When Miriam Finishes Wandering the Desert: Everyday Magic, Day 911

Late last night, as I sent my novel Miriam’s Well to my wonderful publisher, Steve Semken of Ice Cube Press, I reworked a summary of this 500-plus page book that’s been at the heart of my writing life for 13 years:

In this modern day retelling of the biblical story, Miriam wanders the political and spiritual desert of a changing America, torn between her roots as the Jewish daughter of a Black father and white mother, her yearning for home, and her brothers, Aaron, a successful New York City attorney, and Moses, a Kansas autistic artist. An astonishing cook and singer, Miriam has a knack for showing up to feed and help people at at landmark events, including People’s Park during the Summer of Love, the Wounded Knee encampment in South Dakota, the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. As she seeks the promised land, she shows her people, and eventually herself, how to turn the chaos and despair of our times into music, meals, and meaning.

The amazing painting (sunset on the Platte River) by Anne Burkholder that will be on the cover of the novel.

This morning, waking up to the first day in the many years when I wasn’t finishing this book, I realized, that for all intensive purposes, the Miriam of my imagination is done wandering the desert. I got off easy compared to biblical Miriam’s 40 years of wandering, after which she never even got to the promised land (at least in that telling of her life). I’ve gotten lost, and eventually found, in many sentences in the writing and revision of the book, thanks to my tried-and-true process of writing what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” then reworking my words for eons. I’ve read the in-process book in entirety aloud to Ken twice, and parts of it to Brave Voice participants occasionally, but from here on, the “in-process” part of the process is finished.

It’s a strange feeling to complete a big book that takes everything you think you can do, and asks of you to do more and go farther. So many times, I couldn’t figure out how to develop a scene, flesh out a curve in the plot, or show, with greater transparency but still enough mystery, who a character is. As I tell my students and workshop participants, sometimes you just have to tell yourself you’re not just smart enough to write something at the moment, shrug it off, write something else, then return to the page. Also, writing is a way of knowing: my hands on the keyboard had led me often to language that was far beyond me thinking into words.

Now I’m sitting on the porch in the rain during a morning thunderstorm, reminding myself I don’t need to rework something in the book that I loved writing so much. Despite the glory of being finished, I’m sad. Then I remind myself: I’m only leaving the writing of it. I’ll be doing readings from this novel for anyone who will listen for years, and I’ll be talking at length about its nuances, and what might happen to Miriam after the end of the novel (although I wish I fully knew). Of course, there will be many more times to proofread the book, even after the advance copies are printed and distributed this fall in time for us to garner some reviews for a Passover 2018 release date.

In time, just like Miriam, I’ll be done wandering, and in the case of such a long-term project, wondering how to shape each paragraph, lift and close each chapter. Miriam will find her next story, and so will I.

I’m looking for art for the cover of my novel Miriam’s Well, coming out from Ice Cube Press when the clock strikes 2018. This 12-year-in-the-making novel is about biblical Miriam and her brothers Aaron and Moses, but it’s set in the U.S. and has Miriam wandering the spiritual, political, and cultural desert and lushness of this country for 40 years, starting her wandering in People’s Park in 1969. I describe the book as somewhat like Forrest-Gump-Meets-The-Red-Tent. I’m looking for original art to use that resonates with Miriam, her well (way of feeding people and keeping up their spirits during the long haul), wandering, seeking home, the kaleidoscope of family and life, or any related theme. Little caveat: ain’t nobody getting any advance on this book, so I don’t have a budget for art, but I can pay the artist with extensive gratitude, a big pile of books, his/her/their profile at the end of the book, and other ways to share more about this wondrous artist. Thank you for your help! Below is a longer synopsis of the novel. If you know of any art – photography, painting, pastels, sculpture, quilting, etc. — that might fit, please email me at carynmirriamgoldberg@gmail.com. Thanks for reading this far and considering what images would do the trick!

