I Had No Idea! — Some of What Being a Mother Showed Me: Everyday Magic, Day

As part of a ceremony for a dear friend who’s about to become a mother, all the participants were asked how becoming a mother changed us. For me, answering that in is fullness would take several books or more, but for now, here’s what’s come to me about what motherhood has so far taught me. But first, a caveat: Being a parent as just one of many paths. I believe I would have learned other lessons and swam through other experiences, just as vital and valuable, so I offer these as just one summary of gems found on one of many paths.

I had no idea how how much unconditional love I was capable, and before becoming a mother, I only had a glance of this light I’ve now experienced panoramically. Yes, the intoxicating bliss-love of new babies, and to my great surprise, sleeping in bed with us for years because we had to be together. Yes, the sweetness of toddler-talk and sing-songy operas about going to buy shoes. Yes, the camping trips with a daughter in tutus and swirly dresses, and the middle-of-the-night whispering a son back to sleep when we were too sleep-deprived to put our clothes on right-side-out the next day. But so much more, especially when watching young adults driving their own lives.

I had no idea of how much their hurt would be my hurts when she or he was pushed out of the elementary-school-age or tween or teen hives, stung and bruised. I had no idea how hard it was to not be able to protect them from the pain of the world, or how much an illusion it is that parents can keep their children (and themselves) safe from cultural fucked-upness or peers’ cruelty or other parents’ judgments.

I had no idea what perseverance and love in action really meant, or how time and the life force are the greatest healers. I didn’t know what it was align ourselves with the power of the body and the mystery of spirit while pouring blue light, real or imagined, over a child to get him or her back to sleep after a nightmare.

I had no idea that the sweetest sound would be the youngest son laughing in his sleep, or the daughter alone in her room singing a song she wrote while strumming her guitar, or the oldest son narrating a vision of women on another planet raising their hands while singing. I didn’t know how much I could bear listening to the same question thousands of times, or arguments for no good reason I could discern (except fear and hormones), or The Wizard of Oz book on tape a dozen times over a 14-hour drive. Or how I could bear my own pain as I drove away from him in front of his first college dorm, or from her in Minnesota, but then I didn’t know how distance makes no difference yet at those moments.

I had no idea how much I would love all of it, even the moments I hated and the times I fucked things up beyond what I thought forgiveable – the times I lost it and screamed at them, or tried to fix was clearly not mine to fix, or spoke when I should have stayed quiet, or didn’t step up when I should have, or made my love too thick or too thin – and then how we found our way to beginning again, holding each other and saying, “let’s start over,” and then starting over.

I had no idea how much we’d laugh ourselves into crying at movies that serve as family bibles – especially Almost Famous – or after extended family gatherings that show us how much we’re flourishing even out of dysfunctional roots, or while in the middle of the worst-tasting dinners during the longest road trips, or simply while watching Youtube videos about how Honey Badger Don’t Care or inventions that go awry. Or how we’re find pizza, cuddling under blankets, and even some laughter when the white’s tree frogs or rabbit or cat or dog or so many manner of reptiles died.

I had no idea what grace was until these three, and also how it doesn’t really matter how imperfect and human we all are because being a parent is just another way of being alive, just another path toward light and the sweet darkness, but also made of light and darkness. It’s a continual process of catch and release, welcome and say goodbye to, embrace and let go.

A Bright, Beautiful Day and Why I Blog: Everyday Magic, Day 923

The temperature is up to the 20s after days in the minuses that made us layer clothing and heavy food. The chickadees span across the deck railing for their bird seed buffet. The happy dog paces, wanting to go out and run with the sun. The blue of the blue of the blue winter sky lights up the edges of all the bar trees and frozen grasses, the brown hills in the distance, and the wooden floors inside the house. Such a moment reminds me of why I started this blog and keep at it over a decade later.

I started and persist for two reasons: to build more of an audience for my books, workshops, and other freelancing curves of work, and even more so, for my soul. Writing has always been a hybrid spiritual-emotional-artistic practice for me, helping me clear away the cobwebs on the ceilings and dust bunnies on the floors of whatever I think I’m doing, and land more in the actual time and place I am. I began writing as a teenager to cope with some traumatic times that overwhelmed me everywhere but on the page, and I continue writing decades later because of how stringing word to word connects me with something larger than my little thoughts or big anxieties.

