I thought it was a bust, but the boon just hadn’t happened yet. We wanted 100,000 snow geese, but just saw a handful of eagles, and 100 swans, still beautiful and magnificent, but after years of considering the long drive to the Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge to catch the snow geese in migration, I was a little disappointed. Where were the geese? Somewhere for sure, but not where we were.
Until they were. Nearing an oxbow to cross the Missouri river into Nebraska, then turn left and go south back to Kansas, right near a small RV neighborhood, largely deserted, a cloud of birds spun up and around, white in the sunlight and black in the shadows. We stopped the car, rolled down the windows and heard the multiplied low barking song of 100,000 or so snow geese.
With minutes, we rushed to the end of the oxbow, iPhone in my hands, and camera in Ken’s, as we took videos and photos, and laughed ourselves into crying about how gorgeous and amazing this spinning cloud of birds was. Eventually, the birds settled back on the water, and we headed back to the car to drive around to a closer view of the birds on the other side of a railroad bridge. Once there, we stood on the deck of a small dock and watched them, an island of snow geese un-forming and re-forming its edges into two long strips, joined bird to bird in the middle.
As we got into the car and checked our photos for a few minutes, even with the windows closed, the noise of the snow geese roared to life again. A train was crossing the bridge, and the birds circled up and around again. I ran to the shore, stopping every so often to take a photo, then at the edge of the water, a video of their song and spin.
It happened by choosing the longer way home on blue highways instead of the fast-food-edged highways that would speedily deliver us back. It happened by chance and luck. It happened because one of us looked the right direction at the right moment. Then again, it was happening continuously, sometimes over a million snow geese converging and hanging out in this area at once in early December when the weather, water levels, and wind were right.
Both of us, after two weeks of enduring some crazy virus that wiped us out and sent us through half a dozen boxes of tissues and a whole lot of cold medicine and Netflix, had decided to simply go while the weather of this area and our health was clear enough. Although I’m still a little under the weather of the virus, I’m a lot over the moon and back from seeing, hearing, and being in the presence of such vibrant and ancient grace.
It started with gerunds, a grammatical term for verbs that end in “ing.” To write directly and precisely, writers are supposed to avoid gerunds, Uncle Ron read in a tiny newspaper article that he clipped and sent to me. He wrote me that when next we met, we needed to get to the bottom of this gerund business.
That was well over 30 years ago, and get to the bottom we did, along with picking up what we found at the bottom and tossing it back and forth over decades. The first time we talked about this in about 1985, I told Ron that some feminist scholars purposely used a lot of gerunds to reclaim the language shaped into sharp directives by men. He thought that made sense, but mostly he questioned why people were supposed to write in as few syllables as possible; after all, what’s wrong with a little extra i-n-g-ing as you go? That may have made particular sense to Ron because he loved words, and loved to immerse himself in many of them for hours on end, talking until the cows came home and went out again the next morning.
But he did a whole lot more than talk. A former engineer who became a minister, marrying his beloved Wilma early in the process, and having four daughters (all who ended up with the initials JJJ), Ron liked to do things and get things done. Two or more times each year, he and Wilma would come stay with Ken’s folks (Ken’s mom is Wilma’s sister) on the farm to help out for weeks. Each day, Ken’s dad Gene would go out with Ron to fix fences, clean out the eternally-refilling basement or barn,organize tools, or haul leaves and stack wood. Ron could seemingly build or fix just about anything, and he brought a lot of cheer to any job as well as a problem-solving spirit only an engineer-minister could mix together in the right potion.
Because Ron and Wilma were here so much, they became more like a second set of parents to us. This was somewhat formalized when we told the nurses in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) — the day after our first son Daniel was born — that Ron and Wilma were my parents because otherwise, they wouldn’t have been allowed into the unit to calm us and the baby. Although Daniel was born at a nearby free-standing birthing center, because he inhaled amniotic fluid on the way out, he was slow to breathe on his own, and that week in NICU was treacherous for him and us. Having an extra set of very loving surrogate parents around reassured us, especially with both Ron and Wilma’s can-do, it’ll-all-work-out, have-faith-and-work-hard attitude.
Three years or so later, I was carrying another baby, Natalie, into my in-law’s house when Ron met me on the steps. I was frazzled and seriously doubting my ability to handle a toddler and newborn at once, and being sleep-deprived, broke, and in the middle of graduate school didn’t help. “What a fortunate baby!” Ron bellowed, going on to say how lucky our children were to have such smart and caring parents. Then he carried in the diaper bag and some groceries I had. He was like that — confident in a way that made me feel more confident, and seamlessly helping out however he could while joking around with Wilma, or co-narrating, in panoramic detail, one of their epic travel slide shows.
