Juxtapositions — putting like with non-like — add zip, surprise, sometimes anxiety, and often uncertainty to our lives. They’re also at the heart of what makes poetry poetry: images and language you don’t expect together that pop open new ways to see the world. So let’s just say it’s more a more-than-poetic weekend (or life).
Friday our small but loving Jewish community gathered in the cold wind to bury our beloved friend, Shirley. Although the temperatures were in the high 40s, we talked afterwards, at her home over dolmas and brownies, about how much colder it felt, but part of that was surely because Shirley’s bright, glittery, funny, and loving life was gone. It seemed wrong for us to be so alive in her home, looking at her photos and eating cookies without her.
Saturday, Ken and I drove south to the small town of Garnett, Kansas, where I did my first presentation for the DAR (yes, that DAR). In a beautiful library, in a room next to the astonishing Walker collection (an original John Steuart Curry! A Édouard Manet! — so much more in this town of just over 3,000 people), In doing a Humanities Kansas program on the Holocaust, especially focusing on the lives of Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz, I discovered that the DAR chapter was deeply attuned to history and its lessons, and also to the weight of anti-Semitism and other ways humans diminish each other.
From there, there was apple pie in a German Baptist Brethren restaurant, a late-night film with Ken about art, Norway, and some lost New Yorkers finding their way, and typing this now with blue and fuschia-stained fingers because I’m in the middle of parfait-dyeing a load of socks and shirts for my kids.
I realize, in this juxtaposition of weather (dark, cold, sharp rain yesterday, and big, bright road-trip weather today) and time, that most moments of our lives are juxtapositions. We expect one thing, do one task, read about another thing, look at the window, and the kaleidoscope of like and not-like, the expected and so much of the unexpected keeps turning its wheel through our minutes and weeks.
Trying to fall asleep late last night, I felt the weight of that wheel, especially with several people I love dying in the last month juxtaposed with the twinkle-lights of the holidays everywhere, and now here we are stepping, sleeping, and waking into another time. May we continue to find meaning in what shows up, making a new pattern out of what’s already here.
It’s almost twilight, Moxie dog is sleeping in the corner, my ears are buzzing with low-hum tinnitus, and I’m about to make dinner. Looking into my house and glancing out the windows to see our warm lights reflected over the darkening sky, I realiz the best thing to write about are some of the things I’m grateful for, and just for the heck of it (and because my mom’s birthday is on Nov. 27), I’m going with the number 27. Here goes:
Abundant fresh air to breathe right now in the living room, and when I step outside, abundantly so, plus it’s about to rain, so that’s marvelous scent.
A refrigerator full of leftovers and magic ingredients for many a good meal.
Good health that allows me to live pain-free and illness-free most of the time, and today propelled me on a good walk along the levee with my friend Judy.
Astonishing friends and family, and to have gotten to the point in our lives where we end most calls or visits with, “I love you” or “I love you so much.”
The stunning photos of my late dear friend Jerry — a moon seemingly rolling down a mountain, a luminous spiderweb on a foggy morning, the clouds almost circling up — on the opposite wall talking to me as I write.
Writing in all its splendor and ordinariness, and thank god I found and was found by writing, and we continue this dance together.
The ability to sing with great joy if not great talent or range.
Books everywhere and in every room, including lately, the poetry of Sidney Wade, Diane Seuss, and Traci Brimhall, and the novels of Louise Erdrich (I’m currently re-reading all).
A particularly comfortable bed with worn-to-perfection flannel sheets and quilts I was about to make and afford to make (lots of time and $).
So many favorite things: erasable gel pens, peonies, hot French bread with Irish butter, pashima scarves when it’s just a nip cold, and laughing until we cry with loved ones.
All those friggin’ streaming services that make it possible to enjoy a comedy set in Ireland one night, episodes of Call the Midwife another, and Cameron Crowe movies.
Speaking of which, Cameron Crowe movies — Almost Famous, Elizabethtown — and also other favorite movies, especially Wings of Desire written and directed by Wim Wenders.
