“Life Will Break You”: A Year Since Everything Changed: Everyday Magic, Day 1031

Louise Erdrich, from her novel The Painted Drum

“This is probably the last time we’ll be able to do this,” we nervously joked with each other a year ago. We were friends, gathered at Haskell Indian Nations University to see and hear Louise Erdrich, one of our most beloved writers. Erdrich had never been to Lawrence or Haskell, the only intertribal university in our country, and she rarely did public readings at all, so that this was happening at all was somewhat miraculous. While it was a first for this spectacular novelist, it was a last for hundreds of people clumping together in a big public place, even exchanging easy hugs.

I’m thinking today about the joke/no joke moment. I didn’t believe a year ago that this — a real pandemic landed squarely here and everywhere else in the world — would actually happen or that it would last more than a few weeks or months. Surely it would be over by April or July or definitely October. Of course the lockdowns would halt it from spreading. The masks I was rushing to make or buy from others sewing them would make a difference as would sanitizing the fuck out of everything that came in the door, from the mail to the avocados.

But what did I know? “Not much,” life tell us often. I went from counting weeks to counting months, and now I get it that it will be years before we’re out of the Covid woods. I couldn’t have imagined that close to 5,000 Kansans, over 500,000 Americans, and over 2.5 million people worldwide would die from this, all of them beloved by children or siblings, friends or partners, communities or families. There’s also millions who survived Covid but now are swimming through life with permanent damage to their hearts or lungs as well as asthma, migraines, and a host of strange symptoms. We’re just beginning to see more of the iceberg of this horrendous disease, including how it can twist into new mutations.

But something else has come into sharp relief through this year: just about everyone I know has spent a lot more time contemplating and savoring what matters in their lives. I have bunches of friends who walk the nearby wetlands daily, delighting in and learning about the life cycles of great blue herons and songs of red-winged blackbirds. Being home just about all the time alone or with a spouse or child brings — for the good and the bad — our relationships into new and acute focus. Not getting in the car so much or ever on the plane to flit here and there means a lot more rest is at hand, a good counterbalance at times (although not always enough) for pandemic anxiety and grief.

On a more personal level, I’m learning how much slowing down to be where I am is essential for my health and sanity. Each day, I step outside to the deck and try to take in the sky and weather of this moment. Back inside, I look at this quote from Louise Erdrich, framed and signed — a lovely gift from my friend Harriet when I was newly diagnosed with my last cancer — and nod in recognition:

“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and being alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You have to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes too near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could.”

Tonight, a year to the date I saw Erdrich, I’m going to a reading of a another writer I love but never heard in-person before: Anne Lamott. But I’ll be doing that — along with hundreds more across the country — through my computer screen. Life will and does break us, but yes, there are all these apples and sweetness right here too.

P.S. Thanks to the Raven Bookstore for helping bring Louise Erdrich to Lawrence a year ago. Thanks for Watermark Bookstore for being part of the virtual Anne Lamott reading tonight.

A Year From Now: Everyday Magic, Day 1014

A year ago, driving a mountain cabin to Denver to see old friends, we had no idea. It just seemed that life would go on like this with annual vacations 500 or more miles from home, easy forays into restaurants, and being able to enthusiastically hug pals. Yet there’s something heartening in realizing how much can also change for the better in a year, so here’s what I woke up imagining for a year from now.

In August, 2021, it’ll still be hot in northeast Kansas, and I’ll be sitting exactly where I am now: on the porch with the ceiling fan above and the floor fan beside me. When I head into town, I won’t bother to make sure there’s a mask in my purse because, by the dog days of summer ’21, there will be an effective and safe vaccine widely disseminated. I’ll head to the city pool to cool off, and this time, it will be full of water and people (it’s empty of both now). Heading back home, I’ll stop at the Merc, our food co-op, to pick up some sweet corn to grill along with the zucchini and potatoes we just harvested from the garden.

