Annual Magnolia Walk: Everyday Magic, Day 935

Every March, I seek the magnolia trees growing recklessly in Kansas where it’s almost guaranteed that their tree-full of pink blossoms will meet Mean Old Mr. Winter with a fury. These trees are meant to grow in warmer climes, but they seem to survive okay here despite an annual attack (or two) of icy temperatures, turning those fragrant and curvy blossoms sad and brown-edged.

I love magnolia trees. Let me be more honest: I really and deeply love magnolia blossoms, and it’s one of my recurring nightmares to miss them in their prime, especially since those prime weeks can be reduced to a few days, depending on the mood swings of the weather. Today is such a cusp: it was in the low 60s, windy with a particular kind of cold wind that announced far more cold was coming. Tonight? A low of 23 expected. So I set out to be with my people, I mean, trees.

Here is the one I cozied up with the most because I was ill-dressed for that cold wind. It’s a twin, accompanied by another magnolia on the other side of the front of Central Junior High School. These trees guard this bastion of changing hormone levels like statues of golden lions, except without the gold or the lion. Looking up through the tree, once again, I was enthralled,  and grateful. Some blossoms aren’t able to last nearly long enough, so when it’s time, it’s time.

As someone who also hasn’t mastered much of the art of holding back, I resonate with these trees, growing in a different climate than were they were native, but homing in to beauty and exuberance none-the-less. Here is my poet about these friends:

Magnolia Tree in Kansas

 

This is the tree that breaks

into blossom too early each March,

killing its flowers. This is the tree

that hums anyway in its pool of fallen

petals, pink as moonlight. Not a bouquet

on a stick. Not a lost mammal in the clearing

although it looks like both with its explosions

of rosy boats – illuminated, red-edged.

Not a human thing but closer to what we might be

than the careful cedar or snakeskin sycamore.

It cries. It opens. It submits. In the pinnacle

of its stem and the pits of its fruitless fruit,

it knows how a song can break the singer.

In the brass of its wind, it sings anyway.

Tree of all breaking. Tree of all upsidedown.

Tree that hurts in its bones and doesn’t care.

Tree of the first exhalation

landing and swaying, perfume and death,

all arms and no legs. Tree that never

learns to hold back.

Prevernal Wonders: Everyday Magic, Day 932

I love the prevernal season perhaps best of all: that space between the start of spring and before the leafing out of the big, green world. There’s such a brief series of moment between the last dregs of winter and first flush of spring, snow and daffodils, or sub-zero nights and thunderstorm afternoons. All show us that there is no line between seasons, just a two-steps-forward, four-steps-back, one-leap-forth, and a-crash-to-the-cold-ground dance.

Last night, I was acutely aware of this when we took a sunset walk across part of the field, up the hill, and through the woods, all the trees so dry that we were snapping off interfering branches as we went to make the trail more of a trail. Yet in the middle of this drought moment, there sky exhaled humidity, and for the first time in days, I didn’t feel so thirsty. The clouds cleared, the sky darkened, and over the horizon of time and weather, finally some rain arrived at 4 a.m.

Having woken myself up from a nightmare in which I was the entire KU men’s basketball team, rushing around my house to lock all the doors against impending danger, I sat up in time to see lightning in the distance. I stayed up, convincing myself I wasn’t fragmented in all those star basketball players but just one woman watching the world change to rain.

This morning, the deck and gravel drive held shallow puddles, the top of the car was wet, and the grass around our house was amazingly and suddenly greening up, as if someone crayoned a black-and-white drawing of this world while we slept. Cottonwood Mel’s branches are  full of buds for the leaves to come. The one lone  backyard daffodil, stunted but in bloom will soon have lots of company.

This prevernal time in Kansas is famous for bringing us all four seasons in a day, so I don’t hold onto what sweet, damp, and shining weather is given to us at this moment, but maybe that’s one of the great meanings of in-between times. Change is coming, following an old pattern but unfurling in its own mysterious way. It’s outside of my control, but at least, I can still keep going outside, the air — whatever temperature it is — remembering me to who I am beyond my ideas about myself, and helping me remember what’s real.

