Being Made of Weather: Everyday Magic, Day 1060

The real show in the parking lot

Weather. That was the theme of the 2022 Symphony in the Flint Hills, and because of all my weather poetry, especially my poem “Being Made of Weather” included in this year’s field guide, I was invited to come present. The free tickets didn’t hurt either, or at least, I didn’t think going could do our family or anyone else much harm. In end, it seems like we all escaped with our lives (although not our nerves) intact.

Even before the magnificent Kansas City Symphony warmed up, Ken, scanning radar on his sister’s phone, said Karen and I should be prepared to leave in 45 minutes. He showed us an extraordinarily powerful tornado about to hit somewhere, and it sounds like Marysville and surrounding areas took the brunt of it. The storms were enormous and spreading south crazy-fast, including to where 7,000 or so of us were sitting on folding chairs for the music, which also includes cowboys and cowgirls (the Outriders as they were called) doing a cattle drive. I figured we might not get to sing “Home on the Range” with people at the symphony’s end, but I was hoping we could at least get to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the next song in the program.

The plot thickens as the mothership approaches

Instead, the orchestra and the Outriders and cattle made a quick program change so we could see cows herded up the hill before the Outriders helped herd all of us to our cars. Yup, the year weather was the theme was also the year real weather took over. The program we came to see got quickly replaced by a much more vivid performance of what weather could be: beautiful, startling, mind-blowing, mutable, and dangerous.

Real comradery took hold while walking with thousands of previous strangers for the close-to-an-hour trek back to the parking lot while cowgirls and cowboys guided us back to the gravel road if we went too far astray where we might trip into ravines. “Moooo!” a man called out next to me, so a bunch of us mooed with him. I got to talk to a new friend I met on trail about what brought us to Kansas and why those low-hanging boob-shaped clouds are called mammatus clouds. A bunch of people stopped to help a woman who tripped. People made way for children and small wagons full of folding chairs while pointing to the north where the clouds performed for free.

Happily herding us

Once back to the car, the second half of our weather-on-the-hoof program began, in which we get to stay relatively still and experience a panoramic sky changing quickly as the mothership supercell turned from a gray to green-black spaceship with the whiter, wider clouds above. “It looks like a mullet haircut,” a man waiting for the porta potty with me said. I didn’t get to make use of that porta potty because Ken, who had cell reception for a minute, calledwith the urgent message to get back to the car now — we were moving……or so we hoped.

It actually took an hour and 45 minutes to get from the parking lot to the highway since there was just one exit for all the cars to funnel (no pun intended) through. In the meantime, we made friends with a guy named Keith behind us, took our picture with mammatus clouds at sunset, and stared at the sky a lot. The grand finale was the moment cell phones screamed throughout the parking lot that we were in a tornado warning and should seek shelter immediately and not be in cars.

The first show – the symphony

What to do because our cars were our only shelter? Keith and Ken said it as best to honker down on the floors of our cars and cover ourselves with blankets (which most Kansans, including me, have in their trunks). “That way if that car is crushed by the storm, we might have a chance,” Ken later told me. It would at least keep broken windshield glass off us. Ken, Karen, and I reasoned as we were immersed in rain, wind, and hail, first pea-sized, then dime-sized, and then nickel-sized. The rain flew sideways, and then the winds switched direction, which is not a good sign.

What do you do in such a moment? I was surprised by how quiet and relatively calm we were, perhaps not believing this was happening even if we earlier spotted some clouds drifting down in such the way tornadoes can begin. But thank heavens (literally), no tornadoes spun off into the hundreds of sitting duck cars. Instead, the rain, wind, and hail lessened, and we all got out and back home.

Some weren’t so lucky. I’ve heard of some attendees who arrived home to find their houses destroyed. Some had to drive out of their way, like our son Daniel and his girlfriend, who headed southwest because they would have otherwise driven into the fiercest part of this unpredictable storm. For everyone involved, weather made the event unforgettable and reminded us of what being made of weather can mean for our lives.

