We Used to Write Letters: Everyday Magic, Day 1062

Dear Readers,

For last month, I’ve been on an archeological colonoscopy into my past as I sorted through boxes and big plastic vats of papers and keepsakes. I was spurred into motion after Pittsburg State University enthusiastically agreed to house my papers, creating an archive of my writing and life, that at the least will serve as an auxiliary basement for a bunch of my stuff 136 miles south of here. But there’s an unexpected boon to dealing my past into many piles of paper: I discovered the riches I reaped through the letters I wrote and received.

I ran with a letter-writing pack, back when long-distance calls were astronomically expensive and long before emails and texts. Being a writer who connected with other people who loved to write, and even more so, loved to read, I found astonishingly in-depth correspondence with dear friends still central in life as well as ones I lost track of, and somewhat disturbing, some I can’t remember at all. Who were Dave and Ginny in Chicago, for example? What happened to beloved friends Margaret (last spotted in Arizona) and Carolyn 9last known address in New Mexico — it seems quite a few pals vanished into the Southwest)? 2hat was the last name of Steve, an old flame turned friend who wrote funny, wise, and sometimes fierce letters calling me on my shit (“Caryn, you shouldn’t be sleeping with you boss!”)?

The letters themselves are hardly ever short notes, often going on for three or four pages, front and back, sometimes much longer. There were beautifully penned letters from my sister-in-law Linda about adventures in Winnipeg and my pal Kathy about traveling the world as a journalist, piles of international missives in thin blue envelopes from my sister-in-law Karen from when she was in Kenya for three years building houses with Habitat. Some of the more local letters told me, “I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you when you were crying and freaking out the other day — I was just worn out” (oh, I was so dramatic in my 20s!) and “You helped me get in touch with my anger by borrowing my car without my permission and getting so many parking tickets” (I was so inconsiderate at times too). I was especially moved by a short note from Holly, a friend who died decades ago, written before her cancer, about how she loved me, and since we never know what’s coming in life, she was telling me now.

There were ten-page extravaganzas from old sweethearts or new colleagues-turned-friends-and-collaborators as well as heartfelt notes (with lots of hearts) from my sisters Jennifer and Lauren when they were kids. I found lovely cards full of words, often three times underlined, from my step-sister Wanda and typed slice-of-life intrigues from my mom. I even discovered a long letter I wrote to my dad about the failing state of the world in 1981 and how we needed to transform our political system, which he returned with a note on the bottom that said, “Your way will never work. I hope you find yourself.”

Mostly though the letters unfolded deep grappling with how to haul around the overpacked luggage of our emotions or the empty cupboards of our self-esteem. I was moved by the tender and raw honesty in many letters people sent me or I sent them (I kept copies along the way of some of my letters), looking face to face at where we found ourselves lacking or thought we were failing and, in equal measure, searching the mutable and abundant world for signs and wonders. It seems I confessed often to self-sabotage, pettiness, obsession, and mere stupidity while also praising bird song, the feel of the wind on my arms, the lush green fields (although they were full of chiggers and snakes), and the setting sun.

Out of wandering through the fields of my letters, I realized how much I missed some faded friendships, so this week, I’m going to Kansas City to have lunch with my old friend Ellen. I’m going to give her — as I’m also doing with other friends who are interested — the pile of her hilarious deep-dive-into-life letters. When I go to Vermont at the end of July, I’m handing Suzanne — one of my oldest friends (we met in a cave in mid-Missouri in January of 1980) — a bundle of her beautifully-written travels through interior and exterior landscapes.

Meanwhile, I’m wondering, even in this age of instant communication (such as I’m doing right now in this blog) if it’s time to start writing and mailing out letters again. Each one a meditation traveling in slow and real time that reminds me of the ties and the lines that bind.

Love,

Caryn

Being Made of Weather: Everyday Magic, Day 1060

The real show in the parking lot

Weather. That was the theme of the 2022 Symphony in the Flint Hills, and because of all my weather poetry, especially my poem “Being Made of Weather” included in this year’s field guide, I was invited to come present. The free tickets didn’t hurt either, or at least, I didn’t think going could do our family or anyone else much harm. In end, it seems like we all escaped with our lives (although not our nerves) intact.

Even before the magnificent Kansas City Symphony warmed up, Ken, scanning radar on his sister’s phone, said Karen and I should be prepared to leave in 45 minutes. He showed us an extraordinarily powerful tornado about to hit somewhere, and it sounds like Marysville and surrounding areas took the brunt of it. The storms were enormous and spreading south crazy-fast, including to where 7,000 or so of us were sitting on folding chairs for the music, which also includes cowboys and cowgirls (the Outriders as they were called) doing a cattle drive. I figured we might not get to sing “Home on the Range” with people at the symphony’s end, but I was hoping we could at least get to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the next song in the program.

The plot thickens as the mothership approaches

Instead, the orchestra and the Outriders and cattle made a quick program change so we could see cows herded up the hill before the Outriders helped herd all of us to our cars. Yup, the year weather was the theme was also the year real weather took over. The program we came to see got quickly replaced by a much more vivid performance of what weather could be: beautiful, startling, mind-blowing, mutable, and dangerous.

Real comradery took hold while walking with thousands of previous strangers for the close-to-an-hour trek back to the parking lot while cowgirls and cowboys guided us back to the gravel road if we went too far astray where we might trip into ravines. “Moooo!” a man called out next to me, so a bunch of us mooed with him. I got to talk to a new friend I met on trail about what brought us to Kansas and why those low-hanging boob-shaped clouds are called mammatus clouds. A bunch of people stopped to help a woman who tripped. People made way for children and small wagons full of folding chairs while pointing to the north where the clouds performed for free.

