Teaching With Big Sonia: Everyday Magic, Day 957

Sonia and me

The tagline for the film Big Sonia is “Holocaust survivor. Grandma. Diva.” True that, but she’s also quite the Holocaust scholar, fluent in a dizzying amount of books, films, articles, and other accounts of what Sonia repeatedly and accurately calls “unbelievable.” Like many of us but even more so, Sonia Warshawski has been grappling with all the big questions regarding the Holocaust for a long time: How and why could this happen? What does it mean? Who embodied the worst of humanity and the best? What does not never forgetting mean in our everyday lives?

When it comes to the question of how someone survives the Holocaust and makes a new life in a new land after losing most of her family and finding her home community in Poland what she called “a ghost town,” Sonia embodies the answers. I got to witness this first-hand when she showed up as a student in my Osher class, “Triumph and Terror: How Two Men Survived Nazi Horrors.” The three-session class in Prairie Village, KS, based on my book, Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, focuses on both the Holocaust and Polish and Jewish resistance movements. While I usually mainly explore this history through the lives of Lou (a Holocaust survivor) and Jarek (a Polish resistance fighter) who met in Lawrence, Kansas and became best friends, Sonia brought us a new dimension (through her experience and scholarship) of the Holocaust and the Jewish Resistance.

Sonia telling us some of her story

Bedecked in a leopard print coat and dressed to the nines, and well under five feet tall, Sonia is a 94-year-old force of nature. She’s also a vital voice in the wilderness calling for never forgetting or forgiving, but always moving ahead with love. She sat in the front row, and within a short time, I was handing her the mic at regular intervals because of what she had to say as an eye witness, survivor, and fierce advocate for Holocaust education.

Sonia was born in Międzyrzec, Poland, actually just down the road from where some of Jarek’s family lived in Biala Podlaska. She was only 17 years old when the Nazis invaded the ghetto where she was hiding with her family, forcing her and her mother to go to Majdanek, one of the death camps. Big Sonia, the award-winning and spectacular film directed by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday uses animated illustrations, based on Sonia’s artful doodling, to show the excruciating moment her mother was ripped away from her to go to the gas chamber. Only Sonia and her younger sister, against all odds, survived, along with a small orange scarf from her mother that Sonia keeps in a plastic baggie under her pillow.

Sonia spoke eloquently about the role of the partisans (the Jewish resistance) helping her younger sister, who largely hid in the woods during the war, make it through these terrible years. She also told us of the times she was beaten, just as Bergen-Belsen was being liberated (after she spent startling time at Auschwitz-Birkenau), how she was shot. She hid among fallen bodies, endured terrible beatings, and even had to spread the ashes (some still holding bits of human bones) on fields as fertilizer. When I told the story of Lou’s needle in the bone — how he landed on something sharp one night but had to endure it, only to find out years later that he had a needle embedded in his heel — she nodded knowingly at me. She has carried her own needle in the bone for close to 80 years, and like Lou and many other survivors, she also found the strength and courage to start a new life, coming to Kansas City with her husband and their family-in-process in 1948.

It was one of the greatest honors of my life to be able to write about the stories of Lou and Jarek, then to find this is a gift that keeps moving, bringing me into deep and necessary conversation with others about the big questions at the heart of what it can mean to be human, at our best and at our worst. How do people go on after facing such annihilating forces and losing almost everything, everywhere, and everyone they know and love? Sonia answered this through the warmth, intelligence, and presence shone through all she shared with unflinching honesty.

Sonia also reminds us — and I get the sense she does this whether she’s talking to high school students, lifers in prison, or customers who come to the tailor shop her husband started that she still runs — about the importance of Tikkun Olam, repairing the broken world. She sees what’s happening clearly, particularly the rise of anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers, and as she told the New York Times a few years ago, “….it’s a terrible hate what’s going on now. I hope that my speaking is a way of starting to repair the world, to change the direction for us.” May it be so, and may we all find the courage to repair the world however we can.

For more on Sonia, please see Big Sonia, now streaming on Amazon, read the New York Times article -“‘But It’s a Terrible Hate Going On Now‘” about her, listen to “A Conversation with Sonia Warshawski” hosted by the Kansas City Public Library. and watch her testimony with the Midwest Center for the Holocaust. You can also see my book Needle in the Bone here, and check out Jarek’s new book, Dance With Death: A Holistic View of Saving Polish Jews During the Holocaust. Top photo by Ken Lassman, bottom photo from Friends of Osher.