Speaking of which, here is the poem of the same title. Big thanks and admiration to all the people — especially the Outriders and the hundreds of volunteers at the event — who helped however they could and reminded us of how good and generous humans can be in the face of the sky.

Being Made of Weather

You have no idea what you’re capable of.

The rotation born of two opposing forces can

explode down Main Street in any town, any mind.

Fight the front moving through?

Give up and sleep through the storm?

Choices as if they are choices when it’s time

to ask yourself what you’re ready to give up,

and what you can save: dead photos, living animals,

a tea cup from great-grandmother, a pink-gray

arrowhead found in the rocks along an Ozark lake

in 1983 when someone taught you to skim stones.

Mostly, the hand of the child you lead into the cellar.

Mostly your own heartbeat, audible as hard breath,

which you must protect and give freely as light or water.

Always, the will to return the moment the storm

brings you back out to see what you’re truly made of,

lift the fallen branch or plank, bend to call out a name,

your whole life waiting for the smallest of motion.

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!

The Changing of the Light: Everyday Magic, Day 1059

Beyond the lower temperatures and chigger count, there’s something else that truly distinguishes this time of year: the changing of the light. The blues get bluer, the pinks and oranges get more silvery, and the hazy summer air dries out to clearer edges and hues all around.

Summer in Kansas often feels endless, and not in a romantic, please-summer-never-end kind of way. It gets hot and stays hot. The hummingbirds fight-zip into each other, the cicadas’ walls of humming roars pour through us in waves of insanity, and sometimes, like this summer, it’s crazy-humid whenever the temperature fall below 90 degrees. It can be downright dangerous to walk in fields or even mowed lawns because of chiggers, ticks, and around the farm, occasional snakes. Depending on the day, stepping outside feels either like being in the middle of a sauna or, or on windy days, being inside a dryer tumbling us around.

May starts to get hot. June is definitely hot. July is hotter. August seems even hotter, but it could be that we’ve lost our minds by then. Even September acts like summer for much of its windy parade through, but then something happens. A switch is thrown, and suddenly, we’re in days in the 70s, nights in the 50s, and refreshing rains and cleansing winds return.

Then there’s the light: softer and more forgiving and, at the same time, more brilliant. Like this morning when, although I’m not a morning person, I got up at 6 a.m., and without even putting on my glasses, stepped outside to snap this photo before going back to bed, grateful for this generous sky.

Only-In-Lawrence-Kansas-Moments: Everyday Magic, Day 896

Lately, I’ve had a lot of only-in-Lawrence moments when wandering around downtown, and I feel compelled to share them with you:

  • We love music and poetry in this town, so of course, a panhandler needs to use a Leonard Cohen quote, “Love is the only engine for survival.” In exchange for this photo of him, I contributed to his cause.
  • We love animals and babies, so of course, I spied a woman pushing a stroller with a chihuahua in it, kept safely in place under some netting. The dog sat up happily, taking in the sites.
  • Speaking of strollers, we also tend to love Dennis, one of our Lawrence characters, and Dennis loves Sheryl Crow, his life-sized doll that he often wheels around town. I saw him last with rolled-up short shorts, and the top half of another life-sized doll. I almost talked with him, but I wasn’t in the mood to be cursed out, as is often the price of getting close to his celebrity. You can learn more about Dennis at the Friends of Dennis Facebook page, that asks, “Are you a friend of Dennis? Are you crazy for cats, Sheryl Crow, Las Vegas, big head posters? Share your love for our sweetest grouch and most brilliant stylist.”
  • Speaking of brilliant stylists, there’s also the Queen of England, who graces us with her life-sized cardboard cut-out, at Brits (sharing a wall with Au Marche, the French store). Here she is with Kris, who’s clearly about to ask her if she prefers sugar or honey in her Yorkshire Gold tea.
  • When it comes to tea, how can we not invoke the name and artistic brilliance of Anne Patterson, who, among her many other talents, has constructed a stroller-sized teapot for the annual Art Togeau parade, Lawrence’s wheeled art gala, held each spring? Here, she certainly hasn’t flipped her lid (photo by Craig Patterson).
  • Assorted other entities and happenings I’ve heard about downtown in the last few weeks: a fire hydrant wearing a zebra-print bar, someone who regularly brings a rabbit to poetry readings, glitter on the sidewalk leading to coconut cream pie nirvana at the Ladybird Diner (coincidence? or work of the pie gods?), and a sign on a power line pole that says, “I am a citizen of a country that does not exist yet.”