The cat who claims me and purrs on my chest at 2 a.m. for hours (luckily, she’s only 4.5 pounds).
This comfortable chair (straight-backed and cushioned in a satisfying floral print) I found at a consignment store in North Lawrence.
Socks. I really like socks.
The three humans I grew inside me who are now doing most interesting and sometimes surprising things in their lives, like walk 12 miles daily listening to podcasts or record layers of singing to make new music or restore neighborhood yards into mini prairies. Speaking of generations, also my mom, living her best life — Mahjong, Trivia Night and all — in Florida.
Lamps and ceiling lights emanating out that pale orange-almost-pink-white glow at different heights.
The beautiful wild in just about all forms, including all the hibernating ornate painted turtles and the just-returning winter flocks at the bird feeder and beyond, speaking of which….
Murmurations of starlings because: magic.
My iphone because it brings me voice to voice with so many people I love and does so many other tricks (weather reports! music I can listen to at the dentist! Youtubes of border collies butting a blue balloon with their heads!).
Utilities of all kinds that keep us warm, lit, and safe.
Hot oatmeal and Yorkshire Gold tea most mornings.
Sunshine streaming through the windows and pouring all over me outside many days.
The gift of interesting dreams, particularly ones in which I discover secret rooms in the house.
My husband and how much we laugh together at the kinds of things that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to others, and how often we curse together and laugh more.
Sturdy if not always clean floors to pad across in winter or summer.
This laptop that allows me to peer into its magic mirror and connect with you.
I could go on all day, and you probably could too. Please share some of you’re grateful for in the comments below.
Walking to the edge of the deck this early morning to take this photo of the fog burning off the brome field and the prairie, I felt great tenderness for the hard-won: all that comes to us after or during great struggle.
Here is the land where Ken and I are so blessed to live, even and especially because we spent over 35 years doing all we could to save it from encroaching development and for native plants and migrating wildlife. Finally buying the land (aka buying the literal farm without buying the deadly metaphoric farm) in 2020 took far more faith, gumption, money, patience, prayer, hard thinking and deep feeling that we knew ourselves capable of, but that’s the song of the hard-won.
I think of writers from my Turning Point workshops (for people living with serious illness as patients, caregivers, or survivors), many of whom wake up in chronic pain, that is if they got much sleep at all, then go about the business of the day from making oatmeal to feeding the cat. I think of friends living with disabilities that sometimes send them for long hospital stays or experimental treatments. I think of dear ones sitting with overwhelming grief that makes any meaning illusive. I think of my grown children, trying to make sense of the world they’ve inherited, climate change and water shortages and all, and still carrying suitcases of plans and hopes into imagined futures.
Sure, there are easy wins in life. The blue morpho butterfly that lands three feet away on a falling down native sunflower, tilts toward me, and pauses. There’s occasional surprise letters in the mail or sweet calls from old friends, things that don’t require grit and effort over long stretches of time. Sometimes we meet just the right person with no extra effort on our part and find them to be a life-long friend or sweetheart. Occasionally, the shining, crazed face of fortune laughs upon us, and all good things click into their slots.
But so much of what paves or pads our dreams and sometimes even our survival is hard-won, from cancer treatments over months of mystery and fear to the work that brings our lives greater meaning, even if getting there entails plenty of time in doubt, confusion, and uncertainty. Yesterday, for instance, I went for my regular visit with my ocular oncologist, and after the technician apologized for any discomfort from rubbing an ultrasound instrument over my eyeball, I told him it was nothing (truly, it doesn’t hurt at all) compared to the painful surgeries and long recovery. Then I went home to present an Art of Facilitation session with an exuberant group of women, talking about hard-won work we do with our communities.
In most of our days, the seeds and fruit of the hard-won abound. So let us pause this glorious morning, time and clear air at a tolerable temperature an easy gift for the willing, to say how magnificent we are for all that’s hard-won in our lives, both in what we did to make it happen and in how it grows our spirit and capacity. After all, there is nothing like the hard-won to show us that we are so much more than we or anyone else thought.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.