Being Made of Weather: Everyday Magic, Day 1060

The real show in the parking lot

Weather. That was the theme of the 2022 Symphony in the Flint Hills, and because of all my weather poetry, especially my poem “Being Made of Weather” included in this year’s field guide, I was invited to come present. The free tickets didn’t hurt either, or at least, I didn’t think going could do our family or anyone else much harm. In end, it seems like we all escaped with our lives (although not our nerves) intact.

Even before the magnificent Kansas City Symphony warmed up, Ken, scanning radar on his sister’s phone, said Karen and I should be prepared to leave in 45 minutes. He showed us an extraordinarily powerful tornado about to hit somewhere, and it sounds like Marysville and surrounding areas took the brunt of it. The storms were enormous and spreading south crazy-fast, including to where 7,000 or so of us were sitting on folding chairs for the music, which also includes cowboys and cowgirls (the Outriders as they were called) doing a cattle drive. I figured we might not get to sing “Home on the Range” with people at the symphony’s end, but I was hoping we could at least get to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the next song in the program.

The plot thickens as the mothership approaches

Instead, the orchestra and the Outriders and cattle made a quick program change so we could see cows herded up the hill before the Outriders helped herd all of us to our cars. Yup, the year weather was the theme was also the year real weather took over. The program we came to see got quickly replaced by a much more vivid performance of what weather could be: beautiful, startling, mind-blowing, mutable, and dangerous.

Real comradery took hold while walking with thousands of previous strangers for the close-to-an-hour trek back to the parking lot while cowgirls and cowboys guided us back to the gravel road if we went too far astray where we might trip into ravines. “Moooo!” a man called out next to me, so a bunch of us mooed with him. I got to talk to a new friend I met on trail about what brought us to Kansas and why those low-hanging boob-shaped clouds are called mammatus clouds. A bunch of people stopped to help a woman who tripped. People made way for children and small wagons full of folding chairs while pointing to the north where the clouds performed for free.

Happily herding us

Once back to the car, the second half of our weather-on-the-hoof program began, in which we get to stay relatively still and experience a panoramic sky changing quickly as the mothership supercell turned from a gray to green-black spaceship with the whiter, wider clouds above. “It looks like a mullet haircut,” a man waiting for the porta potty with me said. I didn’t get to make use of that porta potty because Ken, who had cell reception for a minute, calledwith the urgent message to get back to the car now — we were moving……or so we hoped.

It actually took an hour and 45 minutes to get from the parking lot to the highway since there was just one exit for all the cars to funnel (no pun intended) through. In the meantime, we made friends with a guy named Keith behind us, took our picture with mammatus clouds at sunset, and stared at the sky a lot. The grand finale was the moment cell phones screamed throughout the parking lot that we were in a tornado warning and should seek shelter immediately and not be in cars.

The first show – the symphony

What to do because our cars were our only shelter? Keith and Ken said it as best to honker down on the floors of our cars and cover ourselves with blankets (which most Kansans, including me, have in their trunks). “That way if that car is crushed by the storm, we might have a chance,” Ken later told me. It would at least keep broken windshield glass off us. Ken, Karen, and I reasoned as we were immersed in rain, wind, and hail, first pea-sized, then dime-sized, and then nickel-sized. The rain flew sideways, and then the winds switched direction, which is not a good sign.

What do you do in such a moment? I was surprised by how quiet and relatively calm we were, perhaps not believing this was happening even if we earlier spotted some clouds drifting down in such the way tornadoes can begin. But thank heavens (literally), no tornadoes spun off into the hundreds of sitting duck cars. Instead, the rain, wind, and hail lessened, and we all got out and back home.

Some weren’t so lucky. I’ve heard of some attendees who arrived home to find their houses destroyed. Some had to drive out of their way, like our son Daniel and his girlfriend, who headed southwest because they would have otherwise driven into the fiercest part of this unpredictable storm. For everyone involved, weather made the event unforgettable and reminded us of what being made of weather can mean for our lives.

Speaking of which, here is the poem of the same title. Big thanks and admiration to all the people — especially the Outriders and the hundreds of volunteers at the event — who helped however they could and reminded us of how good and generous humans can be in the face of the sky.

Being Made of Weather

You have no idea what you’re capable of.

The rotation born of two opposing forces can

explode down Main Street in any town, any mind.

Fight the front moving through?

Give up and sleep through the storm?

Choices as if they are choices when it’s time

to ask yourself what you’re ready to give up,

and what you can save: dead photos, living animals,

a tea cup from great-grandmother, a pink-gray

arrowhead found in the rocks along an Ozark lake

in 1983 when someone taught you to skim stones.

Mostly, the hand of the child you lead into the cellar.

Mostly your own heartbeat, audible as hard breath,

which you must protect and give freely as light or water.

Always, the will to return the moment the storm

brings you back out to see what you’re truly made of,

lift the fallen branch or plank, bend to call out a name,

your whole life waiting for the smallest of motion.

