Yesterday was an in-between day taken up with driving, flying, walking long underground vortexes of color and sound, flying some more, and a whole lot more driving to go from Lawrence, Kansas (aka Center of the Universe) to Plainfield, Vermont (aka Another Center of the Universe).
On such days, I try to be present for what sweetness might lurk in travel tensions, plus I’ve learned a few tricks from making this trip back and forth to Goddard College residencies over 40 times in the last two-plus-decades. I pack high-quality apples, a sturdy supply of magazines, a few good books (this time I’m re-reading Elizabeth Erdrich’s marvelous memoir, Miriam’s Kitchen), some energy bars (the kind that aren’t exactly candy bars but don’t taste like dog food either), antibacterial stuff to wash the seat-back tray in the planes, and a tiny Ipod-thingie with soothing music I can blast at 30,000 feet. I also have all manner of sinus remedies because planes can shake up a gal’s face some, and candied ginger for too much turbulence.
When the announcement at the airport says crazy things, like yesterday’s “Sorry, folks, but we’ll be delayed boarding the plane because the heater is broken, and it’s only 2 degrees in there,” I sigh, eat my salad early (having learned it’s a bad idea to eat too-rich food before being flung through space at 500 mph), and catch up Facebook. When my pal picking me up is so engrossed in conversation with me that he drives down beautiful country roads instead of aiming for the route to get us toward the college, I take photos of what I see along the way, including the most daunting sun dogs (my photos don’t do them justice) I’ve ever spied.
Once unloaded in the dorm, back out to the Wayside Diner for down-home goodness, and back to the dorm room, I morph into old routines of putting the socks and underwear in this drawer, piling the two mattresses in the room on top of each other for a higher and firm bed, and draping scarves here and there to brighten up the big blank room. Most of us who teach here have our assorted furniture-moving and, for the ones who drive, rug-unfurling habits to make our home for the next 10 days homey.
But in the middle of it all — a middle that extends from leaving the house at 8 a.m. and trying to shake off the dim or sparkling travel dust at 1 a.m. when I’m still friggin’ awake — there’s that in-between time, still potent with its varied nuances of color, light, temperature, and texture.
Truth be told, it’s always this way: we’re in between who we are and who we think we are, where we imagine we live and the real earth and sky we actually inhabit, the meaning of the work or relationships we inhabit and the greater mystery beyond meanings we label and box up. Landing is a continual process in travel and in life.
I find them irresistible: hand-sewn old quilt tops dreaming of a real life, a little like the Velveteen Rabbit before someone loved him to death (and rebirth as a real rabbit). Although I don’t possess the super power of finding a parking spot on Massachusetts Street at lunch time, I do have a knack for glimpsing incomplete quilts hanging on the back of a folding chair in a thrift store, or slung over a clothes line at a yard sale. If they’re not moth-tattered to shreds (have plenty of those quilts already at home), the colors please me, and the price is right, I tell them, “you’re coming home with me.”
Years ago, I fell in love with a massive quilt of stars hand-sewn by an old woman at her garage sale. “It’s made from those cloth sacks flour and sugar came in,” she told me, teaching me how many staples used to come in very useful packages. She said she had made it one winter in the 1930s
when she was very depressed, and she didn’t want it around anymore. I happily paid her for it, and since then, it’s filled a wall in our home, reminding me how we’re always recycling one another’s stories and efforts. Also, her dozens of six-pointed stars are, even if made in a time of doubt and despair, are to my eyes and faith, Jewish stars that remind me of community and spirit.
Six months ago, I found my latest adoptee in a massive thrift store — which recently absorbed an old Duckwalls (kind of like a Woolworths store but with more snow shovels for sale) — in downtown Council Grove, a thriving central Kansas town with a population of about 2,000. Council Grove is known for the Hays House, the oldest restaurant west of the Mississippi, purveyor of fine fried chicken, and the spot where Ken and I got engaged in three sentences: “You want to get married?” “Do you?” “Let’s order dessert.” We were back in Council Grove last summer on our way elsewhere because, fried chicken. After we rolled out of the restaurant, we wandered through the thrift store, and then I fell a little in love.
I tend to pick up quilts, look them over well, tell myself I have too many projects and put them back down, wander for 10 minutes, return and repeat the process a few more times, and if I’m smart enough at the moment, take the quilt to the register. Luckily, I was smart enough, and after some months of the quilt top sitting in a pile of other projects not getting anywhere fast, I made it to the fabric store for some backing, then set it all up for another season.
