Tonight, I have the delight of opening for one of my favorite singer-songwriters, Dar Williams, in her performance at the Lawrence Arts Center. To get ready, I wrote a bunch of new poems, all inspired by Dar’s lyrics from songs on her Mortal City album since her current tour is a 20th anniversary celebration of that groundbreaking album (“Iowa,” “The Christians and the Pagans” and lots of other Dar classics are on it). While I’ve spent the last month writing these poems, the one I’m sharing here — dedicated to my sister-friends — came in a rush while taking a break from revising other poems). If you’re in Lawrence, come on down tonight to the arts center at 8 p.m. and join us! This poem steals lyrics (italicized) from two songs — “As Cool as I Am” and “Iowa.”
I Will Not Be Afraid of Women
Because I learned early and often that when it comes
to all those falls from great and gruesome heights,
there is no one like a sister, and it’s worth driving all night,
ten miles above the limit, and with no seatbelt,
to sit at her table and drink her tea while she agrees
that we’re here to dance out of the lines even if it means
we singe our hair in ways we can’t remember the next morning.
I will not be afraid to go to her, and to her, and her, and her
my whole life: the ones who hold my stories
like Christmas ornaments, careful not to drop the glass ones
or make fun of the ones made by my children’s baby hands so long ago.
I will hold her 3 a.m. phone call, when she says,
“it’s all broken or it’s all better,” and when I call,
she’ll remind me why we’re lucky in this life,
sistering me away from hoarding the horizon, and toward
the new song we’ll write, then sing over and over until we’re sure
it always existed, just like this friendship, and this one, and this one—
each made of of cedar and wind in the long walk at dusk,
lukewarm coffee we drink anyway because it makes us laugh,
or a long nap on her couch in the middle of a December day
when I didn’t know where else to go, so I went to her
with my tattered heart and shining breath, to say, “please,
gather me up,” and she did. I will never be afraid of the mirror
she is or holds up, and the real life beyond that mirror
where we get in her car and drive for the love of motion.
Listening to the astonishingly spirited Claudia Schmidt perform a house concert in Old West Lawrence last night, despite the sauna-esque glow of where I was sitting, I felt tapped on the shoulder to turn around and change. For the last few months, alternately freaking out, napping on the porch, guzzling caffeinated beverages, hugging good friends, complaining, breaking open my heart, talking with Ken while we lie in bed exhausted and overwhelmed, eating too many cookies and other new normals of Deathwatch 2016, I’ve tended to forget that every living moment is not consumed by intensity and crisis. Thankfully, somewhere in the middle of one of Claudia’s songs, reality broke through and said, “Snap out of it, Caryn! It’s just right now.”
Right now varies of course, and lately, it can especially seesaw from a F4 tornado to light-breezed blue-skied views. But right then at the concert, it become abundantly clear that I could drop the 62-pound backpack of grief singing at the speed of emergency, and sit happily on a small folding chair, letting Claudia’s high and low-pitches woos, scatting, and shimmering voice, guitar or dulcimer, and presence of tenderness, freedom, friendship, justice, awareness and welcome shine through me. Each note, each breath, helped me tilt just enough to catch the present and remember how much I love this life, this music, these people, this place, this time even.
Music also holds memories and holds us. When Claudia sang “Hard Love,” I followed the river of the last 35-something years from when I first heard this song, concentrating then as I did last night on the words, “the only kind of miracle that’s worthy of its names/ because the love that heals our lives is mostly hard love.” I also got to talk about that song with Daniel, now 27, but probably a baby when he first heard it, about what hard love can mean. Another song, “These Stairs,” brought me back and forward as I thought about what it means to die at home. “The Strong Women’s Polka,” a newer song she wrote and sang, brought us together in laughter, recognition and singing along with the chorus, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes me you wish you were dead.” It also reminded me of the power of music to knock us into hysterics, the happy kind, and make community out of audiences and performers.
Music has saved me all my life, from the first songs my mother sang me that made me feel less fear and more beauty, to what I’m listening to right now, “When the Deal Came Down,” a song I co-wrote with Kelley Hunt sung by Kelley right here. This morning in the bath, I listened to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s gorgeous rendition of “10,000 Miles,” which imbued the movie “Fly Away Home” with deep waves of healing and homecoming. I cycle through long stretches of the guys too: Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Leonard Cohen as well as more show tunes than perhaps a person should ingest in a day. On the way to town today, I was thrilled to hear Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances” from “West Side Story,” music that picks me up and puts me back down as a more coherent human. Altogether, music reminds me that I’m a buzzing, changing, churning and rhythmic body held in the larger body of community and the earth.
