There’s something both stark and magical about the time right before the holiday season opens wide and emcompasses us in a whole lot of baking, cooking, driving to the airport to pick up or being the ones picked up. Last year, we were encased in our pods, bubbles, and virus-avoidant clans, and although this year the door is more ajar with many of us vaccinated and welcomed into each other’s homes, we’re still not out of the pandemic woods.
It’s unclear whether this is the new normal for years to come or another transition phase of masking up to buy turkeys after recovering from being wiped out by a booster shot. Yet whatever it is, I have the distinct sense that we’re not going back to the old normal, and while I’m hoping for more safety and better health for all, there’s also something almost sweet about taking it slow, having smaller gatherings, taking care to protect one another’s health, and hopefully dwelling in more quiet time to just be.
For so many years, I rocked an inherent tension between wanting more solitude and quiet time to read, write, and consider life on the gravel road and also wanting so much to see family and connect more deeply with many cherished friends at one gathering after another. In my journal from 2019, I actually made a list of all the dozen-plus holiday gatherings — small parties, big-ass meals, large gatherings, many a restaurant rendezvous, and the like — and wrote underneath this list how tired I was and how much I wanted to just sit in a chair next to a pile of books in between micro naps. Last year,my wish came true with a vengeance.
Now those colder nights are slowly landing (after a much longer and warmer fall than usual), and tomorrow is Thanksgiving when a small group of close ones come over to eat and visit, socially-distanced but also together. Yet I don’t feel that slipping-into-sugar-and-crowds immersion I used to feel this time of the year. There’s something about a pandemic that sobers us the holidays but also makes times to connect even more lit from within.
At the same time, I’m more cognizant of those of us who might feel lonely, isolated, sad, or afraid. That’s also something that gets clearer through a pandemic. So while I can’t even pretend to dream up what next year will be, I can wish for you that the coming season is a time when you feel at home in the world and on the inside of belonging to yourself and to all of us. Happy Thanksgiving.
For me, it’s always been the trees and sky, sun wavering on the surface of water, wind making its invisible presence known through the curving of prairie grass, the darkening night sky and the stars that emerge. It’s always been the bluebird on the edge of the field, the katy-did and katy-didn’t call of the katydids, the smell of cedar when I rub a small piece between my thumb and forefinger.
No wonder that when I discovered bioregionalism — a calling to learn how to live from where we actually live — I felt metaphorically and literally home. This movement that came of age in the early 1980s (in concert with my own young adulthood) focuses on how to be “…..lifelong students of how to live in balance with our eco-communities. We recognize that we are part of the web of the life, and that all justice, freedom and peace must be grounded in this recognition” (from a bioregional primer I put together with others some years back).
I found not just a name for what I know in my bones but kindred spirits, many of my closest friends to this day, including my husband. The bioregional congresses or gatherings we trekked to in Maine or Texas, British Columbia or Morelos, Mexico, deepened our connection to the places we left behind so that we could return more informed, inspired, and committed to keep community and make change. My bioregional pals have gone on to start land trusts, restore rivers, protect old-growth forests, manage community garden projects, and make no end of art, music, dance, and poetry that helps us breathe into where we live.
Which is a long-winded way of saying how I met Stephanie Mills and David Abram and conceptualized the focus of my new podcast, Tell Me Your Truest Story. I first spied Stephanie in a big circle of 200 or so people at the first bioregional congress in Missouri in 1984 when, as a way to introduce herself, she said, “I want to learn about my inner wildness as well as the outer wildness.” Me too! I set out to get to know her, a very good move given that she’s an embodiment of wisdom, inquiry, and big vision into the harder and also more sublime edges of what it means to live in eco-community.
In 1988, at the bioregional gathering in Squamish, British Columbia, I met David, who not only did sleight of hand magic, but talked with expansive eloquence about how written language distances us from plants, animals, weather and earth, which also have their own language. I shivered in recognition, and when he moved to Lawrence to work on a post-doc at K.U., I made it a point to befriend him. He was sick at the time, so I would leave containers of soup at his doorstep, an offering of food to draw someone deeply connected to the wild out of his cave. It worked.
0ur bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth – our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn those other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.
In the land we may find solace for our wounds, privacy for a developing intimacy with a natural surround, an occasion for acting out healing processes that effect inner healing as well; or we may remain unconscious of and oblivious to the living community of the land. Numbed and paralyzed by the degree of damage that has been inflicted on the land, we may be domineering and exploitive toward it, or even blindly destructive. Our behavior toward the land is an eloquent and detailed expression of our character, and the land is not incapable of reflecting these statements back. We are perfectly bespoken by our surroundings.