Miriam’s Well Synopsis

From a young age Miriam sees visions she can’t cope with or stop. Growing up Jewish in Brooklyn with Aaron, her boy genius brother, her black father and white mother, she finds her place in the world best through singing and feeding people, much like her biblical namesake. That sense of belonging is shattered when, as a teenager, her worst nightmares come true. After her high-strung mother gives birth to a third child, Moses, who is more Miriam’s than her mother’s, the family moves to Israel. Caught in a freak accident during the Six-Day War, Miriam’s father is killed, her mother disengages from the family, and Kansas relatives take Moses away from her. Shattered and lost, Miriam and Aaron return to their old house in Brooklyn, now owned by their aunt and uncle, to piece together their future. Miriam embarks upon an opposite journey than her career-driven brother Aaron as she takes to the open road.

For the next 40 years, Miriam wanders, yearning for home and meaning while dwelling in the edges of America. She feeds a giant house full of hippies in Berkeley, attends women’s Black Panther meetings in Oakland, and sneaks into Wounded Knee during the 1973 occupation to cook for everyone. She sings to people at soup kitchens in Denver, homeless shelters in New York City, and a San Francisco hospice during the peak of the AIDS epidemic. She even bakes the Cuban bread the leaders of Key West throw at U.S. government officials when the city tries to secede from America in 1982.

Many of the places Miriam lives, first on her own, and later with her half-Lakota, half-Italian husband Joseph, and their daughter Laura, are geographically, politically or spiritually on the edge of America, from Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine to the beaches of Key West to an extreme west Texas small town. She tries to salvage a relationship at an Idaho back-to-the-land commune, leads women’s rituals at a feminist potato farm (Mrs. Potato Head) in Utah, and runs a cafe at an Alabama ecovillage. Working with the homeless or the hungry, at-risk L.A. Teenagers or overlooked New York City elders, Miriam reaches beyond the edges of her upbringing.

Miriam is continually plagued by her visions and driven by an unquenchable desire to save people while puzzling over what do with her own family. She helps a man search hospitals for his wife after the Oklahoma City bombing, rescues a a teen who overdosed during the Whittier-Narrows earthquake, runs toward the World Trade Center during 9/11, and feeds hundreds after Hurricane Katrina–all to the fury and fear of her family. Her many visits with Moses in western Kansas teach her that she can’t rescue her autistic brother from his quiet life among evangelical Christians, but she can dwell with him there. She can’t live the life her brother Aaron wants for her, but over decades, she helps him recover his own visions. She can’t stop missing her father, but over time that deep yearning changes from overwhelming roar to dull ache. After decades of avoiding, blaming, and distancing from her mother, Miriam discovers Batty isn’t who Miriam thought she was, and her family is intact in a mosaic she never could have imaged.

Much to her own surprise, Miriam finds home in a kaleidoscope of family and friends, healing in the middle of cancer, and peace in the thin places between the world lost and the new land on the other side of her wandering.

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.

IMG_0869Quilting is like climbing into a time machine and disembarking in the future with a magic treasure. You start the quilt in one season, end it in another, each step holding its stories, terally for me since I listened to a lot of podcasts of The Moth, This American Life and Radio Lab while sewing these babies together.

I started the bright blue quilt with the crazy quilt squares — controlled chaos is how I see this design glimpsed and phone-photoed from a quilting book — at the end of the summer, thinking this would be a good transition project. I had just finished organizingIMG_0940 the Power of Word conference for two years, and with the last of my sons moving out, it was empty-nest heaven, trembling and confusing heaven at times, but nevertheless a time of extra time. I felt like I suddenly gained an extra hour each day. So off to the fabric store I went.

