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“Three Walking Songs for the Night”: Everyday Magic, Day 1056

Going from winter (otherwise known as much of April) to summer (disguised as May this year) has plummeted many of us in Kansas into the high humidity of late summer, chiggers and thunderstorms and all. While determined to work outside on this porch as much as I can — ceiling and floor fans swirling and iced water flowing — I’m hot, sweaty, shaky, and a little stunned. It feels like those breezy spring days full of blossoms galore and chilled good sleeping weather have been climate-napped away. But then we live in and do well to acknowledge the extremes wrought by life and global warming.

No season leaves us without gifts, however, and lately, the mid-90’s day temperatures dissolve into those luscious summer nights that I also live for. Walking on deck or down the gravel drive each night (lesson learned from this weekend: don’t walk in the grass without protection because the ticks and chiggers are fierce), I’m reminded of how much I love strolling through summer nights. Like most things in language, a poem shows that better than I could explain, so I dug out a small set of poems I wrote some years ago over the course of many summer nights. This poem (along with many others) appears in my book, How Time Moves: New & Selected Poems.

Three Walking Songs for the Night

1.

I walk across a field. No more destination,

journey through or over water.

No more dreams of arriving.

I’m here, overlooking a small slope

that leads nowhere. Leaves drop out

of the wet branches. The field eats them.

A fox. Then the sky turns itself

like a clever hand this way and that,

blocking or letting through the moon.

Sometimes rain falls. No matter.

The animals come anyway.

When it clears, I lie on the fallen grass,

look at the brave sky,

and tell myself, “shut up and trust that.”

2.

When I wake in the dark, I will go to the forest

with no flashlight, and walk slowly, afraid,

letting my feet make out where next to step,

waiting for what’s hidden to let me into its hiding.

No longer dreaming of his hands cupping my head

tenderly, I will just walk in, feeling only

where to land, the noise of the running world no longer running,

the tree frogs cupping their motor song over

the motor song of the cicadas, the brush of branch

on branch, the owls a broken harmonic.

Oh, dream of being loved so perfectly,

Oh, dream of forgiveness,

Oh, damp moon in a pool of clouds,

wide stillness of nothing that we call sky,

now, please let me be brave enough.

3.

I was afraid most of that year.

No particular reason.

Just the rush of old air through my lungs

as if it had nothing better to do.

I’d wake a lot at night, puppy diving

after the kitten, the baby nightmaring

right into the center of my good dream.

I’d wake for nothing also,

sit up, climb out of bed, walking the house

to prove to myself there was no reason

to be afraid. I mean, look at that moon

carrying itself branch to tree branch.

Look at the indentations the wind makes

of its body in the grass.

See how round the earth is,

remember how many animals sleep

hidden like prayers in the tall grass.

See the open mouth of the sky, the shifting of stars

across the throat of the universe,

this time in its slot actually happening.

Cancer Anniversaries: Everyday Magic, Day 1056

Cancer is often measured in anniversaries and fruit. We survivors often report in with our years out from the cancer after our initial diagnosis, yet in diagnostic land, we speak of tumors as big as grapefruits or plums.

Today is my third anniversary of being diagnosed with eye cancer aka ocular melanoma, which made me wonder how many years I’ve survived breast cancer. Twenty, and I think it’s a good thing to not have remembered my March 22, 2002 anniversary until now.

“Ordinary people stuff — that’s what you want to get to,” Dr. Stein, my breast cancer oncologist, used to tell me when I was in the middle of intensive chemotherapy almost two decades ago. He meant getting awful colds, flat tires, and bad haircuts, the random annoyances of a life not coalesced around cancer. That includes winking at cancer anniversaries on my way to get some groceries or scrub my bathtub.

While it’s a cliche to say anything can happen, it’s also wind-blown and bone-deep true. My first cancer — a common variety that I was prone to get because of family history and genetics — didn’t teach me that as much as the most recent one — a rare cancer that no one seems to know a lot about except that it tends to be aggressive and needs to monitored for years, decades even.

While there are hundreds of varieties of cancers, let alone various stages and nuances, my experiences were a bit of a study in contrast. I was Stage 2a breast cancer, meaning it had slipped the chute of the tumor (less than the size of a pea) for the hinterlands of the lymph nodes. What followed was rollicking but clearly mapped despite the sudden diversions.

