It’s Time for a Few Small Repairs: Everyday Magic, Day 1015

As the black-eyed susans and sunflowers eking out their blossoms in the dry heat of summer’s end, I’ve been singing the line, “It’s time for a few small repairs,” from Shawn Colvin’s song, “Sunny Came Home” to myself a lot lately. Fifteen months after the tiny potent disk of radiation visited my right eye for five days, I’m in the middle of a lot of post-cancer clean-up, none of which is overwhelming in its parts, but all of which it’s best not to think of all together.

More precisely, I have cataract and scar-tissue-removal surgery coming up on the 16th, and before and after that, I’m seeing a lot of my dentist because, do you know that radiation and other effects of cancer can cause many cavities? I didn’t know this, but I sure do now that I have 20 cavities, a likely root canal or two, and some cap replacement in my future. But here’s the deal: it’s not so much of a deal, not if I make it into one.

This is a moment when all those years of therapy have paid off better than I imagined because I learned that so much of what we whip up to be crazy, overwhelming, and painful isn’t necessarily so (I also have a therapist who calls me on any sentence I begin with “What if…?”). I think the last year especially testified in the voice of millions to us about how little we know of what will happen.

If I were a runner, I might use the analogy of breaking down the repairs into the legs of a marathon, but I’m a writer, so here goes: If I look at the next few months as a short-term writing project, I’m fine. That’s because I’ve learned over the years that it’s always best not to think of the whole book or essay at once, but each line or passage at a time.

Each little repair is a few pages I’m drafting over a few hours. Yup, there are some difficult paragraphs, like the pointed ones involving needles, and there’s also some when-will-this-end stretches of writing ahead as we drill down, sentence by sentence. Mostly though I just have to sit still while drugs are pumped into me (the surgery) or hold my mouth open while watching penguins slapping their feet down to the tune of “Stayin’ Alive” (my dentist thankfully plays old rock songs to nature films). At the end, there’s trimming and polishing, then I’m out of the door, maybe a little tired, but mostly a lot grateful that I got this part of the book drafted.

The thing about a few small repairs is that they’re do-able an in the known category of life as opposed to so much else in the world. I can do my part, but I can’t fix the pandemics of the virus, our country’s and world’s racism, or our planet’s climate change. I can’t control the many people wandering through grocery stores without masks on despite the rules to wear one, or — and why is this always older white guys? — the people defiantly wearing their masks pulled down below their noses. I can’t heal my friends who are suffering through life-changing diagnoses or, months after having the coronavirus, wondering if their lungs will recover their full capacity.

But I can sit relatively still with my mouth or eye open, breathe in and then out slowly for a count of four or more, and thank my lucky stars that I’m not in pain and I’m blessed beyond blessed with community, family, friends, and a wonderful home. Mostly, I can rejoice that I’m still here, and just in time to look at all this late-summer flowers, all being their own kind of small repairs to this world.

A Year From Now: Everyday Magic, Day 1014

A year ago, driving a mountain cabin to Denver to see old friends, we had no idea. It just seemed that life would go on like this with annual vacations 500 or more miles from home, easy forays into restaurants, and being able to enthusiastically hug pals. Yet there’s something heartening in realizing how much can also change for the better in a year, so here’s what I woke up imagining for a year from now.

In August, 2021, it’ll still be hot in northeast Kansas, and I’ll be sitting exactly where I am now: on the porch with the ceiling fan above and the floor fan beside me. When I head into town, I won’t bother to make sure there’s a mask in my purse because, by the dog days of summer ’21, there will be an effective and safe vaccine widely disseminated. I’ll head to the city pool to cool off, and this time, it will be full of water and people (it’s empty of both now). Heading back home, I’ll stop at the Merc, our food co-op, to pick up some sweet corn to grill along with the zucchini and potatoes we just harvested from the garden.

I’ll listen to NPR telling of how President Biden has now, seven months into his term, completely reversing all the previous occupant’s executive orders that diminish and threaten the environment, immigrants, healthcare, small businesses, and so much more. Vice President Kamala Harris will be giving a news conference on how the United States, now firmly back in the Paris Agreement on climate change, is making big headway on the economy through the growing renewables industry. Some familiar voices from the campaign trail of 2020 will pepper the news, including cabinet members Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker or secretary of state Susan Rice, and progressive conscience of the party Bernie Sanders. I’ll delight in the relief I feel when it comes to evolving policy and resources for education, healthcare, police reform, commerce, and so many other aspects of American life. I might even send a note to our new senator Barbara Bollier to thank her for supporting Biden’s initiative to start Medicare for people at age 60.

