Ken Irby, Rest (Travel, Drink, Read and Write) in Peace: Everyday Magic, Day 861

IrbybyRobertAmoryLast night, unusually cool and refreshing for this time of year, I drove home late in the dark, remembering another such summer night over 25 years ago. My husband Ken and I were hamboing — a  Swedish couple’s dance more akin to flying than waltzing — across the Meadowbrook apartments parking lot while Ken Irby clapped his hands together, calling out, “Marvelous!” We were in the middle of one of those sublime Ken Irby evenings back then when we would go to his apartment, partake of a perfectly-prepared roast chicken, some wicked dessert, and for those who drank, too much wine and after-dinner sherry while talking of books and poets, adventures and more books. Somehow the topic of folkdancing, which Ken and I do, came up, and I said something about the miraculous hambo. Not having room between the roving stacks of books in Ken’s small apartment, we took to the parking lot.

Last night I got to join some of Ken’s closest friends, some of whom have been devoting themselves to his health and comfort over many months of illness, in a hospital intensive care room. I walked in to find Robert reading a passage from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (the 1855 edition, which surely would have mattered to Ken), on Joe’s cell phone, and I soon caught on that we were passing the phone around, each reading a passage, nine of us in a semi-circle around Ken. Whitman never sounded so strong, meaningful or relevant to me before although I’m a long-time fan. Hearing this poetry in different voices brought it thoroughly alive as we watched Ken raggedly breath, his pulse and heart rate slowly dropping on the monitor.

Ken and I met when I was assigned to his basement office in the bowels of Wescoe (before it was renovated) on the KU campus in 1986. A new teaching assistant in English, I was thrilled to know I would be sharing an office with a “famous poet” as well as another office mate. I was also told Ken could be difficult. But that difficulty wasn’t such an issue as long as I didn’t contest him using 80% of the bookshelves and file cabinets for hundreds of book he had out from the library on long-term loan based on the premise that who could possibly appreciate these books more than him?

Our third office mate changed regularly, beginning with a quiet, religious, sports-minded, weightlifter from Texas, who, upon meeting us, said, “You can tell a lot about a man by how he fills out his shirt.” Other office mates rotating through until our last, and best one, Andrew, who had a crazy enough sense of humor to match ours, and also supported me when I complained about Ken.

There was a lot to complain about: Ken was arrogant, self-absorbed, and haughty. He regularly favored men over women, sometimes humiliated women poets in public, and got belligerent when he drank too much (which he did often). As one of my friends, and a fellow women poet, and I recently agreed, he could be a fucking jerk, but he was our fucking jerk.  In ten years of rooming with him, he never read my poetry, and he was even less enthusiastic about my growing family. As he held court with his students, talking enthusiastically about Duncan or Whitman, he rolled his eyes at me when he saw me nursing an infant with one arm while grading papers with another. When I told Ken was pregnant with my third child, he raised his eyebrows, sighed dramatically, and with his deep velvet voice, yelled out, “Not again, Caryn!”

We actually had a blast together co-habitating in an 8′ by 8′ space, packed with three desks, three file cabinets, and a whole lot of shelves. We shared every ounce of English department gossip, tended to love and hate the same people, and were easily outraged on each other’s account. If someone did me wrong, Ken properly trashed them with his acute verbal speed and expansive vocabulary. We puzzled over the quandary of teaching, celebrated the students we liked best, and wondered what happened to the ones who went astray. We praised Rilke, who we both loved, and Ken made it a point to give me Rilke poetry on my birthday, because Rilke and I share the same birthday. In fact, Ken knew every famous poet’s birthday, and commemorated it. We talked Kansas up one side and down another, Ken frequently telling stories about Fort Scott, where he grew up. In readings we participated in over many years, Ken read from his poems, so strong, it seemed they always existed in some form. He also knew literature in such great and vibrant nuance and depth that he could (and did!) talk at length about most dead or living writers I mentioned, which was particularly helpful for me when I was studying for my comps. Over the years in that office, and the many more years since then, we updated each other on children — my kids, and his very beloved brother’s children — and caught up on people we knew, travels, and what he had been reading lately. Whatever Ken was, he was never boring.