Swirling Distractions of Winter Birds: Everyday Magic, Day 926

A dizzy of starlngs

The starlings grabbed my attention while I was pacing the living room on a phone call. They poured diagonally down to the lawn, fanning out to bop and dip on the winter grass, then swooshed around to thread through the branches of Cottonwood Mel on their way to the bare mulberry branches. Meanwhile, a dozen or so fluffed-out-to-maximum-roundness robins rock on the branches of the cedar tree outside the kitchen window. When I return to the bedroom, it’s chickadees and junos all the way on our deck railing because of the bird seed I just poured there after filling up the feeder, emptied in record time this morning.

One well-fed flicker

There’s nothing like winter birds around here — the dizzying numbers of them emerging when the temperature drops and the wind pauses or picks up again, scattering them high into the trees or across the horizon until they return again. Everyone is fluffed out to perfection, whether the flicker wedded to the side of the cottonwood or the singular sparrow perched on the clothesline. Some days the blue jays rush in, bullying away the regular residents of our backyard, and usually by mid-February, the bluebirds return, dazzling me beyond measure. The cardinals float like candles in the tall stand of cedars, and the red-winged blackbirds flash fire as they go. One barred owl sways on top of a bare tree each late afternoon

Barred Owl

Working at home, I have the advantage of being in a ready-made blind, hidden from them by edges of window frames enough at times that they get close. I also have a bird alarm system through the cats although they get worn out by so many hours of high-definition Cat TV that they fall asleep just a few feet away from all that landing and tweeting. At the same time, it’s hard to work when so many flocks power past with the promise of returning on the other side of their swirl. But the older I get, the more I realize there’s little more important in this computer screen than what’s taking off and coming back into view in the world up close and personal, one window at a time.

The Peace of a Late Autumn Day: Everyday Magic, Day 916

It’s almost balmy although this late afternoon is quickly tipping toward dusk. The leaves are strangely still attached to trees around town but mostly in clumps the cold snap, hard rain, or big wind haven’t yet tipped over. Although we bought a frozen turkey to begin thawing for Thanksgiving, here I am sitting on the front porch with only a light sweater over my yoga clothes. It’s an unusual autumn moment, but also oddly sweet in its spaciousness and quiet.

One of my and maybe your ongoing problems with fall as well as spring — especially in these regions where we have four distinct seasons — is that a whole lot happens in the big social world. It tends to be when lots of places I work with hold events, classes, happenings, and celebrations. Unlike summer, when many of us are braving 102 degrees while a wall of cicadas makes us feel like we’re going out of our minds, or winter, when tiptoeing from house to car in an ice storm to get the phone is a treacherous journey, these better-weather seasons make too much possible. Add to this the weight of the school year shaping calendars, and things can get far too fast and furious to truly absorb the beautiful quiet and openness of changing seasonal cycles.

For me, this translates into big-gig time: September to mid-November, and March to May are the seasons where I’m working more than usualpiling miles on the car to stop in small towns to lead a book discussion or give a poetry reading while trying to figure out where the strongest coffee might be.  While I try not to calendarize myself into oblivion or a bad cold, let’s just say learning to balance self-care with the work I love is a dynamic story in progress.

There’s the chaos at times of my travels and talks, mid-day fatigue and late-night wakefulness seeking some kind of balance. Then there’s the chaos of the world, which seems increasingly like an alternate reality based on a dystopian novel we thought was too fictional to become true. I won’t recount the news headlines, and the small stories of big and little dangers sometimes hiding behind those headaches and headlines, except to say a whole lot seems beyond repair at moments. At the same time, exposed for how damaging it truly is in vivid and important ways from the men who have used their power to hurt women, to the incompetent judges being appointed for long stretches.

But then there’s this being brought to the forefront: sweet breezes and dark orange leaves as the day tips shorter. The southern horizon is lined with soft pink streaks between the waving fingers of the cedar trees, and to the west, the orange glow of the day’s ending is quietly dimming itself.  I join myself with that peace by watching and writing about the moment before it, too, slips into the future when it’s time to make dinner.

If this writing speaks to you, get a copy of Caryn’s new book, Everyday Magic: Fieldnotes on the Mundane and Miraculousbased on over 10 years of this blog. Details here.

Save the Humanities!: Everyday Magic, Day 894

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.