Tomorrow we leave the house at 4 a.m. to fly to New York to celebrate our 25th anniversary. Months of planning and dreaming about walking for hours in the brisk air across and throughout the city have diverted me into a slightly dreamy state. Yet as the gods of bad luck might have it, here I am the day before feeling sick and sicker with all manner of symptoms and a long afternoon of herb and over-the-counter intervention. Now that I’ve just downed two over-the-counter sleeping pills (and god knows what I’m writing at the moment!), I’m hoping to wake up restored. A friend of mine once told me our immune systems work like demons when we sleep, and I hope these demons dance up a storm of wellness for me tonight. I see me walking down the streets of Brooklyn and New City refreshed, happy and well. Hope you’ll have similar ventures out tomorrow.
The possum was walking toward the high school, so my wonderful escort for the day, Lori, and I followed. Three high school classes later, with a fast and delicious interlude for lunch in Barnes, KS at Our Daily Bread, the possum was no where to be found, but no matter. It was time to return to the motel, lay stretched out on the bed for a bit, get up, eat and apple and then go with Kelley, Al, Laura and our arts host/organizer/new-best-friend-for-eternity Wayne to ride the rails.
The Marshall County Central Branch Railroad Historical Society, coalesced by the vision, research and chutzpah of the wonderful Ann Walters, saved the last remaining portion(some 88 miles) of the railroad by raising $45,000 in just seven days. Now they run a delightful little train to give people like us the feeling of what it was like to ride the rails while also sharing the history of these tracks and those who rode them.
Feeling the wind and sun sweep over me as we carried on down the tracks replenished all of us. Prairies, woodlands, coveys of quail springing into the sky and the clear skies holding all of this together encompassed us. We even got to throw rocks down from the tracks to the Big Blue river, making our wishes. I wish for days like this to wrap around us all on occasion, for the possum to get what he needs out of high school, and for the trains to go on with their owl calls day and night.
Today at the Koester Museum, where I’ll be giving a reading tonight, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of marvelous mammals, and so statuesque too! I haven’t found the famous black squirrels yet, but I’m determined. In the meantime, I’m happy to discover there are all kinds of critters and angels guarding the historic Koester Museum, built by a banker for his family and completed in 1876. The inside is pretty snazzy too, but for now, let us admire the wildlife remembered in stillness and gold, still guarding this elegant home in sunshine and shadow.
Tomorrow I head west, at least a little bit, and a lot north, meandering until I find myself in Marysville for five days of being Marshall County’s little poet-in-residence. There’s little I love as much as heading off to someplace new to see what happens. Add to this that I get to meet with dozens of high school students, lunch with elders, give a reading at a historic museum, ride the rails, meet lots of arts lovers, eat a bunch of food, do an all-day writing singing and workshop with Kelley Hunt, and perform with Kelly as well as our friend, the sublime dancer (and artist) Laura Ramberg, and well, I’m kind of in heaven.
When I was growing up, trying to imagine what I would be (as opposed to just being who I was, which has its own fascination but often got me into heaps of trouble), I knew the contents of contentment, but not the form. I wanted to travel, sing and perform, make things, meet people, and wander. In my mind, I even invented my own band called the Rootin’ Tootin’ Tootets, and of course I was lead singer, but I also would bang a tamborine against my non-existent (at the time) hips. The band and I toured extensively, each day an adventure. Turns out it all came true except for the singing part (although one could say reading poetry is its own kind of song).
But I think what I’ve always craved is taking road trips into the mystery of the wide-open world, and by mystery, I mean the present magic around us at each moment. Sometimes it’s easier to see and appreciate when stepping out of the car in a tiny town to look at what’s left of a charmer of an old gas station, but nevertheless, travel is clearly just a way to come home. And home is where the motion always is too.
This is all to say that jumping in the van tomorrow and aiming myself some place new is a way to become that Rootin’ Tootin’ Tootet lead singer again, thrilled at what the road will bring next.
Pictures (from top): Black squirrels from a park in Marysville — I WILL see those squirrels; Koester House museum, where I give a reading Thurs. night; the tour bus for my band would be even more colorful; Waterville Opera House, where Kelley, Laura and I perform on Sunday.
For the last six days, I’ve been immersed in the Power of Words, both lower case (as in how powerful our words can be when it comes to changing the world and our lives) and upper case, as in the 8th annual conference of the same name. For me, this event was a homecoming of many dimensions: the conference was held at Goddard College, my second home (who every knew that this phrase would apply to a dorm room where I live approximately one month divided over three visits each year for the last 15). It was also a conference I founded in 2003. But mostly, I found my way home to that newborn glow of what can happen between us all when we create together stories, poems, songs, performances and exchanges about what matters most.