Reading Whitman to Ken last night, I realized — as we all realize in those last moments with dear ones — that in the end, only love matters. Here this dear, complicated, paradoxical man, poet (read this homage to visitors from the farthest star), Kansan, teacher, and friend was dying, surrounded by poetry. Although we switched from Whitman to Rilke before we got to this passage from Leaves of Grass, I believe these lines speak perfectly to the Ken I knew. May he sound his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the next world, our affection for him trailing behind.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

A Town That Changed My Life: Everyday Magic, Day 859

With old friends, from left, Steve, Dave, and John
With old friends, from left, Steve, Dave, and John

There was a moment in 1981 when I was driving from Columbia, Missouri to Kansas City, where I had just gotten fired from my first job out of college, crying so hard that I could hardly see the road. My friend had given me a key to the now-gone anarchist house, where I vowed I would move as soon as I packed up my KC apartment. As she gave me the key, she said, “You’re not coming back.” I told her she was wrong, but as I was driving and crying, I realized she was right although I couldn’t say why. Sometimes a single moment, informed by a compulsion that doesn’t make sense, can change your life just in the way coming to Columbia in the first place changed mine.

In 1979, having mostly finished a community college degree, I got on a plane with my friend Kathy, our combined 11 pieces of luggage, and no idea where I was going. Having grown up in Brooklyn and New Jersey, I didn’t know from the Midwest. Over 17 hours later — a blizzard, several delays, a flight to St. Louis, and a long bus ride in the middle of the night — I arrived in Columbia. It was dark, the streets were piled high with fresh snow, and it was crazy cold.

IMG_4351
First and only dorm I lived in

I didn’t know then that when I woke up, the next day and many others to come, that I was waking up to a very different direction for my life than what my 19-year-old mind had diligently planned (get journalism degree, return to NJ, live near the beach, be reporter, marry boyfriend, write poetry). In fact, the only part of the equation that stuck was the poetry.

What Columbia gave me, most of all, was gumption. I learned — by necessity at breakneck speed after my father retroactively cut off my college tuition — how to support myself and aim toward where I was led rather than the conventional wisdom at the time (as in, “Write poetry? Better become a journalist”). During my two and half years there, I worked as a Dairy Queen parfait maker and floor scrubber, movie theater concessions pusher, mom-and-pop store cashier, reader for a legally blind woman, and night-shift newspaper shuffler (catching newspapers off the conveyor belt, and shuffling their sections together).

I also worked somewhat at school although I didn’t make going to all my classes the habit it should have been. After my meeting a diet-coke-swizzling mentor, historian Dave Thelen, who told me, “You don’t belong in journalism school. They’ll ruin you!”, I added history as a second major, which became my only major after the J-school booted me out. Mostly, I majored in grassroots organizing, working with labor-friendly student groups with silly plans (“let’s organize all the secretaries on campus!”) but earnest intentions. What I was learning about broadcasting and newspaper writing in my journalism classes was very helpful for making flyers, press releases, and even, on fabled (and still going strong) community radio station KOPN, doing a socialist radio show, “Saturday’s Children (Must Work for a Living)” with the now-editor of In These Times (our theme song was “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins). Most of my free time was driven by trying to get myself loved in all the wrong ways, attempting to appear cooler than I was, and riding bikes in the rain at night with bunches of anarchists before splitting tubs of ice cream on the lawn of the V.A. hospital.