The story started with a mammogram, follow-up imaging, and biopsy, then a lumpectomy, which I thought would land me in short-term radiation and a quick recovery. I cried on the phone with Dr. Jew, my breast cancer surgeon, when she told me of the lymph node involvement, but she also assured me, “Now we’re going to pull you up by your bootstraps, and you’ll be fine.” That’s what we all want to hear with cancer: we’ll be fine, okay, still here for the foreseeable future. What followed? Chemo, a BRCA-1 diagnosis (meaning I had an extreme chance of recurrence and ovarian cancer), and a bunch of “omy” ending surgeries: hysterectomy, oophorectomy, double mastectomy. Although I experienced many manner of ailments and some dangers (a lot like crossing the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride), I was fine once on the other side.

Three years ago today I sat in a small, dark examination room with Ken and my soul brother Ravi when an ocular oncologist told me — after an ultrasound of my eyeball and contrast dye scan that involved staring into the fires of Mordor — it was a melanoma, and it was large (thankfully, she didn’t give me a fruit analogy). She had earlier said it was either that or a brain tumor, to which I replied, “Let’s just root for the melanoma then.” The wait between that conversation and the actual diagnosis was one of the hardest hours of my life, my mind drowning in scenarios of not a lot of time left on this planet I love so much.

But this cancer, unlike my first one, was not mappable. My new oncologist as well as my therapist and other wise people told me adamantly not to google “ocular melanoma,” and they were right (something I discovered when I did google it one terrible night). There are something like 27 stages and the mortality rate is high, all of which changes the language of statistics and detailed staging to something more akin to impressionistic art (which is also how my right eye saw and continues to see the world). While I didn’t experience much pain in my breast cancer road trip, this was an odyssey to uncharted territory, plus the eyes are delicate creatures. Two surgeries — one to insert a gold disk with radioactive pellets, and one to remove the disk — were post-anaesthesia excruciating, especially in a migraine-prone woman. Light hurt and it still does on occasion.

Although today is my eye cancer anniversary, I’m not sure what that means because I’m not clear (especially when I look out my legally-blind but seeing-in-its-own-way right eye) on when I’m completely in the clear. That might have something to do with having CT scans or MRIs every season for at least ten years, each one assuring me that there’s no micro-metastases to liver or lungs, and each one another high-five with the universe that I’m okay. But I am okay, years after my ocular oncologist said “I promise you, are you going to be okay.”

What it is an anniversary of is gratitude and love. I’m so grateful for all the people who love me and who I love who were there and still are with me three years later. My friends and family who brought over Ritz crackers and chicken soup, sat ten feet away from me outside during the stretch when I was radioactive and hurting, listened late into the night (especially Ken, who was my real-time, all-the-time greatest supporter), and talked me down from trees of fear. I’m so grateful to be here and so in love with this life, right now full of teenage-sized leaves blowing hard on Cottonwood Mel, bright clouds and contrasting deep blue skies. It all reminds me how good life is, each day an anniversary of getting and being here.

The Quiet In-Betweens: Everyday Magic, Day 1055

Sometimes I feel like I’m at a sudden still point between waves of motion and change. Like right now as I sit in a floral chair in my living room, staring out at the just-cleaned kitchen counter and still-stuff-piled-on kitchen table while the dog sleeps in the corner and the cat sleeps in her clementine orange box. But of course the whole notion of a still point is just a notion. Life is famous for tossing one damn thing after another at us, but beneath all the damn things, everything is always in motion and all is perpetually changing.

Still there are these in-betweens: the wisps or room fulls of spaciousness that, as I get older, feel more real than the packed whirls of activity and action. Pay attention, I’ve been reminding myself for years. Cherish this.

It is easier to talk about what surrounds the in-betweens because that kind of stuff has names and lots of language to delineate it from the unscheduled, the quiet, the open-palm time that’s also on tap. For the last few weeks, I could speak of oral surgery, Passover, eating a Havana chicken sandwich with a friend, walking across the field with Moxie the dog, loading the dishwasher, opening the mail. I could point to wonders around me: the first budding lilac, the light on the porch in this photo, a great breakfast of Matzo Brei (friend matzo, likely an acquired taste), and the cool joy of cold water when I’m thirsty.