Everyday Magic

Everyday Magic: Field Notes on the Mundane and Miraculous

Meadowlark Press, Release date: December 2, 2017. ISBN: 987-0-9966801-5-8.  422 pages. $24.99

Buy your copy through Meadowlark Press here, and Amazon.  Also available in Lawrence, Kansas at the Raven Bookstore, and Signs of Life. 

Everyday Magic features the best of Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg's blog of the same title, exploring the mundane and miraculous unfolding around us, and how to live with greater verve, meaning and joy. Journey through whimsical, tender, and fierce explorations of travel and homecoming, beloveds and the art of loving, grief and resilience, the arts and politics, spirit and being a body, and many other glimpses of being all-too-human in an astonishing world.

Reading this book is like having a wise friend take you by the hand and walk you down a healing path. Thank you, Caryn, for showing  us how to embrace the beauty, joy and pain in everyday life. ~ Harriet Lerner, Ph.D author of NYTimes bestseller The Dance of Anger and Why Won't You Apologize?

Many thanks to Caryn for these beautiful lessons in living, really living from a poet laureate who reminds you of your best friend. It's wonderful to feel so deeply inspired by a world that feels so deeply familiar. ~ Dar Williams, Singer-songwriter, and author of What I Found in 1,000 Towns

Like Da Vinci, Caryn is in love with the world, knows its many ways, excels at all she does, and captures the hidden emotion behind what she studies. Those gifts and skills manifest in volume in this collection of essays, where Caryn meditates on her world in all its daily-ness. Miracles are to be found everywhere, and Caryn finds them and pins them to the page. My world opens up, when I read these. Yours will too. ~ Kevin Rabas, Poet Laureate of Kansas, 2017-2019, All That Jazz

Enter the amazing world of genius writer Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg as she ruminates, rejoices, revels, and reflects. Her book Everyday Magic is a passport to her remarkable life as mother, wife, daughter-in-law, friend, professor, community leader, and writer. The author’s Wells Overlook homestead becomes as familiar as my kitchen table when I read scenes from her rocket-speed life. ~ Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-2009, author of Turtle’s Beating Heart

“It's not just a body, it's an adventure,” is the title of one of Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg's essays on the exceptionality of the everyday. This body of work is an adventure—not necessarily the roller-coaster-ride variety, but one of the turning of the moments of a life into opportunities for introspection, for sharing, for recognition that this instant in time is truly meaningful and lovely and deserving of notice. That Mirriam-Goldberg is a poet is evident here. Nothing gets by her, and she turns her observant eye to herself and those around her so lovingly that as we read we feel ourselves becoming a part of her community of friends and loved ones. Here we meet and grow to love a menagerie of people, dogs, cats, foibles, occasions of grief, days of joyous abandon, of all the ridiculous and sublime and ennobling and embarrassing things that enrich our lives and make our days worthwhile. Here is a paean to the human experience as is occurs: in the commonplace details and the nitty-gritty day-to-day unfolding of life, the individual seconds and minutes that make up what and who we are. After reading Caryn's book I found myself paying more attention, noticing those crystalline little orts of the day's events that so easily and often slip by beneath notice. And that is a precious gift. ~ Roy Beckemeyer, author of Music I Once Could Dance To

"Listening to another means learning a new language,” writes Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. This former poet-laureate of Kansas is absolutely present in the world. This book is an invitation to join her in a celebration of mundane moments illuminated by her loving presence. Wrap yourself in a warm embrace of words. ~ Sherry Reiter, PhD, Director of The Creative Righting Center, and Poetry Therapy pioneer

Once I read the first piece in this book, I couldn't stop. Each piece is a window into a room in the author's mind, each so enticing that I wanted to see the next room, and the next. This house is a well-lived-in home, filled with compassion, honesty, wit and humility. ~ Doug Lipman, winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award for storytelling, National Storytelling Network

In Everyday Magic, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg describes a spirit trip, her family’s drive to Colorado to visit a dying cousin. A spirit trip, she writes, is “usually sudden, regardless of what’s in the bank account or on the schedule, guided by a simple yearning to be with someone we love to say, hello, goodbye, I’m here for you.” With an open heart and often with sly humor, Caryn shares stories of bad vacations, burritos, family, faith, navigating a difficult childhood, and the passing of people dear to her. In these graceful essays I marvel, as always, at Caryn’s skill with language. Words are in her care and her command:  “a jewelry store run by paranoia and good taste,” . . . “slogging through the potholes of grief,” . . .  “The night smelled like roses, honeysuckle, car fumes, and popcorn.” As these essays journey through the joys and complications of life, Everyday Magic becomes a spirit trip in itself, a trip rich in depth and meaning, one that will remain in our hearts long after the last chapter is read. ~ Cheryl Unruh, author of Flyover People: Life on the Ground in a Rectangular State

