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Blue Sky

What Talking About Books Across Kansas Can Do Over 32 Years: Everyday Magic, Day 1100

Updated: Jun 2

Some of the book I've led discussion on, with lots of notes stuffed into them

"So when we look at how a character changes the narrative of her life, we learn a lot about how we can do this too," I told ten people in a Leavenworth Public Library meeting room. We were meeting to discuss Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees as part of a Humanities Kansas' TALK (Talking About Literature in Kansas) program. After talking about how this book was a coming of age story and healing narrative (among other things), the nine women and one man, ranging from their 30s into their 80s shared their examples of revising their lives as well as finding better -- and often hard-won -- healing narratives to live.

Lily, the teenage protagonist in The Secret Life of Bees, wasn't the only one in a coming of age story. As I told the group -- after telling some of the wonderful staff at Humanities Kansas a week earlier -- this was my last book discussion rodeo. After my final presentation on Holocaust Stories of Resilience (Nov. 24 in Lawrence), I'll hang up my roving humanities scholar traveling shoes for good. After all, I have been doing this for 32 years, and according to my old calendars, had visited about 85 Kansas towns in 65 counties.

It's hard to let go of something I love, but the older I get, the more I crave space and spaciousness to watch the thousands of hackberry butterflies (today's live nature channel playing on my front porch), write poems and stories, wander aimlessly, and aim myself down Kansas blue highways for pure pleasure without a gig to get to on time. It also just feels like time to peel off this layer of livelihood as I head toward the Medicare years.

I went from a young mom of two, soon to be three, in the middle of her PhD mazes and trials, to a long-time empty nester who left academia after decades, all while serving proudly as a roaming scholar for Humanities Kansas (formerly called the Kansas Humanities Council). In the 90s and beyond, I'd hug Ken and the kids goodbye, make sure there were plenty of juice boxes, and as the years went by, frozen pizzas on hand, then head on down the road to lead book discussions on Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Miriama Ba's So Long a Letter  (both splendid books). In a very real sense, I grew up with these book discussions, and later on, being part of HK's speaker's bureau.

A talk at the Tonganoxie Public Library in 2022

One of my favorite places to go in the early years was Junction City, Kansas, a diverse military town near Fort Riley. The late Carol Franklin, the librarian who booked me, didn't mince words, often introducing me -- like when I presented on Margaret Atwood's novel, Surfacing -- by saying, "I hated this book. Here's Caryn." About 90 minutes later, she changed her mind after she and many of the other 20+ white-haired elder women present engaged in a lively talk about what it meant to be a woman in a patriarchal culture.

Yes, we talked about such things (even in Leavenworth the other day, someone spoke of the patriarchy), as well as so many other things. In many small towns I visited, quirky old women or long-haired young men would sidle up to me and say, "So glad you're here. I'm the town kook, and it's good to have some company." I always took that as a compliment.

There were kooks and quirks aplenty. Once, when I stopped with my then 8-year-old son Daniel, at a little cafe in Goddard, everyone in the very full restaurant stopped talking and stared hard at us. I was wondering if we should leave, but then a woman in the booth closest to us, opened her mouth and gave us a huge toothless smile. Everyone else smiled or laughed too, and we went on to order -- what else? -- fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and corn.

When I went to Hoxie (way out in Western Kansas), seven months pregnant with Forest (my youngest), with my friend Mike because we were stopping at his family's homestead in Logan, I tried to explain to the town elders, gathered for my talk, that Mike was my friend, not husband. They looked dubious and a little worried. When I returned three weeks later for a second talk, this time with Ken, one of the women blurted out, "Oh, honey, we're so glad that baby has a father."

Whenever I went to Hutchinson, which was often, I was sure to meet Bill and Cindy Sheldon, and the years went on, their children to adults, at the Anchor Inn to navigate one of the most infinite Mexican buffets in the land. In Pittsburg or Lincoln or Goodland, I was sure to hit up the thrift shops so that I could bring home new old treasures, (small cedar boxes with inlaid carvings of the Rockies, carnival glass candy dishes, pink and green quilt tops that needed bottoms to be finished).

My kids especially loved these trips. I regularly took one of them at a time to overnight forays so that they could sit in cardboard castles reading in libraries with vivid children's sections, explore the wonder of cable TV cartoons (we barely had any TV at home for them), and climb concrete dinosaurs in city parks. We also got quality windshield time together to talk about junior high bullies or fifth-grade research projects on black holes. Their eyes would light up at the sight of a shining Holiday Inn Express on the highway or small motor lodge a block from the library. They were especially dazzled by waffle machines in hotel breakfast bars.