But to speak of the in-between is to speak in between language. Then again, that’s why we have poetry. “Language does what it can’t say,” William Stafford once wrote, and he also wrote something in his poem “Bi-Focal” that I continually ponder about the world happening twice: “once what we see it as;/ second it legends itself/ deep, the way it is.” Maybe the in-betweens are when we catch up with life as the way it is more than the ways we name or see it. There’s grace in such meetings.

Then again, maybe it’s in-betweens all the way down to and past the last breath of our life. One of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems, which begins with “I felt a funeral in my brain” (none of her poems were actually titled by her) ends with these lines:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down —
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing — then —

That word “then” and the long dash are both in-between things pointing to what happens when we finish knowing, and then —

My Friend Vaughn and the Walk to the House Down the Road: Everyday Magic, Day 1054

“Vaughn keeps talking about the house down the road,” Julie, his wife, told me just a few days before he died. I listened on the other end of the phone, looking out the window from my room at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow into the quickly-accumulating snow on the roof. I was hesitant to have come to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, not wanting to leave my dear friends Julie or Vaughn, but it also felt like the right thing to do although most of the regularly-scheduled things of our lives make little to no sense when death is imminent.

Vaughn I’ve known for so long I can’t remember when we met, but surely in the early 80s, and Julie became a fast beloved friend a dozen years ago when her adventure with Vaughn brought her to us. I thought I had a good sense of Vaughn, but I got to know him even better at the end of his life when he actively helped me write his obituary (you can read at this link) over hig last month in between talking through songs, poems, readings, and speakers for his Celebration of Life, which I had the honor of officiating Sat., March 26. The obituary and the service were long, winding, full of deep notes and soaring voices, wild stories and vast memories, just like Vaughn. Then again, any life, especially one lived with vibrant gusto, and admirable affection is a infinite unfolding.

Vaughn especially made big differences for many of us. Vaughn has changed my life, including in one small and one enormous way: red cowboy boots and the farm. When I was diagnosed with eye cancer, I wrote a pithy blog post about being back at the cancer rodeo, and all I needed now were a pair of red cowboy boots. “Then she shall have them,” Vaughn told Julie. Within a week, Vaughn and Julie were walking from their car to our house carrying a large box. They fit perfectly.

The farm, however, is something too big to fit anywhere although somehow it’s in our arms after being only in our hearts for years. When it became possible (although seemingly highly improbable) for us to purchase the land we’ve been trying to save for 35 years, it was Vaughn who gave us the guts and gumption to believe we could. He first brainstormed with us about building an ecological small housing development on part of the land, and when we all realized we had no idea how to actually do that, he was game to help us with financing. His willingness was a strong enough bridge that it led us to imaginative and sustainable financing beyond him. While we might have gotten there on our own, Vaughn’s passion for the people and land he loved sped us toward our destination in time for all the pieces to come together.

Vaughn’s death on March 17, shortly after I got home from Arkansas, brought relief, heartbreak, calm, beauty, and the big mystery of grief all together for many of us. He died in Julie’s arms with his his dear friend Danny and Julie’s wonderful daughter Becca around him. Shortly afterwards, Ken and I drove over as the full moon set to help prepare the body for his green burial. The room was full of calm, love, and peace, and being part of such sacred moments is surely one of the more important reasons we’re alive.

But in the time between his death and burial, I felt discombobulated and confused, uneasy and not really wherever I was supposed to be. I remembered how, when my dad died, the Colombian rabbi who got to know my dad told us that the time between death and burial was an immersion into limbo (one reason, he explained, Jews bury their dead so quickly). He added that we don’t officially become mourners until we lay the body to rest.

Saturday, when Vaughn’s friends and family lowered the biodegradable coffin into the living earth, then we did our burial ceremony, ending in filling in the grave, I realized we as well as Vaughn had made the journey to the house down the road. It’s lonely and little empty not to have him with us, but there’s so much to remember, including how I played John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” for him recently, and he said to make sure that was in the service also.

