“Life Will Break You”: A Year Since Everything Changed: Everyday Magic, Day 1031

Louise Erdrich, from her novel The Painted Drum

“This is probably the last time we’ll be able to do this,” we nervously joked with each other a year ago. We were friends, gathered at Haskell Indian Nations University to see and hear Louise Erdrich, one of our most beloved writers. Erdrich had never been to Lawrence or Haskell, the only intertribal university in our country, and she rarely did public readings at all, so that this was happening at all was somewhat miraculous. While it was a first for this spectacular novelist, it was a last for hundreds of people clumping together in a big public place, even exchanging easy hugs.

I’m thinking today about the joke/no joke moment. I didn’t believe a year ago that this — a real pandemic landed squarely here and everywhere else in the world — would actually happen or that it would last more than a few weeks or months. Surely it would be over by April or July or definitely October. Of course the lockdowns would halt it from spreading. The masks I was rushing to make or buy from others sewing them would make a difference as would sanitizing the fuck out of everything that came in the door, from the mail to the avocados.

But what did I know? “Not much,” life tell us often. I went from counting weeks to counting months, and now I get it that it will be years before we’re out of the Covid woods. I couldn’t have imagined that close to 5,000 Kansans, over 500,000 Americans, and over 2.5 million people worldwide would die from this, all of them beloved by children or siblings, friends or partners, communities or families. There’s also millions who survived Covid but now are swimming through life with permanent damage to their hearts or lungs as well as asthma, migraines, and a host of strange symptoms. We’re just beginning to see more of the iceberg of this horrendous disease, including how it can twist into new mutations.

But something else has come into sharp relief through this year: just about everyone I know has spent a lot more time contemplating and savoring what matters in their lives. I have bunches of friends who walk the nearby wetlands daily, delighting in and learning about the life cycles of great blue herons and songs of red-winged blackbirds. Being home just about all the time alone or with a spouse or child brings — for the good and the bad — our relationships into new and acute focus. Not getting in the car so much or ever on the plane to flit here and there means a lot more rest is at hand, a good counterbalance at times (although not always enough) for pandemic anxiety and grief.

On a more personal level, I’m learning how much slowing down to be where I am is essential for my health and sanity. Each day, I step outside to the deck and try to take in the sky and weather of this moment. Back inside, I look at this quote from Louise Erdrich, framed and signed — a lovely gift from my friend Harriet when I was newly diagnosed with my last cancer — and nod in recognition:

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”

Tonight, a year to the date I saw Erdrich, I’m going to a reading of a another writer I love but never heard in-person before: Anne Lamott. But I’ll be doing that — along with hundreds more across the country — through my computer screen. Life will and does break us, but yes, there are all these apples and sweetness right here too.

P.S. Thanks to the Raven Bookstore for helping bring Louise Erdrich to Lawrence a year ago. Thanks for Watermark Bookstore for being part of the virtual Anne Lamott reading tonight.

When I Don’t Know What Else to Do: Everyday Magic, Day 1025

Since the riots of hatred last Wednesday, it’s hard to get my bearings. Like most of the people I know, the word “unbelievable!” peppers many conversations which are often about despair, fear, insomnia, and especially how little we can do to change this situation at the moment. This is not to say that we-the-people don’t have some power and agency overall, but between now and the inauguration, there’s just a fog of foreboding and uncertainty.

What do when I don’t know what to do? Something/Anything, to riff off the name of one of Todd Rundgren’s old albums. I broke through some of the stagnancy Sunday by cutting colorful things up or out: fabric and vegetables. Finding a quilt pattern involving 128 triangles helped tremendously even if the pre-requisite was searching through my fabric collection, then ironing a whole lot of things. Slicing and dicing cauliflower, pears, potatoes, onions (for a great soup recipe), apples for an apple crisp, and a mess of tomatoes, eggplant, mushrooms, onions, and zucchini (for a veggie lasagna) helped enormously.

Yesterday, I played with color in designing some memes for upcoming workshops, and later, I immersed myself in the chilly sunset sky by walking the wetlands with Kris. I remember how, in much more dire circumstances depicted in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved (also one of the best books in the universe), Baby Suggs — anything but a baby and dying — could only find meaning in the colors of her quilt. “Took her a long time to finish with blue, then yellow, then green” is a line that stays with me.

