Force of Nature Day (Which is Actually Everyday): Everyday Magic, Day 1058

Sunday morning just before the storm hit, photo by Stephen Locke

Yesterday began with running outside in our pajamas to cut irises as fast as possible while 70 mph winds and a giant thunderstorm descended. The day ended with a full lunar eclipse’s red moon. Some days are like that – force of nature days when everything seems to happen with such power, art, soul, and amazement at once that it’s clear we are not in charge. Ultimately, life is like that, and often it’s too easy to forget.

I write this from Brave Voice, the 17th annual retreat I lead with singer Kelley Hunt in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The irises were to vase up and distribute throughout the camp in each of our cabins and in the main lodge where we meet to write, sing, listen, collaborate, and dwell in wonder together. The storm made driving from home to Council Grove lake, where the camp is, more than interesting, Kelley at the wheel and Ken on the phone tracing our location with radar to warn us when we might need to pull over and wait out the downpour. The eclipse happened for most of of us in this area with clear skies that darkened to pop out the stars even more so, the Milky Way dazzling as it arced across the night sky.

Yesterday we went from the deadly and dramatic to the sublime and rare, but actually, even more ordinary-looking days are much the same. The earth is at the wheel despite humans making so many species, including ourselves if we continue on our current trajectory, extinct. When I see headlines or catch snippets of conversations about how we’re killing the earth, I bristle at the language because this big rotating planet will survive, perhaps in a state that barely supports life as we know it long after we’re gone. But the earth is like the Dude: it abides. It’s been here long before fish-like creatures crept out of the water and learned to breathe air and evolve into so many other species (including us), long before ice ages and continents breaking apart (and aren’t we all still in motion?), long before bipeds were just glimpsing how to measure out units of time to support the hunt or remember where to return to harvest what grows underground.

Big winds, red moons or not, each day tilts open the force of nature that is us and that is. Like right now when I sit on a porch outside the White Memorial Camp lodge, mesmerized like several others around me by the build-up, then slow-down of bird song. While I watch the rabbit racing the sun across the field, the cardinal landing to look for dinner, the oak tree moving its tentative fingers in the same wind that covers half my face with my hair. The open blue sky, so vast and mutable, is a constant force of nature and so is all it holds, even us if we’re brave up to speak and act for this beauty persistence that just wants to live.

“Three Walking Songs for the Night”: Everyday Magic, Day 1056

Going from winter (otherwise known as much of April) to summer (disguised as May this year) has plummeted many of us in Kansas into the high humidity of late summer, chiggers and thunderstorms and all. While determined to work outside on this porch as much as I can — ceiling and floor fans swirling and iced water flowing — I’m hot, sweaty, shaky, and a little stunned. It feels like those breezy spring days full of blossoms galore and chilled good sleeping weather have been climate-napped away. But then we live in and do well to acknowledge the extremes wrought by life and global warming.

No season leaves us without gifts, however, and lately, the mid-90’s day temperatures dissolve into those luscious summer nights that I also live for. Walking on deck or down the gravel drive each night (lesson learned from this weekend: don’t walk in the grass without protection because the ticks and chiggers are fierce), I’m reminded of how much I love strolling through summer nights. Like most things in language, a poem shows that better than I could explain, so I dug out a small set of poems I wrote some years ago over the course of many summer nights. This poem (along with many others) appears in my book, How Time Moves: New & Selected Poems.

Three Walking Songs for the Night

1.

I walk across a field. No more destination,

journey through or over water.

No more dreams of arriving.

I’m here, overlooking a small slope

that leads nowhere. Leaves drop out

of the wet branches. The field eats them.

A fox. Then the sky turns itself

like a clever hand this way and that,

blocking or letting through the moon.

Sometimes rain falls. No matter.

The animals come anyway.

When it clears, I lie on the fallen grass,

look at the brave sky,

and tell myself, “shut up and trust that.”

2.

When I wake in the dark, I will go to the forest

with no flashlight, and walk slowly, afraid,

letting my feet make out where next to step,

waiting for what’s hidden to let me into its hiding.

No longer dreaming of his hands cupping my head

tenderly, I will just walk in, feeling only

where to land, the noise of the running world no longer running,

the tree frogs cupping their motor song over

the motor song of the cicadas, the brush of branch

on branch, the owls a broken harmonic.

