My Friend Vaughn and the Walk to the House Down the Road: Everyday Magic, Day 1054

“Vaughn keeps talking about the house down the road,” Julie, his wife, told me just a few days before he died. I listened on the other end of the phone, looking out the window from my room at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow into the quickly-accumulating snow on the roof. I was hesitant to have come to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, not wanting to leave my dear friends Julie or Vaughn, but it also felt like the right thing to do although most of the regularly-scheduled things of our lives make little to no sense when death is imminent.

Vaughn I’ve known for so long I can’t remember when we met, but surely in the early 80s, and Julie became a fast beloved friend a dozen years ago when her adventure with Vaughn brought her to us. I thought I had a good sense of Vaughn, but I got to know him even better at the end of his life when he actively helped me write his obituary (you can read at this link) over hig last month in between talking through songs, poems, readings, and speakers for his Celebration of Life, which I had the honor of officiating Sat., March 26. The obituary and the service were long, winding, full of deep notes and soaring voices, wild stories and vast memories, just like Vaughn. Then again, any life, especially one lived with vibrant gusto, and admirable affection is a infinite unfolding.

Vaughn especially made big differences for many of us. Vaughn has changed my life, including in one small and one enormous way: red cowboy boots and the farm. When I was diagnosed with eye cancer, I wrote a pithy blog post about being back at the cancer rodeo, and all I needed now were a pair of red cowboy boots. “Then she shall have them,” Vaughn told Julie. Within a week, Vaughn and Julie were walking from their car to our house carrying a large box. They fit perfectly.

The farm, however, is something too big to fit anywhere although somehow it’s in our arms after being only in our hearts for years. When it became possible (although seemingly highly improbable) for us to purchase the land we’ve been trying to save for 35 years, it was Vaughn who gave us the guts and gumption to believe we could. He first brainstormed with us about building an ecological small housing development on part of the land, and when we all realized we had no idea how to actually do that, he was game to help us with financing. His willingness was a strong enough bridge that it led us to imaginative and sustainable financing beyond him. While we might have gotten there on our own, Vaughn’s passion for the people and land he loved sped us toward our destination in time for all the pieces to come together.

Vaughn’s death on March 17, shortly after I got home from Arkansas, brought relief, heartbreak, calm, beauty, and the big mystery of grief all together for many of us. He died in Julie’s arms with his his dear friend Danny and Julie’s wonderful daughter Becca around him. Shortly afterwards, Ken and I drove over as the full moon set to help prepare the body for his green burial. The room was full of calm, love, and peace, and being part of such sacred moments is surely one of the more important reasons we’re alive.

But in the time between his death and burial, I felt discombobulated and confused, uneasy and not really wherever I was supposed to be. I remembered how, when my dad died, the Colombian rabbi who got to know my dad told us that the time between death and burial was an immersion into limbo (one reason, he explained, Jews bury their dead so quickly). He added that we don’t officially become mourners until we lay the body to rest.

Saturday, when Vaughn’s friends and family lowered the biodegradable coffin into the living earth, then we did our burial ceremony, ending in filling in the grave, I realized we as well as Vaughn had made the journey to the house down the road. It’s lonely and little empty not to have him with us, but there’s so much to remember, including how I played John Prine’s “I Remember Everything” for him recently, and he said to make sure that was in the service also.

Here is the poem I wrote for him when I was at Dairy Hollow, right after speaking with Julie (and yes, the ending is a nod to the John Prine song). May we all find where we belong, and when it comes to our loved ones, carry what we remember into the house where we live now.

Walking To the House Down the Road

for Vaughn, 3/12/22

Of course it’s a house for you who loves

to build and rebuild the uninhabitable

into homes of music and good food.

Winter makes it harder, especially

when false spring turns to thunder snow

and sheet on a Sunday afternoon.

But leaving when blossoms clutch

the sky or when summer nights fill us

with lightning bugs and katydids

would be harder to leave behind

in this house of a life, each packed box

a decade overflowing of who you still are

and will always be even down the road.

A dog barks from the kitchen. The last

of the snow drops from the branches

while the steps to the last place you live

dampen in the sheen of old rain.

The birds come and go, whole flocks

of red-winged blackbirds, twisting

murmurations of starlings just

down the road from here

to where you’re going without

leaving this bed, with leaving this bed

like breath or time. But we can’t

say that, bear that now while you still

sleep or reach up to kiss again and

never enough. Love is a well

with no bottom, a weathervane

in the wind, an oak so heavy

with yesterday’s snow that it can’t,

it has to, let go, but love is also

what makes it possible to let go.