Right now though, I look across my room, thankful for the blues and golds in the quilt on the bed and the sky-filled windows. And that’s enough.

Nine Reasons to Give a Little (or a Lot): Everyday Magic, Day 978

One of the beautiful cards with Stephen Locke’s photography for patrons

As many of you know, I’m leaping from my day job of college-level teaching to creating more transformative writing, community-building writing workshops, and a podcast series on the power of words. I’m also asking for your help in supporting this leap. Here are nine reasons to consider being a patron through Patreon, a great online platform that helps writers, artists, innovators, and others do cool stuff in the world. You can see more here.

1. Perks: You get a signed book of your choice, gorgeous greeting cards with Stephen Locke’s photography and my poetry, and even a poem I write for you for a beloved.

2. Weekly Inspiration: All patrons get a post every Friday with something to spark creativity and magic in your life, art, and work, such as “The Care and Feeding of the Artist,” a podcast poetry reading, and tips on inventing your own inspiration.

3. Poetry Party!: Every time I cross the $100 mark each month (and we’re really close to another crossing), patrons get to call out (via the Patreon site or emailing me directly) words you want me to weave into a spontaneous poem I make up on the spot, record, and share with you. You can also watch the often hilarious and sometimes moving past poetry parties.

4. Satisfaction: Doesn’t it feel good to help someone live their dreams? Patrons get the satisfaction of knowing they’re helping me follow my calling.

5. Making Good Things Happen: Your contributions help me create new writing, workshops, and a podcast series (to launch this fall) on the power of writing and witnessing our truest stories.

I dress up a bit more than for the Poetry Party!

6. Ease: Becoming a patron is simple: You just click here, follow the directions, and within a few minutes, you’re in.

7. What a Deal!: For as little as $3/month, you can be a patron. Also, those little payments are easy to swallow each month.

8. Your Fellow Patrons: I’m not exaggerating when I say my patrons are exceeding passionate, innovative, and soulful change makers in this world. Come hang out with the cool kids;

9. The Power of Being a Patron: You don’t have to be the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support the work you love. You have the power to do that right now. Just wave the magic wand of your credit card over the Patreon page, and there you go!

You As a Poem (for Denise Low): Everyday Magic, Day 973

Last week, I had the honor of being one of the poets giving tribute to Denise Low, the past Kansas Poet Laureate and dear friend of 35 years. She was celebrated at the Spencer Library as a new part of its New American Poetry collection at a special event that also happened to occur on her 70th birthday. While one poem, even while full of references to Denise’s splendid writing, doesn’t do her justice, I wanted to share the poem I wrote for Denise. You can see much more about her at her website, on her blog, on the Map of Kansas Literature site, at Poets.org, and at the Poetry Foundation.

You As a Poem

for Denise

The poem would rise from fossils and columbarium

time-traveled from your memory or the continent’s,

through two ancient gates, rusting in the sun after hard rain.

 

You would watch the poem from behind a window,

your grandfather’s calm breathing behind you,

as you sipped a mocha from a chipped porcelain cup

painted with twining white clematis and one ruddy robin.

 

The poem would feed you a small butter cookie, shaped

like a shell to remind you of the inland ocean we once were,

while you listen as you often do for what the snow

or heat or first explosion of lilac sings now.

 

Later, the poem would take you and Tom to Wisconsin,

in January, in a near-blizzard of course, telling you stories

about the taste of bear or what dreams lived in ice.

 

There would be a woolly mammoth, but because Kansans

excel at elegant understatement, it wouldn’t be obvious,

but a silhouette of the great beast on the western horizon,

only visible when lightning strikes.

 

Like the sky, the poem would spin torrents of fish,

speed, and spirits breaking the drought tides into rivers,

many underground that your walking feet would trace

while you sip wine and regard the sky for what matters,

which once was a dog named Burroughs, low to the ground

but functional, and lately encompasses Jackalopes

and your granddaughter’s face turning toward you.

 

Maybe a martini would mosey into the poem, and certainly

trains at 3 a.m., leaving their whistles echoes as evidence.

There would be wind-leaning switchgrass, and a circular

silence below a solo cottonwood on a ridge of your childhood.