I’ll listen to NPR telling of how President Biden has now, seven months into his term, completely reversing all the previous occupant’s executive orders that diminish and threaten the environment, immigrants, healthcare, small businesses, and so much more. Vice President Kamala Harris will be giving a news conference on how the United States, now firmly back in the Paris Agreement on climate change, is making big headway on the economy through the growing renewables industry. Some familiar voices from the campaign trail of 2020 will pepper the news, including cabinet members Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker or secretary of state Susan Rice, and progressive conscience of the party Bernie Sanders. I’ll delight in the relief I feel when it comes to evolving policy and resources for education, healthcare, police reform, commerce, and so many other aspects of American life. I might even send a note to our new senator Barbara Bollier to thank her for supporting Biden’s initiative to start Medicare for people at age 60.

Back in my kitchen, I’ll marinate vegetables just like I do now as I feel a greater lightness (or perhaps it’s just because I’ll be better rested from not waking at 2 a.m. to worry about things like the post office). While Ken is heating up the grill, some good friends will show up for the first time since B. P. (Before Pandemic) for dinner, bringing some homemade bread with them. I’ll hug them long and tight, all of us laughing in joyful relief. We’ll soon head to our table on the back deck to watch the expanding thunderhead to the southwest. Just before dessert, maybe a peach pie I make with local peaches, the rain will start, and we’ll rush inside, clutching glasses and balancing plates.

Later, just as the sun reaches the horizon, we’ll head out again to find a double rainbow to the east. We’ll stand in the sun shower laughing and pointing to the sky, joking with each other that, sure, the world is still a mess in a million swirling ways, but look at all that happened, that could happen, in a year.

Hours later, I’ll step out on the deck in my nightgown, the soft wind and loud katydids doing their thing, look out at our farm, spread my arms, and say, thank you, thank you, thank you.

What is a Year?: Everyday Magic, Day 1009

The porch I’m on June 17, 2020

A year ago, I was positively radioactive. On June 14, I had surgery to insert a tiny gold disk of radioactive pellets in my right eye, and on June 19, I had surgery to have it removed. That span of days, I was scared and exhausted by unremitting pain (that would go on beyond the radioactive phase), yet I was also on my front porch, drinking iced tea, watching hummingbirds dive-bomb each other, and occasionally eating a lemon cream croissant from the fabled 1900 Bakery that Kris brought me. I couldn’t pet the cat, get within 10 feet of Ken, or endure any sunlight.

A year later, I’m on the front porch of the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, my feet on a chair, my computer on my lap, and my eyes — one that can see relatively normally and that other that sees an impressionistic, soft-edged, floater-crossing world — are fixed on the sparrows, jetting from fence ledge to tree branch. We regard each other while a white-skinned sycamore tree looks on. I’m drinking iced tea and thinking about eating some leftover beef bourguignon for lunch. A whirly-gig — a little thin leaf swirling unevenly all the way down — catches me. Because of the pandemic, I’m alone here, and it’s okay.

The view from June 17, 2019

A tale of two Junes is just a sliver of all the Junes I’ve lived and hope to live. A year from now, I envision a widely-distributed, extremely-effective, and vividly-safe vaccine, and life not going back to the the old normal, but opening back up. Maybe I’ll be back here, but when the trolley passes by, as it does every 30 minutes, the driver and riders won’t be masked. We’ll go to restaurants again, peruse book stores, consider air travel with ease, and think nothing of stopping at a gas station to use the restroom. I see us talking about how strange it was, still is actually, to have lost so much and so many while also — I hope — saying what we can see now that we couldn’t see pre-pandemic.

A year ago, I had to wear a towel over my head as well as two pairs of sunglasses under that towel when riding in cars to go for medical follow-up appointments. Light hurt so much that many evenings, after I lay on the couch with an ice pack over my eyes while we watched (me watching by listening) a Northern Exposure episode, we went to the porch in the dark to listen. My ears learned to see 6 varieties of cicadas and even more of katydids. I couldn’t see what I would see.