This rich collection of 250 essays -- perfect as a gift, on a coffee table, or by your bedside -- explores everyday possibilities for magic and meaning with humor and tenderness.  There are tributes to Pete Seeger, Mexican food, bathrooms, Bruce Springsteen, playing the cello, Maxine Kumin, alleys, Adrienne Rich, Laura Nyro, making the bed, civil rights, the wonders of tea, wild weather, Marion McPartland, the desert, Ken Irby, Supertramp, installing a new toilet, Mary Chapin Carpenter, mothering hacks, and staying put in a community. Here are some other essays celebrating the glimmers of light in unexpected places:

  • The Glory of Failing
  • Satan Called: He Wants His Weather Back
  • Sorting Socks as a Rite of Passage
  • Dogs Are Better Than Us
  • Cats Taught Us To Lie
  • How Can You Not Love Kansas Basketball?
  • Lightning Bolt in the Rearview Mirror
  • How to Make a Decision About Anything
  • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Parenting
  • The Horror and Humor of Family Vacations
  • 9/11 Ten Years Later from the Vantage Point of a Subway Dweller
  • The Insomniac and the Hour of the Coyote
  • Dance Like Everyone's Watching
  • The Scandals of Our Lives
  • If You Postpone a Flight a Dozen Times and Then Cancel It, the Revolution Begins
  • Humor in the Bureaucratic Rings of Hell at the DMV
  • I Wanted An Enchilada, I Got a Prairie Fire
  • A Big Gay Wedding for Kansas
  • Catching Mr. and Mrs. Rattlesnake Right Now
  • Why I'm a Crazy Bitch Sometimes
  • A Bedroom Full of Fireflies
  • Calicoco, the Flying Cat, or Why You Shouldn't Put a Feral Cat in Your Bathroom
  • The Everyday Magic of Rainbows

This book, artfully designed by Tracy Million Simmons, features dozens of photos and innovative luna moth illustrations, accenting each story with greater delight, depth, and surprise.

Excerpt: "How to Live?"

A steady question has circled me for years like a song I can’t shake: “How to live?” When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, it was as if someone turned up the volume on this question, and since then, I have been regularly landing in moments when I felt para- lyzed as to what to do with myself to live the way I should. I would stand in the middle of my living room, debating whether to put my feet up and read a book, practice the cello, revise poetry, catch up on emails, do some yoga, take a walk, or clean out an obscure drawer. “What to do?” became the back beat behind “How to live?”

In the land of my mind, “How to live?” is a number one hit, playing simultaneously as gospel, rhythm and blues, hard-driving rock and roll (complete with Bruce Springsteen- like howls), familiar Irish gigs, complex but haunting folk songs, and as a blaring musical (think “Oklahoma” meets “Rent”). While I’m learning the various notes and hues of this question, I’m finding—to paraphrase the poet Rainer Maria Rilke—that I can only live my way into the answers, or, more likely, more questions.

Ironically enough, one of the clearest answers I get is to try to try less, something almost impossible for my grasping mind to inhabit, given my you’re-not-alive-unless-you’re -doing-something ways. Being my father’s daughter, I carry within me the legacy of working passionately, but also obsessively, springing into doing something related to my brilliant and exhausting career at any given moment (2 a.m.? No problem, I’ll just start up the computer; weekends? Oh, just this one thing and then . . . Vacation? Let me check my email first).

Yet my father died relatively young after too many years of constant illness and workaholism to see straight. After my own list-carrying decades, delighting in crossing things off and feeling generally compelled to immediately do whatever I think up, my very smart body now refuses to tolerate being dragged around like a pull toy from one overwhelm to the next.

I didn’t just realize the obvious easily. I sailed under the skies of low-grade, but chron- ic, unidentifiable illness since finishing chemo. After visiting my oncologist, various other doctors, energy healers, acupuncturists, massage therapists, psychics, dear friends, the self- subscribed-to myths of my past, and all manner of big pills (herbs, vitamins, amino acids) that came in glass bottles, I had a breakdown of sorts. In a small hotel room on the eighth floor of a Boston Marriott, in the middle of a conference at which I was presenting and helping organize, and in the middle of a herd of small ailments, from a wound on my foot to a migraine in my head, I heard one clear sentence: If you want to heal your life, you need to change your life.