They made for a richer childhood for all our kids too. I remember when Daniel was about four years old how he paused making cherry pies with his grandma and Aunt Wilma — who were singing to him, “Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy…” — to run outside and ride in the wheel barrow Ron and his grandpa had ready for him. Rona nd Wilma juggled babies and dinners with us at many a meal at Furr’s Cafeteria or Perkins. Along with Ken’s parents, they were even waving to us from the porch of a friend’s house in Baldwin when we pulled up for a party that turned out to be a surprise baby shower for us. They were here, ready to lend a hand, share snapshots, and eat some hamburger soup with our growing family over many years.
When they weren’t in Kansas, they rode the circuit of their family, even hoofing it in a RV for a while. Ron and his son-in-law Jim built Jim and Judy’s house in Washington state, and Ron and Wilma babysat in Ohio, took a granddaughter on an adventure in California, or simply showed up wherever a moving van for a family member needed loading or unloading. They were outrageously active in their church, making a community out of strangers, and a tightly-knit family out of extended relatives.
This summer, we made the smarter-than-we-knew-at-the-time decision to visit Uncle Ron and Aunt Wilma along with other beloved family in Seattle. During that visit, I interviewed them about how they fell in love. It turns out that Ron asked Wilma out after he discovered the girl he first had his eye on wasn’t available. Wilma, clearly in love with Ron just as he was with her from the get-go, said she only agreed because she felt sorry for him. It’s somewhat of an involved story, but as they told it, as when they told many stories, they laughed at and teased each other, recalling how their first discussion was about which state was better, Washington or Kansas. “Well, anyone with any sense would know it was Kansas,” Wilma said although she’s spent a good part of her life with Ron in his native Washington. They turned their home states into states of love where people like me and so many others could feel supported, welcomed, and start to believe things were going to be okay.
A few days ago Ron died at the ripe old age of 93 after a rich and vigorous life. Amazingly enough, one of his daughters, who had a condition with a life expectancy that she outlived by decades, died a few hours beforehand, the family able to be with each of them. I have no doubt that Ron is helping her navigate wherever they go next, and he’s doing so with his usual humor, cheer, and love.
Which brings me back to gerunds. By making a verb into a gerund, we make it into something more ongoing. I could say I miss Ron, but it’s even more immediate to say I am missing him, right in the state of feeling what I feel. I am loving Ron too, feeling so blessed that he was such a presence in our family, and through his presence, showed me a lot more about what family being family can be.
I’m perched on this lovely porch on the last day of the year, at least the last day according to the Jewish year, which ends at sundown. The wind and crickets thread sound through the Osage Orange tree, leaning over the driveway with its heavy hedge apples (think lime green brains the size of grapefruit). A few hummingbirds dive-bomb each other on the aerial path to the feeder. I’m comfortable in a hideous chartreuse recliner with iced coffee within reach. It’s just another beautiful edge-of-summer day in Kansas for me, but for many it’s far more heartbreaking and threatening.
I think of people in central Mexico, working frantically to unearth possible survivors from collapsed buildings from the 7.1 earthquake yesterday. I’ve watched videos of people coming together in the streets, crying in each other’s arms, or staring at buildings that have sloughed off into big piles of concrete and steel.
I think of thousands in Puerto Rico, right now, enduring Hurricane Maria, which hit the island as a category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 155 mph. I imagine the terror so many must feel right now as the winds batter their homes or shelters, bending palm trees horizontal and tossing cars across flooding parking lots. At the very least, they might be worried about having enough water and food, knowing how likely it is that they could face weeks or longer without electricity; at the most, their lives might be danger because of storm surges, crumbling buildings, and mud slides.
I think of millions in South Korea, North Korea, Japan, Guam, and many other places living with the searing threat of nuclear attack due to two immature and reckless leaders, one in North Korea and one in America, talking trash about the other and escalating a historic conflict. With rhetoric about destroying these countries and many more, those within easy reach of missiles bearing nuclear warheads must be living with overwhelming fear as the war of words builds.
Meanwhile, the fires in the west burn millions of acres of forest and change the faces of many a gorge, valley, and mountain. Ethnic cleansing in Myanmar has led to hundreds of villages being burned to the ground. People throughout various chains of islands and many on our mainland are still without electricity, or are busy with the sad work of stripping out of their homes all the water-logged furniture and family treasures.
Fire, flooding, earthquakes, hurricanes (Harvey, Irma, Maria), and war rage on, sporadically or worse, and much of it (excluding the earthquakes) due to the worst of human behavior: ignoring or denying the effects of climate change, and escalating the conflicts between tribes or nations to the point of no return.
