Suddenly, I’m searching for sweaters, cursing the lack of mittens with me for a walk, and shiver-driving around town for the interminable stretch until the car heater kicks in. But winter is like that: it shows up, uninvited and wearing its heavy steel-tipped boots, then eats the cupboards bare (or was that me?).
Then again, in October, this kind of house guest should be expected to drop in for a few days, make us forget our complaints about heat and chiggers, and sweep out the luminous spiderwebs and sweet songs of crickets. Soon, Thursday actually if the weather prediction is accurate, summer takes back the wheel (highs of 86!) until the next too-soon cold front. There’s no doubt on who will win this back-and-forth autumnal clash.
Still, although it’s inevitable — and given the state of climate change, I’m even grateful for it — it’s still a deal to wake up one day and realize that days of porch-working and -lounging are no longer the mainstay but the rare-and-relished short stretches until sometime in March when the back-and-forthness of the seasons flares out in technicolor again.
The challenging of winter’s not-so-sneaky preview now is all-the-more apparent in pandemic time. For many of us, being outside has been our saving grace, if not among other humans, at least among dogs and dogwoods, distance herons and near-by ornate box turtles, butterflies and butterfly milkweeds. But from what I’m learning — and you may be too — what this means is that we need to bundle up and get our butts outside anyway, walking briskly in the icy air to touch base with the ultimate base of this living, changing world. That’s why I walked with my friend today, and one pandemic benefit is that I had a warm mask to wear when my nose got too cold.
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.
A year ago, I was positively radioactive. On June 14, I had surgery to insert a tiny gold disk of radioactive pellets in my right eye, and on June 19, I had surgery to have it removed. That span of days, I was scared and exhausted by unremitting pain (that would go on beyond the radioactive phase), yet I was also on my front porch, drinking iced tea, watching hummingbirds dive-bomb each other, and occasionally eating a lemon cream croissant from the fabled 1900 Bakery that Kris brought me. I couldn’t pet the cat, get within 10 feet of Ken, or endure any sunlight.
A year later, I’m on the front porch of the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, my feet on a chair, my computer on my lap, and my eyes — one that can see relatively normally and that other that sees an impressionistic, soft-edged, floater-crossing world — are fixed on the sparrows, jetting from fence ledge to tree branch. We regard each other while a white-skinned sycamore tree looks on. I’m drinking iced tea and thinking about eating some leftover beef bourguignon for lunch. A whirly-gig — a little thin leaf swirling unevenly all the way down — catches me. Because of the pandemic, I’m alone here, and it’s okay.
A tale of two Junes is just a sliver of all the Junes I’ve lived and hope to live. A year from now, I envision a widely-distributed, extremely-effective, and vividly-safe vaccine, and life not going back to the the old normal, but opening back up. Maybe I’ll be back here, but when the trolley passes by, as it does every 30 minutes, the driver and riders won’t be masked. We’ll go to restaurants again, peruse book stores, consider air travel with ease, and think nothing of stopping at a gas station to use the restroom. I see us talking about how strange it was, still is actually, to have lost so much and so many while also — I hope — saying what we can see now that we couldn’t see pre-pandemic.
A year ago, I had to wear a towel over my head as well as two pairs of sunglasses under that towel when riding in cars to go for medical follow-up appointments. Light hurt so much that many evenings, after I lay on the couch with an ice pack over my eyes while we watched (me watching by listening) a Northern Exposure episode, we went to the porch in the dark to listen. My ears learned to see 6 varieties of cicadas and even more of katydids. I couldn’t see what I would see.
A year from now, I wonder what we will see and deeply hear in new ways, trusting that with all we lose, there’s some compensation of vision, beauty, wisdom or compassion even if it’s not often enough to erase the pain. There’s also this wind ruffling these leaves while a branch trembles under the weight of a young sparrow, just out of the nest and ready by instinct for what’s next.
What is a year? We don’t know, but we will find out.
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As I watch the Pendleton’s peonies I just bought rush from tight little balls to full-throttle fireworks of blossoms, I keep thinking of three impossible things: the massive tornado that tunneled through our area last May 28th, my eye cancer diagnosis right before the tornado, and the pandemic that ups the ante on anxiety and the longing to live . In short, it’s been a helluva year. In long form, there’s a lot to say about how all three events can grow into greater resilience, courage, community, and imagination in a hurry.
When I went to the Pendleton’s farm last Memorial Day, I was their last customer of the day. I bought some asparagus (which they’re deservedly famous for) and plants for the vegetable garden, but mostly peonies. Poet Mary Oliver describes this explosion of a flower as unabashedly mortal with “their lush trembling,/ their eagerness/ to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are/ nothing, forever?” I was reeling from my diagnosis through a maze of scans and tests toward what would be very painful surgery to insert radiative pellets in my eye, then remove them, and I knew the bold and brave peony was what I needed on my night table.
I spoke with John and Karen Pendleton that afternoon about the times they had to rebuild (such as when a microburst wiped out their farm) and the long hours and slim margins of the farming life. We also covered the care and feeding of the peonies, heavy balls on the ends of long sticks Karen fetched from the refrigerator for me to take home, plop in a vase, and voila! Magic happens. But only because the Pendletons, like so many local farmers, stick it out and put in the time.