Since that Boston epiphany, I started giving up things I used to do: extra work outside and inside of my teaching position, over-functioning with friends and family (on the premise that if I couldn’t fix my own life, I could fix someone else’s), and activities, thought-mazes and habits that took me away from being here, with myself as I am, in the present, whatever the weather. I’m a slow learner in the art of surrender (ten years after writing this post, I’m still immersed in these lessons). Give me an urgent task and high speed internet, and I’m easily tempted to go galloping in my mind toward whatever is asked. Give me an excuse, and I can convince myself it’s fine to take on more work. But the imperative to live a life of meaning has been a patient and persistent teacher. My health, which tends to go south easily and for prolonged periods if I don’t listen to my body, reinforces what I need to do . . . or not do.

I’ve also been discovering something entirely thrilling and not so unexpected: Living with greater self-care, discipline and awareness makes me outrageously happy. In the fall, I love watching the deer empty our bird feeder, as I watch from inside the house, still under the weight of the motor-purring kitten. I love the winter’s open space and time that’s always been right here, like the sky—sometimes variegated in golden pinks and grays through the bare branches of the sycamore—when I’m waiting at a stoplight. I love long stretches at home, and because I’m still hard-wired to keep doing things, using these stretches to re-organize the linen closet, make collages, or stare at old pictures of my parents and siblings. There is such a profound joy in the simple and constant art of cultivating space.

How to live is no longer such a cross-blends of many stations playing at once, but more like a heart beat. Its rhythm is all around me. All I need to do is listen.

Needle in the Bone

Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other

Hardcover, November 2012, 978-1-61234-568-0. A Kansas Notable Book Winner

Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other highlights the astonishing stories of two Poles—a Holocaust survivor, Lou Frydman, and a Polish resistance fighter, Jarek Piekalkewicz, both teenagers during World War II who each defied outrageous odds, lost everything and just about everyone in the war, and yet summoned the courage to create a new life. Frydman survived six concentration camps and three death marches. By the end of the war, everyone in his extended family had been killed except for his brother and himself. Piekalkewicz started his own underground army at age sixteen. In addition, one of his uncles was the main leader and another the head treasurer for the Polish Resistance before each was discovered, tortured, and murdered by the Nazis. Frydman and Piekalkiewicz found each other in 1975 in Lawrence, Kansas, where they became best friends, forming a bond made of the trauma and courage embedded in each man’s experience.

Needle in the Bone offers a fresh approach to the Holocaust and the Polish Resistance by entwining the stories of two survivors. By blending extensive interviews with Frydman and Piekelkewicz, historical research, and the author’s own responses and questions, this book provides a unique perspective on still-compelling issues, including the meaning of the Holocaust, the nature of good and evil, and how people persevere in the face of unbearable pain and loss.

Needle in the Bone is the powerful tale of two young men’s courage, heroism, heartbreak, and survival during and after the Second World War. Both Poles, one man survived six concentration camps and three death marches, while the other was a Resistance fighter who, at age sixteen, commanded his own underground army of 100 men. Lovingly conceived, exhaustively researched, and beautifully written, this book is a magnificent achievement that not only provides important insights into the Holocaust and the Resistance, but also documents the indomitable will of two extraordinary men. ~ William Tuttle, author of “Daddy’s Gone to War”: The Second World War in the Lives of America’s Children,  and other books

Rich in factual detail and personal revelations, Needle in Bone is an intimate portrait of two friends who witnessed unimaginable atrocities during the Holocaust, and, in later years, grabbed a good share of happiness. The author, a loving friend of both men and their wives, holds the reader spellbound as she  elicits their indelible, horrific, and hope-inspiring stories. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s authentic emotional presence and self-disclosure ends up being a huge gift to her readers, and the book is a valuable, highly personal, contribution  to the literature on Holocaust history. ~ Harriet Lerner, PhD., author of The New York Times bestseller, The Dance of Anger, and Marriage Rules

Needle in the Bone is a compelling, story of two Poles—a Jewish resister who survived the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, and other Nazi atrocities, and an Underground fighter who fought and survived the Nazi regime.Author Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg weaves in her own story as a Jewish American, adding valuable context and insights into the lives and experiences of Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz. Mirriam-Goldberg, a skilled interviewer, draws out their life stories, and that of their wives, Jane Frydman and Maura Piekalkiewicz. The two couples paths cross on a Fulbright in Poland, and they return to Kansas, becoming close friends and entwining their lives.In the hands of the author, we come to know the Frydmans and Piekalkiewiczs, and to better understand America and ourselves as Mirriam-Goldberg reflects on their lives, her own life, and the America in which the two couples live.It is a very American story of survival, new beginnings, hope and laughter in the face of horror, and faith in human goodness. You can’t resist liking and caring about Lou and Jane, Jarek and Maura, and Caryn Miriam-Goldberg.~ David Katzman, Professor Emeritus of American Studies, University of Kansas

With a poet’s eye for beauty among the ruins, Caryn Miriam-Goldberg has crafted a contemporary tale of two different men with a history of woe in common.  A welcome addition to literature about the Holocaust, and a reminder that good sometimes does survive and prosper. ~ Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream.

Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg has crafted a beautiful, moving story about the lives of two survivors of World War II, both of whom ended up at the University of Kansas where they became close friends....This summary does not do credit to Mirriam-Goldberg’s sensitive writing. The way she was able to blend both life stories into a seamless whole, her personal involvement with her subjects, her exhaustive research about Poland and the Holocaust during the war, and about the misconceptions of Polish anti-Semitism are truly impressive. Needle in the Bone should become required reading in any World War II or Holocaust history class. It is much more than the reminiscences of two old men. It is world history at its finest. ~ Andrea Kempf, Kansas City Jewish Chronicle

Needle in the Bone is dedicated to the children and grandchildren of Lou and Jarek, and in memory of Maura Piekalkiewicz and Lou Fryman: may their memories be for blessing.

Read Caryn's blog on this pivotal book.

Excerpt from the Introduction to Needle in the Bone

“None of you should be here,” says Maura Piekalkiewicz, as she fills her plate with latkes at our annual Hanukkah party. “When I went to the weddings of Lou and Jane Frydman’s children, all I could think was, ‘None of you should be here. It was not Hitler’s plan,’ but here you are,” she says, gesturing to the crowded living room where Lou, Jane, two of their grown sons, and their families are spread over couches and floors, playing dreidel for piles of M&Ms. “That you all survived, it’s a miracle!” she says, rolling her r’s.

Her beautiful face is glowing, and as is so often the case with Maura, she is ecstatic. She is also Irish, which makes this ecstasy seem even more lit from within with wonder and intensity. “Now my dear, I must get more of those spinach latkes before they’re all gone. They are a beauty!”

“None of you should be here” rings in my mind afterward when I think of Lou and Jane, both of whom were children in Europe during the Holocaust. Jane and her parents escaped from Budapest early enough to survive without threading the narrow eye of the concentration camps. Lou’s family in Poland didn’t, and out of dozens of his relatives, only he and his brother survived.

Lou Frydman, shortly after the Holocaust

Poem on the Range

Poem on the Range: A Poet Laureate's Love Song to Kansas

Publisher: Coal City Press, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-9795844-7-3

Purchase through Coal City Press, $10

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg has written a terrific love paean to Kansas. In the process she’s taken us from joy to near despair to joy again, telling us—often with rapturous description and always self-depreciating humor—the story of how she and fellow Kansans lost and then saved the state’s Poet Laureate position. The book is laced with sumptuous travel descriptions of Kansas’s hither and yon. And there are black squirrels, highways stretching to the horizon, outstanding and readable poems scattered in just the right places, as well as the kinds of people who give you the shirts off their backs. Poem on the Range is a needed guide for all those who work for the arts. It’s a gift to all who glory in a place they’ve made home. I’ve always loved Kansas, but Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg will make any reader love Kansas more.   ~ Dick Allen, Connecticut State Poet Laureate, 2010-2015, and author of This Shadowy Place (winner of the 2013 New Criterion Poetry Prize), and seven previous poetry collections

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is our poet warrior. With passion, grit, and humor, she hews an unpredictable path from Jersey girl to Kansas Poet Laureate and beyond in this engaging memoir, itself a tribute to the art (and politics) of poetry.   ~Wyatt Townley, Poet Laureate of Kansas

“Our weather keeps everything in perspective, like it or not,” says former Kansas poet laureate, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. Poem on the Range describes with joy the miles Mirriam-Goldberg covered barn storming for the art, and offers a sampling of poems by Kansas poets she met along the way, as well as poems by poets she met acrosIMG_0806s state lines.   ~ JoAnn Balingit, Poet Laureate of Delaware

Caryn’s book not only recounts her experience as Kansas Poet Laureate, but also reveals how a truly awakened, poetic soul travels our state: with keen, bright eyes and a light heart. Through anecdote and meditation, Caryn reveals the pluck and beauty of our fellow Kansans and her resolve, through everyday action, to preserve and exalt poetry and the arts.   ~ Kevin Rabas, author of Sonny Kenner’s Red Guitar

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s voice, in her new memoir, is jaunty, belying the serious nature of her subject matter, a rather heroic effort on her part to shepherd the Kansas Poet Laureate position through a period of limbo following our governor’s defunding of the arts in Kansas. Caryn’s easy prose, along with a wealth of poems from Kansans and others, chronicle her time as Poet Laureate in an informative and enjoyable read, one which underscores the true value of art beyond the poor efforts to monetize it.  ~ Bill Sheldon, author of Rain Comes Riding