Here is the poem I wrote for him when I was at Dairy Hollow, right after speaking with Julie (and yes, the ending is a nod to the John Prine song). May we all find where we belong, and when it comes to our loved ones, carry what we remember into the house where we live now.

Walking To the House Down the Road

for Vaughn, 3/12/22

Of course it’s a house for you who loves

to build and rebuild the uninhabitable

into homes of music and good food.

Winter makes it harder, especially

when false spring turns to thunder snow

and sheet on a Sunday afternoon.

But leaving when blossoms clutch

the sky or when summer nights fill us

with lightning bugs and katydids

would be harder to leave behind

in this house of a life, each packed box

a decade overflowing of who you still are

and will always be even down the road.

A dog barks from the kitchen. The last

of the snow drops from the branches

while the steps to the last place you live

dampen in the sheen of old rain.

The birds come and go, whole flocks

of red-winged blackbirds, twisting

murmurations of starlings just

down the road from here

to where you’re going without

leaving this bed, with leaving this bed

like breath or time. But we can’t

say that, bear that now while you still

sleep or reach up to kiss again and

never enough. Love is a well

with no bottom, a weathervane

in the wind, an oak so heavy

with yesterday’s snow that it can’t,

it has to, let go, but love is also

what makes it possible to let go.

The lights in the house down the road

are already on for you, the door already

just a little ajar, the road between there

and here made of gravel, watching, weather,

one story to step into after another,

each say saying, don’t go, each

answering, I love you, it’s okay,

we remember, we will remember

everything.

Two Years Later and What Will be Two Years From Now?: Everyday Magic, Day 1053

A photo I took two years ago

It all changed March 13, 2020 for many of us in this country. That Friday the 13th was auspicious in ways people like me didn’t see coming. The pandemic had reached a threshold, and on a dime, we started shutting things down or readying ourselves for the consequences of staying put in our homes and fear.

Kelley Hunt and I were in the middle of putting the final touches on an all-day workshop bringing people in our community together to write songs and stories of the East Lawrence neighborhood. When I called her and said we had to cancel, she said she was thinking the same thing. Never mind the piles of cold cuts, and fresh bread and notepads we had assembled. We would have to work with people a different way to complete this project.

We all had to find a different way, moving at triple speed to bring our work into our homes and over our screens while the days extended in triple slow motion. Wasn’t March of 2020 over 72 weeks long? Wasn’t each day a week of trembling throats and scared stomachs? Wasn’t each night punctured with insomnia as so many sat up in bed, asking ourselves or whoever shared the bed with us — human or cat or dog or ghost — the impossible questions. When would this end? What was this? Who would it hurt or kill? Would we be okay? How would we find a way through?

As I type this questions, I recognize how far-too-relevant they are for Ukrainians right now as their cities and towns, hospitals and military bases get bombed and shelled, as the Russian troops encircle and threaten what was once a normal country living its normal life. The wolf is at the door, and he’s armed to the hilt with no vaccine possible against such evil.

These are times — pandemics and wars — that break open our hearts to show us what we’re made of and expose all the cracks. These times also stop our thoughts and thinking in their well-worn tracks. We just don’t know. We just didn’t know two years ago, and we have no idea about what will or won’t be resolved, and how, and where it will land in two more years.

But we do know how important it is for us to tell our stories, write our poems, sing our songs, so often each one a lantern in the dark. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that life found Kelley and me in the middle of facilitating people to do just that on March 13, 2020. Just today, Odessa-born poet Ilya Kaminsky wrote in “Poems in a Time of War,” that when he asked an older friend in Ukraine how he could help, his friend replied, “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.” Kaminsky reminded us, “In the middle of war, he is asking for poems.”

I would add do whatever you can that helps and helps you find your courage and voice.

What’s Wrong With Humans (and Some Birds): Everyday Magic, Day 1052

An hour ago, a mourning dove crashed so hard against our living room window that Ken and I both jumped. The dove attacked his reflection so vehemently, it was hard to believe he survived. For a long time afterwards, he sat on the snow-covered deck and stared at the birds on the deck railing for their morning buffet of birdseed. Occasionally, he swiveled his head to look back at me on the other side of the window. I couldn’t tell if he was mortally injured or doing that total-repair-in-stillness thing that birds do.

