The Light, the Dark, and a Road Trip to Western Kansas: Everyday Magic, Day 890

IMG_1217This week, we drove 350 miles west one day, 350 miles east the next, with a lot of darkness and light in between. Ken and I went to Colby, Kansas so I could talk about Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, the book I wrote about the lives of Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz.

I first presented the book to the marvelous Pioneer Memorial Library, which brought together close to 80 people in the basement for lunch and a journey into the darkness of the Holocaust and WWII, especially how both Jarek and Lou survived by their wits, unusual luck and grace, and went on to make lives of meaning in the U.S. Then it was off to the local high school, where I got to talk to 90 16- and 17-year-olds about it all again, this time focusing more on what it means to survive, the dangers of Holocaust denial, and the power of resilience.

After both talks, people came up afterwards to ask if it was painful for me to talk about this topic, which made me wonder why it isn’t. Maybe it’s because I’ve given so many talks and classes on the book since it came out three years ago, or that I’ve just numbed myself to the killing and torturing that I’m showing images of and reading excerpts about (although I tend to avoid the more horrifying details in one-time public presentations). What happened — how Lou’s father was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and Jarek’s mother was shot during the Warsaw Uprising a year later — is still and will be horrendous, along with so many stories of lives cut short in brutal ways put into motion by the worst parts of humans.

Yet there is something else that I experience each time I talk about the books and the guys’ lives: that sense of blessing they gave me by entrusting me with their stories, by encouraging me to write this book and share it widely. I feel like I get to carry and display a beautiful artwork, a mosaic of broken glass threaded with deep blue, flashes of red, gold and green, altogether not quite a vase or bowl, but open to hold the remnants of lives well-lived. These remnants include Lou’s laughter as he told me about how he knew his school was taken over by Nazis because of the giant swastika flag, or Maura (Jarek’s wife) putting her arms around Lou and Jarek at our Hanukkah party years ago, saying it was good to have the lads together. There’s Jarek putting on his British corps uniform to show me it still fit, and Jane (Lou’s wife) telling her story of threading through Nazi Germany, thanks to the wits of her mother, to get from Budapest to America. I get to shepherd these stories and many more to people, some of whom have never met a Jew before, and all of whom are amazingly interested in IMG_1253what Lou, Jarek and others surviving the Holocaust and the Polish Resistance movement made of their lives. “Like a needle in the bone,” one of the high school students said when when we were talking about what most survivors of genocides carry with them. The students among him nodded in understanding, all of them attuned to how Lou and Jarek were teenagers like them during the war, and look at what these men were able to do.

On the way home, after downing some enchiladas while Ken drove, we hit the Smoky Hills at the same time sunset did, everything golden and lit from far-off light. We have hours more to drive, but I couldn’t stop taking pictures out the windows of everything illuminated, the contrast between light and dark so vivid.

Darling, Sweetheart & Baby in Pittsburg, Kansas: Everyday Magic, Day 648

Is it a Pittsburg, KS thing or just an tender roll of the dice kind of thing? I don’t know, but I liked it. Everywhere I went in Pittsburg, people called me darling, sweetheart, hon, and especially, baby. Paying for some clothes at the thrift shop, the woman said, “Thanks so much for coming in, Sweetheart.” Stopping in a shop to look at antiques, a woman called me darling four times in one sentence. Even as I paid for a delicious lunch at Harry’s cafe, the waitress said, “How did you like you meal, Baby? We’re so glad you came, Baby. You sure you don’t want pie, Baby?” and “Please come back, Baby.”

The endearments didn’t just happen in locally-owned shops either. The receptionist at the Holiday Inn Express when I checked in called me darling, and the one who checked me out the next day called me sweetheart. The pharmacist at Walgreens thought my real name was sweetheart too.

I’ve traveled Kansas up one road and down again, zigzagged across lanky two-lane highways and booked it down I-70 for hundreds of miles on a regular basis. But no place I landed ever embraced me with so many sweet names so often. Maybe it’s just an exceptionally friendly place, maybe I looked like I needed to be called Baby, or maybe it’s just the tilting and surprising ways of the universe on a particular day in a certain Southeast Kansas town. In any case, I’m going back any chance I get.

Rain Is The New Sexy: Everyday Magic, Day 600

It’s true: the heavens open up, and we’re beside ourselves with giddy joy. Last night, it rained after enough thunder to make the dog try to squeeze my bed between my pillow and the wall. This morning, I stepped outside to see a few stretches of standing water on the deck before the temperature evaporated it all back into that all-too-predictable sky.

It’s been decayed-bone-dry here. Stepping outside either means entering a giant sauna or being battered around in a giant dryer (depending on the wind). The corn is dead or dying, the fields are straw-like or brown. The cat has given up and gone to sleep on the floor, and the dog is in such despair about the state of things that he’s been trying to bite through a bag of coffee beans (I got it away from him). Such is the state of the worst drought in 27 or 52 or 85 years (depending on the source) in a summer when a drop to 99 degrees makes us say to each other, “It’s not so bad out now.”

