Love and Death in February: Everyday Magic, Day 1050

“Maybe since January lasted for seven and a half years, February will be easy,” I said to my friend Kris. She was doubtful since February, for us and many others we know, tends to be the longest and hardest month. Never mind the 28 days of it, February is notorious for slipping the bonds of time dragging us into a morass of sadness and fatigue, dying and death.

So far so good, I told myself a week ago, but I rationalized too soon. In recent days, we got the news that one of our dearest friends is going on hospice, and the anticipatory grief and very current despair about the rapid meanness of his cancer trips me from laughing to crying on a dime, especially for wife who loves him so utterly. An old friend I haven’t seen in over a decade died suddenly two days ago. Ken’s wonderful dad died on Feb. 10th in 2009, and a year early, our good friend expert pie maker Weedle died on Feb. 12th.

That’s just us, and I know many close ones who have their own string of February impossible losses and big swaths of grief. It makes me wonder, if we have some say over when we give up the ghost, whether the bitter dregs of winter have anything to do with it. February also tends to be when the worst ice storms or blizzards hit, seemingly out of the blue, but maybe it just feels like that by this time of the year. It’s been cold too long, even with global warming and some surprise 60-degree days, yet spring seems far off.

February is the squeaky door that doesn’t close properly between love and grief in real time. It’s a time of year when I see up close how much deep and unconditional love we’re capable of, despite what we believe of ourselves. A friend just posted on Facebook how caring for her dying husband is stretching her to her seeming limit only to realize she can stretch further. Another friend texted me, “How do we bear the unbearable?” and then a photo of her beloved’s face full of joy as his childhood friend kissed him on the forehead.

We get through the unbearable together. We stretch ourselves in inconceivable ways. We stand on the threshold of February looking back and looking forward but mostly just looking at what we can see here. Like yesterday, while taking out the compost in the hard chill of the air, when I noticed the first crocus, papery and white, blowing hard in the wind but staying intact low to the ground. Like February, especially this year.

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!

Small Sweetnesses in a Dark, Cold Time: Everyday Magic, Day 1048

At Checkers, our big locally-owned grocery store the other day, the check-out lines snaked across the frozen food section with six or so of us in each line, spread apart because of the pandemic. There were only three lanes open when the floor manager came to the lane beside mine and signalled the man in front of me, a 60ish fellow in Chief’s jersey who I had been running into, first in produce, then in eggs, and later in the baking supplies aisle. He scooted over to check out in the new lane.

But then the floor manager, a young woman who didn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in her decisions, suddenly decided she shouldn’t be checking people out, so she closed the register she just opened. I signaled for the guy in the Chief’s jersey to get back in front of me rather than go the end of a growing line of socially-distanced shoppers.

A minute later, he turned around, smiled, and said to me, “What’s your favorite candy bar? I want to buy it for you to thank you.” I said thank you but no thank you, patting my stomach. “Me too,” he said, patting his stomach, and we laughed, talked about how Jim Lewis, the wonderful guy who started this store, wouldn’t have been happy with the floor manager’s actions, and went back to the task of unloading stuff on the conveyor belt.

Pushing my cart out to my car, I thought about how this was a small sweetness, an encounter with a stranger, nothing special, but in this time of keeping far from each other and on high alert for any coughing around us, this was especially sweet. You could say I should get out more, but in a pandemic, that’s not much of a possibility. Yet despite my social life with humans beyond phone and zoom mostly taking place in grocery stores, all of us wearing our KN 95 masks (I hope), there was something very human and reassuring about the experience.

Last week, I had a wonderful exchange with a man from Uruguay at Target at the check-out stand where he worked. We both loved rainbow-y scarves and were each wearing our best versions of the ones we owned. We talked about how neither of us could have imagined how we’d end up in Kansas, but we love it here.

At yoga class this week, heavily-masked and keeping our mats far apart in the big room, I marveled at my son Daniel’s handstand while he was impressed at how long I held a headstand. “Hey, how you doing?” we said in our muffled voices to each other at the end of each class as we layered up for the cold blast just outside the door. Small things, but in a time when such things are rare, these little exchanges are sweetnesses dotting the week.

Like right now: it’s 16 degrees but sunny. Our well-insulated dog has chosen to lie in the sun while our laundry freeze-dries on the line. It’s a flourish, a quiet note in the overall song of the day, but a sweet one. When I can get out of my own way, this is where I choose to put my attention.

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.

On the Edge of the Holidays: Everyday Magic, Day 1043

Last night with Venus rising (to the left)

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.