Somewhere in Brazil a bunch of people stopped their car on a highway, got out, and signaled other drivers to hold off so that a very large snake could cross the road. When I saw the video, I was amazed at how calm and calming the humans and, to some extent, the snake were in doing what it took for the snake to arrive at the other side. It also made me happy to see members of my own species, known for how often we get it wrong when it comes to the more-than-human world, get it right. Such moments help me re-ignite my faith in this world.
Which leads me to a wedding — not of anyone I know personally but of a writer I admire, Anne Lamott, who, three weeks after she got her Medicare card, married writer Neal Allen. As she told the New York Times, the one thing she still wanted in life was a good marriage. At age 65, she got it. Shortly afterwards, she tweeted, “So never, ever give up, because God is such a show off.”
There are things happening all the time that can tip us toward greater faith in what’s possible and what’s actually even happening, and most of which don’t involve big snakes or fabled weddings. Despite the horrors and heartbreaks, bad decisions, evil renderings, and apathy resulting in terrible suffering, there’s also this: small acts of goodness or big leaps into love. There’s the incessant smell of lilac all around me right now as I type on the porch, my own marriage giving me so much inspiration and strength for a long time, and a so breeze lifting and releasing the cedars and walnut trees. There’s new green and old green unfurling and a whole lot of bird song.
There’s also the baby snake I carefully tricked the cat into releasing from his mouth so that the snake could live (and live outside our house). Grace abounds, and believing in a better world helps us glimpse it, shepherd it across the road, or meet it at the altar.
There I was, looking for the rising moon and wondering why it hadn’t yet shown itself. Maybe it was too early for moonrise or prairie fires just to the north of Hwy. 35, which I was driving from Emporia to Lawrence, were hiding the ceiling of the sky. So I kept driving and looking, hoping for the moon to catch up with me.
I was also simultaneously tired and exhilarated, in part because of the moon the night before keeping me up despite my “go-back-to-sleep-you-have-a-big-day-tomorrow” self-talk attempts. Even with the curtains of our bedroom closed, I could feel that big moon energy, making me want to get up and fry an omelette or read a book, but certainly not sleep.
It was the tail end of that big day — one that brought me meaning and joy, starting with visiting a wonderful poetry writing class at Emporia State University, where we talked about what real work was calling us and what truest words were singing through our writing. I had my first-ever professional studio photo shoot with the wonderful Dave Leiker, who brought me a surprising sense of peace while placing me in the middle of clamshell lighting. I ate gyros with one of my publisher-friends at the local brewery, then guzzled a whole lot of iced tea in the Granada Coffeehouse while revising a grant. I also got to talk deeply over Mexican food about land and literature with the current Kansas Poet Laureate, Kevin Rabas, who teaches at Emporia State, the wonderful creative writing chair, Amy Sage Webb, and a lovely young poet, Linzi Garcia, before giving a reading from Miriam’s Well.
Now I was driving 77 miles home, coming over a ridge to find a prairie fire dancing a line shaped like a question mark to my north, and then another kind of fire: the full moon, half-risen, raging orange, enormous on the eastern horizon.
The rest of the drive the moon rose fuller, slowly getting smaller as it got higher, turning from fire-orange to sherbet to peach to butterscotch to manila. I turned up my CD player, singing along with the whole score of “Godspell,” then rocking out to Kansas’s “Carry On, My Wayward Son” until, so appropriately, Sarah Vaughn’s “Moon River” aligned the moon, the music, the highway, and me.
Driving into the rising moon on an early spring night is a lot like standing outside on the first warm enough day when a sweet breeze blows through our beings and happily clears all the debris of winter and other life challenges, sadnesses, and heartbreaks. The more I drove with my good friend the moon lighting the way, the more I came home to how much I love this world.
“So instead of New Year’s resolutions, I drew up a list for 2019 of experiences that had already passed: a record not of self-mastery but of genuine surprise. 1. My oncology nurse became a dear friend. 2. Even in the hospital I felt the love of God. 3. Zach is under the impression that I never get tired. These are my small miracles scattered like bread crumbs, the way forward dotting the path behind me.” — Kate Bolwer
In reading Kate Bowler’s evocative essay, “How Cancer Changes Hope” and revising poems for my next book, How Times Moves, I’ve been making a U-turn from manifestations for the future back towards surprises from the past. What delights me most in life — and maybe you too — is exactly that: how something far better and more amazing happened than what we pined for, depended on, or planned, like right now when, in middle of writing this, Bruce Springsteen’s “Surprise, Surprise” starts playing on KCMG (my large itunes collection).
My moments of genuine surprise include these which all happen to be moments of education too:
I realized, while in the bathtub on Memorial Day, that I was going on leave from teaching after measuring my life in semesters for 33 years without a break in the pattern. Further thickening the plot, about a month into my leave, I caught myself up on how my soul had actually decided not just to take off a semester but a full year. A corollary surprise was that I had organized enough extra work and income to take such an unpaid leave.
One-on-one coaching is so much akin to holding someone’s hand as we step into the wild landscape of their creative callings. It’s also something I love doing.
I’ve fallen more deeply in love with Lake Superior, my husband’s laughter, what a crockpot can do, all three of my kids, walks along the curving perimeters of cedars on shining days, yoga, the pink shimmering ring around the full moon, making art (parfait dyeing, sculpey, watercolor pen play, etc.), homemade butter, reading, long lunches with dear friends, mackerel clouds, Call the Midwife, Shay the Dog and Miyako and Sidney Iowa, the cats, and music I hear, witness, and make.
