day in a certain Southeast Kansas town. In any case, I’m going back any chance I get.

Rain Is The New Sexy: Everyday Magic, Day 600

It’s true: the heavens open up, and we’re beside ourselves with giddy joy. Last night, it rained after enough thunder to make the dog try to squeeze my bed between my pillow and the wall. This morning, I stepped outside to see a few stretches of standing water on the deck before the temperature evaporated it all back into that all-too-predictable sky.

It’s been decayed-bone-dry here. Stepping outside either means entering a giant sauna or being battered around in a giant dryer (depending on the wind). The corn is dead or dying, the fields are straw-like or brown. The cat has given up and gone to sleep on the floor, and the dog is in such despair about the state of things that he’s been trying to bite through a bag of coffee beans (I got it away from him). Such is the state of the worst drought in 27 or 52 or 85 years (depending on the source) in a summer when a drop to 99 degrees makes us say to each other, “It’s not so bad out now.”

Rain is the hot topic: “What is this thing you call ‘rain’?” my publisher writes back to me when I ask if their weather in Iowa is as bad as theirs. When it did rain, some weeks back, my friend Reva posted on Facebook, “Where were you when the rain came, and how did you rejoice?” On the phone with a friend in Vermont, when she mentioned yet another storm, I almost swooned and asked her to describe the downpour in detail.

Here, when the rain does come, it’s like a mirage broken away (or maybe the rain is the mirage). Sure, it might be 100 degrees and raining once every two or three weeks for a few minutes, definitely not enough for this land, these animals roaming and foraging this land, and all of us who live here. Yet when the rain falls, we fall in love again, and of course, we want to dwell happily with our beloved, if only this sexy being wouldn’t rush off to cooler places.


Tornado Warning!: Everyday Magic, Day 509

It’s after midnight, and my heart is still wide awake, set in racer action by the very sudden tornado warning that propelled our family, dragging or carrying cats and dogs, into the basement at top speed. It started like this:

Caryn (while filling out fafsa form on computer): The dog went back to hiding in the closet although the storm passed. Do you think she knows of another one coming?

Ken (on computer checking weather): There is another one coming.

Caryn: Is it moving fast?

Ken: Let me check. Wow — it’s moving 80 miles per hour.

Caryn: When is it supposed to get here?

Ken: Very soon (refreshes page). GET IN THE BASEMENT RIGHT NOW!

It turned out Ken was watching radar just at the moment the winds started moving like a big tornado about to land right over our house. Clutching my computer against my chest, I dragged the terrified Labaraner out of the closet to join the terrified Labmation already in the basement, and we ran. Once in the storage space way underground, Ken called his mom to get her to move to her basement, then ventured out to rescue Mikayo, the lovey cat, and ran back down with her in his arms. I held the dogs in place, my heart racing. Forest texted people at the speed of light. Daniel yelled, “Don’t go, Dad!” fearing that Ken was risking his life for a kitty. We considered trying to rescue Judy the PTSD cat, but she hides too well in such situations.

So we hunkered down for about ten minutes. Then it was over. No tornado, storm to our east, and the warning canceled. Walking back upstairs, we heard the sirens, just starting to go off, and Daniel was blown away to see the moon already rising beyond the clouds.

Now that the time has slowed, the sky has calmed, and the dogs, men and boys of my house are snoring in various rooms, I land back in that moment when we headed downstairs, the sudden wondering if there’s anything to grab beyond animals and computers and clear warning that there isn’t time; the careful rush down stairs and into the way-back of our basement, the opening of computers to track tornadoes, asking Ken if people we love in this area are okay or if I I should call them. It’s a compressed time when a warning wraps around us, and everything falls away but the need to hold and protect the beings you love, call those in the path, and stay as far underground as possible, not knowing if once again, it’ll be nothing, or eventually, it’ll be something that changes our lives.

In Love With Vermont & Homesick For Kansas: The Folly & Wonder of Being Multi-Placial: Everyday Magic, Day 502

It’s no wonder that I’ve had several conversations with students and friends lately about being multi-placial, that is, being someone deeply bonded to two or more places. I’m at home (aka the dorm) in Vermont, sitting at a window at twilight, in love with the height of and light around the pines in the cooling, dimming air. At the same time, I miss Kansas — the way the light tilts differently there, the smell of the air, the sense of home. The folly is that when I’m back in Kansas, I will miss Vermont.

The thing about loving two (or more) different places is that there’s a trace of grief when in either at times. My body especially doesn’t understand why here is here, and there is there, so many hundreds of miles in between. The wild yearning to be in both places at once, to integrate what is separated by ecosystem and hours sitting in airplanes, opens into a sinkhole of sadness at times.

Yet I praise being a living being hard-wired to bond with place. I agree with David Abram’s assessment in The Spell of the Sensuous:

Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.

I think about this quote often because it holds together the places I love in Abram’s call for opening our senses to what is beyond ideas of place: to the visceral and vivid light, scent, rustle and shape of the actual place. Since I started writing this, the gray-blue sky filling the space between and behind these towering trees has turned bright light blue, dimming with each moment. The trees themselves are sharper in their reaching and crossing lines and curves, black-green shadows against the sky.

I also think of something else from David Abram: how he told me once of the obvious linkage between places — the sky. “Go outside and look up. It’s the same sky I’m looking at this moment.” Especially the sky helps me feel some tentative continuation between places — the stars and sun, the clouds and clearings — and that’s enough — just enough — to hold the simultaneous yearnings to love where I am and where I’m not.