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.

Finding Kansas (and That’s All She Wrote): Everyday Magic, Day 1049

A KAW Council campout at Lake Kanopolis in 1982 with, from left, Dan Bentley, the late Mark Larson, Kelly Kindscher, Victoria Sherry, me, Suzanne Richman, and in front of us, Joe Greever, and behind us, Ken Lassman, Shannon Greever, Larry, and Dave Ebbert

I was lucky: I found a place that made a satisfying click when I set foot in it, and I knew.

It was April 30, 1982, I was living in Kansas City, MO at the time, and I had never been to Lawrence. In fact, the furthest west I had been was KCK (Kansas City, KS). With my friend Ira, I was heading toward the first Kansas Area Watershed Council gathering, just 15 miles west of Lawrence. Ira and I liked to talk, and at the time, we had some weeks of life details to catch up on, so trying to head out from Kansas City, we missed the exit to I-70. We went around the maze of highways to take another shot at the exit, but talking so fast and much, we missed it a second time…..and a third time. It turns out the fourth time was the charm.

“I want to stop in Lawrence on the way,” Ira told me. There was a great band playing in South Park, the fabled Tofu Teddy. So we did and we danced. It was relatively warm out, sunny, and the world felt light and easy. Then we were hungry, so: enchiladas. Then it was dark, and we decided to spend the night at a friend of a friend’s house, a bungalow in East Lawrence. There were a few extra bedrooms, and whoever owned it was out of town.

Climbing the stairs to the porch of that bungalow on that spring night, lilac, dirt, and wonder in the air, I felt the weight of a voice on my right shoulder. “This is your home for the rest of your life.” A click of recognition went through my body, and I slept soundly that night. The next morning, we would get to KAW, where I met some of the people who became my best beloveds for life, including Ken, who became a good friend, then the love of my life.

Cobra Rock while it was still standing

I also fell hard for Kansas, and I’m still falling. Not just Lawrence, which of course I adore with all its artsy, activist you-can-make-anything-happen-here (but you might not get paid much for it) energy, but often-ignored corners and crannies of the state. Having roamed Kansas widely, as a visiting scholar for Kansas Humanities since 1992, and later, as a Kansas poet laureate — not to mention all the KAW Council campouts in caves and fields, sleeping bags unrolled under Cobra Rock before it collapsed or in Hutchinson living rooms — I’ve seen a lot of this place. But not nearly enough yet.

Put me on a long drive through the Flint Hills or even across the much-maligned Kansas chunk of I-70 going through ranges of hills and high, dry places where you can see 100 miles or more, and I’m a happy camper (sometimes literally). Serve me what surely feels like the official Kansas dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and corn, and I’m thrilled. Add some fresh apple pie, and what could be wrong with this ailing world?

I’m often enthralled with the communities I’ve dipped into even if they sometimes/often contain people who vote in ways that are incomprehensible to me. I have yet to spend time in any small Kansas town without glimpsing some wild quirks and beyond-any-stereotype humans. “Here’s the master key — just go through every room you want in the hotel and choose whatever you want,” the receptionist at the beautiful, vintage, and haunted (as I soon found out) Midland Railroad Hotel once told me (turned out the whole third floor was once a chicken coop that supplied dinners served on the first floor). I can’t visit Pittsburg without discovering yet another bevy of poets, and I’m sure that town has has many poets per capita as any place in the world. I dig the leftover famous tree stumps in Council Grove and visionaries I’ve met in Garden City. I’ve encountered opera singers on the street, abstract painters who took over old bank buildings for studios, and I even stayed in a grain bin transformed into a bed and breakfast filled with kittens. I’m delighted with the infinity of birds that cross and roost in the flyway as well as all other other wilds ones I’ve seen — bobcats on rare occasion and wild turkeys and massive crows regularly, and once, even a cougar.

I love the expansiveness of this place, the big skies that felt and still feel like the perfect balm for my crowded mind, and after many years, 40 this spring, the exterior has infused the interior. My thoughts and thinking feel less compressed, frenzied, and way less tortured than when I first climbed the steps to that bungalow. I’m home here, and the thing about homecoming is that it’s a continual unfolding and practice, a life-long love affair with being where and who we are. Thank you, Kansas, and hey, Happy Kansas Day!

When the Real Winter Shows Up: Everyday Magic, Day 1046

In the last week, the temperatures have risen well over 70 degrees, what we expect in April and not in late December, but my dubious joy and relief from those balmy days has crashed into the reality of winter, which is a relief. It’s also a drudgery.

Today, it’s overcast, and the world is pewter-cold. Yet I don’t feel that strange panorama of emotion (I’m happy, I’m sad, I’m freaked out, I’m delighted) over climate-change-heated winters that feel like springs. I’m guessing this December, at least in our climes, will be the hottest December on record. So when the temperatures plummeted, it felt right to feel too cold and somewhat miserable because that’s part of what winter is….or at least, what it used to be.

Trying to change radio stations in a freezing car, not yet heating itself up, in wool gloves? Check. Realizing I should have worn my Cuddl Duds (very soft long underwear) under my clothes? Yup. Drinking hot tea instead of iced tea and really enjoying the heat coming off my oatmeal? Yes. Looking outside and feeling as gray and worn as the sky? You bet!

