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.

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.

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.

Two Years Later and What Will be Two Years From Now?: Everyday Magic, Day 1053

A photo I took two years ago

It all changed March 13, 2020 for many of us in this country. That Friday the 13th was auspicious in ways people like me didn’t see coming. The pandemic had reached a threshold, and on a dime, we started shutting things down or readying ourselves for the consequences of staying put in our homes and fear.

Kelley Hunt and I were in the middle of putting the final touches on an all-day workshop bringing people in our community together to write songs and stories of the East Lawrence neighborhood. When I called her and said we had to cancel, she said she was thinking the same thing. Never mind the piles of cold cuts, and fresh bread and notepads we had assembled. We would have to work with people a different way to complete this project.

We all had to find a different way, moving at triple speed to bring our work into our homes and over our screens while the days extended in triple slow motion. Wasn’t March of 2020 over 72 weeks long? Wasn’t each day a week of trembling throats and scared stomachs? Wasn’t each night punctured with insomnia as so many sat up in bed, asking ourselves or whoever shared the bed with us — human or cat or dog or ghost — the impossible questions. When would this end? What was this? Who would it hurt or kill? Would we be okay? How would we find a way through?

As I type this questions, I recognize how far-too-relevant they are for Ukrainians right now as their cities and towns, hospitals and military bases get bombed and shelled, as the Russian troops encircle and threaten what was once a normal country living its normal life. The wolf is at the door, and he’s armed to the hilt with no vaccine possible against such evil.

These are times — pandemics and wars — that break open our hearts to show us what we’re made of and expose all the cracks. These times also stop our thoughts and thinking in their well-worn tracks. We just don’t know. We just didn’t know two years ago, and we have no idea about what will or won’t be resolved, and how, and where it will land in two more years.

But we do know how important it is for us to tell our stories, write our poems, sing our songs, so often each one a lantern in the dark. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that life found Kelley and me in the middle of facilitating people to do just that on March 13, 2020. Just today, Odessa-born poet Ilya Kaminsky wrote in “Poems in a Time of War,” that when he asked an older friend in Ukraine how he could help, his friend replied, “Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine.” Kaminsky reminded us, “In the middle of war, he is asking for poems.”

I would add do whatever you can that helps and helps you find your courage and voice.