Rain is the hot topic: “What is this thing you call ‘rain’?” my publisher writes back to me when I ask if their weather in Iowa is as bad as theirs. When it did rain, some weeks back, my friend Reva posted on Facebook, “Where were you when the rain came, and how did you rejoice?” On the phone with a friend in Vermont, when she mentioned yet another storm, I almost swooned and asked her to describe the downpour in detail.

Here, when the rain does come, it’s like a mirage broken away (or maybe the rain is the mirage). Sure, it might be 100 degrees and raining once every two or three weeks for a few minutes, definitely not enough for this land, these animals roaming and foraging this land, and all of us who live here. Yet when the rain falls, we fall in love again, and of course, we want to dwell happily with our beloved, if only this sexy being wouldn’t rush off to cooler places.


Tornado Warning!: Everyday Magic, Day 509

It’s after midnight, and my heart is still wide awake, set in racer action by the very sudden tornado warning that propelled our family, dragging or carrying cats and dogs, into the basement at top speed. It started like this:

Caryn (while filling out fafsa form on computer): The dog went back to hiding in the closet although the storm passed. Do you think she knows of another one coming?

Ken (on computer checking weather): There is another one coming.

Caryn: Is it moving fast?

Ken: Let me check. Wow — it’s moving 80 miles per hour.

Caryn: When is it supposed to get here?

Ken: Very soon (refreshes page). GET IN THE BASEMENT RIGHT NOW!

It turned out Ken was watching radar just at the moment the winds started moving like a big tornado about to land right over our house. Clutching my computer against my chest, I dragged the terrified Labaraner out of the closet to join the terrified Labmation already in the basement, and we ran. Once in the storage space way underground, Ken called his mom to get her to move to her basement, then ventured out to rescue Mikayo, the lovey cat, and ran back down with her in his arms. I held the dogs in place, my heart racing. Forest texted people at the speed of light. Daniel yelled, “Don’t go, Dad!” fearing that Ken was risking his life for a kitty. We considered trying to rescue Judy the PTSD cat, but she hides too well in such situations.

So we hunkered down for about ten minutes. Then it was over. No tornado, storm to our east, and the warning canceled. Walking back upstairs, we heard the sirens, just starting to go off, and Daniel was blown away to see the moon already rising beyond the clouds.

Now that the time has slowed, the sky has calmed, and the dogs, men and boys of my house are snoring in various rooms, I land back in that moment when we headed downstairs, the sudden wondering if there’s anything to grab beyond animals and computers and clear warning that there isn’t time; the careful rush down stairs and into the way-back of our basement, the opening of computers to track tornadoes, asking Ken if people we love in this area are okay or if I I should call them. It’s a compressed time when a warning wraps around us, and everything falls away but the need to hold and protect the beings you love, call those in the path, and stay as far underground as possible, not knowing if once again, it’ll be nothing, or eventually, it’ll be something that changes our lives.

Readying Myself to Roll: Everyday Magic, Day 497

The cat packs herself for the trip

Come Monday morning, I head down the magic rabbit hole between my home in a house on the prairie in Kansas to my home in a dorm room in Vermont. I’ve been doing this for 17 years, twice a year or more readying myself to roll east, via a car ride to the airport, two plane rides with layover hopefully long enough to eat lunch while not running through an airport, and taxi ride to campus. As usual, when I pack, my animals gather ’round, telling me with their don’t-leave-me animal eyes that I shouldn’t leave them. They often sleep next to or on top of suitcases, piles of clothes or books heading east, letting out mournful cries when I reposition them.

In the week before I go and week after I get back, I feel as if I’m in both places at once, and I have trouble upon waking each morning distinguishing whether I’m dreaming Kansas in Vermont or dreaming Vermont in Kansas. It’s a bittersweet sensation, and crazily cialis generic vs. brand name enough, I tend to worry about missing one place while in the other place while I’m still in the one place I’ll be leaving soon. Yet I think this kind of ludicrous, pre-emptive longing is part and parcel of finding home in

Failing to fit into the suitcase, the dog, feeling quite dejected, lies down beside it.

more than one place.

At the same time, I carry each place in me no matter where I am. I am a Kansan who happens to live in Vermont for 10-12 days two or more times each year. I have a rich and beautiful life in both places, and thanks to phone calls, skype, email, facebook and more, I’m in touch with the people from both lives all in a day’s work.

So I sit here in Kansas with Vermont in my pocket, readying for doing the opposite when I emerge from that rabbi hole come Monday afternoon. Then I will remind myself, like I always do, that it’s the same sky holding together my real and dream lives.