Sometimes writing this blog is a way to share curiosities and wonders, such as the 100,000 snow geese on an oxbow of the Missouri river. Sometimes it’s to pay tribute to people and places beating in my heart.  Sometimes I’m tilting toward the light of how people show us the way through injustices or heartbreaks. But always I’m writing as an act of discovering, for myself most of all, what’s what, where, how, and why; I have doubt writing is a way of both knowing what we know in our bones, and unknowing what we thought we knew but turns out to be old scaffolding. Writing is an amazing road — in many ways like most other arts — into accessing much more of our intelligence and perceptions than our habitual thinking. In my case, I’m often much smarter and clearer on the page, and I can speak more with language from body and soul on occasion.

So when I look out the window and glimpse beauty, change, birds in flights or winter roosting in all the corners of the field, my first impulse is often to start writing something to tell you about it and to help me see this tiny fraction of reality really happening in real time. Thanks for joining me on the page or screen.

****Related to this post, I’m teaching two sessions of the workshop “Blogging for Your Soul and Audience” — one inperson 4-5:30 p.m., Sat., January 20 at Ellen Plumb Bookstore in Emporia, Kansas, and another online (via your own computer or phone) 4-5:30 p.m., Sun., January 28.  The cost for either is simply buying my book based on this blog, Everyday Magic: Fieldnotes on the Mundane & Miraculous. More at my events page (Note: for Emporia workshop you buy the book at Ellen Plumb Boostore). 

January Newsletter: The Writing Life

Hello out there! Here is a link to see “The Writing Life,” where I share cool stuff, including a featured writing — Kansas Poet Laureate Kevin Rabas this month, a writing prompt (this month focused on saying hello and goodbye to what we welcome and release with the year), and a writing tip (“Read like a maniac” this month, and always always). There are also updates to what I’m up to, including upcoming in-person (in Emporia, Kansas) and video-conferenced workshops on “Blogging for Your Soul and Audience,” a perfect workshop if you have a blog or are considering starting one as a way to build your audience and/or build your writing practice.

Kevin Rabas, This Month’s Featured Writer

Thanks for dropping by the newsletter, and you can subscribe by clicking on the yellow streak at the top of this website where there’s a subscribe now box

The newsletter is right here.

Remembering Dick Allen, 1939-2017: Everyday Magic, Day 922

What impressed me first was his sestina, a very challenging kind of poem he wrote after hanging with a bunch of us fellow state poets laureate at a lingering dinner at a Concord, New Hampshire Holiday Inn restaurant. A dozen of us gathered from Louisiana to Texas for the Poets & Politics conference to first travel around the small state, giving readings with local poets, then present together for conference-goers.

The only problem was, that aside from the conference organizers, there were only a handful of conference-goers. We filled the open space with getting to know each other, and those three evenings spent lingering for hours over dinner were some of the most delightful of my life. We talked poetry of course, but also about our kids, how we got to or stayed in the states where we lived, and what we regretted and embraced in how we juggled writing with the other aspects of our lives. But mostly, we laughed, and somehow caught the wave of making air quotes with our fingers for every noun in a sentence one long night over chicken parmesan and garlic knots.

Dick was quirky, approachable, and full of stories, wit, and a kind of peaceful presence only matched by his passion for all things poetry.  The next evening he shared the sestina he had just written, and we raised our glasses to him after he read it to us, all of us blown away that he could turn such a spectacular poem out in such short order. What makes sestinas hard to write is that 1) they’re long — 39 lines, and 2) you have to repeat in a very complex pattern the ending word to a line in each stanza. It’s a little like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle without a picture of what it should look like while juggling six words (repeated at the  end of lines in various formations). It probably takes most people, even very experienced poets, weeks to write a sestina, and blessings of the gods to write a great one. Yet he wrote “If You Visit Our Country,” which he also read on Prairie Home Companion, and is also published in my poet laureate memoir, a book Dick kindly blurbed, Poem on the Range. 

I was so impressed by Dick that I invited him to be a keynote speaker at the Transformative Language Art Network’s Power of Words conference in 2013 at Pendle Hill near Philadelphia. We had a tight budget and could only offer him an amount that probably just covered travel for his and his wife, poet and fiction writer L. N. Allen, but he kindly accepted our offer, then showed up to give one of the most powerful talks on poetry and life I’ve ever heard, plus a wonderful workshop. But what I remember most was taking a walk with Dick to look at the oldest beech tree  in Pennsylvania, which towered over the very tall and tree-like Allen. We stood in wonder at the base of this grandmother tree, placing our hands on it, and looking up. The size and presence of this being was so awesome that we stopped talking and just smiled at each other, then after a while, walked back, talking about what a gift this moment was.