A year from now, I wonder what we will see and deeply hear in new ways, trusting that with all we lose, there’s some compensation of vision, beauty, wisdom or compassion even if it’s not often enough to erase the pain. There’s also this wind ruffling these leaves while a branch trembles under the weight of a young sparrow, just out of the nest and ready by instinct for what’s next.

What is a year? We don’t know, but we will find out.

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A Letter From the Post-Pandemic Future: Everyday Magic, Day 1004

Dear You,

Yes, I hear you knocking on my door at all hours of the day and especially night, calling me out of my sleep because you’re not getting enough of your own. You want to know what will be, how it will happen, and especially when. Fair enough questions given that you’re human, and humans can’t help but to desperately want some ground under their dainty or lumbering feet, a sense of control so they can puzzle together some steadying vision of what they believe will happen. You’re planners, all of you to some extent, and you like to think your plans matter.

So here’s the deal: I can’t tell you how you leap from here to there or how high you’ll have to jump to make that leap because this isn’t a situation of you being able to soar high enough on your own volition to aim yourself toward a pre-designated target. Besides, it usually doesn’t work out well for the future to be too chatty about itself with the present. But what I can tell you is this:

  • Be where you need to be. For most of you, that means home or whatever approximates home for now. Some of you go out to work in hospitals, grocery stores or gas stations, and that’s, as they say, essential work, but if you have an option to work, worship, meet and otherwise gather from home, believe me (and I should know) that you’ll be glad you took that option in the long run.
  • Many of you — I’m eyeing you, America — really don’t like being told what to do and not do, where to go and not go. Please, for the sake of my time, get over yourself. No one is ripping away your liberty or free will, just tilting you toward using it to discover greater freedom and possibility at home. You are completely free to clean out that drawer in the kitchen that holds everything from extra screws to old sunglasses. You can discipline yourself to create a new wall hanging out of scraps of fabric or a new garden bed. There’s plenty you have dominion over.
  • At the same time, this is a pandemic, not an all-expenses-paid creative retreat. If can’t do more today than make some microwave popcorn and stare out your window at a pair of cardinals, that’s okay. You’re not going to regret the days that don’t register on your old scales of productivity. You will regret driving yourself crazy to win the pandemic self-improvement sweepstakes, so don’t even enter. Create what comes to you. Sleep enough now (believe me, there will be a lot of new work ahead when you get to my time). Take good care of your body and soul, and if you live with others, your housemates or pets too.
  • Accept that you have many shifting behavioral and emotional strategies and phases to cycle through, and you don’t all do this the same way at the same time. Try not to judge your brother-in-law for practicing for a marathon while the only marathon in your life involves Netflix. If someone judges you, tell them to back the #$% off, but say it nicer — this isn’t a time to escalate tensions. One other thing: make your bed. That’s something you can do to put some semblance of order into your day from the get-go.
  • Some of you are suffering tremendously. Maybe you’re sick with something that’s different or the same as Corvid-19. Maybe you’re terrified of dying or of losing someone. Maybe you’ve already lost a beloved, or you’re climbing out of a close brush with death. Many of you are losing income, and the unemployment checks haven’t started trickling in. Or you might be on the cusp of losing a job, health insurance, and other necessary supports. Some of you (maybe all at moments) are swallowed up in dread, despair, and anxiety for stretches. All I can tell you is that this is horrendous, I’m so sorry, and I wish I could do something for you back in what’s my past. But I can also tell you this: hang on, Sloopy, hang on. That’s because….
  • This future — and I know I’m biased here — is very promising. Many of you are already opening your hearts wider than you have in some time, helping others with donations, prayers, plans and tools. You have incredible potential to change yourself, and with you the world, for the better by just learning to stay. Sit tight without trying to impose your will or ideas of what your life is supposed to be on yourself and others. The more you do this solo, the more you learn how to do this together, household by household, community by community.
  • Also, listen to the real science (the more of us who do this, the better for the future). It will enhance your ability to be guided by reality in other aspects of your life too. At the same time, protect yourself from whatever news overwhelms you or sensationalizes reality. Take news fasts when needed or ask someone close to you to update you on anything vital you need to know about the real science and reality of where you are.
  • This is the spring and beyond of being much more than doing. Listen to the birds. Pet the cat. Take notice of that shining pale blue that holds all the trees in such grace. Marvel at the lilac, and this year, you have the time to smell them and even get down on the ground to smell lily-of-the-valley. Listen to your favorite singer streaming an old song about when you first fell in love. Cry at the end of “Casablanca” and laugh at “Ferris Bueller.” Call your grieving friend. Zoom with your lonely mom. Text your unemployed niece back and forth about cool movies she likes. But also get in touch with yourself: who you are (whatever that means) without decking yourself out in the story you don each day about who you’re supposed to be.
  • One other thing to remember: you can’t see the whole story until you get to the end of it. Yes, this pandemic absolutely has an ending, and most likely, you’re okay there and then, even if a little older, sadder, and wiser. When you get well past the arc of this story, you’ll see what the arc was, not just for our planet but for your own precious life. Especially, you’ll know heart-to-heart more about the preciousness of this gift, this life