Poem on the Range is the uplifting literal and metaphorical journey taken by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg during her tenure as poet laureate.  Filled with anecdotes, poems and beautiful descriptions of her beloved state, it is at once a celebration of place and the poetry and poets that weave it together. I felt like I was on the road with Caryn travelling to places I’ve never been before:  Hutchinson, Emporia, Wichita and Topeka.  What an adventure.  There’s even a chapter about dodging tornadoes ! Only someone with her spirit could have kept the poet laureate office alive and well during the dark days when the Kansas Arts Commission was dismantled by the acting Governor.  Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s indomitable spirit shines through on every page of Poem on the Range. What a gift.   ~ Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina Poet Laureate

Featuring poems, prose or songs by: Dick Allen, Thomas Fox Averill, Roy Beckemeyer, Allison Berry, Elizabeth Black, Walter Butts, Jyce DiDonato, Steven Hind, Nancy Hubble, Kelley Hunt, William J. Karnowski, Maxine Kumin, Denise Low, Ramona McCallum, Ronda Miller, Karen Ohnesorge, Al Ortolani, HC Palmer, Shawn Pavey, Matthew Porubsky, Kevin Rabas, Elizabeth Schultz, Leah Sewell, Bill Sheldon, Victoria Sherry, Betsy Sholl, Marilyn L. Taylor, Lisa Starr, Roderick Townley, Wyatt Townley, John Willison, Laura Lee Washburn, and Israel Wasserstein.

Excerpt: "I'm Going To Live in Kansas"

That's what I told my grandfather when I was five years old, not that I can remember, but no matter because he reminded me of this over twenty years later when I married a Kansan. I was far from Kansas at the time, visiting Papa in a New Jersey hospital where he would soon die. He held my son Daniel, not even a year old at the time, laughed, shaking his full shock of white hair, and in his Polish accent, still strong although he emigrated to this country when he was a child, said, “You were a little girl, and you told me, 'I'm going to live in Kansas.'” He couldn't stop laughing even if I lived in a place too far to him to visit because of his declining health.

Why, growing up in Brooklyn and then central New Jersey, did I think I would live in Kansas? I'm guessing the influence of The Wizard of Oz loomed large, but then again, with my propensity for all things green and glittery, you would think I would have voted to live in Oz instead of black-and-white and bad-weathered Kansas.

As a kid, I thought I would live in Vermont, someplace mountainous and filled to the brim with hippies. Turns out that came true too, but in a whole different way. Since 1996, I've taught in a low-residency program at Goddard College in central Vermont, which means I live in a small dorm room for 10-12 days twice a year, winter and summer. After so many years of doing this, I have my Vermont friends, favorite restaurants and coffeehouses, thrift stores and trails in the woods in Plainfield and Montpelier. But although I pay taxes in Vermont, I consider myself a Kansan.

How I got here can be traced to happenstance, the fear of starving as a poet, a hankering to go west without knowing where the west was, and, like everyone else I knew from my home state, an urge to leave New Jersey (we are, after all, “Born to Run”). When I graduated Manalapan High School at age 17 in 1977, I wanted to immerse myself in poetry, my great life love. I stumbled into my local community college, which turned out to be superb. Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, NJ allowed (and still allows) students to study what they love most according to how they learn best. After graduating with an associates degree in poetry, and unduly influenced by my father's claim that as a poet I had only two ways to make a living -- advertising or journalism -- I chose journalism. The University of Missouri's journalism school had a great reputation, so I went. In 1979, I boarded a plane with my high school friend Kathy Guzda, who had moved there six months earlier, and our combined 17 pieces of luggage.

Geographical ignorance is the arrogant mark of people from the tri-state area (NY, NJ and PA), and I was no exception. I knew California was on the other side of the country, but like those New Yorker cartoons, I only had the vaguest idea about what was between New Jersey and California. Our flight was delayed, repeatedly, by a blizzard west of us, and in the end, it took us 19 hours to get to St. Louis with too much caffeine in our systems to close our eyes on that bus trip to Columbia. Once at Kathy's house, I went to sleep on her couch without any idea where I was. The next day, I moved to a dorm and prepared to finish my bachelor's degree in journalism. Then I would return to New Jersey, live near the ocean, marry my boyfriend back home, and write features for the Asbury Park Press in between moonlighting at poetry.

