The Secret Lives of Old Quilt Tops: Everyday Magic, Day 927

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.

Eclipse in Our Midst: Everyday Magic, Day 909

A few days past the Great American Eclipse, I’m feeling my way through the sheer joy, possible meanings, and wild vitality of this experience. An eclipse holds and moves through many metaphors as the moon moseys toward, on top of, and past the sun, showing us new angles of light, and re-making the sun into a crescent-moon-shaped force. Day turns to night in a flash, shushing the birds and revving up the crickets. Shadows play out in unusual ways, framing light in winks, slivers, and crescents. The human world, at least many of us whether near totality or not, stops the ramble of everyday life to look up at the sky instead, flimsy eclipse glasses and cereal boxes in hand.

Didn’t have enough eclipse glasses, so we split these

This eclipse, the first one in 99 years crossing the whole country, soared its moon shadow at speeds from 2,410 mph in Oregon, to 1,502 mph in South Carolina, translating into a minute or two or three of darkness, depending on where you were. Heavily anticipated in these parts due to our proximity to 100% totality, and weather-layered with herds of rambling storms, the eclipse, like most things in life, was not what we all expected. Some locals found the overcast skies completely dissolved the value of witnessing midnight at 1:06 p.m. Others, like my son Daniel, witnessed new glimpses of glory, as he wrote the other day on Facebook. His words capture all I experienced too, as stood with friendly strangers atop picnic tables near historic buildings and a long row of antique windmills in Hiawatha, Kansas. Here’s Daniel’s word:

The sky became darker and darker gradually, just like the 2 partial eclipses I’d seen that passed through KS over the last few years. The sun was maybe 80-90% obscured before clouds from a developing storm covered it. It became a grey gloom, lit by the brighter clouds near the Western horizon. Then totality happened, without warning.

It was a quick, smooth 3-4 seconds where it went from dusk to almost complete blackness. Looking toward the Southeast (a gorgeous vista of soybeans and glaciated hills), I saw utter blackness, lit feebly by a couple farm lights that popped on. But it was our horizons that were jaw-dropping.

To the west, the only truly open patch of sky exploded into a vivid constellation of colors, with a clarity I only see in the clearest sunsets. This sunset/sunrise though was pure orange, with amber pink rising above it, before shifting to deep blue, then black. In other spots of the horizon, more light was able to shine through. Due south, the developing storm that obscured our totality took on a rich, wet golden orange – The clouds hazy with light. Rain and verga from other storms was lit up from behind, producing a sharp but gentle gradient of color. The north was also lit up, where a line of violet/orange ran up the sides of young thunderheads, before sharply halting at the edge of the black above our heads. We jumped on the picnic tables around us and shouted at the sky, I couldn’t keep my eyes from the Western sunset/sunrise.

As totality ended, it was another 3-4 seconds of rising light – like a blanket being pulled out from me while trying to sleep. The southwest (where the eclipse was traveling towards) became blue-grey, the speeding, enveloping darkness making the small storm there look like a flood-wrecking monster. The sun then peaked out, and for just a second I swear I saw lumps of light instead of a pure crescent – the quick pulse of Bailey’s beads and diamond ring effect before the jagged line asserted itself and returned the elegant crescent of fire.

I can’t truly describe how quick the transition from light to dark and back was. With no distracting countdowns, eclipse apps, or selfies, these moments were short in their immediacy and long in ecstasy. Hell, even the sun was removed as a distraction. With the sun wrapped in clouds, there was no way I could time when it became completely covered. This gave our moment of totality a visceral shock of electric surprise and wonder. I will never forget this.

Like Daniel, I agree that “even the sun was removed as a distraction,” and instead, we experienced the fullness of the moment without the climax of a corona (although that’s obviously a stunning experience in its own right). Standing in the bowl of the sky, we were part of the vanishing and returning day as well as the wild lines, curves, and downpours of storms that, in the hours after, had their own kind of eclipse with thunder so loud and long that we were jumped out of our sleep and beds to take notice.

A few days later, the rain gauge still tells of the almost 5″ that fell, the hummingbird levitating toward the feeder seemingly takes no notice, the cicadas go on, and I’m back in the hideous (but comfortable) chartreuse chair on the porch. But the eclipse is still very much in my mind and on my heart as I feel its meanings and possibilities unfold over time, even since time paused for two minutes and 37 seconds in the middle of Monday to show us something beyond.

"What It Takes": 63rd Anniversary of Brown Vs. Board of Education: Everyday Magic, Day 899

This weekend, I had the honor of being part of the Voices of Freedom Festival, celebrating the Brown vs. Board of Education supreme court decision that ended “separate but equal” policies in public schools and beyond. It was a joy to hear the music of Kelley Hunt, Isaac Cates and the Ordained, Maria the Mexican, and Injunuity, and to read with fellow poets David Baumgardner, Tava Miller, and Ashanti Spears. Here’s the poem I wrote for the occasion, held in downtown Topeka, Kansas.

What It Takes

It takes years of waiting on polished wooden benches

outside trembling courtrooms. Thousands of meetings

in church basements or someone’s living room,

sipping lukewarm coffee on folding chairs.

Centuries of nights up late worrying, or puzzling out

how to change what’s unjust and breaking us all,

then early mornings to make the oatmeal, pour the

orange juice, and remind the children to take their homework.

