We Never Leave You, You Never Leave Us: Everyday Magic, Day 1064

I left because it was making me sick, the “it” being the job I had loved fiercely and believed I would give my heart and time to until I was well past retirement age. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was one of the bravest. But my decision also meant I was parted from beloved land and people in and around Vermont who altogether were another home to me.

That was close to four years ago, and illness, cancer, and the pandemic being what they were, I didn’t have the chance to return to Goddard College, and more to the point, the places and people of my heart, until very recently. As soon as the plane touched down, I was surprise-flooded with ansty sorrow and sad urgency, something I would later realize was grief. It turns out that sometimes there’s only so much reconciliation and healing you can do from a distance. The first thing I had to do after we got our rental car was go to the campus with Ken, ferret out Jennifer, the woman who has holds together the college for the good over decades, and hug her a long time.

In 1996, I fell in love with the hills, mountains, woods, valleys, curves, and weather of the Green Mountains through the grounds of Goddard College. The smell of the air (pine, fir, humidity, and old wood) then, the mission of the college, the intense comradery of the faculty, and the life-changing work with the students filled me with a sense that I had found my place….at least for a good long while. I adored the intense, one-on-one teaching—more facilitation of what people wanted to learn and how they could best explore it—I did with students as well as the deep-dish connections with fellow faculty, talking late into the night about whatever made us laugh hardest.

The possibilities felt wide open, and it was there I developed Transformative Language Arts, founded and coordinated a MA in TLA for twenty years, and dug in to spin out out thousands of pages of proposals, plans, handouts, handbooks, and more for other projects, most of which crashed on the shores of we-fear-all-change in its many guises.

I persevered even when the signs billboarded sickness and anxiety, stuckness and despair. In my last decade or so of teaching there, the faculty in my program played a lot of go-on-leave-or-get-fired roulette because of the scarcity of resources and poverty mentality. We took pay cuts. Repeatedly. And we were getting paid way under value in the first place. Bad things happened, including the college, because of poor leadership and other issues, being put on probation. Infighting escalated. Then, for me, some big revelations.

First, I realized I needed to go on leave. Just a semester off, I told myself, after teaching continuously at Goddard or other institutions for 63 semesters straight with never a break. Once on leave, I decided to take off a second semester because I couldn’t make myself come back. Then the dreams started: night after night of seeing myself leaving my job. I’d wake up the next morning to tell myself I loved my job, but then I’d hear a voice in my head ask, “Do you?”

I didn’t anymore. I also had to reconcile myself with the immutable fact that after each ten-day or longer residency, I’d fly back to Kansas and promptly get sick for at least six weeks with chronic sinus issues, migraines, digestive hell. The body never lies, so they say, and this body rang clear as a bell. When I told close friends and my therapist I was thinking of quitting, they replied, “of course you are,” “it’s about time,” and “thank God.”

Since I left, most of my fellow faculty and the director of my program also departed. We’ve stayed in touch, speaking our leaving or needing-to-leave stories, the grief over what was no longer enduring, the dashed hopes and lost people along the way. Yet for me a searing bitterness lingered, blocking out all the good I experienced there, all the ways Goddard grew me up and blew open my understandings of places and people. I felt a sting when I ran into old photos of the place or picked up a cloth bag and found it had the college logo I once so proudly displayed. I had some reckoning to do.

When I returned to Vermont, it was also to wander with Jim across fields bordering Canada while watching ospreys in their nest. To laugh with Ruth over lunch in a quintessential Vermont charmer of a town. To make quinoa tabouli (so good!) with Suzanne we would eat outside surrounded by mountains beyond mountains. To meet the new goats at Sara and Joseph’s place in between hugging them repeatedly. To talk about our lives with Bobby. To connect with past students I’ve missed so much. To listen to so many others I carry with me in my heart from afar. It was a trip full of long hugs and overflowing delight in each other’s presence.

The woods on campus

But there was also this place that carried me for so long. I returned to campus a second time, leaving Ken to nap in the car, and went to the woods. When I was last here in 2018, I left little love notes in the woods, tucking them between branches or under rocks, thanking this place and saying goodbye just in case I didn’t return. It was over six months before I would decide that, but some part of me knew. Now I faced the woods, sitting against a light post on the path between the dorms and the library with my journal open. I was ready to write more notes.

Instead, the wind, the tall trees, the slow-motion falling first autumn leaves, the occasional acorn dropping, the soft late afternoon light told me to take dictation. The place was writing back to me, but no wonder. We are in reciprocal relationships with the land and sky we listen and speak to over time.

“You never left us. We never left you. You never leave us. We never leave you.” This, in so many words, is what I heard and recorded. It chimed through me as truth, helping me see that this place was and still is a healing ground underneath it all (and there’s a lot of “it all”). It turns out I only left a job because it’s impossible to actually leave what’s embedded in you.

Since then, I’ve been thinking of a Mary TallMountain poem I love, “There Is No Word For Goodbye” (which you can see in its entirety here). She writes, “We just say, Tlaa. That means,/ See you./ We never leave each other./ When does your mouth/ say goodbye to your heart?” It doesn’t, and we never leave each other.

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.

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.