My first episode, “The World is Made of Story” (taking its title from something David said during our interview), is about starting at the starting ground, right now and right here. What Stephanie and David have to say helps us listen to the stories that dissolve some of the boundaries between the inner and outer, which Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to in this poem:
Sunday evening, we sat on our back deck around an outdoor table and a wedding gift from Aunt Wilma and Uncle Ron 36-plus years ago, a wonky folding table. It was the first in-person gathering in 15 months of KAW Council, our bioregional community, and after a humid, muddy walk together in the wetlands, it was heavenly to to dwell in friendship and a cool breeze, sharing big salads, chocolate-covered almonds, and what we’re learning in the pandemic. When it was my turn, I talked about how much I loved and have learned from Aunt Wilma, one of many vibrant aunts I inherited when I married Ken.
“You’ll need this more than you can imagine,” Wilma and Ron told us when they gave us that folding table along with four sturdy brown metal folding chairs. At 25 years old, I didn’t understand how much we’d use the table, which we’d pull out often for special appearances at Hanukkah parties, Thanksgiving dinners, game nights with friends, graduations or Bat Mitzvah gatherings, and in the aftermaths of big deaths that brought lots of people and casseroles to our home.
It was the first of many life-changing gifts from Wilma. When our first child, Daniel, was born at the Topeka birthing center, he struggled for life and ended up in the local Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for a week. The care he received was helpful at first, then over the top as the doctors treated this 7-pound-plus baby as a premmie, not letting us hold him. In between pumping milk and freaking out, I took solace in the presence of Wilma and Ron, who were visiting at the time as they did regularly to spend weeks to help my in-laws Alice and Gene with the farm and house. We told the NICU staff that Wilma and Ron were my parents so that they could join us in taking turns putting a hand through the isolette opening to comfort Daniel. Wilma was also there in a small room with Alice while I breast-fed Daniel for the first time. The NICU staff said he was too weak and likely couldn’t do it, but Wilma just said, “Pshaw! He’ll be fine.” She was right.
Over the decades this is how it went with Wilma and Ron, who died four years ago. They showed up, they cleaned gutters and washed dishes, they jollied our babies along and read them books, and they talked up a storm with lots of accompanying photos about their latest adventures helping other family members across the country. They lived to serve, without ever employing a holier-than-thou attitude (even if Ron was a retired minister) or ever judging us. Instead, they embodied a truckload of humor, patience, fortitude, common sense, and even a bit of whimsy on occasion.
I remember Wilma leaning toward a 5-year-old Daniel to show him how to pit a cherry while singing with Alice, “Would you like to make a pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?”, a variation of the old traditional song. I see her holding one of our babies on her lap at Furr’s Cafeteria and telling me she really wasn’t hungry anyway so that I could eat unfettered. I see her pinning a corsage on Alice’s dress right before Alice and Gene’s 50th anniversary. I see her and Ron at our kids’ bar mitzvahs, laughing, crying, singing, and chanting along with us even though they’re deep dish Methodists. I hear her interrupting Ron to say she only dated him because she felt sorry for him when I asked them how they met, both of them eager to laugh and reminisce, contradict each other and laugh some more.
Through the years, Wilma modeled service with a smile, grace under pressure, and what it looks like to arrive early with lots of photos and stay late until the last floor was swept. Like any proper middle child — she was the middle sister out of five — she was a born peace-maker and exercised tolerance as an extreme sport.
She also gave us, our family, and our community a gift that will go on forever, long after her and our lives are over. Wilma did everything possible to help us save the family land, where we built our home 26 years ago. She and Ron instinctively understood and shared our dream of preserving this land (where her great-parents made a home 150 or so years ago). In her last year of life, she did all they could to support us purchasing the family farm so that we could put it in a conservation easement (preserved for perpetuity). Protecting and continuing to steward this mix of prairie and woodlands has been our lifelong dream, and Wilma made it come true.
The night we fittingly sung Wilma’s praises from the back deck, overlooking a big field leading to forest one direction and prairie we’ve replanted, was also the night Wilma died. She was pushing 97 years, and her daughter Judy tells us she went out after a day or more mouthing the words to old hymns they played her on Youtube. She modeled faith and love even while dying.
