Tag Archives: Kansas

Dreaming of Tornadoes: Everyday Magic, Day 250

Last night, I saw a dozen ropey tornadoes merge and form an enormous tornado. I wasn’t afraid, just interested, as I am most times I dream of tornadoes or, for that matter, see them when awake too. Of course, having never seen anything larger than an F2 tornado (which is large enough to peel roofs off but generally not powerful enough to fling cars around or insert blades of grass into telephone poles), my lack of fear is based on inexperience.

I lived in Kansas for more than a decade before I began dreaming of tornadoes, something I aspired to like learning to fly in my dreams (which I didn’t figure out until my 30s). Most native Kansans around me had been dreaming of tornadoes all their lives. It’s a given among most people I know: sometimes we dream of tornadoes just as pregnant women often dream of giving birth. But dreams bend the edges of what we think is possible. Ken has dreamt of tornadoes made of flowers. I dreamt of giving birth to kittens, linked together like a line of sausages.

Dreams also don’t correspond with the events of the day. Despite the sudden snowstorm (again? sheesh!) yesterday after the surprising defeat of the Jayhawks, coinciding with the end of spring break, my little sadness didn’t follow me into sleep but instead fell away so I could watch the sky do astonishing things. When I woke to see the snow coat on all the branches thinning and falling off slowly, the bright clouds of the day and the very tornado-less sky all around, I shook off the tornadoes and made some coffee. Spring is coming, and anything can happen.

For the most incredible photographs and videos of tornadoes, see Stephen Locke’s gallery.

What I Love the Obvious Made Visible In Paul Hotvedt’s Paintings: Everyday Magic, Day 95

“Treat the world as if it really exists,” writes William Stafford, and there’s nothing like looking at Paul Hotvedt paintings to see the truth and value of this statement.

For years, I’ve been enchanted with the paintings of Paul Hotvedt, a Lawrence land and sky painter who truly makes the obvious more visible without romanticizing, understating or overstating the beauty in front of us all the time. Paul’s work, such as these photos from his summer batch of paintings, show what’s right here in such a way that after looking at his work, I can look at the bushy cedar or the trembling leaves on the ash tree or the scraggly grass lining the woods in a new way: as if it really exists.

The combination of soft edges and just a tease of abstraction with the realistic light of his work helps me understand the colors and textures around me. Why is that important? Because such seeing helps me and probably many of us better connect with the true reality of the earth and sky instead of our ideas about the, and consequently, the bigger world our little lives and even little littler minds float through.

Here is the world. Let’s love it as it is, and that means, really opening our eyes and lives to what is vibrant and shimmering, aging and decaying all at once. Thank you so much, Paul!

The Dishes After the Fireworks: July Write From Your Life

Listen to a podcast of this column and of June’s Write from Your Life!

There’s the nights of fireworks, and the days of dishes, or to paraphrase Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Yet we can find peace, insight and even joy sometimes in the mundane and ordinary, the expected tasks that compose our lives, particularly when we open our eyes to the unexpected, which is always and near.

This month’s featured poet Kevin Rabas is a Kansas writer who co-directs the creative writing program at Emporia State University, co-edits Flint Hills Review, and has two books of poetry out —

Bird’s Horn and Other Poems (Coal City Review Press) and Lisa’s Flying Electric Piano (Woodley Press). He is a winner of the Langston Hughes award for poetry. Kevin’s poetry, while very musical — and that’s no surprise considering Kevin is both a musican and a jazz poet who often does readings with jazz musicians in the tradition of Langston Hughes, another Kansas writer, and Charles Mingus — he can write in ways that hold up the obvious and shake the magic out from it for us to see.

In Kevin’s poem, “Clothes Left in the Washer,” you can hear the rhythm of the repetition as well as see images that convey longing, passion and a little bird of mystery too:

Clothes Left in Washer

I’d go at once to meet you,

only I’d check

my eyes in the mirror

to make certain they pierced,

to make certain they could go absolutely cool—

as smoke, as brushes on drum head,

as breathy ballad,

or in the way John Coltrane

played the tune Naima

for her for the last time.

Red dress,

frog-buttoned in back,

geisha dress

that stopped your rival’s wedding,

dress that kept you

from being invited to mine;

red dress,

I forgive, I invite you.

Parade on in.

Hold every curve

as a hand would.

Palm and lift up.

As you pass, know I will remember

that last hot bath you ran me,

when I returned

through the thunderstorm

for the clothes we left

in your apartment’s quarter washer,

that afternoon when you told me:

You can stay. We can love.

— Kevin Rabas

For this month’s Write from Your Life, use Kevin’s poem as a guide to how the ordinary holds within its grasp the extraordinary. Write about something very regular that happens in your home, such as clothes left in a washer, dishes in the sink, a porch needing to be swept, or a garden wanting weeding. Or try another angle by writing from the point-of-view of a piece of clothing and letting its story come through.