Not only did he and his wife give so much goodness to the conference, but he wrote Callid, the then-coordinator of the TLA Network, and myself the best notes of our lives, which has the same kind of wild and enthusiastic sentences that threads together in some of his shining poems, thanking us, among other things, “….for the quiet path to the small pond with the fountain and the willow I took Saturday afternoon, for what may be the best brownies of my life, in addition to fabulous breakfasts; for the huge writing expertise of those in my workshop, for the terrific audience response to my poems, for the flashlights we didn’t need when the lights went on, for the ever present care and devotion to the written art, for storytelling and transformations,  for the chocolate bar and the parking space and places to meditate everywhere, thank you!”

Dick knew a lot about gratitude, and attending to the moment. A long-time student, and through his own way of being in the world and his poetry, teacher of Zen Buddhism, he showed up fully at conferences and in email exchanges also.  I just looked over a bevy of emails in which we joked about New England versus Kansas, and Dick sent along photos of wide-perspective Kansas highways leading to a steady point, surrounded by flatlands, which he said he especially loved, while I joked back, “Our state is so big that we can fit two New Englands in it and still have room for New Jersey.” When I sent him photos of our town’s gorgeous maples turning deep red and orange, he responded, “Don’t you realize there are no maple trees in Kansas? You’re living in a hallucination and need to drink some dark sunflower coffee.” We went on to write about our grown children, and in his case, the miracle of the grandchild he didn’t expect and now adores. His love for Kansas and New England was as real as his support for a younger poet — surely I’m one of many he reached out in various ways.

He knew how to bring just the right touch and tone to the most difficult curves of our time also, just like he did in the poem he wrote in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting, “Solace.” You can hear him reading this tender and powerful poem here.

He’s also one of the featured state poet in the self-paced online class “Truth to Power: Poetry for Our Times with Poets Laureate” I put together for the Transformative Language Arts Network, and we were just emailing about at the end of November when I asked him to share a bunch of poems, writing reflections, writing prompts, and many  links to his work. Not only did he give (again) freely, but he wrote me of the class, “That’s a great thing to do and an honor to be asked.”

The real deal is that Dick was a truly great poet — one of the foremost poets of our time — with an immensely generous and loving heart and a brave and clear mind. In one of our stretches of correspondence, he shared what he called “Gerund Phase Sonnets” — each 14 lines long like a sonnet, but loosely rhymed, all describing a process, some parables too. He wrote of these sonnets, “The form is a vessel, perhaps comparable to Emily Dickinson’s use of simple quatrains, freeing the poet to concentrate on theme and subject and/or to be led by the easy rhymes and American speech patterns of lines of varying length into unexpected places.” And here’s one of the sonnets about solving a Koan (more on what that is here).

Solving the Koan

Logically, you can’t do this. Illogically,

you can throw cold water on a alley cat

or bite your eyeballs. Solving a koan

is like kneeling beside a car, trying to change a flat

with a single potato chip. Two might do it. Mind you,

a koan isn’t a riddle,

a puff on an Old Gold, ringing of a liberty bell,

but a cat and a fiddle

and the cow jumping over Kansas. You must

go haywire and be calm at once,

stare at a blank wall and contemplate

ripples spreading across a bowl of Jell-O. Chance

plays a part in it, but mainly

to solve a koan you must simply Be.

I’m grateful for getting to know him, and sad he’s suddenly gone, having died Tuesday after a heart attack on Christmas. What he’s left behind are many poems I’ll return to with fresh eyes, remembering what he showed me and reflecting on what his poems illustrate about how to simply be while overflowing with compassion, humor, intelligence, and vitality.

****

Here’s more on Dick, including some excerpts from an abandoned interview, four poems in the online journal Superstition, a lovely poem entitled “If You Get There Before I Do,”  and Dick’s website, in which he writes in “A Cautionary Tale” that the say to live entails this: “You walk a little. You stop. You hurt./ Then You go on.”  Be sure to watch him talk about puns and read the poem “The Horse Knows the Way” (riffing off Frost’s “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening”), in which he shows his humor and adept way with language. You can see more of his poems here. Finally, enjoy this short tribute video in the Herald Courant.

Photo of state poets laureate, from left: Dave Parsons, Texas; JoAnn Balingit, Delaware; Bruce Dethlefsen, Wisconsin; Lisa Starr, Rhode Island; the late Walter Butts, New Hampshire; Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina; Dick Allen, Connecticut; Julie Kane, Louisiana; and sitting, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, Virginia; and yours truly, Kansas.