Music — just as the song Kelley and I wrote, “Music Was the Thread” — has held together my story and held me together continually, a heartbeat sounding in the background and center of life as I know it. Here is a poem I wrote in the last year about that thread:
My mother singing “Tora Lora Lora,”
the Irish lullaby even though we were Brooklyn Jews.
The vacuum on the shag carpet. The singular birch
shaking over the hapless window sill. The humming refrigerator.
The chants encasing me in each swayed note as I wrapped
my thin arms around my cold chest in the cavernous synagogue.
The creak of the swing as I turn horizontal, defying gravity
in the static of the transistor radio. The loud slap on the bass notes
of the body that make bruises, then the slow breath
of forgiveness, pacing until the danger is gone.
All the possibilities in each library novel about a girl,
afraid at the start, but about to do something
to swirl the calm pond of her life. The first kiss in the back
of the school bus broken by applause. The sound of thunder,
an interior roar like hunger. The old staccato of my father’s anger
before it dissolved into the tenderness of defeat.
The way some mornings rev up like motorcycles
coming point blank toward us. The exhaling speed
of rivers, starving for new ground, or betrayed
by sudden shorelines that break the water into remembering
willows. Bike tires on wet pavement, downhill,
at dawn. The happy rhythm of the subway rocking my spine
in and out of alignment with the dark as we tunneled
through water back to air, the miracle of one rushing animal
carrying us all. This buzzing body ferrying millions of cells into sound.
For the Claudia Schmidt concert, big thanks to Burdett and Michel Loomis for hosing us in their beautiful home, Bruce and Peggy Kelly for bringing Claudia (and bringing her back to Kansas!), Kat for all the home-made goodies, and for hauling in and out many chairs and a big sound system, Forest, Daniel, Thomas, Bruce, Burdett and others. Bouquets of gratitude to Claudia too!
Friday night, I finally go to see the late Phil Ochs in concert thanks to West Side Folk’s “A Night of Phil Ochs,” in which singer, actor and shining soul Zachary Stevenson completed embodied Ochs in voice, gestures, patter between songs, and stories. There’s been no way for me and many others who love his music to see the actual Phil Ochs live since he killed himself in 1976, about three years before I heard him singing “Changes” on the radio and fell in love. At least, that was
true until Friday night. Och’s sister Sonny, according to Bob McWilliams who organized the concert and does so much to keep the music alive in our community, once introduced Stevenson by saying, “If you’ve never seen Phil in concert, now you can.” While I can’t compare the real Ochs in concert with Stevenson, friends who saw Stevenson affirmed he was the real deal in gesture and tone.
There are some voices in the world so distinctive and soulful that they feel like the home we didn’t know we lost. The first times I heard James Taylor, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, and Kelley Hunt, I felt like they were old friends I’ve known all my life and whose music seemed to know me also. Phil Ochs is part of that small circle of friends for me, but unlike his song of the same title, this circle doesn’t turn away out of self-interest or apathy, but shows up via recorded performances, radio, CDs and records, and even in the songs I play in my mind some days when I swim laps.
Phil Ochs particularly had a depth of passion funneled through clarity, wit, and conviction. There’s no way to listen to any Och’s song without believing him, or at least, that he believes in his bones all he sings. There’s also something about Ochs that transcends the sum of his considerable parts: a great sense of rhythm and verve in his songwriting, his vibrant guitar playing and picking, and most of all, his bell of a voice. I’ve been trying to name that something since the concert as I’ve watched videos of Ochs and listened to Stevenson’s astonishing recording of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” What was it that made me spend hours decades ago doing the same thing with albums rather than youtube videos when I was 19? I remember long mornings in the KOPN community radio studio in Columbia, Missouri back in 1980 when, on the loose premise that I was looking for music for my democratic socialist radio show, I pored over Ochs’ albums, studying each line and each earnest turn of his voice. He mirrored back to me my yearnings to do something that mattered through writing and activism, but he also spoke and sung right into the center of whoever I was.
I forgot about this time until the concert when every word came back to me and just about everyone else, even the long chorus of “Draft Dodger Rag.” As I looked around each time Stevenson began a favorite song — “Pleasures of the Harbor,” “Changes, “When I’m Gone” — I saw people so elated they needed to wipe their eyes. I remembered a quote from Ochs that speaks to me more as I age: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.” Thank you to West Side Folk Folk and Zachary Stevenson for bringing us back this particular beauty that grows in depth and meaning even 40 years after he’s gone.