Listen to some of Kevin’s poetry to music and consider buying his CD here.

Listen to a podcast of this column and of June’s Write from Your Life!

United Poets Laureate Comes Out of Poet Laureati

So what does happen when you mix a bunch of poets laureate in the wilds of Kansas on the Ides of March? We found out last weekend when we brought together Marilyn L. Taylor (poet laureate of Wisconsin), Mary Swander (poet laureate of Iowa), Walter Bargen (past poet larueate of Missouri), Jonathan Holden and Denise Low (past poets laureate of Kansas), and me, the present poet laureate of Kansas. The reading we gave together at the Spencer Museum of Art drew together over 85 people, some of whom drove long distances to be there.

The reading was joyous, funny, moving, surprising, and it proved something I’ve believed for a long time: if you haven’t found a poem you like, you just haven’t read enough poetry. Walter Bargen read poems full of local and universal nuance and quirks of humor and grace. Mary Swander began with banjo music, some old-time singing, and then led us into the world she created in The Girls On the Roof, her book of poetic monologues that tell the story of a community overcome by a flood. Marilyn Taylor told us she was a formalist, so she “plays in a box,” then dazzled us with a crown of sonnets on the very liberal arts. Jonathan Holden showed us how poetry can capture the sound and many layers of meaning of the sound of the meadowlark. Denise Low, in response to Mary Swander reading poems about Missouri, and Walter Bargen joking that he meant to read a poem about Iowa in revenge, read poems about Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Kansas. And I read poetry from my new book, Landed, about place, time, body and earth.

That evening, we had a little poet laureate dinner, sharing stories both moving and strange, and the next day, we met for a long breakfast before exploring downtown in time for Lunch Laureati: Brown Bag It With the Poets Laureate. At this event, held at the Lawrence Arts, we had a lovely discussion with participants about the writing life, artistic process, how and why we write, and ways we keep the writing alive.

Meeting more during the afternoon and evening, we started dreaming up what comes next, and this is it so far: the United Poets Laureate having a convergence same place, same time next year, but this time with poets laureate from throughout the country invited. We also are planning to edit a collection of poetry by poets laureate, to be published in 2011. For more, check out our spanking new website.

Photos from top: The reading at the Spencer, Marilyn Taylor, Walter Bargen, Mary Swander

I Live In Big Wind Country

Kansas is windy, often, and not just a little. When spring comes, the big wind comes with it, and yesterday was a vivid illustration with gusts up to 90 mph in some parts of the state and ordinary old 45 mph gusts regularly around it. It’s hard not to tilt a little when you walk, and when we did balance poses in yoga — in a room in the country, second story, windows all around — it was hard not to fall over (but then it’s often hard not for me to fall over).

Yesterday, semi-trucks overturned on the turnpike, mailboxes left home, our bird feeder flew the coop, and the top of a hard-plastic child playhouse unfurled itself. It was the kind of wind that made me and everyone around me feel a little crazy, off-balance, agitated, confused and overwhelmed.

It reminds me of a good wind story too — and in Kansas, many of the good weather stories (and most of the good stories do involve weather) are obviously wind-related. When Ken, my husband, was but a lad, his family had a mean attack rooster named Chip-Chip, who attacked (using his nasty spurs) everyone but Ken’s grandpa, who had basically trained him to be a the rooster equivalent of Cruella DeVille. One day a tornado, with accompanying big winds, came to the area, and Chip-Chip mysteriously disappeared. Days later, his wasted body was found a few miles away. When humans didn’t, out of decency, exact revenge from Chip-Chip, the wind did.

So now the wind has settled down, and it’s good to be back in the saddle, crossed over to spring with the grasses seeminly scribbled bright green and the trees budding. Yesterday’s big wind is today’s sky all bright baby blue and pristine white clouds, all the debris blasted free from our minds.

Dog Days of Summer Turned Cat Days

Today and yesterday and probably tomorrow is rain, but not the ordinary kind of hard and fast-moving summer rain. This storm is a dying hurricane, swept inland about 1,000 miles to linger slowly and gently over us, fading to almost nothing, and then nothing. Last night, we saw a white volcano-looking cloud standing in the middle of the storm, the center of Hurricane Dolly, Ken told me.

Usually, we have the kind of hellish heat and sun that we jokingly tell non-Kansans “builds character,” and by that, we mean, “we still live here and often love our home despite the absolute horror of summer of late July and early August.” This period of time usually is marked by highs in the over-100s, and lows in the low 90s. I remember someone telling me he moved to Lawrence in early August, arriving in the middle of the night to see a bank time/temperature sign that said, “1:30 a.m. Temperature: 99,” and he seriously considered turning right around.