I cut the squares for hours one night while listening to “A Night on the Town” on public radio, then whatever came on after that, and after that. Thanks for my sister-in-law, Karen, who is a superb quilter, I learned how to use that great see-through plastic ruler and fabric cutter (just like a pizza cutter, but smaller with no crusts left behind).IMG_0976

We laid out the squares — Ken helped since I needed his eyes for the best color arrangement — on the floor of the playroom. This was the room where once babies tried to eat Legos, and bringing in piles of sharp pins would have been unthinkable. It was hot out and in, and it took a long time to figure out how to place fabric together in ways that didn’t clash or repeat too much. Then I started sewing, and here’s where the mistakes came in.

A helpful woman in the sewing store enthusiastically handed me a flyer featuring IMG_0127upcoming quilting classes when I told her how inexperienced I was. Sure, I’ve made about five other quilts, but far more simple ones and always without knowing what I was doing. Yet when it comes to learning new crafts, you’ll find me in the corner with a seam ripper, undoing a six-foot-long body of tiny machine stitches, rather than actually going to classes or reading instructions. Some of us learn best by mucking around in the mud, and I got to learn about the muck generated by terrible mathematics errors that meant re-cutting and re-sewing big sections, and lots of time rushing back to the store to get more fabric.

IMG_0395
Cat above investigating cat below the quilt

In the end, I delivered the whole enchilada to professional quilter Kris Barlow, who did a gorgeous job turning this big hunk of fabric into a nuanced and three-dimensional piece of beauty.

But while the quilt was with the quilter, I started getting itchy to make another quilt, especially after I spied some stained-glass window quilt designs.

Off to the fabric store again, then IMG_0438out with the ruler and fabric cutter. The problem was that this quilt was, to a person to could only do basic multiplication, more like advanced geometry. I spent far more time than you would expect drawing squares and rectangles and counting out inches for what I would need to cut. Then I realized I forgot to figure in the fabric between all the colorful windows, and since some pieces would be long rectangles alongside shorter squares (each with fabric between them), the addition quickly got beyond me.IMG_0437

In the end, though, I found that quilting seems to be 90% adding and subtracting numbers, and cutting fabric. The sewing part, aside from the bothersome refilling of the bobbins just when I’m on a roll, was a lot like, once the car is packed after weeks of planning, hitting the open road for the much-awaited IMG_0363vacation.

The end of any great sewing project is just a pause in between one kind of weather and another. A trip to see the sandhill cranes in Nebraska landed me in front of a pile of golden and gorgeous crane material, and now there’s a whole pile of fabric to measure and cut. That lure of what different things will look like wedded together by many stitches is irresistible. So I’m climbing inside this springtime-leaving, autumn-bound time machine to see where I land. No doubt I’ll be wearing a new quilt like a super-hero cape, pretending I can fly.

 

10858376_10152644835063208_4719828656362117011_nWe were unlikely friends. He talked slow, walked slow, thought slow and deep. I tend to run fast. I can’t even say when I met him, although I know it was through the Kansas Area Watershed Council, our local and long-lived bioregional community, and sometime, somehow, we became great pals. By 2001, we were doing the lion’s share of the work to organize the Continental Bioregional Congress on the Prairie — Jerry in charge of bookkeeping, travel arrangements and registrations, and me in charge of the program, publicity, and the overall coordination. For the next two years, we spoke on the phone or emailed often 4-5 times each day, just about finishing each other’s thoughts about how to handle any issue that arose.

10858644_10152644832843208_4356927544652366850_nHe went from Jerry Sipe to Jerry to Jer, aka #7 (his and my favorite number) on my speed dial. He was around us often, and quickly became the only adult my three children — through teenage years and beyond — always hugged. I hugged him a lot too, both of us close to the same height, as I felt his heart beat in mine.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, I discovered what many already know about wandering through the world of serious illness: some people fall away, and some people run toward you, ready to help in any way possible. Jerry just about moved in with us, joining us so often for dinner that when I fetched groceries, I aimed for his favorites along with our own. He was quiet, patient, and utterly present. The night before my final surgery, he called to find out what time I was going to the hospital. “But don’t you have to work?” I asked, knowing he had taken off a lot of time already for my previous surgeries. “Work? There’s no way I can go to work tomorrow,” he answered, and sure enough, he was there with other close friends and family, praying, singing, chanting and lifting me through surgery and its aftermath.