I Hear America Singing At a Just-Closed Minnesota Music College: Everyday Magic, Day 921

When Jen Scovell-Parker and Shon Parker, professors at McNally Smith College of Music, got the email December 14th  that the college was closing in a week and they wouldn’t be receiving their next paycheck, they leapt into action on behalf of the effected 600 or so students. Shon, a vocalist, arranger, and educator, is also a chef, so when the college immediately shut down the cafeteria — the only source of meals for students, most of whom had little deposable income by the end of the semester — he took over the cafeteria kitchen with help from Chris, the kitchen manager. In no time, they were whipping up barbecue and slaw to feed hundreds of students for free. Faculty also got out the word about the food situation, and alumni, parents, and local businesses started sending in piles of pizza and other foods.

Meanwhile, Jen, interim chair of the vocal department, and a long-time performer, educator, and arranger, made a miracle happen. Working with other faculty, she contacted dozens of music colleges across the country and  regional colleges with relevant music programs to put together a list of 33 institutions willing to accept McNally Smith credits, and do all kinds of other things to help McNally’s students find a new academic home: waive application fees, offer discounts or scholarships, expediate application processing, find new students housing, and in general turn a nightmare into a new dream (see the impressive list right here). The director of admissions Matt Edlund, Kerri Vickers, and the registar staff also organized a transfer fair, and according to my daughter, a McNally Smith graduate who was there recently, McNally Smith was filled wall to wall with booths from institutions eager to help student sort through information, fill out paperwork, and talk through the sudden situation they landed in through no fault of their own. On top of this, Maria Vejdani, a former grad students and first semester faculty, set up a google doc form to help all the people in need or willing to help so that there was an instant database. People stepped up from all directions.

This weekend as I was facilitating a writing workshop for people with serious illness, I shared Walt Whitman’s poem “I Hear America Singing,” in which he writes about each of us making a kind of music that lifts up the world through our particular role, whether we’re carpenters, shoemakers, or mothers, “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” I told the workshop participants of how Jen and Shon, through their night-and-day work to feed, comfort, guide, and love students, are the best of America singing, and the best of America. Their actions are born out of their deep love for their students, and expansive recognition of how this college transformed, as Jen wrote about on Facebook, all who walked through the doors of the campus. “We worked there because we believe in the future of music, and we see how bright it was through the magic of our students. It was a calling to teach this music. In some ways the call feels even louder,” she writes.

Jen , Shon, and other faculty and staff heeded that louder call with a series of celebrations that also allowed students, faculty, staff, and alumni to grieve collectively: graduation on Sunday (which only happened because of Sue Brezny, the director of Student Affairs), a Sing-Out concert featuring students and faculty Monday, and a series of concerts and performances in between Shon and others feeding the masses, all week long. Not only is America singing through Jen, Shon, and other shining stars (including alumni who have dropped by to perform, encourage, bring food, and help students pack up dorm rooms and faculty pack up offices), but a whole lot of people at McNally Smith have been singing their hearts out to make a bridge of music and hope for all those who need to cross over from this college to their Plan B. 

At the same time, I can imagine many reasons a college would close: the college where I teach, Goddard College, has occasionally accepted transfers from like-minded colleges that went down, but those closings were gradual, at least a semester and sometimes years in the unfolding so that students, faculty, and staff could transition to new situations. I can’t imagine any reason that a college would close on a week’s notice, especially since colleges (and particularly for-profit institutions) rely on tuition as their main (or sole) income.

The owners could easily have discerned back at the beginning of this semester, if not a year ago, that they were in trouble. That they didn’t act — either to work with the community to save the college  (I read the college was in the process of being not-for-profit), or to let everyone know the campus would be shutting down — is unethical, and a breach of trust. That they would not pay their faculty and staff, and ask them to continue on should be illegal. That they would leave so many students in a lurch — including students who already paid tuition for the spring semester, international students without adequate visas for such a closing, and students in the dorm who suddenly had to move out on no notice — is horrendous.

But that people like Jen and Shon — along with the real community of and around that college (excluding its owners) — would rise up singing in all these ways shows us what we’re capable of at our best. Then again, I’m not completely surprised — I’m extremely graduate to faculty like Jen and Shon who worked closely with our daughter and gave her and so many others a superb education and the most soulful mentoring possible. Our educators are, in many ways, our truest artists and most authentic heroes. And this is how America sings.

If you’d like to contribute to Jen and Shon’s Go Fund Campaign, please click here. Another Go Fund Me Campaign supports the faculty as a whole.