Oh, dream of being loved so perfectly,

Oh, dream of forgiveness,

Oh, damp moon in a pool of clouds,

wide stillness of nothing that we call sky,

now, please let me be brave enough.

3.

I was afraid most of that year.

No particular reason.

Just the rush of old air through my lungs

as if it had nothing better to do.

I’d wake a lot at night, puppy diving

after the kitten, the baby nightmaring

right into the center of my good dream.

I’d wake for nothing also,

sit up, climb out of bed, walking the house

to prove to myself there was no reason

to be afraid. I mean, look at that moon

carrying itself branch to tree branch.

Look at the indentations the wind makes

of its body in the grass.

See how round the earth is,

remember how many animals sleep

hidden like prayers in the tall grass.

See the open mouth of the sky, the shifting of stars

across the throat of the universe,

this time in its slot actually happening.

My Friend Vaughn and the Walk to the House Down the Road: Everyday Magic, Day 1054

“Vaughn keeps talking about the house down the road,” Julie, his wife, told me just a few days before he died. I listened on the other end of the phone, looking out the window from my room at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow into the quickly-accumulating snow on the roof. I was hesitant to have come to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, not wanting to leave my dear friends Julie or Vaughn, but it also felt like the right thing to do although most of the regularly-scheduled things of our lives make little to no sense when death is imminent.

Vaughn I’ve known for so long I can’t remember when we met, but surely in the early 80s, and Julie became a fast beloved friend a dozen years ago when her adventure with Vaughn brought her to us. I thought I had a good sense of Vaughn, but I got to know him even better at the end of his life when he actively helped me write his obituary (you can read at this link) over hig last month in between talking through songs, poems, readings, and speakers for his Celebration of Life, which I had the honor of officiating Sat., March 26. The obituary and the service were long, winding, full of deep notes and soaring voices, wild stories and vast memories, just like Vaughn. Then again, any life, especially one lived with vibrant gusto, and admirable affection is a infinite unfolding.

Vaughn especially made big differences for many of us. Vaughn has changed my life, including in one small and one enormous way: red cowboy boots and the farm. When I was diagnosed with eye cancer, I wrote a pithy blog post about being back at the cancer rodeo, and all I needed now were a pair of red cowboy boots. “Then she shall have them,” Vaughn told Julie. Within a week, Vaughn and Julie were walking from their car to our house carrying a large box. They fit perfectly.

The farm, however, is something too big to fit anywhere although somehow it’s in our arms after being only in our hearts for years. When it became possible (although seemingly highly improbable) for us to purchase the land we’ve been trying to save for 35 years, it was Vaughn who gave us the guts and gumption to believe we could. He first brainstormed with us about building an ecological small housing development on part of the land, and when we all realized we had no idea how to actually do that, he was game to help us with financing. His willingness was a strong enough bridge that it led us to imaginative and sustainable financing beyond him. While we might have gotten there on our own, Vaughn’s passion for the people and land he loved sped us toward our destination in time for all the pieces to come together.

Vaughn’s death on March 17, shortly after I got home from Arkansas, brought relief, heartbreak, calm, beauty, and the big mystery of grief all together for many of us. He died in Julie’s arms with his his dear friend Danny and Julie’s wonderful daughter Becca around him. Shortly afterwards, Ken and I drove over as the full moon set to help prepare the body for his green burial. The room was full of calm, love, and peace, and being part of such sacred moments is surely one of the more important reasons we’re alive.

But in the time between his death and burial, I felt discombobulated and confused, uneasy and not really wherever I was supposed to be. I remembered how, when my dad died, the Colombian rabbi who got to know my dad told us that the time between death and burial was an immersion into limbo (one reason, he explained, Jews bury their dead so quickly). He added that we don’t officially become mourners until we lay the body to rest.

Saturday, when Vaughn’s friends and family lowered the biodegradable coffin into the living earth, then we did our burial ceremony, ending in filling in the grave, I realized we as well as Vaughn had made the journey to the house down the road. It’s lonely and little empty not to have him with us, but there’s so much to remember, including how I played John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” for him recently, and he said to make sure that was in the service also.

Here is the poem I wrote for him when I was at Dairy Hollow, right after speaking with Julie (and yes, the ending is a nod to the John Prine song). May we all find where we belong, and when it comes to our loved ones, carry what we remember into the house where we live now.