On Saturday, feeling just better enough from a virus to want to do something with fabric sporting the color pink, I sewed on the backing after a frustrating time of laying all the materials on the floor to line everything up before a cat or dog would pounce on it all. Sunday, after opting for the cheapest and easiest way to bind a quilt — with ties instead of quilting — I bought some matching embroidery thread. That night, between checking the Superbowl scores because I wanted my beloved stepdad’s team, Philadelphia, to win, and watching a quirky Australian film about a giant satellite dish and the first moon landing, I finished up the quilt.
Now this cheery quilt is lounging on our bed dreaming of something I can’t fathom. All I know is that someone cut out hundreds of yellow, green, and pink diamonds, then painstakingly sewed them together to make this star within a star, which is also her story within my story. I’m sleeping under the layers of someone else’s toil, troubles, hopes, and harvests. I can only wish that all who sewed these forgotten quilts are resting in peace, and that the quilts they left behind know they’re found, loved, and giving people like me warmth, delight, and cover.
In this modern day retelling of the Exodus, 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 and Moses. Beginning in the middle of the 1965 New York City blackout, when stuck in the pitch-black subway somewhere in the East River, Miriam's family encounters a mysterious rabbi, who persuades the family to go to Israel where the family is caught in the 6-Day War. The losses from the war break apart the family, scattering Moses to western Kansas to live with evangelical Christians, Aaron to New York City to practice corporate law, and Miriam all over America. 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 miracles.
The novel also includes over 35 pages of real recipes from the fictional cooking and baking Miriam does throughout the book, including delicious dishes from Nancy O'Connor's The Rolling Prairie Cookbook, Jayni and Frank Carey's The New Kansas Cookbook, Janet Majure's Recipes Worth Sharing, and Meg Heriford of the Ladybird Cafe.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg's retelling of Exodus is a sprawling tapestry, woven of all the threads of a modern-day Miriam's ancestors, and her own present and future. From the Badagry Point of No Return and a sukkah in the Sinai Desert to a series of camps, communes, and cafes all across America, Miriam's Well delves into the mystery of how we find our place in the world, within our families, even within ourselves. ~ Bryn Greenwood, New York Times bestselling author of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
I fell in love with Miriam’s wisdom and her sweet engagements with the people she meets along her lush and vibrant travels. I was plunged to the depths of her nightmares, soared with her song, and emerged blessed to have made the journey with her. Miriam’s Well is the latest terrific book by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. ~ Jocelyn Cullity, author of Amah & the Silk-Winged Pigeons
Miriam’s Well is truly a hearty feast, and a song of life’s bounty, of its “fragile miracle,” of its sorrows and its cycling, its joy, its mystery, its sorrows, its journeying. The vibrantly moving and compelling storytelling is immediate, intimate, and resounding; bringing us into a complex weaving of tales, told and untold, from the Biblical epic to the painful legacy of United States, which frame the story of one brave woman with an inexhaustible well of caring. Daughter, sister, lover, neighbor, friend, mother, Miriam is one extraordinary ordinary woman whose life is emblematic of our absolutely interdependent web of relationships, physical and metaphysical, over the seasons of a lifetime and the histories of our own time. In Mirriam-Goldberg’s rendering of the web of story that is Miriam’s, Aaron’s, Joseph’s, Moses’, and our own, we are brought into the gift of tenderness and compassion in heartening human response to our historical conundrums. The work is big hearted, embracing, and wonderfully embodies love’s plenty and the power and the beauty of the story, the song, the telling, to remember and transform us. ~ Gale Jackson, author of Put Your Hands on Your Hips and Act Like a Woman: Song, Dance, Black History and Poetics in Performance
Miriam’s Well is a page-turner that gently pulls the reader into the heroine’s quest while also chronicling the country’s cultural revolutions, gastronomic recipes, political causes, women’s communes, spirituality, the AIDS crisis, Oklahoma and Twin Tower terrorist attacks. A compelling writer, Mirriam-Goldberg’s Miriam’s Well captures a quintessential American story, its multitude of nations, of immigrants and indigenes, in the quest towards a meaningful national identity. ~ Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, Professor of Theatre, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, University of Kansas
This startlingly insightful and quietly confrontational novel by poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg courageously inserts the biblical prophet Miriam into many of the most daunting and provocative ethical conflicts since the early 60's civil rights revolution, as though we are Israel after the Exodus from slavery and before the Promised Land. Mirriam-Goldberg’s story calls on readers to consider "Have I done enough?" and "What is it that the Lord requires of you?" A surprising page turner featuring multiple plot twists and turns, the moral challenges and clarity deserve more than attention, they demand debate. Do yourself a favor and share it with friends. ~ Rabbi Mark H. Levin, author of Praying the Bible
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg brings back the charged days of the 1970's revolutions and their aftermath in the decades to come in her novel Miriam's Well. For those of us who lived through those times, the book is a reminder of their importance.” ~ Thomas Pecore Weso, author of Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir.