For close to two weeks, I’ve been alternating between despair and heartbreak when I take in the news from Ukraine. Three women in the back of a truck heading into battle, one of them with tears running down her shining face as all three clutched their weapons. Two nieces and their children rushing into the arms of their Polish aunt as soon as they crossed the border. A family of four dead on the ground when they were supposed to be safely leaving the city. The deep state evil of how vastly news has been censored, twisted, and spit back out in pure decit in Russia. The great-grandmother lying belly-down on the ground, aiming her gun and still wearing her long gold coat. A little girl singing “Let it Go” in Ukrainian to a crowd of children and their parents hunkered down in a Kyiv subway.

“The birds are incredibly impulsive. It’s a survival mechanism. They fly first, ask questions later,” Ken just told me when I lamented the obviously hurt dove still on the snow. Obviously, this isn’t just birds. As we, who are outside Ukraine, watch and wait, donate money, even to Airbnbs for refugees to have a warm place to sleep, we also have no idea, as my friend Judy reminded me the other day, how this will end. Nor can we say what the right thing to do is that would lessen the shelling and missile attacks, the hunger and freezing, the war between cousins, without triggering Putin to go nuclear. Even if any one of us did know exactly what to do, we have little to no power to enact what we know.

I think of all the people being traumatized exponentially by the hour right now. I think of nations, cities, regions where trauma has reigned for generations, particularly in both Russia and Ukraine. Because of greed, fear, anguish, insecurity, and god-knows-what-else, there is Putin with all this power to destroy in minutes what it takes lifetimes to create.

Despite all the family ties crossing the border between these countries and the long entwined history, despite all the brutality and the wounds it threads through families and communities for decades, and especially despite what history has taught all of us humans in such a visceral and devastating way about war, here we are in an unfathomable place. A time when it seems only miracles could do any good, but I still believe that as humans prone to charge our reflections, we can do something other than charge our reflections. We also have an instinct to alleviate suffering and the capacity to sit with not knowing and enormous pain.

It’s not lost on me that this is an injured dove, and a mourning dove at that. He eventually lifted to the deck railing, stayed there for ten minutes watching all the other birds, and then, against the odds, lifted off and up to join the cardinals in the cedar tree and watch the rest of us. I want him to live. I want us all to live.

A Limping Coyote in the Snow: Everyday Magic, Day 1051

Yesterday, I was surprised by how big he was, and how, from a distance, he looked sleek and strong. But then he came closer, making circles around our house to keep arriving at the compost bin. From that distance, I could see he was limping, his fur was mangy, and he looked old, sick, and hungry.

Coyotes are obviously predators, and we’ve lost Pinky Velvet, Judy Actionia, and Sidney Iowa — three beloved kitties — to coyotes over the last decade, plus more cats before then. It’s an occupational hazard to country living. Yes, coyotes have to eat, but they’ve broken our hearts many a time, so much so that I’ve thought of them more often as our enemy.

“Even a monster has a story,” said Joy Harjo, doing a live-streamed reading last night through K.U., Haskell Indian Nations University, Humanities Kansas, and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Over 1,100 of us living from living rooms or cars all over Kansas and the country may have gasped at that line, especially in a time of such monsters roaming the earth (one even, tragically, invading the Ukraine right now). While I don’t mean to equate a limping coyote to human monsters, who are so much more tragically capable of mass destruction and generational trauma, I am wondering about this coyote’s story.

I’m not wondering what the coyote is doing here though: he’s obviously trying to survive like any of us would, and our compost pile, if and when he can snag rotting potatoes or old bread from it, is likely just the ticket. He also knows humans are right here, and whenever I go window to window to look at him, he pauses, stares directly at me, and waits. Then he heads down the drive, turns left and climbs with difficulty through the sloping woods to come back to the compost.

I’m rooting for his survival, and I’m holding my cat tight, taking extra care to keep her from shooting out the door when we refill the bird feeders. I’m also watching the sheer coyote-ness of him through the falling snow as he tries against the odds to snag more time out of this life.

Love and Death in February: Everyday Magic, Day 1050

“Maybe since January lasted for seven and a half years, February will be easy,” I said to my friend Kris. She was doubtful since February, for us and many others we know, tends to be the longest and hardest month. Never mind the 28 days of it, February is notorious for slipping the bonds of time dragging us into a morass of sadness and fatigue, dying and death.