Force of Nature Day (Which is Actually Everyday): Everyday Magic, Day 1058

Sunday morning just before the storm hit, photo by Stephen Locke

Yesterday began with running outside in our pajamas to cut irises as fast as possible while 70 mph winds and a giant thunderstorm descended. The day ended with a full lunar eclipse’s red moon. Some days are like that – force of nature days when everything seems to happen with such power, art, soul, and amazement at once that it’s clear we are not in charge. Ultimately, life is like that, and often it’s too easy to forget.

I write this from Brave Voice, the 17th annual retreat I lead with singer Kelley Hunt in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The irises were to vase up and distribute throughout the camp in each of our cabins and in the main lodge where we meet to write, sing, listen, collaborate, and dwell in wonder together. The storm made driving from home to Council Grove lake, where the camp is, more than interesting, Kelley at the wheel and Ken on the phone tracing our location with radar to warn us when we might need to pull over and wait out the downpour. The eclipse happened for most of of us in this area with clear skies that darkened to pop out the stars even more so, the Milky Way dazzling as it arced across the night sky.

Yesterday we went from the deadly and dramatic to the sublime and rare, but actually, even more ordinary-looking days are much the same. The earth is at the wheel despite humans making so many species, including ourselves if we continue on our current trajectory, extinct. When I see headlines or catch snippets of conversations about how we’re killing the earth, I bristle at the language because this big rotating planet will survive, perhaps in a state that barely supports life as we know it long after we’re gone. But the earth is like the Dude: it abides. It’s been here long before fish-like creatures crept out of the water and learned to breathe air and evolve into so many other species (including us), long before ice ages and continents breaking apart (and aren’t we all still in motion?), long before bipeds were just glimpsing how to measure out units of time to support the hunt or remember where to return to harvest what grows underground.

Big winds, red moons or not, each day tilts open the force of nature that is us and that is. Like right now when I sit on a porch outside the White Memorial Camp lodge, mesmerized like several others around me by the build-up, then slow-down of bird song. While I watch the rabbit racing the sun across the field, the cardinal landing to look for dinner, the oak tree moving its tentative fingers in the same wind that covers half my face with my hair. The open blue sky, so vast and mutable, is a constant force of nature and so is all it holds, even us if we’re brave up to speak and act for this beauty persistence that just wants to live.

A Limping Coyote in the Snow: Everyday Magic, Day 1051

Yesterday, I was surprised by how big he was, and how, from a distance, he looked sleek and strong. But then he came closer, making circles around our house to keep arriving at the compost bin. From that distance, I could see he was limping, his fur was mangy, and he looked old, sick, and hungry.

Coyotes are obviously predators, and we’ve lost Pinky Velvet, Judy Actionia, and Sidney Iowa — three beloved kitties — to coyotes over the last decade, plus more cats before then. It’s an occupational hazard to country living. Yes, coyotes have to eat, but they’ve broken our hearts many a time, so much so that I’ve thought of them more often as our enemy.

“Even a monster has a story,” said Joy Harjo, doing a live-streamed reading last night through K.U., Haskell Indian Nations University, Humanities Kansas, and the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. Over 1,100 of us living from living rooms or cars all over Kansas and the country may have gasped at that line, especially in a time of such monsters roaming the earth (one even, tragically, invading the Ukraine right now). While I don’t mean to equate a limping coyote to human monsters, who are so much more tragically capable of mass destruction and generational trauma, I am wondering about this coyote’s story.

I’m not wondering what the coyote is doing here though: he’s obviously trying to survive like any of us would, and our compost pile, if and when he can snag rotting potatoes or old bread from it, is likely just the ticket. He also knows humans are right here, and whenever I go window to window to look at him, he pauses, stares directly at me, and waits. Then he heads down the drive, turns left and climbs with difficulty through the sloping woods to come back to the compost.

I’m rooting for his survival, and I’m holding my cat tight, taking extra care to keep her from shooting out the door when we refill the bird feeders. I’m also watching the sheer coyote-ness of him through the falling snow as he tries against the odds to snag more time out of this life.

Meanwhile, the Birds: Everyday Magic, Day 1038

A Blue Grosbeak snacking in the rain

We are living in a world of rain lately, and according to the weather forecast, this is life as we know it into the foreseeable process. It started a week or maybe months ago, yet it’s also not monolithic. Spots of blue sky, small and angular at times, open up in between the humidity and the deluge. Almost-sun almost shows itself, then any hope fades of that big glaring star coming into view.

Meanwhile, the birds. Meanwhile, the flowers. It’s raining for long stretches and the ground is beyond soggy. A small waterfall has opened up across the slope above our driveway through the gravel to the lower fields. It’s hard to take a step anywhere without sinking. The irises can’t stand up anymore under all this water, sherbet-colored ones collapsing on the purple and yellow ones.