Maybe that newborn glow also had something to do with the newborn — Nahar Nadi Keefe-Perry — daughter of the TLA Network co-coordinators, Callid and Kristina, who were responsible for organizing the conference. Born less than a month ago, this inquisitive and beautiful new being was a constant reminder to me about how precious, alive, tender and beautiful the life force is.
The things we do at this conference include the usual suspects for most conference (workshops, big group sessions, performances and panels) along with the less-than-usual (talking circles each morning where each of us could speak deeply in a small group, hearing ourselves through having good witnesses and learning how to listen fully to others). Performances were dazzling:
- S. Pearl Sharp’s performance poetry brought to the surface an artful and soulful combination of ceremony, humor, deep wisdom and the astonishing dance of Nailah.
- Kim Rosen recited the poetry of Rumi, Mary Oliver, Derek Walcott and others with great passion and joy.
- Gregory Orr’s reading and talk on poetry as a way to praise the body of the beloved (which could be interpreted as the life force, Book of Poetry, or whatever we love most) illuminated everything I know and want to know about language.
- Nancy Mellon’s combination of superlative storytelling, mythological weaving and anatomy showed us how our bodies are our stories.
- Greg Greenway’s singing, songwriting, guitar- and piano-playing journeyed us through the heart of music in praise of homecoming, liberation and the hard work involved in being fully human.
- Katherine Towler’s reading from the third book in her Snow Island anthology took us to a small Rhode Island island, just on the edge of time and history, and shaped by a kind of yoga of the imagination so visible in her writing.
- The Coffeehouse of Wonder was so gorgeous, full of the most expansive humor and wildest edges of grief, love, joy and courage that those of us in the crowd went wild every few minutes.
But what brought me home most of us was simply being in such a diverse community, covering age (from newborn to elders), race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and identity, life experience in so many varieties that we made a community that had each other’s backs and hearts. Sitting in the back of the haybarn last night were a pact of African American storyteller-shamans. Walking across the campus was a teenage girl who would still share her full imagination with her mother, both of them attending workshops together. Sleeping in the dorms were people ready to stand up and follow their callings as well as those leaning forward to open the door.
I’m back in Kansas through the magical surrealism of plane travel, but I’m still carrying that dazzle and depth, lightness and weight, freedom and connection of being part of the Power of Words.
Pictures (from top): Jen, Callid, Kristina & Kim; Nahar in the arms of Suzanne with beautiful mom Kristina looking on; Katie Towler; Scott and friends performing; a gorgeous pact of shamans; leaving Vermont.
Ever read those great Frances the Badger stories? Frances (my favorite children’s book heroine), in addition to being a badger, has great imagination, and she regularly loads up her pull wagon with delectable delicacies, takes a friend, and has herself a little wander day.
In that spirit, my friend Kris and I do our own wander days, usually by car through the mysterious curves of road through Kansas that call to us, and once even by foot all over New York City and Brooklyn. We go where the wind takes us, choosing one road or street over another simply because it feels right, and enjoying the scenery as we travel. There isn’t really a destination except for the mandatory fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn (if we’re in Kansas) and subway rides leading to amazing Russian food (think butter and sour cream) if we’re in Brooklyn.
Yesterday, we wandered, ambled, supposed and hunched our way west, southwest, north, northeast and eventually home. We found driving through an edge of Topeka oddly satisfying but couldn’t say the same about the big highwayed edge of Manhattan. We delighted in the great fried chicken in Wamego (where we have ended up before, but no surprise because it does have the Oz Museum, and there is no place……like Wamego) and gorgeous stone houses in a seldom-traveled highway through the Flint Hills. We found vistas, great conversation and the joys of mint water. I even got to kiss the Tin Man and Kris got to strangle the good witch (“Take that, Glenda!”)
The important thing when wandering is simply to follow your whims. It’s like Forrest Gump’s running stint across the U.S. and back — he said he just did whatever he needed to when he needed to do it. For us, the wandering refreshes us and resets our artistic impulses. It expands what we see and how we see, and gives us glimpse after glimpse how whatever we most want will often just suddenly appear, but more importantly, what we never expect shows up to, like a giant elk with a huge rack, and then a little parade of horses followed by a shaggy goat in the tall grass. Life is always happening, always changing. Wandering is a way to catch up with that motion.
