The Inner and Outer Wildness That Brings Us Home: Everyday Magic, Day 1005

Stephanie Mills and my son Daniel at a Kansas Area Watershed Council gathering

Here’s a post about my new podcast, “Tell Me Your Truest Story.” Please listen to the podcast here.

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.

Hanging with David at his home in Santa Fe

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.

In the years since, both David and Stephanie have published the kinds of books that change lives, especially mine. David’s Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, which he finished while in Lawrence, illuminate who we are in relation with the living earth. He writes,

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.

Stephanie’s books, especially her Epicurian Simplicity, still tilts me toward being more where I am by growing my real-time awareness of leaves and insects, skies and ground. She writes, In Service to the Wild: Restoring and Reinhabiting Damaged Land,

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:

Ah, not to be cut off,

not through the slightest partition

shut out from the law of the stars.

The inner – what is it?

if not intensified sky,

hurled through with birds and deep

with the winds of homecoming.

Please listen to the podcast here.

Loving Aunt Wilma: Everyday Magic, Day 1038

WIth Ron & Wilma in 2017

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.

Just home with Daniel from the hospital

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.

Helping Alice on the farm

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.

Ron & Wilma with three of their daughters, a son-in-law, and us

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.

P.S. Here’s what I wrote about gerunds and loving Uncle Ron after he died.

Hugging People As If It’s Perfectly Normal: Everyday Magic, Day 1037

Two friends hugging some years ago like many of us can do again

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.

In Praise of Goody: Everyday Magic, Day 1032

Goody and Shirley with Steve at the Blintz Brunch one year

“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.

Goody with his daughter Debbie at another Blintz Brunch.

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.

Goody ready to lead us in lighting the Hanukkah candles one night. Long may his light shine!

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.

What is a Bad Year? What is a Good Year? Everyday Magic, Day 1024

A friend told me that during her Christmas Zoom with family scattered far and wide, she realized how lucky they were: no one had Covid, lost their life or their job, and all had warm homes with ample food and holidays delights within easy reach. The next day I saw a line rush by on Twitter: “You didn’t have a bad year if the worst you experienced was not being able to go on vacation.”

So who is having a truly bad year? One of my coaching clients found in her research that about one third or more of us are comfy and cozy with adequate employment and health (although these numbers are in flux). The rest of Americans are struggling with what the headlines sum up as unemployment or underemployment, food insecurity, and inadequate or non-existent healthcare — all of which push them into situations where they face greater risks of exposure to Covid.

No surprise, that people who face greater economic disparity, are communities (Black, Latino, Native American, and others — more here) with the highest percentages of coronavirus. Overlapping with this, anyone who tends to have a low-paying or minimum wage job — such as people working in restaurants, hotels, gas stations, etc. — can’t work from home….that is, if they’re working at all. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on young people and people in the service industry (who are sometimes one and the same). My daughter, who left a serving job a year ago, says that 80% of her server friends are out of work, which mirrors statistics I’ve seen.

Then there’s the pain we can’t measure with statistical data: those grieving beloveds lost to Covid as well as those living with long-term health impacts from the disease. When the pandemic came home to roost in March, I remember so many conversations with people about how strange it was to have something largely invisible wreaking such havoc. Now, for just about everyone I know, it’s all too real. A dear friend lost her husband last Saturday after weeks of him being intubated. One of my old high school pals’ mom died, isolated in a nursing home with no family to comfort her, a few weeks ago. Friends in Minnesota, family in Wichita, pals around town tell of how it was the sickest they ever felt or not so horrendous but very strange (and still no sense of smell and taste has returned) or they’re relatively over it, but now they have asthma for life. I know people who are long-haulers, meaning the virus comes back to send them to bed every few weeks or months. There are other stories any of us, some of those stories our own, could add to this list.

But it’s not just the pandemic making 2020 an agony of year for many people: there’s the record-number of fires in California and Colorado and many western states in between. Although my friends out yonder aren’t struggling to stay inside with all the windows sealed because of dangerous air quality right now, many of them know and see the impacts. Amazing ecological writer Barry Lopez, who died this week, lost his home to the fires after years of writing about climate change and its personal and collective impacts. There are thousands of people rebuilding or trying to rebuild after losing everything. It was also one of the most active and destructive hurricane seasons ever (more here) with so many people losing homes, businesses, and even their communities to flooding.

All of this is to say that there’s a big gap between those of us who are healthy, homed, and moneyed enough, even if we’re also holding the weight of collective despair, fear, and anger, and those of us living on or over the edge of poverty, home or food insecurity, grief and heartbreak. How we define good or bad is often a personal and idiosyncratic thing, but one thing we can likely all agree on: it’s been a year like no other, and the totality of 2020’s pain and suffering hurts any feeling person’s heart.

Many say that humans are at their best in the worst of times, and that seems true too. I’ve seen — and likely you have too — so many altruistic acts of love, such as Meg Heriford’s commitment to transform her diner into a place offering free, hot meals (good ones too) to anyone in need along with pantry boxes and blankets (see the Washington Post article on her here). People I don’t know have reached out on Facebook to support me and others. Those I see on walks in the wetlands wave and say hello, clearly smiling under their masks. Most of us have given more contributions to more good work this year than in the last decade altogether. Just the other day on a 3-hour call (don’t ask) with AT&T customer assistance, I had a heart-to-heart with a service rep in Indonesia who wanted to make sure, in addition to fixing an account issue, that I was staying safe and had eaten a good lunch. Tenderness is afoot.

Yet here we are, on the cusp of 2021, and where I am, the sky is clouding over and preparing to likely paint the world in snow. I welcome the peace, I’m grateful to be warm and well-cared-for, and I’m enthralled with and in love with all the goodness innate in us also.