But there’s also a return today of winter wildlife I haven’t seen much of until now, a few days before the end of this strange year. This morning, I was distracted while on the phone by an enormous bird on the cedars outside. After taking some photos and focusing in, we found it was an immature red-tailed hawk, puffed out to maximum plumage. Looking out the bedroom window just now, I saw a family of deer about ten feet away, not yet cold and hungry enough to gingerly wander up to the bird feeder, but closer than they were in our too-warm days.

This is the kind of winter day that immerses us in a charcoal tunnel, but there’s something familiar, expected, normal even about long stretches of cold when we find ourselves thinking 30 degrees isn’t so cold because we’ve just passed through an arctic blast. There’s something right about winter being uncomfortable, and if I haven’t dressed warmly enough, painful and certainly dangerous. Winter shouldn’t be something to be trifled with, yet with all the days our temperatures played ball in the 50s and 60s, now a regular winter day feels odd…..and right too.

There’s no denying so much of what’s wrong these days, especially what’s in big flashing banners before us about climate change and the pandemic. So it’s good when, in the midst of both, I can step outside and feel so cold that the spring-dreaming part of me chimes in time with the wintering world.

For the Love of Mike and His Art: Everyday Magic, Day 1045

The last batch of Mike’s cards for Hanukkah, Christmas, and my birthday

For years, they arrived regularly, two or three batches every month or so that always included one for me, one for Ken, and occasionally one for our kids. Mike Watoma’s postcards, each a work of art, were a mainstay of our mailbox and of many others’ mailboxes too.

About a week ago, Mike, who was housebound in a Topeka apartment because of multiple health issues, died rather suddenly. His death didn’t just leave a hole in our mailboxes but in our hearts.

A bunch of us got to know Mike many years ago through the Kansas Area Watershed Council gatherings, which he attended with aplomb. He taught us how to make handmade drums out of wood and deer hide. He took many KAW Council photos and made gorgeous large-size portfolios, each page an dazzle of images in various shapes with such style and pizzazz that it was hard to look away. He loved the old ones and especially the young ones among us, paying special attention to our kids and encouraging their gifts and propensities.

A born artist, he was always creating, painting voraciously from a young age, making art that blew people’s minds, and keeping at it no matter what. As his health declined, perched on the top floor of his apartment building, he dedicated himself to weaving together community through his art and Facebook, where he was sure to post friendly responses and sources for everything from how to do cemetery stone rubbings to how much he loved the film “The Octopus Teacher.”

But he must have spent hours making and mailing out art. His watercolor paintings (made with watercolor pens, pen and ink and more) were miniature wonders. He had a huge supply of big and small postcard-sized watercolor paper for this art, and his mailing list was far more vast than I imagined. Since he died, I’ve heard from dozens of people on the receiving end of birthday, Christmas, tomatoes are ripe, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Halloween, crows are cool, and special occasion cards. Just this month, he wrote me, “Happy Birthday, Young Lady” as well as a Hanukkah card with a not-so-secret confession that this particular painting was one of his favorites (but shhh, don’t tell anyone).

His cheer, creativity, and big-hearted compassion covered our refrigerators and found its way into our drawers and onto our shelves around and beyond Kansas. I can’t think of a better way to share art than what Mike did, giving so many of us so many small and steady flying and postmarked treasures. Long may his flag wave in our memories and may we display his generosity, imagination, and love in our homes.

Listening to the Land With New Hearing: Everyday Magic, Day 1061

Lying in bed this morning between layers of flannel with a purring kitty under the covers with me, I dreamed in and out of the call of a barred owl, seemingly on the other side of the window. Its call sounded different than the night time “who cooks for you?” call, more like a rooster cock-a-doodling up, then a cat purr-meowing down. Surely it was a hunting call, Ken said, and maybe the sudden absence of squirrels on the deck proved this.

I’m learning to listen to the land with new hearing. Since the eye cancer’s Rube Goldberg-esque antics of cancer leading to radiation in the face leading to extensive dental drilling leading to tinnitus, my hearing has been encased in a bubble of white noise. Sometimes, like lately as I recover from various insults to the sinuses (a cold, mold allergies), the hum-buzz-shush of sound is louder, and sometimes the volume is lowered.

But there’s always something, and I know tinnitus impacts so many of us and it’s not personal to me. Still, learning to hear in this new way is personal. It lets in sound at different volumes than in the past. Words people say are harder to grasp but background noise is amplified. I’m also more attuned to the sounds of the land: the chatter-scuffle-leaps of squirrels on the deck railing, the lift-up of starlings in the field, and the wind clanging what’s left of Cottonwood Mel’s leaves against branches.

I’m also listening to quiet, at least relative quiet (because the sound is never not there) more through my daily meditation when I give myself over to being in this cocoon of the noise of my brain (which is what tinnitus is — we lose some of what filters out that noise). In a strange way, it’s become a comforting sensation of being held in a gentle and constant rocking hush. Other times the pitch gets higher, and it’s just annoying, but I’m trying to befriend even that because it’s also reality.

Meanwhile, just as — to paraphrase e.e. cummings’ poem — the eyes of my eyes were opened in new ways, now the ears of my ears are opening. There’s a big world of wind and rain, cats and owls, and so much more to hear in this land. “Oh, the sounds of the earth are like music,” goes the beginning of one verse of Oklahoma’s “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” So why not tune in and listen to what this music of the earth is telling us?