The lights in the house down the road

are already on for you, the door already

just a little ajar, the road between there

and here made of gravel, watching, weather,

one story to step into after another,

each say saying, don’t go, each

answering, I love you, it’s okay,

we remember, we will remember

everything.

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!

It’s Time for a Few Small Repairs: Everyday Magic, Day 1015

As the black-eyed susans and sunflowers eking out their blossoms in the dry heat of summer’s end, I’ve been singing the line, “It’s time for a few small repairs,” from Shawn Colvin’s song, “Sunny Came Home” to myself a lot lately. Fifteen months after the tiny potent disk of radiation visited my right eye for five days, I’m in the middle of a lot of post-cancer clean-up, none of which is overwhelming in its parts, but all of which it’s best not to think of all together.

More precisely, I have cataract and scar-tissue-removal surgery coming up on the 16th, and before and after that, I’m seeing a lot of my dentist because, do you know that radiation and other effects of cancer can cause many cavities? I didn’t know this, but I sure do now that I have 20 cavities, a likely root canal or two, and some cap replacement in my future. But here’s the deal: it’s not so much of a deal, not if I make it into one.

This is a moment when all those years of therapy have paid off better than I imagined because I learned that so much of what we whip up to be crazy, overwhelming, and painful isn’t necessarily so (I also have a therapist who calls me on any sentence I begin with “What if…?”). I think the last year especially testified in the voice of millions to us about how little we know of what will happen.

If I were a runner, I might use the analogy of breaking down the repairs into the legs of a marathon, but I’m a writer, so here goes: If I look at the next few months as a short-term writing project, I’m fine. That’s because I’ve learned over the years that it’s always best not to think of the whole book or essay at once, but each line or passage at a time.

Each little repair is a few pages I’m drafting over a few hours. Yup, there are some difficult paragraphs, like the pointed ones involving needles, and there’s also some when-will-this-end stretches of writing ahead as we drill down, sentence by sentence. Mostly though I just have to sit still while drugs are pumped into me (the surgery) or hold my mouth open while watching penguins slapping their feet down to the tune of “Stayin’ Alive” (my dentist thankfully plays old rock songs to nature films). At the end, there’s trimming and polishing, then I’m out of the door, maybe a little tired, but mostly a lot grateful that I got this part of the book drafted.

The thing about a few small repairs is that they’re do-able an in the known category of life as opposed to so much else in the world. I can do my part, but I can’t fix the pandemics of the virus, our country’s and world’s racism, or our planet’s climate change. I can’t control the many people wandering through grocery stores without masks on despite the rules to wear one, or — and why is this always older white guys? — the people defiantly wearing their masks pulled down below their noses. I can’t heal my friends who are suffering through life-changing diagnoses or, months after having the coronavirus, wondering if their lungs will recover their full capacity.

But I can sit relatively still with my mouth or eye open, breathe in and then out slowly for a count of four or more, and thank my lucky stars that I’m not in pain and I’m blessed beyond blessed with community, family, friends, and a wonderful home. Mostly, I can rejoice that I’m still here, and just in time to look at all this late-summer flowers, all being their own kind of small repairs to this world.

In the Last Hours of the Decade: Everyday Magic, Day 992

When I was kid, I fantasized about the year 2000, so far away it was almost unimaginable. Having a birthday in the tail-end of 1959, I thought about how I would be 40 then, so very old, over a decade older than my mother at the time. Now we’re about to tip over the cusp of 2020, I’ve just turned 60, and the unbelievability of time is still a deal for me. Walking across my deck in the cold, bright late light of the afternoon, year, and decade, I was struck by the magic of time travel from the kid I still very much am and what I seem to be now.

But that’s how time is: a human invention although the seasons born of the turning of the earth, the growth of the trees, and the motion of rocks moving slowly across oceans or fields keep their own kind of count. The closest I can come is through the animal nature of this being human thing: my skin has clearly aged, parts of the body shifting upward and mostly downward. Scars and wrinkles, freckles or pimples, veins more apparent in my limbs and hearing less apparent in my ears all say things have indeed changed. Yet I’m happy for each mark and sign that I’m aging, having had more than a glimpse of the alternative.

