Spring doesn’t bounce in for months as a long-term resident at the inn we call Kansas. Instead, it struts its stuff in flashes, quite literally right now, like a famous actress who does occasional cameos in February and especially March, and sometimes on rare evenings even in January before vanishing suddenly for the main actors of snow, ice, and mostly cold, dry wind.
The thunder comes rumbles to east, the lightning flashes irregularly in the southwest corner of my window, and the air is full. I open the door and inhale that sweet sense and scent, just on the icy edge of the cold front on the other side of these storms. Today, it was positively balmy, in the low 60s even with no hint of how the temperature would start is slow fall from grace tonight. Tomorrow, there’s snow on the hoof, and I’ll likely be shivering in my big, down coat while frantically searching for where I put the mittens.
That’s the way of Midwestern winters and weather. Earlier this month, we had days we were thrilled to get out of the minuses, and today as I walked quietly out to the compost pile to throw out all our old banana peels, coffee grinds, and carrot nubs, I marveled at the slim crescent of moon in air that could be imported from April.
Right now the quiet fills in the long space between winter thunder and the slim purple flash of lightning, the first such storm of this year, but one that will become a one-woman show held over for many spring nights, reminding us these supposed four distinct seasons are approximations of general curves on the wild wheel. Now it turns brilliant, now it turns to ice, always traveling us back to a moment that defies easy naming.
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.
Yesterday morning, I walked across the narrow beach into the ocean, dipping my toes into the cold Maine waters until, scared and hesitant, I dropped in and swam like crazy to warm up until the sea carried me with ease.
This morning, I walked to my front porch, put my feet up, and stared into the Osage Orange tree and other things in my view, like my car that got strangely covered with bird poop while I was away. I let the chartreuse padded rocker (found years ago in a small-town Kansas thrift store) carry me into quiet.
In between, there were airports, a very strong cup of iced coffee, a narrow plane seat 30,000 feet off the earth with a view of the Jersey island (Long Beach Island) where I fretted as a teen, and surrealist naps between the captain’s garbled announcements. There was the ride to the Portland Jetway with an old friend/ Goddard student who shared the moving, drastic, and ultimate healing story of losing his home to a fire. There was a lobster roll and very salty potato chips at one airport, and a Philly pretzel at the other. There was the baggage carousel with finally Jerry’s suitcase to grab, the luggage left to me by my dearly-departed friend who still travels with me. There was Ken late at night and the beautiful and car-fumed air of the home airport, then the ride where as usual, I alternated between talking at high speed and staring into the blur of familiar highway sites. Then there was the house waiting for me, complete with cat vomit in the entry way, a very happy dog, my beautiful sons, a clean kitchen counter, and a whole lot of mail.
Balanced precariously on the ledge of these merging views, I recover from close to two weeks away and all the beauty and exhaustion that filled that time. I run to the garden in the morning in my nightgown to graze on tomatoes and consider what to plant for a fall garden. I nap deeply for hours, then find out it was just 10 minutes. I plant a big dinner while watching the many hummingbirds from this porch, then decide yogurt and fruit is best.
The view behind, the view ahead, and the view now hangs mysteriously together when I see a fast orange butterfly reminding me that just yesterday how a bunch of us in the ocean pointed up and laughed when we saw a black butterfly. Motion links us.
Quilting 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 organizing 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).
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 upcoming 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.
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 out 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.
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 vacation.
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.
Stay around long enough, and you’ll meet yourself and everyone else you love coming and going, sometimes even more so, like all of 2015 for me. People and places seemingly long gone and far away rolled through my life, or I rolled through them all year long, from friends I haven’t seen in over a decade to landscapes imprinted in my imagination a very long time ago. Oh, reunions, how I love thee, especially when guided by serendipity, surprise and the awesome magic of picking up just when we left over 4 or 40 years ago.