 

Mostly, though, there would be birds: stanzas of the quick

blue fire of Indigo Bunting, an exodus of wild geese,

a charm of goldfinch, and at dusk, a tunnel of chimney swifts

spiraling down to to a single word on each rooftop —

all the birds, you too, from so far away and so near,

coming home all the time, line by line by line.

~ Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

Please consider supporting my Patreon campaign so that I can create moretransformative writing, workshops, and even a podcast series on the powerof words. More here: https://www.patreon.com/Carynmg

Annual Pilgrimage to Our Patron Saint: Mary Chapin Carpenter: Everyday Magic, Day 944

“Show a little inspiration, show a little spark,” Mary Chapin Carpenter sings in her song “The Hard Way.” Kelley Hunt, one of my beloveds and my songwriting partner, happily obliged her by summoning up the inspiration and spark to strap ourselves into my peanut-butter-colored car so we can once again worship at her feet and replenish our songwriting well.

This year we trekked to Wichita for a long day’s night to the Wabi Sabi (beautiful, decaying, and full of soul and vibrancy) Orpheum Theater to see  this shining soul sing some of the greatest songs we know, such as “Stones in the Road,” once the best songs I know of about America. Listen to it sometime, and hear what she says about all that’s on fire in our history and lives, including lines like these: “And now we drink our coffee on the run, we climb that ladder rung by rung/ We are the daughters and the sons, and here’s the line that’s missing.”

When Kelley and I write our own songs together, I like to think there’s always an invisible and palpable icon of Mary Chapin in the room, right on top of the purple piano where we compose music, occasionally nodding at us and always making eye contact. So many of our songs — such as “Love,” “You’ve Got to Be the Vessel,” and “Let it Rain,” — speak to some of the deep-river themes of hard-won love, healing, and courage flowing through MCC’s songs, such  as her song “Why Walk When You Can Fly?” and “Jubilee,” in which she sings:

And I can tell by the way you’re searching
For something you can’t even name
That you haven’t been able to come to the table
Simply glad that you came

So it’s no wonder that we drive, drive, drive to be with MCC and her kick-ass, open-hearted band, including many bandmates she’s played with for decades. She’s someone I would leap over long highways and through 100-degree days to see, well, her and Bruce Springsteen, and you know what? This year, Mary Chapin ended her concert with a Springsteen song, “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” Sitting in an ancient theater with one of my best friends, witnessing this moment and many others together — like when she sang “This is Love” — my heart overflowed and my being exhaled in pure joy. As she sang, “The wrong things aren’t supposed to last,” and “You would’ve thought a miracle/ Was all that got us through,” I realized how some moments, maybe all if I was awake enough, are the miracles that get us through, leading us to do and be all the rights that do last.

Bonus song: You’ve got to hear “Jericho,”  a song that inspired Kelley to write a song and me to write a poem of the same name. Here is Kelley performing this live on Kansas Public Radio (and you can support Kelley writing even more amazing songs by supporting her Patreon campaign here), and here’s my poem:

Jericho

How long have you been lost? All your life?

Then you’re getting somewhere.

The walls don’t fall for those who think

they know where they are.

It takes music, low and from the bottom of pain,

like what I sang out in childbirth, each call

a plea to open and let the new one come through.

Or the sound of the handful of dirt the new widow releases

slowly quickly the long way to the top of the wooden casket

where a thousand hands hit the same drum at one moment.

Or the breaking laughter of a two-year-old running for the first time,

about to trip. Or the inhalation of surprise and verve on the cusp

orgasm in a cold room where all the blankets are kicked off.

Knowing the path has always been overrated

although washing the dishes and cleaning the counters helps.

Loving and looking for clues is all we have–the slant of the sun

across the dusty wooden floor, the ache of leaf toward earth,

the weary smile of the stranger who gives you his parking space.

When the big wind knocks you down, look carefully

for what’s ready: the horizon suddenly flashed by the brilliant

wings of an Indigo Bunting vanishing into the future

in a stand of cedar where you’ve always lived.

Jericho was never forgotten and never forgets.

His feet remember how to follow the outline of the city

ready to unmake itself into something better. Let yourself

stop trying to hold up all that weight. Come and sit

on this beautiful, cold ground. Be as lost as the rain

making its way, through the veins of the universe, home.