The next day, the afternoon air was so weighted in humidity and danger that it was hard to think straight or breathe freely. Then the sirens started in earnest and didn’t stop for over an hour. I ran up and down the stairs to the basement many times, urging Ken to come join me in a protective underground space while he insisted he could stay outside a little longer watching the huge wall of rain approach. The only problem was that this wall held a rain-wrapped tornado (or more accurately, a bevy of tornadoes snaking together and apart), making it impossible to see what funnels of destruction were heading our way. Our son on the phone, tracking Kansas radar from his Wisconsin apartment, assured us whatever was coming was coming straight for us.
The last time we experienced this was shortly after I completed chemo 17 years earlier to poison-cleanse all the breast cancer out of me. I remember, when Ken asked what I wanted to save, just shrugging and suggesting the animals, kids, and photo albums. That tornado lifted back up and didn’t touch us. This time I was angry, yelling at the sky, “Really?” along with a bunch of curse words.
The tornado just missed us, downing and twisting trees a tenth of a mile north. But it grew larger and stronger as it drove northeast, overtaking the Pendleton Farm. While they were safe in their basement, the home and farm they climbed upstairs to was devastated, and they were faced with the decision of whether and how to rebuild, not to mention a massive mess. People came out of the woodwork for them and for our other neighbors who lost roofs, windows, whole houses, and certainly a sense of safety in the world.
Since then, I’ve finished my cancer treatment, and although I’m mostly blind in what I call my magic eye, I’m okay….for now. But that’s how it always is with life and certainly how it is with the pandemic for many of us. But oh, so many losses for so many this year, the kind you can’t rebuild or just use your other eye to mitigate. There’s also the overwhelming economic and economic security losses (how high can you count?), the fear and dread of how to stay safe in this long interim between pandemic and remedy or vaccine, and so much we took for granted no longer part and parcel of routine life.
But there’s also these peonies, this year’s bouquet I bought from the Pendletons now that they’re rebuilt and rebuilding. There’s this world full of tight communities coming together to help and support their members. There’s this human tendency to start over, exhausted and heartbroken, and make something good or good enough out of brokenness.
“Do you love this world?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “Peonies.” Yes, I do, so much, especially now when the tender beauty and intoxicating scent of a flower is surprisingly strong enough to hold me, even with the possibilities of wild weather in this body and across this land and nation. I wonder what next year’s peonies will tell us.
The irises are falling all over themselves with the weight of their beauty. It’s banner year where they’ve gone beyond simply showing off to flinging their gorgeousness at us with IMAX screen intensity. For the last 15 years, I’ve cut and bundled them carefully in a cacophony of vases in a large box. Then I placed the box carefully between the driver’s and passenger’s seat in my car, Kelley Hunt on one side, me on the other, calling out, “Have iris, will travel!” as our motto as we headed to Brave Voice.
This year of cancellations, postponements, mask-making, and stay-at-home directives means we’re not going deep into the Flint Hills to welcome people from across the country to this 6-day retreat of writing, singing, art-making, prairie-wandering, and magic-manifestation. I woke up this morning distinctly sad about this. While I’m counting the weeks until our rescheduled Brave Voice for Sept. 20-25, I’m missing this deep spring immersion into community, imagination, and prairie. At the same time, I realize many of us are missing events as well as people, places, ordering some extra hummus at a restaurant, or casually walking into a friend’s house and plopping down on her couch.
But the irises are blasting headlines across my heart about this particular event not happening because the iris is surely the Brave Voice floral mascot (we also have the cougar and pineapple, but those are other stories). Every year, we place overflowing bouquet of iris in the center of our circle where we gather to write about a time we experienced a miracle or sing in a 3-part-round with what could easily be 7-part-harmony “Breathe in…..Breathe out…”. We bring armloads of irises with us to place in the cabins and on tables, most from my yard, which increased in its iris population as I kept planting more each fall so for Brave Voice each spring. The camp often has its own herds of iris blooming, and everywhere, there’s the scent and promise of this resilient flower.
Irises look so delicate with their almost transparent-thin petals and complex bends and curves, but they’re powerfully strong. Put a bunch of iris in a vase, and with enough water and care, they can easily last a week or more. Plant an iris bulb, and it will reproduce itself underground, burrowing into the dirt to gather all the nutrients it needs to send up sturdy shoots while multiplying over time. Even when the weight of their tops makes them fall over, they keep opening their buds. They can survive horrid winters and mind-melting summers. They can find a way around stones or, as in our front yard, wayward kayaks blocking their usual trajectory. Even in a time of drought or harsh conditions, they still come calling, blossom and all. In short (although they’re tall), they’re brave.
I also think of irises as vibrantly musical. Synesthesia is when one sense takes on the qualities of another, and irises to me are synesthesic creatures. Their scents and shape sing to me, and not in a whisper kind of way, but full-throated, putting it all out there. If we could translate them into sound, I think they would belt out tunes like the love child of Laura Nyro and Josh Groban. Their brave voice is velvety and resonant, occasionally lilting through high notes while also encompassing us in a raw warmth that says home is so much more mysterious and alive than you can imagine.
So here we humans are, out in the wind and the rain of a pandemic, trying to stay upright and rooted enough. But we’re as beautiful in our vulnerability and propensity for music and magic as the iris. Let us keep remember, even celebrate, our brave voices at this time. Let nothing impede the courage that comes from digging down deep, soaring high, and opening our hearts completely.