Some of the reunions were well- engineered, such as a long-planned trip to Big Bend National Park in extreme (and I mean “extreme” in every way you can imagine) West Texas, where Ken and I honeymooned 30 years earlier. It was the first time I experienced desert, and let’s just say I wasn’t a happy camping (I do mean camping, which was on the side of a mountain surrounded by javelinas). This time, we stayed in a lodge in the Davis Mountains, a place we discovered in ’85 when we only had an afternoon in this savannah, a lush and dry at once landscape mixing prairie and forest with big expanses of mountain behind mountain. “Let’s go back here and spend more time,” my 25-year-old self told my 30-year-old husband. Turns out, we just needed three decades to make that happen, and upon returning, it was all brand new and deja vu at once. We marveled at the land and sky, I didn’t complain about how stark the landscape was (I’ve grown to love desert), and while we didn’t hike 17 miles in day (oh, our strong younger selves!), we walked ourselves silly and even waded in the Rio Grande.
Other places I threw my happy arms around included a usual reunion hangout — my often-annual trip to New York and Brooklyn, this time walking across the Brooklyn Bridge my parents crossed regularly with my siblings and me back in the 60s (in the back of a wood-paneled station wagon) when we lived in Brooklyn, and our dad worked in lower Manhattan. Of course, I also visited the old subway arcade, closed since 9/11, where my dad’s store was long ago.
Some re-meetings were more far-flung, like going back to Madison, WI a mere 27 years after we trekked up there in a baby blue VW van with friends for the wedding of Catherine and Peter. Amazingly enough, Daniel (our oldest son), upon settling in Madison for graduate school, at a barn dance ferreted out Catherine, who he had never met, because something about her seemed familiar. Reunion ensued with great joy, amazing food, and a vengeance!
I found a town I lost by mistake — Columbia, Missouri, where I lived for some extremely formative college years when I was teetering between daily infactuations with all the least-likely candidates, too many part-time jobs (from making popcorn to shaking newspapers together), occasional schoolwork, and a whole lot of roaming all hours of the night through the town I claimed as mine. Nothing like brunch with three old friends to open my heart and remind me why it’s never a good idea to remind them about the time I said, “Anarchists, Socialists! What’s the difference?” It also wasn’t a good idea to lose a town less than three hours away, and in January, we have another mini reunion there with pals John and Suzanne.
Other reunions came swiftly by surprise, like when our old friend David called to say that, surprise!, he was coming to town in two days. We were able, although we were about to leave town ourselves early the next morning, squeeze in a beautiful visit complete with lingering dinner and catching up on everything from the nuances of our children to climate change. Our pal Stephanie was able to stop in on her way across the country for deep conversation and a lovely walk both in the country and downtown. In all cases, we talked, as the old cliche tells us, like no time had passed although we were sharing many vivid moments about what exactly happened (as much as we can conjure it) in some of that passing time.
Getting on the road sparked all kinds of reunions. I loved seeing old friends from Lawrence in Minneapolis, and also reuniting several times with siblings of my friend, Jerry, who died over a year ago, but left us one another. Various conferences threw me in the arms of it’s-been-too-long-since-we-talked friends in Black Mountain, NC, Minneapolis, and Kansas City. I got to hang out with my sisters and mom, niece and nephew, and new brother-in-law in Orlando, and a bevy of Ken’s family we hadn’t seen in a while.
Back home around Thanksgiving, I reconnected with one of my cousins who I grew up with but lost to family distance (both the geographic and emotional kinds) for 43 years. While we’ve talked some on the phone and have emailed in recent years, there’s nothing like getting back together in person after over four decades. It was hard to stop talking, and I look forward to meet talking to make up for lost time.
And just last week, my old pal and office mate Andrew visited from Macau (near Hong Kong) with his wife and 17-year-old daughter who was a toddler last time we saw her.
Everything circles, spirals, vanishes in the swamp of life, and then pops back up. This year, that included even the Kansas City Royals, who won the World Series for the first time in 30 years, reuniting us all with the Royals’ slogan, “keep the line moving,” which means just to get a hit, any hit, keep moving, and if everyone works hard, plays smart, and gets the right pitch, you’ll get to run back home. The line, it turns out, never was a line to begin with, and if wait at home long enough or wander far enough away, you’ll likely find out just how curvy and hilly time is. I couldn’t be more grateful for each homecoming.