With this novel, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg has extended her considerable poetic talents to the narrative form, giving us sustenance for the body (her character's recipes) as well as inspiration for the spirit and the mind. A masterful adaptation of Biblical wisdom to the challenges of the modern age, entertaining while informing all along the way. And the storyline provides a marvelous overview of the cultural inflection points in 20th century American history along with an unforgettable character experiencing them. This is one not to be missed! ~ Mark Scheel, author of A Backward View: Stories and Poems
Here's the list in progress of upcoming events that will take place over the 18 months of the book tour. Please visit my events page for details. All events are open to the public. Want me to come to your community?Please contact me here.
March 14: Hutchinson, KS - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Hutchinson Community College: details tba.
March 21: Emporia, KS - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Emporia State University: details tba.
March 29: Springfield, N.J. - Reading at Sha'arey Shalom: evening., 78 S. Springfield Ave., Springfield, NJ. Facebook here
April 28: Lawrence, Kansas -- Book Launch sponsored by the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, Lawrence Public Library, The Merc, and the Raven Bookstore.
July 8: Prairie Village, Kansas - Miriam's Well Reading & Brunch: Cafe Ohev at Temple Ohev Shalom, 5711 W. 75th St., Prairie Village, KS 66208. Brunch and a reading. More here.
July 13: Minneapolis, Minnesota - Miriam's Well Reading and Party: 7 p.m., Mojo Coffee Gallery -2205 California St., Minneapolis, MN 5541. Reading with delectable treats made from the novel.
Aug. 3: Lincoln, Nebraska - Miriam's Well Reading and Reception: 5:30 p.m. at the Burkholder Project, 719 P Street
Haymarket District, Lincoln -- part of First Fridays.
Aug. 4: Lincoln, Nebraska - Miriam's Well Reading & Reception: 4:30 p.m., Francie & Finch Bookstore, 130 S. 13th Street, Lincoln -- featuring q & a, and a reception with recipes from the novel to try out.
Aug. 26: Overland Park, Kansas - Writing the Tree of Life workshop 11 a.m. - 12:15 p.m. Jewish Community Center's Day of Discovery.
Sept. 6: Pittsburg, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Pittsburg State University, 8 p.m., Governor’s Rm of Overman Student Center, Pittsburg State University, Pittsburg, KS.
Sept. 13: Topeka, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Washburn University. 4 p.m., Carole Chapel, 1840 SW College Blvd., Topeka.
Oct. 3: Kansas City - Miriam's Well KC Launch at Function Junction: 5-8 p.m. featuring short readings from the novel at 5:30, 6:30, and 7:30. The event features Susan Hancock singing some of the songs Miriam sings and friends of Function Junction baking and cookies some of the recipes from the novel, plus there'll be wine and a 10% discount on Function Junction goods and Caryn's books.
Oct. 11: Montpelier, Vermont - Miriam's Well Reading: 7 p.m., Kellogg Hubbard Library, 135 Main St., Montpelier, VT. Sponsored by the library, Temple Beth Jacob, and Bear Pond Books.
Oct. 21: Lawrence, Kansas - Writing Jewish Symposium: Sponsored by Jewish Studies at the University of Kansas, Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, 917 Highland, Lawrence, KS. part of a day-long symposium featuring Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Renee Perelmutter, and Rena Rossner, and recipes from Miriam's Well.More here.
Oct. 23: Atchison, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Benedictine College. 4 p.m., Gangel Seminar Room in Ferrell Learning Center, Benedictine College.
Would your book club like to read Miriam's Well? If so, just have your club buy six or more books (free shipping!), and Caryn will visit your club via video or phone conferencing or, if you're near where she is, in person. contact Caryn here.
At breakfast at the Swedish Country Inn in Lindsborg, Kansas, someone said she liked my tiny gold Dala horse necklace. It took me a moment to realize that the C’hai — the Jewish symbol for life, luck, the auspicious number 18, and also the Hebrew letter C’hai — looks just a little like the Swedish Dala horse, a symbol of Swedish hospitality. I explained the C’hai to her, then dug into some Swedish meatballs, pickled herring, and rye bread.
Ken and I having decided to spend some time in this charming town after a gig in equally lovely Glasco, Kansas, where I got to see one of my favorite Dala horses in Lindsborg. Every few feet there seems to be another Dala horse painted in wild and artsy ways instead of in traditional red. As someone who loves language, even punctuation, talking on the phone, and the Dalai Lama, my Dala of choice is the Dala-Lama-Tele-Comma. I rode the mighty steed nowhere before we went for dinner.