Inside our house, where our air-conditioners are lounging about instead of pushing iron, it’s also anything but dog days. The kittens are about 16 weeks, and the older cat, Judy, hasn’t seriously injured them yet although she growls, spits and hisses like the kitty version of “The Exorcist” when she sees them. The kittens just come right up to her, and cock their heads as in, “Oh, aren’t you fascinating.”

So it’s cat days here, somewhat naughty, almost getting into the kind of weather and paper bags you wouldn’t expect this time of year, and still ample with napping. The sky yawns. The kittens stretch out and sleep on the laptop. The big cat stands in the mild rain, still distraught over these new invaders. And the dog sleeps in the closet, terrified of the thunder and lightning that come at night. Nothing to complain about, but not what we expected.

Where the Weather Can Kill You: Tornado Warning and Other Things That Go Bump in the Night

When my friend Sara was about to move to the northwest, she said, “I just want to live somewhere where the weather can’t kill you.”

Yesterday the wind battered everything and everyone. Trees bent, people tried not to topple over, and minivans like mine clung to the road with extra fierceness. No wonder that the wind picked up its pace when cooler air moved in, and at 1 a.m., I woke to hear tree limbs banging each other, a light roar, and unidentifiable flying objects meeting in midair collisions. “It sounds like we’re having a tornado warning,” I thought, and then the second thought came about how such a warning meant leaping out of bed and getting the kids and terrified dog (bad thing to be a Kansas dog who fears thunder) to the basement in a hurry.

“Caryn, get up now! Kids, get to the basement. It’s a tornado warning!” Ken yelled. He had been glued to the weather radio in the other room (as usual, given the circumstances and his impeccable — knock on cottonwood — ears for bad weather).

In a few seconds, we were huddled in the storage area of our basement, half awake, blankets half draped over us, and Ken and me running in and out to check the TV, the weather radio, and cajole the terrified dog out of a laundry basket upstairs. Cell phone in hand, I called some close friends, and Ken called his folks. “I’m already in my basement, holding tight,” Kel said. “Courtney heard the winds and got us up,” said Denise. Ken’s folks got themselves downstairs on a small couch where, later after the warning expired, he went over and found them sitting quietly like “two peas in a pod,” he reported.

But in the here and now, we were focused on how a tornado might have just happened in the northwest part of the county, and how the big, energetic storm heading toward our area was reported to have just the right kind of multi-directional wind meeting to form a tornado. Tornadoes by daylight are scary enough, but in the dark, we have to depend not just on radar and people calling into television stations, but on our ears.

I lived in Kansas for a long time before I saw a tornado, and then — in the last few years — small tornadoes starting popping my way. First there was the tiny, white tornado high up in the sky that Ken and I saw while stopping at our mailbox one spring day. It looked like an upside-down wedding gown. Then there was a similar tornado in New Mexico, high up but slightly bigger. It stayed in the same place for dozens of miles. A few years ago, we saw a tornado head toward Lawrence (we live south of town), where it proceeded to rip apart an apartment building and do other damage. It looked like a long finger of god, and the kids and I (who had been watching too much Austin Powers back then), put our pinky fingers to our lips to act out Dr. Evil.

A year ago, I was lying in bed one fine afternoon, home alone, when I heard a rumbling kind of roar. I went outside, looked south, and the photo you’re seeing of the tornado is what I saw. It didn’t do much damage, was safely far from me, and lingered for about five minutes. I was so mesmerized I didn’t know what to do so I called Ken on the phone. “Get the camera and keep taking pictures. Don’t stop until it’s gone,” he said. I could post a dozen more pictures like this one, but you get the idea.

The tornadoes I’ve seen aren’t the killing types, luckily enough, but whenever conditions are right — the western edge usually of a thunderstorm when the clouds are exhausted and somewhat disorganized but the wind unduly fast, and a thousand other pieces perfectly attuned — I’m watching. So all the other Kansans I know, living in a state where the saying, “Why would anyone buy a house without a basement” isn’t a question but an affirmation. The largest tornadoes of the world tend to be just south of here — Wichita, Oklahoma City (city in the U.S. with the most torandoes per capita, and perhaps the fastest and largest ever tornado with winds about 260 mph back in the 90s), and the general large swatch of south Kansas (where Greenburg was hit by a two-mile wide tornado a year ago), most of Oklahoma, and part of Texas.

The variety of tornado is vast and daunting, from rope-like remnants of tornadoes (which I think of as a somewhat dispersed herd of confused animals), to wedge tornadoes (such as what hit O.K. City and Greenburg), to ones that can and have carried mail 200 miles away, sucked up an entire river, killed a mother while landing the baby safely in the field, and pierced a piece of hay through a hardwood tree. They come, move, and leave in mysterious ways, and yes, when you live in Kansas, the sky can kill you. But most of us, with enough warning, basement or cellar or strong room hold-out space, and the use of all our senses and our cell phones, can survive the sky.

And the sky is even more generous with its safer forms of beauty in these parts.