Walking To the House Down the Road

for Vaughn, 3/12/22

Of course it’s a house for you who loves

to build and rebuild the uninhabitable

into homes of music and good food.

Winter makes it harder, especially

when false spring turns to thunder snow

and sheet on a Sunday afternoon.

But leaving when blossoms clutch

the sky or when summer nights fill us

with lightning bugs and katydids

would be harder to leave behind

in this house of a life, each packed box

a decade overflowing of who you still are

and will always be even down the road.

A dog barks from the kitchen. The last

of the snow drops from the branches

while the steps to the last place you live

dampen in the sheen of old rain.

The birds come and go, whole flocks

of red-winged blackbirds, twisting

murmurations of starlings just

down the road from here

to where you’re going without

leaving this bed, with leaving this bed

like breath or time. But we can’t

say that, bear that now while you still

sleep or reach up to kiss again and

never enough. Love is a well

with no bottom, a weathervane

in the wind, an oak so heavy

with yesterday’s snow that it can’t,

it has to, let go, but love is also

what makes it possible to let go.

The lights in the house down the road

are already on for you, the door already

just a little ajar, the road between there

and here made of gravel, watching, weather,

one story to step into after another,

each say saying, don’t go, each

answering, I love you, it’s okay,

we remember, we will remember

everything.

Doe a Deer Lives to See Another Day: Everyday Magic, Day 1047

Some of the does last year

This is a story of what can happen when you ask the birds to talk to the deer as well as how conversations in our minds can seem like they really occurred. It also has something to do with how you can take the girl out of Brooklyn and New Jersey, but you can’t easily take the Bambi fantasies of magical deer out of her so easily.

So on Monday morning, when a hunter Ken made arrangements showed up to set up a blind, all was not right in the disheveled kingdom of our home. Ken had talked about this extensively with Daniel, a friend of ours who’s an expert on the negative impact deer can have on plant life, and in his mind with me. Obviously, I was cordial and agreeable in his head. In real life, not so much. I was flipped out and angry, and untangling the mess entailed some sadness, confusion, chaos, a little crying, a little yelling, and a few “what the fucks.” But Ken assured me that the hunter would only come for one day, on Tuesday. He would only shoot one doe (this is doe hunting season) — no bucks, no fawns — and also, Ken had spoken to the birds about the situation and asked them to tell the does that if they weren’t down for this, they should lie low.

I had been speaking to the birds and the deer myself for years, often telling them (in my mind at least) that they were safe here, that this land was a sanctuary for them, that we would protect them, and hey, deer, if you need to eat some of the garden, so be it. Of course, it wasn’t just the garden: the deer had ripping out some of the oak trees Ken had been nurturing from acorns for years to bring back the oak-hickory roots of the woods. They had wreaked havoc on fruit trees in our yard too, and although Ken had taken pains to protect all these trees as best he could, it is true that the deer population is overly healthy here.

The hunter showed up very early Tuesday morning to sit up a tree behind a blind in cold and biting wind. After two hours, he had only seen five bucks, who leisurely wandered by on their way to shoot the breeze over coffee. He left for a while to warm up, planning to come up about 2:30 p.m. Right before he pulled in, I went outside and had a talk with the birds myself: “Please tell the does to get the hell out of here for a while and also that I love them.” The bad-ass chickadees and juncos stared at me briefly before going back to their sunflower seeds. The blue jays, crows, cardinals, and red-bellied woodpeckers skittered away, but I know they heard me. I went inside the house to work, hoping not to see Ken helping the hunter carry out a dead doe.

Turns out that this time the hunter only saw some fawns, laughing at the base of the tree where he waited, when really they should have been at school at the time. They hung out for a while, but amazingly enough — although there are ample does on this land — none opted to take one for the team.

Ken also sent me a passage from botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s superb book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, about “the honorable harvest.” I also believe in and support sustainable hunting and being mindful of the balance of a particular ecosystem as part and parcel of stewarding the land. At least in theory…..it turns out that I still have a Disney-storied deal with the deer, who have continually seem like embodiments of grace and blessings to me.

But for this year at least, no does were harmed in the making of this blog post.

P.S. Ken says to tell you that yesterday he saw three does hanging out by the driveway.

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.