The death of a very central being in our family — my mother-in-law — isn’t at all what I dreaded it would be, but instead a panoramic immersion in fierce and tender emotional states, all lit from within by love.
Each of the 25+ reading and workshop I did for my novel Miriam’s Well felt completely new and alive.
Ecstasy, or at least some dose of contentment and satisfaction, is readily available to me when I embrace the seasonal tilts here and now, whether driving up autumnal mountains in Vermont rich with goldening maples or looking up into the snow dazzling down in Kansas or walking to the edge of a peninsula on a cold day in Madison or sitting on a sweltering porch on a too-still summer day full of birdsong and cicada roar. It’s even available right now on a blank-sky day while the rain bounces off the deck outside and the cats sleep inside.
Sometimes a new friend is so obviously a life-long old friend that it’s a puzzlement to answer the question, “so how long have you two been friends?” (thinking of you, Laura), and sometimes an old friend chimes back for new discoveries (yup, you, Ravi). Related to this, the friends who hold my stories are godsends when it comes to reminding me where I came from, what I got through, and what freedom I inhabit right now to follow what calls.
Health and maintaining it is just about more everything that I imagined. Likewise, certain things (I’m looking at you, chocolate mega dessert) that used to embody great mouth joy can quickly trigger a Rube Goldberg-like chain of pain.
It’s an old adage to be careful with or lower our expectations, but I expect we can keep expecting gratitude and surprise, which leads me to share this poem from my new collection-in-the-works:
No One Tells You What to Expect
A downpour as you’re running down Massachusetts Street
in sandals that keep falling off in unexpected puddles.
Ice on power lines. The dying who won’t die,
then a single bluebird dead in your driveway.
The deadline or lost check spilling the orderly papers.
The part that isn’t made anymore for the carburetor,
or the sudden end of chronic sinus infections while lost
in a parking lot looking for where you parked the car.
Your best thinking won’t be enough to save your daughter
from a bad romance or your friend from leaving the man
she’ll regret leaving. Across town, in a quiet gathering
of maples, someone drops to her knees in such sadness
that even the hummingbirds buzz through unnoticed.
The dog you thought gone returns wet and hungry,
the phone call reports the CT scan is negative,
and your husband brings you a tiny strawberry,
the first or the last, growing in your backyard.
Life will right itself on the water when the right rocks come along,
so put down your paddle and let the bend tilt you
toward what comes next: the bottoms that fall out,
the shoes that drop, the wrong email sent while
a cousin you lost touch with decades ago calls,
his voice as familiar as the smell of pot roast
while that song you forgot returns like an old cat.
Why are they so mind-blowingly beautiful? Is it the delicate petal, something between paper and flesh? Or the enormous resilience of seemingly delicate twists of blossoming ethers that can hold up their angel bodies in ferocious storms and come up smiling the next morning? Is it the colors — batik blues and black-purples glistening in the rain, gold dissolving to peach to pink or yellow cusps of sun folded around a quiet center of intoxication? Also, the yellow ones smell like lemons, the purple ones like grapes, and the brown ones like chocolate. Whatever it is, irises had me at Hello Gorgeous!
Let us not, however, ignore a blooming companion many years, the peony, a tight ball of pale pink that explodes into scent and major party animal blossom, but only after tiny ants irritate that bud first. It’s true: peonies burst out at high speed mostly all at once, but the pain-in-the-neck order viagra or cialis online ants are a major player. Piss off a tight round bud, and voila! A peony that seems to stand on its stem outside or in a vase, belting out one show tune after another of big flower power.
Now that the peonies and irises I planted over 18 months ago are having a banner week, I’m beside myself with joy and also the dilemma that I can’t just stare at them, lean down to smell them again, and behold them yet another for uninterrupted hours. Instead, I made frequent jaunts to where they’re standing and showing up like nobody’s business, marveling at the miracle of who they are, and telling them, “You are so beautiful! But you know that already…..obviously.”
The iris are ever-coy and lower their eye lashes while flirting with the wind. The peonies lean back their big heads and start singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning!” Who could argue with either?
The starlings grabbed my attention while I was pacing the living room on a phone call. They poured diagonally down to the lawn, fanning out to bop and dip on the winter grass, then swooshed around to thread through the branches of Cottonwood Mel on their way to the bare mulberry branches. Meanwhile, a dozen or so fluffed-out-to-maximum-roundness robins rock on the branches of the cedar tree outside the kitchen window. When I return to the bedroom, it’s chickadees and junos all the way on our deck railing because of the bird seed I just poured there after filling up the feeder, emptied in record time this morning.
There’s nothing like winter birds around here — the dizzying numbers of them emerging when the temperature drops and the wind pauses or picks up again, scattering them high into the trees or across the horizon until they return again. Everyone is fluffed out to perfection, whether the flicker wedded to the side of the cottonwood or the singular sparrow perched on the clothesline. Some days the blue jays rush in, bullying away the regular residents of our backyard, and usually by mid-February, the bluebirds return, dazzling me beyond measure. The cardinals float like candles in the tall stand of cedars, and the red-winged blackbirds flash fire as they go. One barred owl sways on top of a bare tree each late afternoon
Working at home, I have the advantage of being in a ready-made blind, hidden from them by edges of window frames enough at times that they get close. I also have a bird alarm system through the cats although they get worn out by so many hours of high-definition Cat TV that they fall asleep just a few feet away from all that landing and tweeting. At the same time, it’s hard to work when so many flocks power past with the promise of returning on the other side of their swirl. But the older I get, the more I realize there’s little more important in this computer screen than what’s taking off and coming back into view in the world up close and personal, one window at a time.