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.

"Kansas Just Wants to Be Kansas": Everyday Magic, Day 887

“Southern California Wants to Be Western New York” is the title and subject of one of Dar Williams’ songs about what happens when the left coast suffers from yearning for a post-industrial crisis. On January 4, I got to read this poem along with other poems I wrote that riff off songs from Dar’s “Mortal City” album. Given that one of my most ardent fans (my son Daniel) said I should share this on my blog, here we are, and here’s a video of this incredible song.

Kansas Just Wants to Be Kansas

Southern California may want to be western New York,

but Kansas just wants to be Kansas, large and hidden in plain sight.

Too bad the earthquakes have migrated north, fracking us out of bed

to land on ground not used to shimmying. Too bad about the politics too,

shocked out of their long stay of sensibility, and smelling like

the aftermath of tragedy. Yeah, Kansas just wants to be Kansas,

weather-weary and not taking any prisoners, ready for whatever

the sky between the Rockies and the rivers storms together

past, present and future in the sweet smell of rain and heat lightning.

Kansas doesn’t want to be San Diego, swanky and silk in its

Mediterranean rags. We’re just not a picturesque Vermont town

ambling down the side of a mountain, or Texas where the heat is as intense

as the chutzpah. Kansas certainly doesn’t ever want to be Iowa,

all dressed up in its big-box statehood but with brighter ribboning interstates.

We just want to continue to be your friendly waitress at 2 a.m.,

able to carry six different slices of pie cascading down one arm,

and in the other hand, a pot of coffee, fully-loaded, ready to serve you

something that makes you forget about the desire to be what you’re not,

and remember the beauty of the wind, an old train that arrives

ahead of schedule to say, “yes, you’re finally home.”