I’ve wrestled twice with cancer, this past year in my eye and 17 years ago in my breast, and in both situations, I thought of Jacob in the Old Testament, who shows us what it means to keep wrestling with whatever dangerous angel shows up until we can extract a blessing from the encounter. Other brushes with mortality have likely changed me more than the pull of gravity and other weathering of my body. Then again, such encounters are their own pulls of gravity. The fantastical magic of time is best understood in relationship to where we truly are, in a place, in a body, in a community, and mostly in relation to the here and now.

Which brings me around to this moment: the western horizon golds itself up into the darkening blue. The bare branches, finally still after a windy afternoon, hold birds roosting out of sight. The cats sleep on my bed between giving me dirty looks for being a few minutes late in feeding them. All over my time zone and in many others wheeling toward midnight, people are putting on sparkly shirts to go out or fluffy slippers before putting their feet up, a book balanced on their laps. All over the time zones already launched into 2020, people are sipping champagne or coffee or the bitterness of hunger, despair, and pain. All the same, many if not most humans probably have some awareness that it’s a new time, which is actually obviously always true but more clear to us at moments like this.

We travel together, arriving in our own time at what’s next, often not understanding fully how we got here, but knowing that gravity and that beautiful yearning to live and do something of meaning had something to do with it. May we all unpack ourself in the new year with greater kindness, peace, gratitude, and imagination.

Please consider support my Patreon campaign to help me create meaningful new work. Patrons get weekly creative sparks and prompts, a writing guide just for you, cool perks, and more. See the details here.

Thinking About the Kaddish and the Life Force: Everyday Magic, Day 991

Lately I’ve been thinking about the Kaddish, one of the core prayers in Judaism and more or less a call and response to the life force. It seems especially relevant now at the end of the year and the end of the decade when one stretch of time ends and another begins.

A moment of grace at the Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn

I’ve been Kaddish-prone for a while, but in putting together today’s burial service for Fred Lubin while thinking about his immensely loving family, I’ve re-discovered and learned anew some things about the Kaddish. Here’s what I wrote fro the burial after rooting around various prayerbooks (from the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative traditions) and here and there from the interwebs:

The Kaddish, a word that means “sanctification,” is one of the most beautiful, vital, and mysterious prayers in Judaism. This call to God is so central to Jewish prayers that the sages contended the whole world is sustained through chanting the Kaddish, which was/is believed to have magic power.

This prose-poem is also recited in Aramaic, the spoken tongue of ancient Jews as a way to collectively praise all that is alive and sacred while praying for peace — the peace that surpasses all understanding in our souls and in our world. Besides being a prayer, it’s also a Jewish tradition to call our children our Kaddish, the life that will (hopefully) live on beyond us, which is another dimension of celebration and remembrance.

Although the Kaddish is recited no less than 13 times in a traditional Jewish service, the Mourner’s Kaddish, the same Kaddish prayer, is said during the funeral and burial service of a Jew, then recited each Shabbat (Friday night) for a full year afterwards as well as on the Yahrzeit, the anniversary month of the beloved’s death. This helps remind the mourners that they are not alone and the community that people among them are carrying great love and grief in their hearts.

In reciting the Kaddish, we affirm all that is sacred in this world and invoke the transcendent power of love.

What more can I say except to share the Kaddish, first in Hebrew, then in English. To hear it read aloud, you can go to this video. You can also hear  a beautiful piece by Maurice Ravel entitled “Kaddish.” 

Kaddish

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.

B’alma di v’ra chirutei,

v’yamlich malchutei,

b’chayeichon uv’yomeichon

uv’chayei d’chol beit Yisrael,

baagala uviz’man kariv. V’im’ru: Amen.

Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach

l’alam ul’almei almaya.

Yitbarach v’yishtabach v’yitpaar

v’yitromam v’yitnasei,

v’yit’hadar v’yitaleh v’yit’halal

sh’mei d’kud’sha b’rich hu,

l’eila min kol birchata v’shirata,

tushb’chata v’nechemata,

daamiran b’alma. V’imru: Amen.

Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya,

v’chayim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael.

V’imru: Amen.

Oseh shalom bimromav,

Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu,

v’al kol Yisrael. V’imru: Amen.

Now in English:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan.

May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel — speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen.

Blessed be God’s great name to all eternity.

Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise, and comfort. To which we say Amen.

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel,to which we say Amen.

May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel.

To which we say Amen.