For those us still living, there’s the squeaky music of an old folding table that gives me faith. As I was putting it away, after I heard the news of Wilma’s passing, I thought about how I’m going to give my kids folding tables when they get older. After all, you never know what loving presence is going to show up in your life, and you want to make plenty of room for them at the table.
When I walked into the Merc Co-op today, I spied Ardys. After talking a little through our masks, she leaned in to bump elbows. “You vaccinated?” I asked. She was, so we flung our arms around each other and held each other tightly, laughing hard and not letting go. It was the dazzlement of my day.
In the last few weeks, I’ve been hugging more than the usual household suspects. On the corner of Massachusetts and 7th streets, between eating a delicious Leeway Franks hot dog and the slice of Ladybird strawberry rhubarb pie, Alice came round the corner. Before I knew it, I was hugging her as if my life depended on it too. When in Arkansas a few weeks ago, I leaned over from the stage where I was giving a poetry reading to hug an old student I hadn’t seen in years, both us near happy hysterics. When I saw my brother-in-law after two years, I hugged him too.
I can’t imagine what it’s been like for those without people or animals in your household to hug (my beloved and dearly departed dog Shay was a great hugger). I know I’ve been extremely lucky to have Ken and every so often Daniel to hug through the pandemic, not to mention Miyako, the cat who hugs in her (and our) sleep. But now, here we are — and if we’re all vaccinated and comfortable enough with the concept of stepping toward another person and throwing our arms around them, and if there’s mutual consent (something I never had to think much about when considering a hug before), the sky’s the limit.
Still, I’m taking it slow, or rather it’s taking me slow because, like all of us, I’m out of the hugging habit. Sometimes I just bump a shoulder into someone. Sometimes I feel strangely shy about suggesting a hug, a little like wondering if I should say, “Hey, want to grab a bite?” Then again, there’s also the possibility of eating together. In restaurants. And not just outside. Then back on the sidewalk, right before heading to our cars, hugging. As if it’s perfectly normal or normally perfect.
“The world will never be the same,” Ken told me right after Goody Garfield’s burial service. “We were witness to one of a kind, and that’s true of everyone, but not to the same level.” Anyone who knew and loved Goody — and if you knew him, how could you not love him? — would agree. There was something about Goody that filled any conversation with marvel, humor, delight, no small stash of wisdom, and no end of winding and illuminating stories.
When I ran into Goody at the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, like just about all of us, he treated me — sometimes while holding my face in both his hands — with wonder and adoration. On birthdays, he would email me show tunes with revised lyrics, like “What a day this has been/ What a carin’ mood has swept in/ Why it’s almost like falling in love.” He sent sweet missives to Ken if he saw an article on prairie plants or poetry to me mused about his latest thoughts and delights while he drank coffee in what he called the wee hours.
To say Goody was exuberant about life doesn’t begin to name his dazzling smile. When he entered a room, we might as well have blasted “76 Trombones” from the rafters. But his way of seeing and being with us was also poignantly intimate. Likewise, Shirley — his partner in crime for so many decades — also carries a depth and a glow at once. Together, they shone with enthusiasm, tenderness, wit, and they knew their way around a good story to get at some out-of-the-way but essential meaning.
If Goody was weather, he would be a windy, sunny, warm April day that charmed all the lilacs and lily-of-the-valley into maximum blooming and made strangers fall in love. No wonder then that we buried Goody in driving cold rain, the wind cutting right through our jackets, the storm soaking through our clothes. Even standing under the awning over the burial site where Shirley and their three loving children — Michael, David, and Debbie — sat near their daughter-in-law and grandson, the weather of heartbreak stormed through. The big hole in the ground mirrored the hole in our hearts.
“Goody was an inspiration. Inspiration means the spirit that he placed in other people. He wasn’t an inspiration because of what he taught; he was an inspiration because of who he was. To my mind, that’s the greatest thing you can say about anyone. ….he brings people to the good,” Rabbi Mark Levin, who led the graveside service, told us. From his bounding and boundless humor (on his Facebook page, he says he’s a retired point guard from the University of Kansas, where he was a life-changing professor of Social Welfare for years) to his fixed attention on what matters in life, he modeled inspiration as well as love.
Maya Angelou writes, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Although I hold tight to what Goody said and did, my life — as well as many of our lives — is changed by how he made me feel so loved and so alive. Although his memory is already a blessing, may it always continue to be.