So far so good, I told myself a week ago, but I rationalized too soon. In recent days, we got the news that one of our dearest friends is going on hospice, and the anticipatory grief and very current despair about the rapid meanness of his cancer trips me from laughing to crying on a dime, especially for wife who loves him so utterly. An old friend I haven’t seen in over a decade died suddenly two days ago. Ken’s wonderful dad died on Feb. 10th in 2009, and a year early, our good friend expert pie maker Weedle died on Feb. 12th.

That’s just us, and I know many close ones who have their own string of February impossible losses and big swaths of grief. It makes me wonder, if we have some say over when we give up the ghost, whether the bitter dregs of winter have anything to do with it. February also tends to be when the worst ice storms or blizzards hit, seemingly out of the blue, but maybe it just feels like that by this time of the year. It’s been cold too long, even with global warming and some surprise 60-degree days, yet spring seems far off.

February is the squeaky door that doesn’t close properly between love and grief in real time. It’s a time of year when I see up close how much deep and unconditional love we’re capable of, despite what we believe of ourselves. A friend just posted on Facebook how caring for her dying husband is stretching her to her seeming limit only to realize she can stretch further. Another friend texted me, “How do we bear the unbearable?” and then a photo of her beloved’s face full of joy as his childhood friend kissed him on the forehead.

We get through the unbearable together. We stretch ourselves in inconceivable ways. We stand on the threshold of February looking back and looking forward but mostly just looking at what we can see here. Like yesterday, while taking out the compost in the hard chill of the air, when I noticed the first crocus, papery and white, blowing hard in the wind but staying intact low to the ground. Like February, especially this year.

Finding Kansas (and That’s All She Wrote): Everyday Magic, Day 1049

A KAW Council campout at Lake Kanopolis in 1982 with, from left, Dan Bentley, the late Mark Larson, Kelly Kindscher, Victoria Sherry, me, Suzanne Richman, and in front of us, Joe Greever, and behind us, Ken Lassman, Shannon Greever, Larry, and Dave Ebbert

I was lucky: I found a place that made a satisfying click when I set foot in it, and I knew.

It was April 30, 1982, I was living in Kansas City, MO at the time, and I had never been to Lawrence. In fact, the furthest west I had been was KCK (Kansas City, KS). With my friend Ira, I was heading toward the first Kansas Area Watershed Council gathering, just 15 miles west of Lawrence. Ira and I liked to talk, and at the time, we had some weeks of life details to catch up on, so trying to head out from Kansas City, we missed the exit to I-70. We went around the maze of highways to take another shot at the exit, but talking so fast and much, we missed it a second time…..and a third time. It turns out the fourth time was the charm.

“I want to stop in Lawrence on the way,” Ira told me. There was a great band playing in South Park, the fabled Tofu Teddy. So we did and we danced. It was relatively warm out, sunny, and the world felt light and easy. Then we were hungry, so: enchiladas. Then it was dark, and we decided to spend the night at a friend of a friend’s house, a bungalow in East Lawrence. There were a few extra bedrooms, and whoever owned it was out of town.

Climbing the stairs to the porch of that bungalow on that spring night, lilac, dirt, and wonder in the air, I felt the weight of a voice on my right shoulder. “This is your home for the rest of your life.” A click of recognition went through my body, and I slept soundly that night. The next morning, we would get to KAW, where I met some of the people who became my best beloveds for life, including Ken, who became a good friend, then the love of my life.

Cobra Rock while it was still standing

I also fell hard for Kansas, and I’m still falling. Not just Lawrence, which of course I adore with all its artsy, activist you-can-make-anything-happen-here (but you might not get paid much for it) energy, but often-ignored corners and crannies of the state. Having roamed Kansas widely, as a visiting scholar for Kansas Humanities since 1992, and later, as a Kansas poet laureate — not to mention all the KAW Council campouts in caves and fields, sleeping bags unrolled under Cobra Rock before it collapsed or in Hutchinson living rooms — I’ve seen a lot of this place. But not nearly enough yet.