Hey, kiddo, please also remember that I believe (and depend) on you.

With love always, the future

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Are We All Just Dust in the Wind?: Everyday Magic, Day 995

That’s the question I kept asking myself as I replayed “Dust in the Wind” on my quickly-wearing-out but relatively new copy of Point of Know Return. I was a 17-year-old Jersey girl, commuting two years each way because of a wacky bus schedule from my home in Manalapan to Brookdale Community College, just 10 miles away. There, I studied English (quelle surpris!), but mostly, poetry, music, and several guys at our school radio station, WBJB, where we often played Kansas music in between jazz, folk, showtunes, opera, and rock because we had a progressive format (mixing any and everything). Oh, and did I mention the band that put out “Dust in the Wind” was Kansas, the name of a people and place where I would find my own point of no and know return?

Yesterday, to commemorate Kansas Day (our state’s birthday), I posted a video on Facebook of another Kansas song I’ve loved since I was a teen, “Carry On, My Wayward Son.” Stephanie commented on how much she loved “Dust in the Wind,” as did Betsy, all of us teenage girls listening to it in our rooms or cars over and over. When sleep eluded me last night, I started reading up on the band and its history, discovering that one of the voices I loved in both these songs was that of Robby Steinhardt (also the classically-trained violinist), from Lawrence, and hey, both songs were written by Kerry Livgrin, who still lives in Topeka. Livgrin said “Carry On, My Wayward Son” come through him in a flash, and “Dust in the Wind” started out as a guitar exercise he created, then his wife suggested he add some lyrics.

As I shimmeyed down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, I learned there were several early version of the band, Kansas 1 and Kansas 2, plus in-and-out mergings with bands named Saratoga and White Clover (eventually a band called Proto-Kaw also). What’s more, one of the main guys in Kansas 1 was Don Montre, the twin brother of a dear friend, the late Weedle Caviness. Just as I was reading this, Weedle’s husband Paul, having seen my Kansas post, wrote me about Don (ah, the magic of Kansas or Weedle or just time itself!).

Eventually, I got to bed, telling a sleeping Ken what I had been doing, only to have him wake me up an hour later to ask if I loved “Dust in the Wind” as much as he did when it came out. Yes, of course I did, I told him. Then, hundreds of miles and dozens of years away from first hearing this song, no longer worried about if our lives are just dust in the wind (they are, but so what?), I lived out the opening lines: “I close my eyes/ Only for a moment and the moment’s gone/ All my dreams/ Pass before my eyes with curiosity.”

P.S. Check out this video of Kansas — some inexplicably dressed in the prom ruffled shirts I remember from over 40 years ago.

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