The birds, on the other hand, keep at it, a bouquet of color and motion from the cottonwood to feeder to walnut to ground. A pair of blue grosbeaks. An energetic red-bellied woodpecker hanging with his claws off the edge of the feeder. Two downy woodpeckers head-banging each other in the tree before going back to the feeder. A happy pair of goldfinch. Even a rose-breasted grosbeak for a day or two.

I step outside, onto the relatively not-soggy deck, leaning back under the eaves, a camera hiding in my shirt to keep it from getting wet. Or I step out without a camera and lift my arms to the rain, feeling the drops on my face, knowing I will have to clean off my glasses again once inside. Or I step barefoot onto the wet wood in the dark, the curtain of rain parted for a few minutes, and look out, wondering when I’ll see stars again.

But come morning, the birds again and again, their color more vividly saturated in the blur of air and water, their time right here. It’s more than enough.

The Peonies Where a Tornado, Cancer Diagnosis, and Pandemic Meet: Everyday Magic, Day 1007

Peonies from the Pendletons the day before the tornado

As I watch the Pendleton’s peonies I just bought rush from tight little balls to full-throttle fireworks of blossoms, I keep thinking of three impossible things: the massive tornado that tunneled through our area last May 28th, my eye cancer diagnosis right before the tornado, and the pandemic that ups the ante on anxiety and the longing to live . In short, it’s been a helluva year. In long form, there’s a lot to say about how all three events can grow into greater resilience, courage, community, and imagination in a hurry.

When I went to the Pendleton’s farm last Memorial Day, I was their last customer of the day. I bought some asparagus (which they’re deservedly famous for) and plants for the vegetable garden, but mostly peonies. Poet Mary Oliver describes this explosion of a flower as unabashedly mortal with “their lush trembling,/ their eagerness/ to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are/ nothing, forever?” I was reeling from my diagnosis through a maze of scans and tests toward what would be very painful surgery to insert radiative pellets in my eye, then remove them, and I knew the bold and brave peony was what I needed on my night table.

I spoke with John and Karen Pendleton that afternoon about the times they had to rebuild (such as when a microburst wiped out their farm) and the long hours and slim margins of the farming life. We also covered the care and feeding of the peonies, heavy balls on the ends of long sticks Karen fetched from the refrigerator for me to take home, plop in a vase, and voila! Magic happens. But only because the Pendletons, like so many local farmers, stick it out and put in the time.

The next day, the afternoon air was so weighted in humidity and danger that it was hard to think straight or breathe freely. Then the sirens started in earnest and didn’t stop for over an hour. I ran up and down the stairs to the basement many times, urging Ken to come join me in a protective underground space while he insisted he could stay outside a little longer watching the huge wall of rain approach. The only problem was that this wall held a rain-wrapped tornado (or more accurately, a bevy of tornadoes snaking together and apart), making it impossible to see what funnels of destruction were heading our way. Our son on the phone, tracking Kansas radar from his Wisconsin apartment, assured us whatever was coming was coming straight for us.

The last time we experienced this was shortly after I completed chemo 17 years earlier to poison-cleanse all the breast cancer out of me. I remember, when Ken asked what I wanted to save, just shrugging and suggesting the animals, kids, and photo albums. That tornado lifted back up and didn’t touch us. This time I was angry, yelling at the sky, “Really?” along with a bunch of curse words.

The tornado just missed us, downing and twisting trees a tenth of a mile north. But it grew larger and stronger as it drove northeast, overtaking the Pendleton Farm. While they were safe in their basement, the home and farm they climbed upstairs to was devastated, and they were faced with the decision of whether and how to rebuild, not to mention a massive mess. People came out of the woodwork for them and for our other neighbors who lost roofs, windows, whole houses, and certainly a sense of safety in the world.

This year’s Pendleton peonies co-mingling with my irises

Since then, I’ve finished my cancer treatment, and although I’m mostly blind in what I call my magic eye, I’m okay….for now. But that’s how it always is with life and certainly how it is with the pandemic for many of us. But oh, so many losses for so many this year, the kind you can’t rebuild or just use your other eye to mitigate. There’s also the overwhelming economic and economic security losses (how high can you count?), the fear and dread of how to stay safe in this long interim between pandemic and remedy or vaccine, and so much we took for granted no longer part and parcel of routine life.

But there’s also these peonies, this year’s bouquet I bought from the Pendletons now that they’re rebuilt and rebuilding. There’s this world full of tight communities coming together to help and support their members. There’s this human tendency to start over, exhausted and heartbroken, and make something good or good enough out of brokenness.

“Do you love this world?” Mary Oliver asks in her poem, “Peonies.” Yes, I do, so much, especially now when the tender beauty and intoxicating scent of a flower is surprisingly strong enough to hold me, even with the possibilities of wild weather in this body and across this land and nation. I wonder what next year’s peonies will tell us.