It takes 16 blocks to get to the black school instead of

the white one on the corner, and hundreds of new signs

for another march, hours on the phone, and dressing up

to meet with the senator who sends his aide instead

and says, don’t push, change takes time

as if that’s not obvious as daylight after decades

of waiting in chains, standing in the back of the bus

and swimming in the smaller mildewed pool

surrounded by weeds and broken beer bottles.

It takes gumption and guts, grief churned into anger

that makes a tired man head to the newspaper office

to tell a reporter, it’s past time for justice, and just in time

to turn supposed equality into walkaday freedom.

It takes all those lawsuits before judges blinded by habit

and their own inadequate stories, and all those potlucks

to break bread with people who don’t look like you,

and tell them what it’s like for mothers to count the minutes

between the school bell and the front door,

and fathers whose hearts fall when hear

their beautiful daughters say, it’s nothing, I’m okay,

when she’s not okay. It takes piles of briefs that sway

the sidewalk leading up to the school where

a little girl walks, hand in hand in a federal agent,

ready to cross the threshold into the world we should have

inhabited all along, each step a way to sing, “Stand Up.”

Even then, it’s not over, and it’ll take all this and more

to make it safe to drive, or cross the street, or ask

for help without the risk of seeing eye bullets and

all the secret lashes that separate us into a lesser people.

It takes the patience of water to turn mountains into rivers,

then find the courage to sing while the healing waters flow.

The Light, the Dark, and a Road Trip to Western Kansas: Everyday Magic, Day 890

IMG_1217This week, we drove 350 miles west one day, 350 miles east the next, with a lot of darkness and light in between. Ken and I went to Colby, Kansas so I could talk about Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, the book I wrote about the lives of Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz.

I first presented the book to the marvelous Pioneer Memorial Library, which brought together close to 80 people in the basement for lunch and a journey into the darkness of the Holocaust and WWII, especially how both Jarek and Lou survived by their wits, unusual luck and grace, and went on to make lives of meaning in the U.S. Then it was off to the local high school, where I got to talk to 90 16- and 17-year-olds about it all again, this time focusing more on what it means to survive, the dangers of Holocaust denial, and the power of resilience.

After both talks, people came up afterwards to ask if it was painful for me to talk about this topic, which made me wonder why it isn’t. Maybe it’s because I’ve given so many talks and classes on the book since it came out three years ago, or that I’ve just numbed myself to the killing and torturing that I’m showing images of and reading excerpts about (although I tend to avoid the more horrifying details in one-time public presentations). What happened — how Lou’s father was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Jarek’s mother was shot during the Warsaw Uprising a year later — is still and will be horrendous, along with so many stories of lives cut short in brutal ways put into motion by the worst parts of humans.

Yet there is something else that I experience each time I talk about the books and the guys’ lives: that sense of blessing they gave me by entrusting me with their stories, by encouraging me to write this book and share it widely. I feel like I get to carry and display a beautiful artwork, a mosaic of broken glass threaded with deep blue, flashes of red, gold and green, altogether not quite a vase or bowl, but open to hold the remnants of lives well-lived. These remnants include Lou’s laughter as he told me about how he knew his school was taken over by Nazis because of the giant swastika flag, or Maura (Jarek’s wife) putting her arms around Lou and Jarek at our Hanukkah party years ago, saying it was good to have the lads together. There’s Jarek putting on his British corps uniform to show me it still fit, and Jane (Lou’s wife) telling her story of threading through Nazi Germany, thanks to the wits of her mother, to get from Budapest to America. I get to shepherd these stories and many more to people, some of whom have never met a Jew before, and all of whom are amazingly interested in IMG_1253what Lou, Jarek and others surviving the Holocaust and the Polish Resistance movement made of their lives. “Like a needle in the bone,” one of the high school students said when when we were talking about what most survivors of genocides carry with them. The students among him nodded in understanding, all of them attuned to how Lou and Jarek were teenagers like them during the war, and look at what these men were able to do.

On the way home, after downing some enchiladas while Ken drove, we hit the Smoky Hills at the same time sunset did, everything golden and lit from far-off light. We have hours more to drive, but I couldn’t stop taking pictures out the windows of everything illuminated, the contrast between light and dark so vivid.

Darling, Sweetheart & Baby in Pittsburg, Kansas: Everyday Magic, Day 648

Is it a Pittsburg, KS thing or just an tender roll of the dice kind of thing? I don’t know, but I liked it. Everywhere I went in Pittsburg, people called me darling, sweetheart, hon, and especially, baby. Paying for some clothes at the thrift shop, the woman said, “Thanks so much for coming in, Sweetheart.” Stopping in a shop to look at antiques, a woman called me darling four times in one sentence. Even as I paid for a delicious lunch at Harry’s cafe, the waitress said, “How did you like you meal, Baby? We’re so glad you came, Baby. You sure you don’t want pie, Baby?” and “Please come back, Baby.”

The endearments didn’t just happen in locally-owned shops either. The receptionist at the Holiday Inn Express when I checked in called me darling, and the one who checked me out the next day called me sweetheart. The pharmacist at Walgreens thought my real name was sweetheart too.

I’ve traveled Kansas up one road and down again, zigzagged across lanky two-lane highways and booked it down I-70 for hundreds of miles on a regular basis. But no place I landed ever embraced me with so many sweet names so often. Maybe it’s just an exceptionally friendly place, maybe I looked like I needed to be called Baby, or maybe it’s just the tilting and surprising ways of the universe on a particular day in a certain Southeast Kansas town. In any case, I’m going back any chance I get.