If you’re around here or have been through here, feel free to add your sightings.

Save the Humanities!: Everyday Magic, Day 894

Photo by Stephen Locke, used with permission

The kids were already in the front seats when I arrived at the Coffey County Library branch in Gridley, Kansas to present “Kansas Weather in Life, Literature, and Photography,” a Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) program. In this town of 341 people, the library is the place to be, and not just for kids. By the time I began, people aged 9 to 90 filled seats, ready to take in Kansas poetry and photography (via Stephen Locke) about how our extreme weather shapes our lives and builds our character. We also shared their stories of communities coming together in the face of wild storms, close calls, beautiful vistas, and what our weather tells us about who we all.

One of many KHC programs, Water/Ways focuses on the impact of water (and by extension, weather) on our history, traditions, daily lives, and in the face of climate change, our very future. Such programs also bring together communities, helping us find the essential dialogue, diversity, and unity that is the bedrock of democracy.

Now a wild storm is threatening all of America, especially far-flung rural areas where there is little to no funding for arts and humanities programs except from state humanities councils. With the current U.S. president calling for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities, programs like the one I just did, that bring together people to share stories of hard-won wisdom and emerging visions, would vanish. As well, we would lose initiatives such as KHC’s “Migration Stories” on the experience of Africans in Midwestern communities, “Freedom of Speech in Kansas” on the importance of free speech,  “FLIKS” promoting short documentaries on unique stories in our state, a vibrant speaker’s bureau, a long-standing book discussion program that has reached people in every corner of the state, and the state poet laureate program (which is completely funded by private donors).

I’ve had the honor of being roving scholar with KHC since 1994, as a book discussion leader, speaker’s bureau presenter, and the 2009-13 Kansas poet laureate. Living in a 400-mile-wide state, I’ve rambled many miles to talk about everything from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, books that give us intimate portraits of American history, from African-American communities in the Everglades in the 1920s (Huston), to Japanese-American communities before, during and after internment in the 1940s (Guterson). Such discussions help all of us grapple with our collective identity as Americans.

I’ve driven through snowstorms and ecstatic displays of lighting, up and down the Flint Hills by starlight, and across the high plains on startlingly bright mornings to meet Kansans of all ages eager to talk about what the humanities tell them of how to live with greater verve and meaning. In traveling far and wide to also talk about books with Jewish content, such as Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City, I’ve shared traditions and history of my own faith, and by extension, participated in powerful interfaith dialogues about life and literature.

I’m a humanities scholar because I believe in face-to-face dialogue, community-building that includes many perspectives, and intergenerational exchanges about lessons learned or ahead of us. I love how humanities councils enable us to mek connections between urban and rural residents, and people of various faiths, ethnicities, and histories so that we can truly engage in forming “a more perfect union,” as stated in the preamble to our constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To keep forming that more perfect union–along with safeguarding justice, tranquility, liberty, and yes, even prosperity–we must save the humanities, which provide us the gathering ground to more deeply understand our birthright along with ways to learn how to better be true to ourselves and our communities.

If you believe in the humanities–in other words, please contact your legislators today. Here’s a link to find contact information. And join us at humanities programs wherever you live: here’s a link to find your state humanities council. It’s so easy to tear down programs that give us greater vision, and so hard to build such programs. Let’s not lose what helps makes us more human.