Happily herding us

Once back to the car, the second half of our weather-on-the-hoof program began, in which we get to stay relatively still and experience a panoramic sky changing quickly as the mothership supercell turned from a gray to green-black spaceship with the whiter, wider clouds above. “It looks like a mullet haircut,” a man waiting for the porta potty with me said. I didn’t get to make use of that porta potty because Ken, who had cell reception for a minute, calledwith the urgent message to get back to the car now — we were moving……or so we hoped.

It actually took an hour and 45 minutes to get from the parking lot to the highway since there was just one exit for all the cars to funnel (no pun intended) through. In the meantime, we made friends with a guy named Keith behind us, took our picture with mammatus clouds at sunset, and stared at the sky a lot. The grand finale was the moment cell phones screamed throughout the parking lot that we were in a tornado warning and should seek shelter immediately and not be in cars.

The first show – the symphony

What to do because our cars were our only shelter? Keith and Ken said it as best to honker down on the floors of our cars and cover ourselves with blankets (which most Kansans, including me, have in their trunks). “That way if that car is crushed by the storm, we might have a chance,” Ken later told me. It would at least keep broken windshield glass off us. Ken, Karen, and I reasoned as we were immersed in rain, wind, and hail, first pea-sized, then dime-sized, and then nickel-sized. The rain flew sideways, and then the winds switched direction, which is not a good sign.

What do you do in such a moment? I was surprised by how quiet and relatively calm we were, perhaps not believing this was happening even if we earlier spotted some clouds drifting down in such the way tornadoes can begin. But thank heavens (literally), no tornadoes spun off into the hundreds of sitting duck cars. Instead, the rain, wind, and hail lessened, and we all got out and back home.

Some weren’t so lucky. I’ve heard of some attendees who arrived home to find their houses destroyed. Some had to drive out of their way, like our son Daniel and his girlfriend, who headed southwest because they would have otherwise driven into the fiercest part of this unpredictable storm. For everyone involved, weather made the event unforgettable and reminded us of what being made of weather can mean for our lives.

Speaking of which, here is the poem of the same title. Big thanks and admiration to all the people — especially the Outriders and the hundreds of volunteers at the event — who helped however they could and reminded us of how good and generous humans can be in the face of the sky.

Being Made of Weather

You have no idea what you’re capable of.

The rotation born of two opposing forces can

explode down Main Street in any town, any mind.

Fight the front moving through?

Give up and sleep through the storm?

Choices as if they are choices when it’s time

to ask yourself what you’re ready to give up,

and what you can save: dead photos, living animals,

a tea cup from great-grandmother, a pink-gray

arrowhead found in the rocks along an Ozark lake

in 1983 when someone taught you to skim stones.

Mostly, the hand of the child you lead into the cellar.

Mostly your own heartbeat, audible as hard breath,

which you must protect and give freely as light or water.

Always, the will to return the moment the storm

brings you back out to see what you’re truly made of,

lift the fallen branch or plank, bend to call out a name,

your whole life waiting for the smallest of motion.

Force of Nature Day (Which is Actually Everyday): Everyday Magic, Day 1058

Sunday morning just before the storm hit, photo by Stephen Locke

Yesterday began with running outside in our pajamas to cut irises as fast as possible while 70 mph winds and a giant thunderstorm descended. The day ended with a full lunar eclipse’s red moon. Some days are like that – force of nature days when everything seems to happen with such power, art, soul, and amazement at once that it’s clear we are not in charge. Ultimately, life is like that, and often it’s too easy to forget.

I write this from Brave Voice, the 17th annual retreat I lead with singer Kelley Hunt in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The irises were to vase up and distribute throughout the camp in each of our cabins and in the main lodge where we meet to write, sing, listen, collaborate, and dwell in wonder together. The storm made driving from home to Council Grove lake, where the camp is, more than interesting, Kelley at the wheel and Ken on the phone tracing our location with radar to warn us when we might need to pull over and wait out the downpour. The eclipse happened for most of of us in this area with clear skies that darkened to pop out the stars even more so, the Milky Way dazzling as it arced across the night sky.

Yesterday we went from the deadly and dramatic to the sublime and rare, but actually, even more ordinary-looking days are much the same. The earth is at the wheel despite humans making so many species, including ourselves if we continue on our current trajectory, extinct. When I see headlines or catch snippets of conversations about how we’re killing the earth, I bristle at the language because this big rotating planet will survive, perhaps in a state that barely supports life as we know it long after we’re gone. But the earth is like the Dude: it abides. It’s been here long before fish-like creatures crept out of the water and learned to breathe air and evolve into so many other species (including us), long before ice ages and continents breaking apart (and aren’t we all still in motion?), long before bipeds were just glimpsing how to measure out units of time to support the hunt or remember where to return to harvest what grows underground.

Big winds, red moons or not, each day tilts open the force of nature that is us and that is. Like right now when I sit on a porch outside the White Memorial Camp lodge, mesmerized like several others around me by the build-up, then slow-down of bird song. While I watch the rabbit racing the sun across the field, the cardinal landing to look for dinner, the oak tree moving its tentative fingers in the same wind that covers half my face with my hair. The open blue sky, so vast and mutable, is a constant force of nature and so is all it holds, even us if we’re brave up to speak and act for this beauty persistence that just wants to live.

“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.