Back in my kitchen, I’ll marinate vegetables just like I do now as I feel a greater lightness (or perhaps it’s just because I’ll be better rested from not waking at 2 a.m. to worry about things like the post office). While Ken is heating up the grill, some good friends will show up for the first time since B. P. (Before Pandemic) for dinner, bringing some homemade bread with them. I’ll hug them long and tight, all of us laughing in joyful relief. We’ll soon head to our table on the back deck to watch the expanding thunderhead to the southwest. Just before dessert, maybe a peach pie I make with local peaches, the rain will start, and we’ll rush inside, clutching glasses and balancing plates.

Later, just as the sun reaches the horizon, we’ll head out again to find a double rainbow to the east. We’ll stand in the sun shower laughing and pointing to the sky, joking with each other that, sure, the world is still a mess in a million swirling ways, but look at all that happened, that could happen, in a year.

Hours later, I’ll step out on the deck in my nightgown, the soft wind and loud katydids doing their thing, look out at our farm, spread my arms, and say, thank you, thank you, thank you.

Writing With Wildlife: Everyday Magic, Day 1013

“Hello, are you writing about me?”

I just returned from writing poetry on the porch at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow to write poetry on the porch of our place. Being outside continually jolts me out of my inside-mind with its cast of thousands to make space for other beings who, if we just pay even a small smidgen of attention, will mosey on, fly, charge, or buzz through.

At Dairy Hollow, the most dramatic of these guests — although actually I was the guest in their home — was a young buck, racing about four feet from me on the other side of the porch railing. He was young, strong, handsome, crazy-fast, and once he got past the house, curious. But then I find a lot of the deer and other critters in Eureka Springs all-too-acclimated to humans, pausing easily in their grazing or romping to take us in, shrug their shoulders, and return to the grass or the path. The buck also seemed quite content to engage in a long photo shoot with me and my phone, posing with his perfected aloof-but-handsome gaze.

The next night, a slim fox stopped in her tracks just across the street. “Hello,” I said quietly. She seemed skeptical and slowly merged into the trees nearby. Dozens of brown morpho butterflies — often tinged in their middle with turquoise melting to brown — titled their dark wings on one diagonal or another into the low and high flowers to drink their lunch. There was also a bird I couldn’t see and had never heard before scream-chirping at me at regular intervals, so insistent and so loud that I would leap out of my chair to scan tree tops trying to see where this alarm was coming from. By the time I left Arkansas, much of this menagerie had made its way into the poems I was writing or revising.

Back home, it’s hummingbirds, monarchs, and at night, barred and great horned owls. At dusk, the changing of the guard from cicadas to katydids. Of course, there’s a lot of other wildlife here I try to avoid, namely Mr. Chigger, Ms. Tick and Overlord Timber Rattler. There’s also the somewhat domesticated wildlife — two sofa-like dogs who spread themselves out on the porch while I work, and a small pouncing kitty. At times, it’s a precarious balance; just last month, we lost our beloved big cat Sidney Iowa to what we suspect was an itinerant cougar. The packrats have discovered that their favorite food is it the innards of Ken’s Honda Fit although they also enjoy chewing apart every rat trap he sets for them. So we have to be watchful as well as budget a lot for automotive electric repairs.

In the balance, I know how lucky I am to draft, sketch, compose, revise, re-compose and otherwise inhabit poetry while co-habitating with the critters who live here. They continually nudge me out of my human-centric view of the world and show me the real ground, teaming with all manner of the wild we can’t even see most of the time. Here, even and especially as so many species are going extinct, is where we truly live.

On the First Night of August: Everyday Magic, Day 1012

Sometime in my early teens, I discovered Carole King’s Rhymes and Reasons, and like I had done with Joni Mitchell’s Blue (was there ever a more perfect album?”), I listened to it over and over, embedding every nuance of note and syllable in my psyche, especially replaying the lyrical and gorgeously orchestrated “On the First Day of August.”

That song grabbed me from the core of my yearnings and dreams because, more than anything, I wanted someone to love me. To be honest, that was probably my biggest dream of all, even more than holding my first book of poetry in my hands or strolling up to the glittering stage to collect my Oscar (although I had my speech well-rehearsed).

I was a late bloomer when it came to the boyfriend game. While I didn’t realize it at the time, my inability to act like I didn’t care and my propensity to put myself out there like a labrador retriever puppy wiggling on his back didn’t win me dates except for mismatched matchmaking forays with boys so geeky they ignored me to read Dune. My step-sister devoted herself to finding me a date for the senior prom, which turned out to be a disaster, but I appreciate her persistence in asking so many guys. College, on the other hand, was better, but also worse because while everyone seemed up (more or less) for sex, few wanted anything beyond that (which brings to mind another Carole King song, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”).