I also presented so often on books with Jewish content -- such as Alfred Kazin's marvelous memoir, Walker in the City, and Pearl Abraham's novel, The Romance Reader -- that I once told HK's board and staff at an event that I was their porta-Jew. I even brought Jewish ritual objects with me -- tallit, shabbat and havdalah candles, menorahs -- to show people what some of the references in the book meant. In many cases, I was the first Jew a good many people had met, and they had questions. What did we did in our weekly services and why Friday night and not Sunday morning? Were their different denominations like in Christianity? Did we have a Jewish pope? Why do our holidays bounce all over the calendar? I answered as best I could, and in all cases, people would tell me, over post-talk lemon bars or oatmeal cookies, how glad they were to learn more about Judaism.

When the poet laureate program was part of HK -- from left, Denise Low, Eric McHenry, Wyatt Townley, and me

I interacted with HK many other ways: I researched and put together proposals for book discussion topics, helped vet books to include in future talks, and even wrote a guide on civic engagement through the humanities. I even served as the Kansas Poet Laureate under HK after the then-Kansas Arts Commission was disappeared by a former governor and the poet laureate program had nowhere to go. Julie Mulvihill, the gracious executive director of HK, worked tirelessly with me and others for a year to take on the program until another safe harbor (Kansas Creative Arts and Industries Commission) could be found. In the meantime, four state poets laureate -- Wyatt Townley, Eric McHenry, Kevin Rabas, and Huascar Medina -- served as part of HK.

I worked with HK to get out of town. I did it to roam wide open spaces, my mind cleared by long drives into the high plains, my heart opened whenever I passed the sign that said, "Gateway to the Flint Hills" on I-35 heading south to Wichita or El Dorado or Kingman. I did it to earn a little extra money for a growing family while living on graduate teaching assistant wages, and later, to supplement other teaching jobs and freelance gigs. I did it take a break from dishes, babies, looking for lost toddler shoes, or driving teens to violin or flute lessons. I did it to have one-on-one time with my kids. I did it to just drive for the joy of it, blasting Springsteen or Touchstone (great, short-lived Irish band) late at night as I drove home. I did to make and meet friends. I did it to see Kansas.

Most of all, I did it to talk about the stories of our lives, the ones we used to live or thought we had to live, and the new narratives beginning to emerge from their cocoons into some kind of flight. I never imagined my own changes over the course of so many stories, so many towns, so many miles, cars, and years, but here we are. "Good luck with your new life callings," one of the woman in Leavenworth told me as were saying goodbye. I left with a grateful heart.

“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can't remember who we are or why we're here," Sue Monk Kidd writes in The Secret Life of Bees. Blessings on humanities programs like ours for how they bring people together to find, tell, and witness those stories.

Cities -- Counties where I presented (as far as I can tell from old datebooks) since 1992:

Abilene Dickinson Andover - Butler Arkansas City – Cowley Ashland - Clark Atchinson – Atchinson Baldwin – Douglas Basehor – Leavenworth Belleville – Republic Beloit - Mitchell

Burlingame – Osage Burlington – Coffey Bonnie Springs – Wyandotte Chanute – Neosho Clay Center – Clay Clearview – Johnson Colby – Thomas Concordia – Cloud Council Grove – Morris Derby – Sedgwick Dodge City – Ford El Dorado – Butler Ellsworth – Ellsworth Emporia – Lyons Eudora – Douglas Fort Scott – Bourbon Garden City – Finney Garnett – Anderson Glasco – Cloud Goddard – Sedgwick Goodland – Sherman Great Bend – Barton Greensburg – Kiowa Halstead – Harvey Hays – Ellis Haysville – Sedgwick Hiawatha – Brown Hill City – Graham Hoisington – Barton Holton – Jackson Hoxie – Sheridan Hugaton – Stevens Hutchinson – Reno Iola – Allen Junction City – Geary Kansas City, KS – Wyandotte Kingman – Kingman Kingsley – Edwards Lawrence – Douglas Lebo – Coffey Lenexa – Johnson Lincoln – Lincoln Linsborg – McPherson Linwood – Leavenworth Lyons – Rice Manhattan – Riley Marion – Marion McPherson – McPherson Meade – Meade Mulvane -Sedgwick Newton – Harvey Norton – Norton Oskaloosa – Jefferson Ottawa – Franklin Overland Park – Johnson Oxford – Sumner Paola – Miami Park City – Sedgwick Parsons – Labette Perry – Jefferson Pittsburg – Crawford Russell – Russell Salina – Saline Shawnee – Johnson Sedan – Chatauqua Silver Lake – Shawnee Smith Center – Smith Spring Hills – Miami and Johnson St. Mary – Pottawatomie Valley Center – Sedgwick Volland – Wabaunsee Wamego – Pottawatomee Wellington – Sumner Wichita – Sedgwick Wilson – Ellsworth * Yates Center - Woodson

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2 comentários

Diane Glass
Diane Glass
02 de jun.

Caryn, what a wonderful gift you've given Kansas and the hundreds (thousands) of people who have benefitted from your gracious presence and creative mind. Enjoy more leisure and write more poetry. Love, Diane

03 de jun.
Respondendo a

Thanks so much, Diane! Yes, more leisure and more poetry for both of us! Love too.

Blue Sky
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