Columbia was my town, the IMG_4339place I felt increasingly like myself, and where I wandered at any hour in the night with a sense of freedom and friendliness. As Ken and I walked in the sweltering night (“200% humidity,” I told Ken, who later showed me how it was only 84%), I led us on a treasure hunt to find the places I loved. We stopped at the Heidelberg, where I tried my luck at being cynical with the other J-school students, and also partied with Spyro Gyra after their concert at MU (they were young, we were young). There was the corner where Shakespeare’s Pizza used to be; the now-defunct Chez Coffeehouse, where I volunteered by mixing coffee with hot chocolate for patrons while listening to Papa Joe, aka Joe Newberry; the ancient pin oak I hugged after my friend Gayle died from treatment for leukemia; and the Wilson Street house where I lived with Kathy and six other women (we told people it was the Feel My Thigh sorority), subsisting on Ramen noodles, cheap beer, and potatoes. The next morning, we found the dorm where I lived for six months with a lovely woman from a born-again Christian family, then the bungalow where I lived for a year, badly choosing to make the back sleeping porch my room (no heat in winter, so I ended up spending months on the floor of my roommate Gary’s room). IMG_4366

I also found my people in Columbia, and this week, I reunited with three of them: I hadn’t seen John in a mere 26 or so years, and Dave and Steve for over 34 years, but lost time didn’t matter. We ate breakfast burritos, shared orange-apple-grapefruit juice, and reminded each other of “the time that…” and “well, no one wore clothes then” stories in between passing phones around to show off grown kids.

Driving home, I asked myself why I hadn’t been back more, considering Columbia is just a 3-hour drive east, but then again, as with most Kansan-naturalized folks, I’m oriented to heading west. At least, I was until this weekend. Now with plans to reconnect there and go on adventures (“Let’s go to Yosemite! Let’s go see the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska in March! Let’s check out the Flint Hills!”), I’m home — in Lawrence, the other town that changed my life — with an unpacked suitcase and fully-packed heart, ready to return.

Five Wonders at the End of June: Everyday Magic, Day 855

Mothra!
Mothra!

Little wonders abound, and in the last week, here are five I experienced:

1. Mothra! On Sunday we found this guy just off the side of our porch, a giant moth (over six inches across) who blended beautifully with the porch siding and ceiling. Sometimes the amazing is in plain sight, life camoflaged in life. Walk softly, and carry a measuring stick.

2. Flower Power: I caught sight of these gorgeous purple coneflowers aka echinacea right outside Plymouth Congregational Church

Purple Coneflowers
Purple Coneflowers

while strolling around Lawrence with Ken and our friend Stephen Locke. Mostly, we were pausing to listen to the nighthawks dive at dizzying speed while digesting superb Indian food and our lovely time presenting Chasing Weather at the arts center. The flowers grabbed my attention, and how could they not? They were bundling fountains of pink, happy as the day is long, and given that we were just past the summer solstice, the good day was long indeed.

Bathroom Notoriety
Bathroom Notoriety

3. My Name in Lights….in a Bathroom: Nothing like some recognition, but what a surprise to find this in the classy bathroom of the Kansas City Sporting (our local soccer team) fancy and friendly can you order cialis online conference center. I was there on Friday to give a writing workshop to about 45 advertising professionals taking part in “Gas Can,” the American Advertising Federation Kansas City chapter’s annual conference.

Sun set, moon rise
Sun set, moon  rise

4. A Merchant Ivory Moment: Hanging out with friends, especially handsome ones, and one in a particularly spiffy hat, is a little like being in one of those luscious Room with a View-like films, only with more chiggers. We paused at the end of the woods after trekking around part of the hill to watch the sky, the moon rising just a little to the south of Venus and Jupiter, so close together. Nothing like being outside with friends to talk poetry, the mysteries of life, and tyranny of ticks.