I accumulated little badges of heartbreak like an Eagle Scout, and by the time I was 23, I felt too old for love. Then I hit the jackpot: meeting, getting involved with, marrying, having kiddos with, and now about 38 years since we were introduced, growing old with Ken. Which brings me back to “The First Night of August.”

In some of Ken and my early camping trips, often illegally setting up a tent in some hidden Kansas field or Colorado forest, it seemed we were always sleeping under the stars — aka in sudden storms that soaked us and almost blew away our tents or in the midst of a million mosquitoes with a mission — on the first night of August. Sometimes I would sing this song to him or at least hum it repeatedly in my head. As our camping trips expanded to fly-ridden yurts with three children who were fighting with each other over who wanted most to go home (although they say now they *ahem* loved those trips) or throwing up on each other from altitude sickness), I would still sing that song each August 1st, usually while walking to the car to get more blankets or see if I could find someone’s glasses.

Now — so far away from the days of taking a big vacation without fear and precision-planning, and so long after those toddlers and babies we camped with raced through campgrounds in their underwear — the song returns to me along with August 1st. The piano opening — each note ringing through my upstairs bedroom facing the backyard in Manalapan, New Jersey when I was 14 years gold and crazy-lonely — also rings through this surprisingly refreshing breeze on the porch as I watch the swaying hosta blossoms, the sleeping old dog, and Ken’s car, surely still under attack by packrats (another story). I sing along with King, all these years held in this song holding me:

“On the first day in August/I want to wake up by your side/After sleeping with you on the last night in July/In the morning/We’ll catch the sun rising/And we’ll chase it from the mountains to the bottom of the sea.” Listen to it yourself right here.

Whoever you are, I hope that something — if not someone — holds you in your dreams this first night of August.

We’re Just Passing Through the Fire Swamp: Everyday Magic, Day 1011

The fire swamp in The Princess Bride has at least three known dangers, but at first Westley (played by Carey Elwes) mistakenly believes there are only two: the flame spurts and lightning sand, which can both be spotted ahead of time and avoided. “When Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) asks about the ROUs, Westley tells he doesn’t believe they exist. Cue Rodents of Unusual Size, rats the size of footballplayers, to attack.

It’s kind of like that for us now. First, there’s the coronavirus, but we’re learning more each day about the signs (fever, cough, difficulty breathing, loss of smell or taste, etc.). Then there’s the lightning sand — the places that will swallow you up fast and deep, so it’s best to avoid them — which I interpret as any indoor gathering with a lot of people, especially if they’re packed close and, unlike some of the characters in The Princess Bride, maskless. Now it seems the ROUs are out in force with the pandemic aggressively pinning down whole communities and swatches of this country and many others.

Add to that the heat and humidity, the spectrum of fear (from mild worry to abject terror) about schools and universities opening back up a little or a lot, the lack of any vaccine or super effective cure available to all, and I wonder how many more terrors there are in the fire swamp. Yet wonderng doesn’t give me a leg up on preparation so I go back to looking at where I am, as Westley did when he said he wouldn’t want to build a summer house in the fire swamp, but is habitable and even has its charms.

On what I count as Day 128 of the pandemic, we still have no idea how we’ll get to the other side. I can’t yet imagine eating indoors in a restaurant, having friends over for a potluck, or casually going on a long road trip, stopping whenever we need food, gas, or sleep. But here in the fire swamp, there’s some lovely moments amid the certain dangers we need to avoid, most of all, by staying put.

Right now, it’s in the 90s with humidity that feels like 200%, but with the ceiling fan, floor fan, and big sweeps of wind, I can sit on my porch and be okay. Like many of us, I’m more attuned to the phoebe’s chirps, the hummingbird’s buzz, the barred owls “who-cooks-for-you” call, and many manner of cicadas and katydids. I’ve had more frequent and in-depth conversations with friends — by phone, Zoom or Facetime — than at just about any other point in my life, all of us sharing the matching pieces of this puzzle time. And certain things seem to be more possible (such as really grappling with systematic racism, and on a more individual level, what our life’s work is).

I think about the most tender times in my life, usually involving hospitals or deathbeds when our hearts are blown open by finally seeing our vulnerability and mortality. These are the times some of the least expressive among us might easily repeat “I love you” late into the night. The moments we show up for each other are so often when one or more of us in the fire swamp of uncertainty, fear, dread, and sadness.

While I don’t know when and how we’ll get out, I trust we won’t follow the plot of The Princess Bride (which involves torture and almost death before coming back to life and triumph), but instead find our own plot twists to greater safety, freedom, and love. Meanwhile, we need to remember, that while it might feel like we live here forver, we’re just passing through the fire swamp.