Put me on a long drive through the Flint Hills or even across the much-maligned Kansas chunk of I-70 going through ranges of hills and high, dry places where you can see 100 miles or more, and I’m a happy camper (sometimes literally). Serve me what surely feels like the official Kansas dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and corn, and I’m thrilled. Add some fresh apple pie, and what could be wrong with this ailing world?

I’m often enthralled with the communities I’ve dipped into even if they sometimes/often contain people who vote in ways that are incomprehensible to me. I have yet to spend time in any small Kansas town without glimpsing some wild quirks and beyond-any-stereotype humans. “Here’s the master key — just go through every room you want in the hotel and choose whatever you want,” the receptionist at the beautiful, vintage, and haunted (as I soon found out) Midland Railroad Hotel once told me (turned out the whole third floor was once a chicken coop that supplied dinners served on the first floor). I can’t visit Pittsburg without discovering yet another bevy of poets, and I’m sure that town has has many poets per capita as any place in the world. I dig the leftover famous tree stumps in Council Grove and visionaries I’ve met in Garden City. I’ve encountered opera singers on the street, abstract painters who took over old bank buildings for studios, and I even stayed in a grain bin transformed into a bed and breakfast filled with kittens. I’m delighted with the infinity of birds that cross and roost in the flyway as well as all other other wilds ones I’ve seen — bobcats on rare occasion and wild turkeys and massive crows regularly, and once, even a cougar.

I love the expansiveness of this place, the big skies that felt and still feel like the perfect balm for my crowded mind, and after many years, 40 this spring, the exterior has infused the interior. My thoughts and thinking feel less compressed, frenzied, and way less tortured than when I first climbed the steps to that bungalow. I’m home here, and the thing about homecoming is that it’s a continual unfolding and practice, a life-long love affair with being where and who we are. Thank you, Kansas, and hey, Happy Kansas Day!

Small Sweetnesses in a Dark, Cold Time: Everyday Magic, Day 1048

At Checkers, our big locally-owned grocery store the other day, the check-out lines snaked across the frozen food section with six or so of us in each line, spread apart because of the pandemic. There were only three lanes open when the floor manager came to the lane beside mine and signalled the man in front of me, a 60ish fellow in Chief’s jersey who I had been running into, first in produce, then in eggs, and later in the baking supplies aisle. He scooted over to check out in the new lane.

But then the floor manager, a young woman who didn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in her decisions, suddenly decided she shouldn’t be checking people out, so she closed the register she just opened. I signaled for the guy in the Chief’s jersey to get back in front of me rather than go the end of a growing line of socially-distanced shoppers.

A minute later, he turned around, smiled, and said to me, “What’s your favorite candy bar? I want to buy it for you to thank you.” I said thank you but no thank you, patting my stomach. “Me too,” he said, patting his stomach, and we laughed, talked about how Jim Lewis, the wonderful guy who started this store, wouldn’t have been happy with the floor manager’s actions, and went back to the task of unloading stuff on the conveyor belt.

Pushing my cart out to my car, I thought about how this was a small sweetness, an encounter with a stranger, nothing special, but in this time of keeping far from each other and on high alert for any coughing around us, this was especially sweet. You could say I should get out more, but in a pandemic, that’s not much of a possibility. Yet despite my social life with humans beyond phone and zoom mostly taking place in grocery stores, all of us wearing our KN 95 masks (I hope), there was something very human and reassuring about the experience.

Last week, I had a wonderful exchange with a man from Uruguay at Target at the check-out stand where he worked. We both loved rainbow-y scarves and were each wearing our best versions of the ones we owned. We talked about how neither of us could have imagined how we’d end up in Kansas, but we love it here.

At yoga class this week, heavily-masked and keeping our mats far apart in the big room, I marveled at my son Daniel’s handstand while he was impressed at how long I held a headstand. “Hey, how you doing?” we said in our muffled voices to each other at the end of each class as we layered up for the cold blast just outside the door. Small things, but in a time when such things are rare, these little exchanges are sweetnesses dotting the week.

Like right now: it’s 16 degrees but sunny. Our well-insulated dog has chosen to lie in the sun while our laundry freeze-dries on the line. It’s a flourish, a quiet note in the overall song of the day, but a sweet one. When I can get out of my own way, this is where I choose to put my attention.

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