Although it is officially 1,454 miles from my house to Dewey Dorm Room #2, where I live when I go to Goddard, not to mention a time zone away, it feels like Vermont is in Kansas and visa-versa. For the last 16 years, I’ve been spending 1/12 of my life at home in Vermont in between being at home in Kansas. So you can imagine how much more I experienced this illusion when I arrived home just in time to greet a close friend from Vermont.
While Ken and I were heading west through the driving storm toward my Kansas home, Joseph was heading east to meet us. Part of his cross-country journey, his stop at our house was on the way home, give or take 1,400 miles. We drove into a golden sunset. He drove into a rainbow with lightning dashing through it. The wind howled and the rain fell.
In fact, the wind was so fierce, that we all ended up at our house sitting together in the dark — my family, Ken’s mom and Joseph — on the front porch watching the storm. Without electricity, which had been knocked out early in the evening, we watched the wild storm, lightning racing across the sky, forking all directions, pouring down like an umbrella or dizzying us as it slashed diagonals across the dark.
The next day, I showed Joseph Lawrence, where he quickly found our every-Saturday-at-noon local protest against the war, which he immediately joined, feeling right at home after participating in so many such protests in Vermont too. He too bridged the 1,400-plus gap. Never mind that it was down to 96 degrees (something we said in all seriousness last night after five days of Kansas in the 100s) while somewhere, 1,454 miles to the northeast, it was a typical summer day in the 70s. So what if the land here is rolling hills and big sky here, and the land is all bunched up into mountains there. It was home for him too at that moment. Welcome home to us all in our travels and returns.
(Joseph is the third from the left)
At twilight I walked into the woods, not intending when I set out a few minutes before to step onto the trail, but when I saw the curved line of pine needles leading into the forest, I changed course. The ferns and mosses surprised my eyes and feet, so different from the harder ground of the woods at home. The silence drew me in, and several times I stopped to be still.
My mind reeled its little stories, but the loops got further apart as I walked. The smell of lilies in a surprising garden at the edge of one cluster of trees, pine all around, carried me further. I followed into clearings, then funneled back into the darker dappled light between trees.
I emerged somewhere, and followed the silver glean between the trees to find a half-circle pond on the edge of some apartment buildings. I went back in to step as quietly as I could between the birch and pine. By the time I found my way onto the road between the library and the dorms, the light had dimmed, the air had lightened. I followed the globed street lights to find the glowing windows of my dorm.
Every August in Vermont, I have a moment when I realized I’ve time-traveled ahead of myself by about eight weeks. I arrive here simply by looking down. There I will find a red leaf or two while back in Kansas, summer is in its wear-you-out, tie-you-up and lock-you-up mode (which means the temperatures don’t fall below 80 much at night and the days are mundane replicas of themselves at 99 degrees).
I know that sometime in early October, I will look down in Kansas and find a red leaf or two, but who will I be and what will my life be about then? Certainly not whoever I am and whatever it is now, early August, in a place where people complain that it’s in the 80s and then a cool front, like the one pushing through as I type this, tumbles the air into the 40s.
This particular fall, I’m particularly wondering what the future I glimpse now will be when I arrive there later. With my daughter leaving for college, and my oldest son returning for his senior year, it’ll just be three of us and many animals in the house. I cannot imagine the loss. I cannot imagine the spaciousness. I can, however, picture how much longer a full refrigerator will hold court with us. In the meantime, I thank the little fellow journey companions I’ve met today, a happy horse and a big stuffed bear. Maybe they’ll help accompany me in some shadow way from here to there and back again.
Sitting at JFK in New York between flights, and between crowds of the incoming and outgoing, the new-to-here and the barely-anywhere, I wondered what I would write about. I mean, travel by plane — being hurled at 37,000 feet at 500 mph while listening to the soundtrack of Hair on my Ipod — is certainly a strange kind of magic, more like a karmic and cosmic sleight of hand, but for me it’s usually not the most pleasant magic. I don’t like leaving the ground although I’m telling myself to simply enjoy where I am and take note of the thunderhead in the distance when in flight. The food in this part of the airport is outrageously expensive and not all that fresh. The crowds can be daunting and little claustrophic-inducing.
But just as I was thinking this, I heard a child behind me singing “Miss Mary Mack Mack Mack/All dressed in black black black,” a song I used to sing and clap out with friends when I was about six or seven. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve thought of that song or the pleasure that keeping in rhythm — something I was challenged at — brought me since then. Listening to this kid, a six-year-old Japanese-American girl, I went back to that time and place. Not so surprisingly, I’m probably just 20 or so miles from where I used to sing/clap this song in Brooklyn, back in another world I inhabited. Travel isn’t just about space, but time. I’d write more, but it’s almost time to board and zip off yet another world.