Tell god your plan, and she'll laugh - so goes the old saying. By the time I left Columbia, I had most of a history degree instead, specializing in women's labor history, and a minor in poetry, and I didn't have the Jersey boy anymore. Along the way, I studied with the always-tipsy sweetheart of a poet Tom McAfee, who was gentle and kind with me during our frequent meetings at the Tiger Hotel bar. The poems I wrote that were truly bad. I'm not being modest here. I wasn't born with a gift for poetry, but through years of writing like a maniac, I learned poetry. Back in Columbia, I was agonizing over just the right way to say things like “You are the rose to my thorns.”

So what does a person who studied women's labor history and poetry do with her degree? She ends up a grassroots political organizer. In 1981, I started writing for a labor newspaper in Kansas City, moved on to coordinate a statewide coalition of groups advocating for renewable energy until our coalition lost all its funding, and met a surprising benefactor (a character in the Ozarks who liked my naïveté and attitude), who gave money to a nonprofit group to hire me. The Citizen/Labor Energy Coalition brought together alternative energy groups with labor unions to work for policy reform. We were outrageously ahead of our time, pushing for natural gas regulation, conservation projects, wind energy and many other forms of making a lighter carbon footprint on the earth.

Given the politics of the moment, the coalition had me run a campaign to turn around Kansas congressman Jim Slattery's vote on natural gas deregulation. Our organization backed my efforts with canvassers going door to door, enticing people to call the congressman over several months. Meanwhile, I drove each week from where I lived in Kansas City, Missouri, to Topeka in a friend's falling apart Dodge Dart so I could march into the Topeka Building Trades hall, and visit each union office about the campaign. Most of the union leaders just laughed at me or rolled their eyes. I looked younger than my 22 years, I still had much more New York and New Jersey in me than Kansas and Missouri, and the flowing hippie skirts didn't help. Plus, this campaign was supported by their national offices, not by what their local members needed.

Everything changed after I debated the public affairs director of Standard Oil on public television. Having been well-prepared with how to rebut whatever he might say, the debate went very well for me. The next day, the union leaders were waiting for me at their doors, thrilled I had been on television, and ready to do anything for the campaign. Within a week, Slattery voted against natural gas deregulation, but winning one battle didn't win the war. Gas was deregulated, and many other things changed, not the least of which was me, mainly because of a stop in Lawrence.

In May of 1982, I was with my friend Ira on our way to the first Kansas Area Watershed (KAW) Council gathering, a weekend bringing together people interested in renewable energy, health and wellness, and local culture. Ira and I were talking so much and so fast that we missed the exit from the city to I-70, missed it again, then a third time. We had planned to stop in Lawrence, a place I never visited before, on the way to the gathering, but by the time we got to Lawrence, we were so enchanted with a festival going on in South Park, then a concert at Liberty Hall featuring the band Tofu Teddy, that we decided to stay overnight at the friend of a friend's house.

Walking up the steps of that bungalow to the front door, something happened that changed my life forever. A voice, one I felt with my whole being rather than actually heard, over my right shoulder said, “This is your home for the rest of your life.” The next morning I met Ken, the man I would marry and some of the people who would become my closest friends.

The Sky Begins At Your Feet

The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community and Coming Home to the Body

Ice Cube Books, ISBN-13: 978-1888160437, $20.

Buy a signed copy through Caryn. Available at Ice Cube Press, and Amazon.

Links to Reviews and Press: Library Journal (starred review),  Publisher's WeeklyOncolinks review by Alysa CummingsStory Circle Books. Chosen by the Midwest Booksellers as a Best Pick.

A marvelous storyteller, a wise woman, and a teacher in the true sense of the word, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg takes us on a challenging yet ultimately joyful journey that leaves us fundamentally changed. Anyone who reads this memoir (and you must!) will never forget it. ~ Harriet Lerner, Ph.D, author of The Dance of Anger

Looking in and looking out, poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg makes connections between cancer and our world-out-of-balance, between language and healing. Written with honesty, compassion and surprising humor, The Sky Begins at Your Feet reports Goldberg’s journey as she navigates through the landscapes of illnesss, and in the process reveals much about the healing potential of writing ourselves whole. ~ J. Ruth Gendler, author, Notes on the Need for Beauty and The Book of Qualities

The Sky Begins At Your Feet is as personal as a missing bosom and as expansive as the holy earth. In this sensuous, trenchant memoir, the poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg shares the life she lived and the truths she found as she, enfolded in family and community, confronted breast cancer and carried on. Real, wise, and wry, it's a treasure. ~ Stephanie Mills, author of Tough Little Beauties and Epicurean Simplicity

Embraced by the wide expanse of the Kansas prairie, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg recounts the seasons of her cancer diagnosis and recovery with a finely honed blend of honesty, poignancy and wry humor. She reminds us that serious illness can re-awaken us to life’s beauty, deepen our respect for the fragile balance between our lives and the earth’s, and find our salvation in love of a supportive community. This is a book which will surely inspire anyone whose life has been touched by cancer. ~Sharon Bray, Ed.D., author of When Words Heal: Writing Through Cancer