It’s the end of the world as they know it for so many, human and otherwise. It’s also, as seems to have been the human habit, a time for the best of our beings to come forth. People in Texas made human chain to transfer elderly people out of flooded homes, thousands (or tens of thousands) of people driving to Texas or Florida to help with feeding, clothing, rebuilding, and reconnecting electricity for those in need. People in Mexico worked in the hot sun for hours, then all night, and still continue today lifting shards of concrete, digging with their bare hands, and listening carefully for one trapped beneath. I think of my brother-in-law in Florida, an electrician, who has worked long hours in the heat along with countless others to restore power for many communities. I marvel at the photos of humans throughout the Caribbean and Bahamas who lost everything, but also gave every ounce of their energy to rescuing others. A cruise ship ended its trip early, giving passengers the option of staying on to help evacuate islands in the path of Hurricane Irma, and over 70 vacationers did just that along with many cruise lines that sent ships and cash to the islands. Firefighters in Montana, Oregon, Washington, and other states worked themselves to exhaustion doing dangerous work to save lives and places.
At sunset, we cross over into the new year, but millions around the world have been forced to do this already, leaving behind all that was lost in the old year. For them, and for the blessings we can be when we reach out to help those facing the end of their worlds, my deepest wish is that we find hope in action that shows us what we’re capable of. Let us mend what’s broken, lift who and what is fallen, and act always on a love for life, and all that being and staying alive entails. L’shanah Tovah — a good and sweet new year — for everyone.
It’s called “putting the book to bed” when you turn in your final version of a whole bunch of pages about to be published as a real, live book. Ten minutes ago, I put Following the Curve, my next book of poetry, to bed, tucking it into an email, covering it with kisses, and wishing it well. It was a long time coming as all books, and especially poetry books are. That’s because I find that poetry can be almost infinitely revised — there are thousands of ways to break a line, add or subtract punctuation, change a word, or kill a darling (editing out a beloved line because it’s not needed).
To celebrate, I write this blog post, and I share the ending poem from this new collection:
Your Body is a Conversation With the World
What are you waiting for? From the first air
in the first room, while a winter radiator breathed
I didn’t see my first rainbow until I was 12 on the day my newborn brother died. In the middle of our house stuffed with grieving relatives, my younger brother and I quietly sipped soup at the kitchen counter early that evening until I noticed something strange and beautiful in the backyard. Within seconds, all of us were outside, amazed by a perfect arc over our house while my grandmothers, first in Yiddish, then in English, hugged us and said this was the miracle God gave us after taking our brother.
Why I didn’t see a rainbow until I was 12 was because I wasn’t looking, not having imagined rainbows were possible in real life. Growing up in Brooklyn, then central New Jersey, there were also a lot of buildings, trees, houses, and shopping malls in the way.
After I married an rainbow whisperer, able to read the sky and aim us toward wherever the most likely rainbow is, I learned that rainbows, especially in areas of the country prone to late afternoon storms, can be everyday happenings. “Not rare but precious,” Ruth Gendler wrote about beauty in her book Notes on the Need for Beauty. Nothing could be truer of rainbows in summertime Kansas, where mountains and an excess of trees don’t get in the way.
How to see a rainbow? When the sun is nearing one horizon, and dark clouds fill the other horizon, look carefully at those dark clouds directly across from the sun. Although I’ve slept through many early morning rainbows, I do catch early evening ones. When our often southwest-to-northeast storms have moved past us, and the setting sun breaks through its western clouds, poof! There’s a rainbow somewhere.
Meteorologically, we know light , reflected, refracted and dispersed through water droplets, cooks up rainbows. Looking at the meaning gets more tricky although symbolism abounds bout light piercing darkness. After the flood, the crew, animals and humans, on Noah’s arc witnessed a helluva rainbow, which we can call a symbol of hope, miracles, redemption, new beginnings, and according to the tale and film Finian’s Rainbow, our heart’s deepest dreams coming true (check out Fred Astaire and Petula Clark singing “Look to the Rainbow”). Living in Kansas, we can never escape all manner of Wizard of Oz references (step outside of the state, and someone is bound to say, “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto”). But of course, we also claim one of the best rainbow songs and singers of all time — “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by the ever-vibrant Judy Garland, who yearns to get the hell out of Kansas until she escapes. Then she yearns with all her being to be back under the rainbow.
Yesterday, walking into the Merc to buy a bunch of zucchini, one vibrant curve surprised me. As I stood at the entrance to the store in wonder, I pointed out the rainbow to a woman about to shop also. “Look like God has given us!” she said while starting to cry. “Yes,” I answered her. We both stared into the rainbow, taking many photos with our phones, which alerted would-be shoppers to stop and look up.
Driving home, it was rainbow slivers and half-arcs all the way until a full rainbow, so vibrant and stunning that I couldn’t help but back myself up into the chigger-and-tick-filled tallgrass to take more photos. I remembered how the arc is just part of the full circle of a rainbow, which puts me in mind of a song Kelley Hunt and I wrote called “Miracle” with this chorus:
A round rainbow is called a glory.
What you survive in life is called a glory.
You never see the arc of it until after the storm.
To see the whole miracle, you have to hold on.
The workaday miracle is where you belong.
Last night’s rainbow, like the first rainbow I ever saw, soared over my home, reminding me again of the everyday miracles we’ve given, and also how we can never see the whole miracle until after the storm.