5. Dessert Nirvana: Sometimes when you order

An Astonishing Dessert
An Astonishing Dessert

something without understanding what it is, what you get is made of amazement. This dessert, at the end of our Oriental Bistro dinner and Power of Words conference committee meeting, was composed of 80% snowy ice and 20% ecstasy. My friends were as amazed as I was; in turn, I begged them to help me eat it, which

Jerry on the Prairie!: Everyday Magic, Day 850

IMG_3741On Saturday, we scattered the ashes of Jerry, called the “cremains,” on the prairie with family and close friends. Gathering mid-day on the Akin Prairie — a place Jerry loved intensely — we followed the Kansas Area Watershed (KAW) Council water ritual that Jerry had participated in dozens of times over dozens of years. This ritual, which ends most of our KAW Council gatherings — whether on the prairie Camp Hammond (between Lawrence and Topeka), where we’ve held weekend gatherings every spring since 1982, or beside Castle Rock in Western Kansas or other places we’ve explored — is a way to honor where we’ve traveled, where we’re going, and most of all, where we are. We stand in a circle, begin with chanting three Kaws (kind of like om but to the tune of Kaw), and then each person, as he or she feels moved, can step into the center and offer up a prayer, song, gesture, poem, memory or wish.IMG_3749

Along with what people say or do, we invite everyone to bring water from their travels to pour into the center, and this time, we had the water from Jerry’s travels. Danny found several bottles with water that Jerry had collected from the Southwest, his home state of Minnesota, and within and beyond Kansas. His daughters brought a box containing baggies of his cremains we could scatter right in the center, out in the prairie, or in other places.

The skies danced panoramic of storms to come, and the prairie was alive with blossom and sharply-green grasses. Jerry’s family, superb at both speaking from the heart and self-organizing, instantly started coming into the center, from the oldest to youngest siblings and their families, then his oldest to youngest daughters and their families. Then friends and other family member stepped into the center. One sister invited us to turn to the person next to us and dance for a moment since she had promised Jerry they would go dancing soon when he took a short-lived turn for the better in the final days in the hospital. One of his daughters asked us to open up our arms to the sky as she had seen her father do countless time. Some people told stories, like how he attached a camera to a kite, bringing together two of his passions, to get some aerial photos. One friend sang out the word that speaks to her most of Jerry: sweet.IMG_3754

At the end, many of us scattered ourselves through the prairie to leave some of his ashes or say our own goodbyes. I didn’t realize how incomplete his leaving was last December until I watched his family and friends fan out across the luscious green and blooming prairie, and earlier, right at the end of the circle, how we all called out, “Jerry on the Prairie!” This is where he is, and he’s also right here with us, alive in the stories we told later at the Unitarian Fellowship for a celebration of his life and spirit, the next day on our porch that he built, and for many days to come.

Our porch that Jerry built with a heaping portion of his sibs and friends.
Our porch that Jerry built with a heaping portion of his sibs and friends.

Jerry loved the wind, and as I write this, back on the porch, I’m surrounded by wind, birdsong, frogs are chirping, and one owl just called out, just like the one owl we heard while in the water ritual circle on Saturday, singing to us despite it being the middle of the day. We’re now in the after of Jerry on the prairie, landed in beauty, loss, sweetness, and something beyond mere knowledge that my friend Kat Green wrote so perfectly about in this poem:

After

Sometimes knowledge is not enough.

Nor is knowing in your bones.

We make our choices.

We live or die.

Yesterday

We scattered Jerry’s ashes at Aiken Prairie,

The crest of a hill by the Aiken family cemetery

but not in it.

We encircled his large family with unfamiliar ritual,

his ashes in the center.

We cawed, three times.

They looked a little uncomfortable.

But then we began the water ritual.

Dan had found a bottle of water

Jerry had collected on his travels

throughout the Great Plains:

Minnesota, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico,

The Texas gulf and other places.

We took turns stepping into the center.

We spoke from our hearts

took a little of his ashes

and poured a little of the water.

His brothers and sisters stepped into

the circle with their families

from oldest to youngest.

Did I mention many of them wore cameras?

His daughters and their families spoke next.