The Sky Begins At Your Feet is a powerfully honest and inspiring story about facing our ultimate fears and surviving. Mirriam-Goldberg's account of her personal journey - and of the unique community that gathered around her - will stay with you after you close the pages of this book. ~ Katherine Towler, author of the novels Snow Island and Evening Ferry

Given the way illness can dull our capacity to attend to even our most basic needs, The Sky Begins at Your Feet gives a reader, with startling clarity, what Buddhists call a kalyan-metta, a spiritual friend for that journey. Mirriam-Goldberg, with a poet's attention to detail and a reporter's determination to get to the real story, offers us a deep consideration of the way illness and her response to it, awakens her -- and could awaken us -- to a whole range of connections: community, family, the natural world, body and the mysterious inner landscape of being human on this earth. ~ John Fox, author of Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-making

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg contributes to the invention of a new genre of medical non-fiction – narrative medicine. The narrative is well written, rich, poignant, entertaining, tragic at times, uplifting, sad, and triumphant – all that we want in a great story. I recommend it for anyone, but especially for health professionals who need to experience the other side of breast cancer. For the medical audience, it's definitely a must read. - Lewis Mehl-Madrona, M.D., author, Coyote Medicine and Narrative Medicine

Excerpt: Chapter One: Getting Lost

We were completely lost in the Flint Hills of Kansas, and I didn’t care. All we could see were the wide expanse of hills, sky, cows, and the occasional rock, skeleton of a windmill, or fragmented stones from pioneer homes. I stared out the front passenger side window, marveling at the lush green rising and falling in all directions, hardly any power lines because there was so little for the lines to power. The land looked surely as it had appeared for hundreds, thousands of years. Tall grass sloped all over itself on what felt like the top of the world, and everywhere the wind conspired with the sun to make the grasses gleam. It felt like being at very high altitude, only instead of mountains, windmills.

Expansive as galaxies, the Flint Hills lay down all directions like long, lanky bodies rolling away from or toward each other. “The sky begins at your feet,” writes essayist Anne Herbert, and there’s nothing like wandering around the center of Kansas to prove this, and also to find out how easy it is to get lost in the sky.

Early this March morning, the sun illuminated the curves of the land and long shadows of trees and rocks in such a way that we let ourselves get lost without a second thought. My friends and my nine-year-old daughter and I were driving all over Chase County, looking for the ranch of a woman we were to visit. We planned this trip the day before on a whim to make local contacts for the Continental Bioregional Congress we were helping to organize at a nearby camp the following fall. Now we were driving eight miles in the vibrant hills down the wrong road.

A Reader Response

I tend to not read memoirs centered around cancer or illness, because I tend not to be a terribly compassionate person, and my thinking is usually that people who write such books are probably drowning in vats of self-pity. And yet, with that type of thinking, I could have easily missed out on this gem of a book. I am so glad that I didn't. Even though I am 40, I have never known anyone with breast cancer, so I was very surprised how much this book resonated with me. I cried from the beginning to the end. I don't think that was Goldberg's intention, as most of the book strikes an upbeat note, but I found myself incessantly sobbing nonetheless. I don't know why I was crying, or who, exactly, I was crying for. I think that the author has a way of opening herself up and presenting her vulnerabilities in such a way that the reader feels exposed as well. The book reads like a personal journal, but it's introspective without becoming mired in existential naval-gazing. It is clear that Goldberg isn't interested in having a pity-party for one, and she reacts to her breast cancer in much the same way that she reacts to anything unpleasant in her life. She is going to deal with "it", and then maybe she'll take a nap, and then she'll deal with the rest of "it" if need be. She relies heavily on her friends and family, but they seem to be both willing and able to be there for her. We should all be so lucky. The Sky Begins At Your Feet is a book about cancer, yes, but it is also a book about family, and friends, and a job that inspires you, and a political cause that motivates you, and kids who keep you grounded, and happenstances that fall into your lap and teach you things. It is about the mundane and the miraculous, the minutiae and the profound. It is about living your messy life, and drowning in chaos, and then the scent of lilac smacks you in the face, and says, "Snap out of it! You are making it harder than it has to be." I really loved this book. I think that I love this book for reasons that won't come to me until later. I will be sending my copy on to an old friend who will enjoy it as much as I did, and then she will pass it on to someone else. I hope that the word gets out and those who have the means will buy this book in droves--it is that good. ~ Alicia Webster, goodreads.com