If 2014 was a mouse, I’d let my cats kill it, and then I would, like I do with all their usual triumphs, pick it up by the tip of its tail and fling it out into the cold, dark night. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s not any kind of mammal, but just another bundle of time nearing its expiration point. Yet when I think about this year, I land on wocrisis, near-miss, loss, death, outrage, fear, and the most challenging word of all, change.
In the last year, many family and friends experienced game-changing crises, catalyzing moves home or away, job changes, long stays in hospital rooms or short stints in triage, and a whole lot of funerals. Some of the changes or deaths were slow, full of healing, grace, pain, and release. Some were sudden and shocking. Some were utterly surprising although, in retrospect, we should have been it coming.
In my life, I’ve been slogging through the potholes of grief in the last few weeks since my friend Jerry died, and earlier this fall, six people I was a little or a little more close to left the planet. Last spring, there was a heart-shaking showdown between the union and management in my workplace, fueling a binge of insomnia for me. Some of my three children underwent big shifts in jobs, homes, relationships. My mother-in-law has been in the hospital for much of December, and the tunnel through heart issues to greater health and longer life is still very much in play. Some organizations I’m very involved in needed to rescued from the brink. And I’ve tried to be present for dear ones going through some of life’s most excruciating passages.
I’ve also had more than my share of blessing, whimsy, and laughter, including breaking my toilet, delighting in three books coming out, working in discernment and love with students at Goddard College and in workshops, and witnessing great unfoldings of beauty — in the skies, in the faces of people I meet, in the eyes of cats, dogs, and humans. I’ve traveled through Kansas and to Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Michigan (for the first time), Missouri, Oklahoma, Iowa, and three times to the Twin Cities and back. I’ve gotten too many colds and have eaten too few dark, leafy greens. I dragged a cedar tree into the house and strung it up with lights, capping it with a decorative squirrel. I’ve cleaned the house about 41 times, and even scrubbed the laundry room once. I’ve made and consumed a lot of enchiladas, and taken many naps with cats on my chest. I’ve read some great books, including many of the novels of Ann Patchett and Amy Bloom, and also surely gotten enough sleep, one way or another. I swam many laps, walked many miles, sat many hours on my ass, and pushed/relaxed myself into deeper downward dogs. I’ve also watched a whole lof to movies, aiming for inspiration, laughs (even when wedded to stupidity), and charm.
There’s no way for me to encapsulate any year, particularly this one, which often defied any single word, sentence or paragraph. So often, I’ve felt like I was climbing a roller coaster, and then holding my stomach for dear life as we plummeted down at high speed. What echoes and winds through all of it? Music, even if mostly of the wind. Attention, even and especially at the moments so hard there’s nothing left to do but focus on the immediate. Tenderness, which I keep finding trumps all else when the chips are the down, the storm is upon us, and the pain makes us want to jump out of our skin.
I come back to how the way we treat each other — no matter what is happening and particularly when it’s painful, confusing, and scary — is what matters most. We pay attention, which means listening enough to hear the music of the moment. Then we open our arms, even to whatever a year has been, and with hope, to the next year’s story.
It started a year ago in the pool when during my long, slow parade of laps, I paused at the end of the pool. A speed-swimming man popped out of the lane beside me, and asked, in the kind of polite, British accent that it’s hard to refuse, if I ever considered writing a memoir about my poet laureate years. That man was Brian Daldorph, who runs Coal City Press, and a few days later, not to mention many laps thinking about it, I said yes to the book that would become Poem on the Range: A Poet Laureate’s Love Song to Kansas.
Like all book projects to the easily-optimistic, this one seemed kind of easy and fun. Fun it was, but “easy” quickly became a complicated term. I had many blog posts about my poet laureate time, but there was the work of transforming them into chapters, finessing words and paragraphs, and “killing darlings” (the writerly term for letting go of passages we’re attached to). I also thought the book wouldn’t be nearly so interesting without greater context, so I brought in some travelogue writing to give readers a sense of some of the communities I traversed, and best of all, poems from many gracious writers near and far. In the end, the book’s fishing expedition for Kansas poems (with excursions for poet laureate poems from other states) brought over 40 poems to bunk down in various chapters.
Then, of course, there are all the necessary tasks to turn a manuscript into a book, including finding a good cover image (thanks, Stephen Locke, for your wonderful photo!), design (thanks to the wildly-talented Leah Sewell), collecting blurbs from other writers, excessive proofreading (thank you, Brian!), and printing proofs and reading them repeatedly and then printing more proofs.
Yesterday, all eased into the book in Brian’s and my hands, with gratitude and poetry for all.