Two of Jerry's sisters and one marvelous brother-in-law o top of the world, or at least Wells Overlook near our place to see the aerial view Jerry loved.
Two of Jerry’s sisters and one marvelous brother-in-law o top of the world, or at least Wells Overlook near our place to see the aerial view Jerry loved.

We wept.

We listened.

We remembered a stubborn, kind man

noted for leisurely and complete story telling

and exquisite photographs of the natural world.

We surged into the center of the circle and back

out, three times

And scattered.

~ Kat Greene

The Things of a Life: Everyday Magic, Day 831

One of the photos his daughters found
One of the photos his daughters found

The shortest day of the year included taking apart, packing, hauling away and other redistributing the things that compose a life, in this case, the life of our friend Jerry. Yesterday, a bunch of Jerry’s friends, his daughters and their husbands all squeezed ourselves into his tiny apartment to point at, ask about, and then shift or lift lots of boxes, furniture, small appliances, photography supplies, shoes, books, clothing and more.

There’s something very tender, surprising, and even familiar about going through the things of someone’s whole life. I spent a long time in the bathroom, packing up bandages, thermometers, unused aspirin and matches (to take to live at my house); sheets, cleaning products, and spray adhesive (to donate); and occasionally special tokens (a ring that was perhaps Jerry’s wedding ring for his last marriage, to give to his daughters). What the family wants time to consider goes to a storage unit. All else either went home with one or another of us, to the Social Service League or recycling (did that man never throw away a box?), or to the trash.

What this looked like was people carrying out shelves and office chairs, bags and boxes, piles of well-read or never-read magazines, all of us dancing past each other in the apartment or backing up in the hallway. In Jerry’s kitchen, I found myself a pot and pan, and drank a bottle of water from his refrigerator, thinking about how it might feel to bring his stuff home to my kitchen, where I cooked up lots of meals for him over the years. I also found, a day after my blender died, a new blender, likely hardly used, among Jerry’s stuff. Carrying it and a scratchy pink wool blanket to my car, I imagined Jerry among us, divvying up his stuff. “You want this?” I might ask, holding up three wooden plates. He would shrug, gesture for me to take them, and tell me that he’s not going to need it anymore, which is practical but also very sad.

Besides discovering that Jerry’s propensity for buying high quality stuff and avoiding junk applied to most of his possessions (and not just his work clothes and cameras), I happened buy generic cialis 10 mg upon many notes he wrote himself. In the middle of the biggest piles of neatly-organized clutter (including saving much of his mail for a long time), his daughter held up a note about the value of decluttering. On the back of a pharmacy receipt, he wrote about seeing a flock of geese. Two calendars I took him so I could use them for collage were actually filled with his writing, listing all his plans, crossing out what he didn’t end up doing, and writing notes in the margins. He wrote on the bottom on one page, “I am going to live to age 98,” which he obviously missed by 35 years. I had no idea that he was dealing with so many health issues, often listed in the daily squares of the calendar, or that he recorded his daily weight, probably trying to encourage his slight body to put on more pounds.

Within a little over an hour, thanks to the work of over a dozen people with assorted vehicles – from compact cars with roomy hatchbacks to trailers – everything was carried out but what will move to the storage unit. It felt strange to be done so quickly when his place had previously been stuffed with so many objects holding within so many stories: all the unused framing supplies for his photographs, books on computer programs and the wisdom of the Native American grandmothers group he followed, photo albums from when his kids were young and guides to the rivers of Kansas, dress shoes hardly worn and hiking shoes well-loved. I realize he’s not there anymore, and that he doesn’t live in his things, but his things do convey the layers of his life.

Wherever he is, I know he’s traveling light and free. I wish him great joy, love, and homecoming as I sit here with one of his hair ties holding my wet hair off my neck. Soon I’ll do some cooking for our Hanukkah party, using some of his things in lieu of having him show up, as he’s done for many years, always late but smiling, ready to hug me in my kitchen in the middle of the the press of friends and friendship.