A day later, back in Lawrence, I was taking off a scarf while driving and accidentally snapped my C’hai off its chain. I caught the C’hai, then had to decide where to put it until I got it home and could put it back on my necklace. I considered my pocket, but decided against it. Small objects that go there often end up in the laundry where they travel to a place beyond human contact, the island of self-liberated socks. So instead I put the C’hai in a plastic bottle cap on a flat surface in the car and drove on.
Once home, wouldn’t you know it? The C’hai (and bottle cap) were gone. I took apart the car, pulling out rugs, removing a great many cough drop wrappers and pencils from under seats, and searching in every nook and cranny I could find on the car floor, alternating which door I opened to see how far the C’hai had flown. With a video meeting for work looming, I eventually had to stop and go inside for an hour, but as soon as I was done, I went back to the car.
I was worried more than about losing the jewelry. My mom had given me this C’hai when I was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, and I’ve worn it almost all the time since then, a talisman remembering me to life in my mind. What would losing it mean? I told myself it was silly to think a vanished C’hai meant cancer would return, and perhaps I had arrived at the time when I no longer needed to wear the C’hai, but I also know my rationalization was as shaky as my magical thinking.
When I opened the passenger door, there, right on the floor and in plain sight, was the C’hai, having dropped out from a floor carpet I had shaken. A C’hai may not be a Dala horse, but it turns out to have its own legs.
You can drive a long way in Kansas and never leave the state, like 340 miles west from my home to western Kansas, and still be a ways from a state border. That’s just what I did to give a Kansas Humanities Council talk on wild weather in poetry, photography and our lives at one of the great community jewels-of-a-library, Pioneer Memorial Library (astonishing array of programs for all ages, and even a coloring night!)
The trip was fueled by coffee, of course, plus, because I’m trying to give up my M&Ma-and-Cheetos road trip habits, an entire box of Nut Thins (don’t judge me), hummus, a perfect Pink Lady apple, and an over-ripe banana. Getting over a cold necessitated a lot of over-the-counter meds and turmeric interspersed with those great Ricola cough drops. Between miles 107 and 200, I believe pretzels were involved while blasting podcasts of “This American Life” or singing loudly to “Now I Have Everything” from Fiddler on the Roof.
I love the open road, and there’s few better ways to experience it than to drive to western Kansas where the locals consider it a little jaunt to go 50 miles, and where the sky widens and deepens all directions. The traffic is often non-existent, and it’s easy to get lost in all that open space, speed, and splendor of sky. I also love western Kansas where my mind relaxes, and the air is brighter, cooler, and often clearer.
The downside of losing track of things is that, instead of remembering to fill my tank in Hays, I got too caught up a podcast about a prison nurse falling in love with an inmate. Just as my caffeine- and cold-medicine-induced panic was about to rise, I saw an exit leading to a clearly abandoned gas station. The sign had been hollowed out from years of wind, and the building’s windows were whitened from the inside to block out viewing. But something cialis no prescription next day told me to take the exit, where I found a red sign that said “Credit Card Pumps.” I pulled out my credit card, and took my chances. When the gas started flowing, I lifted my arms to thank the god of abandoned gas stations.
But then, when a person is lucky, that’s what expansive travel can be. “Ask and it shall be given” came true for me throughout this little jaunt, such as when I realized I desperately needed a bathroom, and lo and behold, a rest stop appeared, which I had never noticed in the 213 times over 30+ years I’ve done this drive before. Or dinner, which can be dicey in rural communities on occasion when the only restaurant open is a gas station that sells stale pizza. I lucked out with one of the best Midwestern official fried chicken dinner (which always includes mashed potatoes, corn, and a roll) at the Welcome Home cafe (dinner also included a superb salad and fruit bar).
Wanting to stretch my legs after filling my belly, I wandered near the restaurant, which was in a kind of antique-mall-meets-strip-mall-meets-car-dealership, and I came up to what we know in Kansas as Wheatus Jesus, the haunting billboard I’ve seen from 75 mph for years but never stood beside. It’s very impressive, and so is the big field nearby at sunset. Right there, for a reason I couldn’t fathom, there was platform overlooking the field, but the steps to it were blocked by big pots of cherry tomatoes in the middle of a sunflower forest. I was going to climb the stairs to the forbidden platform, but my first step in set off some growling creature, so I jumped back just in time to remove a bunch of sticktites.
Now I’m home, the miles behind me, and the quiet of home all around me. Once again I’m glad to be home, but I’m also glad to have gone.