From there, he built our front porch with Ken. The project that was supposed to take a few months took over two and a half years, and although it was slow-going, the craftmanship is superb as was his installation of our pellet stove, which kept him hanging out at our place for months. There are signs of Jerry everywhere, not the least of which are the photos he gave us over the years,IMG_2135 each visionary and perfect in what he shows us of wind, spider webs, the moon and sky.

Jerry seemed quiet from a distance, but up close, he could be a regular chatterbox, although not in the conventional way. When he started to tell a story, like the time he went AWOL in the early 1970s because he no longer believed in the Vietnam War, it was advisable to get comfortable because he had a lot to say. When it was his turn in the circle — at KAW Council or other bioregional gatherings — he often had a lot to say about what the earth and sky were saying to him. It was obvious he had long conversations with the natural world. He often told me of fields, including the field just south of our house, that he was friends with, and how, in the presence of such places, he entered into deep communion.

10858388_10152644834493208_8539725373344188220_nEach morning, at least for many, many years, Jer would step outside, lift his arms overhead, close his eyes, open his heart and then his arms out wide, asking the living earth to tell him what its will was for him today. “Thy will be done,” he answered the call.

For many years, I counted him as one of my besties, yet in the last three or so years, we were at a bit of a distance. To be honest, I was pissed at him for not getting all possible medical and other healing help for what sure seemed like major memory issues to me. I wanted him to put up a good fight, reach out for support, and be relentless in his own healing. Like others close to him, I was also worried about him living alone and how, in time, he might be found close to death in his apartment. I didn’t understand that he, being himself and not me, was making his own choices and/or that his health issues may well have precluded him from choosing differently. A man close to the earth, he basically, as one dear one of his remarked to me recently, went to the woods to die. He was found last Sunday in his apartment, profoundly dehydrated, having lost close to a third of his body weight, and suffering from double pneumonia and other issues.

This last week, any distance dissolved. I’m eternally grateful to Jerry for this gift of forgiveness, intimacy and friendship. He held tight to my hand while, in his hospital room, I sang prayers and chants, off key and scratchy-throated, to him. One night, I sat close to him for a few hours, sharing song after song from my phone. When I got to James Taylor, particularly “Blossom” and “You Can Close Your Eyes” — music I knew he loved — he opened his eyes, lifted his eyebrows, and looked for moment, even while on a ventilator and in ravaged body, peaceful. He also looked into my eyes as well as into the eyes of many of us who visited with a kind of intensity I’ve only seen in the eyes of my son Daniel right after his birth and in the eyes of my father a few months before his death.

I remember telling Jerry about that moment with my father, and how my father asked if I recognized him. “Yeah, you could have said, I finally recognize you,” Jerry told me. With Jerry, it wasn’t an issue of “finally” recognizing him or being recognized by him. Jerry was born to see, evident in his photos of the prairie as well as his friendships and family connections.

10347556_10152644834623208_7289269370764009355_nHe was also born to make it rain. He once told me that according to a native person he knew, each of us had to make it rain at some point in our lives — we had to save lives and land in some small way. Jerry said that shortly after learning this, he was marching with others to save the Haskell Wetlands when a car sped through the intersection toward the marchers. Jerry saw that the car was about to strike a woman and her baby, riding in a  stroller. He left his slow ways behind and raced into action, positioning himself right in front of the car to save the mother and child. Then he stared into the eyes of the driver, who hit his brakes in time. “I made it rain,” Jerry told me.

Tonight, a little over a day after he died, he may be making it rain again, in the hearts of many of us who love him and also all around us as a very unusual December thunderstorm moseys on in, slowly. It hurts so much that he’s gone, but I’m so grateful for this rain, feeding the parched earth and and reminding me that love heals, always.