Lawrence, Kansas: Center of the Universe: Everyday Magic, Day 805

A standing still (and surprised) artist on Mass. and 9th St.
A standing still (and surprised) artist on Mass. and 9th St.

As I always say, there are two rules to Lawrence: 1) Don’t leave; and 2) If you leave, come back. The last 24 hours echoed the value of those rules, starting and ending with the pistachio.

It began for me at 5:30 p.m. at Limestone Pizza, one of the best, where-have-you-been-all-my-life new restaurants in town. Waiting for a table, the generous Anne Patterson, finishing her dessert nearby, offered me a spoonful of pistachio gelato. How good is life and how true is pure pleasure? Very! Dinner included dear and old friends, husband and grown child; the cure-all-ails Kansas-style pizza (thanks to a big limestone oven named, for our sweet and departed friend, Maggie); astonishing salad with

Darrell Lea at the Phoenix Gallery
Darrell Lea at the Phoenix Gallery

micro-whatevers; slivered of fried zucchini; and dessert: I have just discovered something called a budino, a thick Italian custard obviously created to end wars.

Then it was off to the blurred joys of Final Fridays (our monthly arts extravaganza) and the Free State Arts Festival. One gallery featured cut-up old books, the pages folded and fanned to evoke spinning tops. Just outside, a bunch of high school kids playing wicked wood guitar. The Phoenix gallery included one of our town’s musical gems: Darrell Lea, and a bunch of us belting out “Strawberry Fields Forever” as we perused crayons shaped like features. More walking, and we found ourselves sipping Free State beer, chatting with friends or strangers, and wandering into an East Lawrence lawn concert before crossing small parking lots

Stan Herd, I love this painting!
Stan Herd, I love this painting!

or pocket parks loaded with singing and listening. We went into Cider Gallery, where I was dazzled by Stan Herd’s paintings, and Ken by Clare Doveton’s, before an attack fly drove us outside again.

Exhausted, we collapsed into a small red couch at Marty Olson’s Do’s Deluxe, which sported a tattoo show. The Argentinean tattoo artist, Martin del Camino, inspired by traditional and contemporary Japanese designs (lots of spiraling ocean waves) was kind enough to give us a world tour of his arms and legs, featuring tattoos from famous and upcoming artists from his travels (he even tattooed part of his calf himself).

Rejuvenated, we stepped outside to find Nicholas Ward’s inspired short film

Art on the spot, Gospel choir-inspired
Art on the spot, Gospel choir-inspired

about East Lawrence, threaded with the music of Ardys Ramberg and other locals, being projected on the side of a building while a small crowd filled folding chairs. It turns out most of the crowd was also i the film, so we had occasion to meet and greet the stars.

Across the street to the east, we were beckoned to the St. Luke’s AME Church by friends who said there was about to be improv art in concert with a gospel choir and jazz band. We ran up the steps to get our seat, and soon it began: Michael Arthur, a live visual artist, did spectacularly moving and surprising pen and ink drawings to the jubilant uplift of the church’s righteous gospel choir, and then to the Matt Otto quartet.

The photo doesn't do this artist justice, but you get the idea.We were mesmerized, but more mesmerization was yet to come: stepping outside and walking back to Mass. St., we passed amazingly-blue-lit windows in the huge Turnhall building. Then we realized what filled the windows was a backlit cityscape of many layers of streets that quickly morphed into seven flowing rivers from around the world, piled up in strips of blue, brown and gray flowing water. A man on the street explained to us that he had just met the artist, Tiffany Carbonneau, who travels the world, filming what he encounters, and then projects the images from inside buildings, such as this one. We marveled at the rushing rivers, including the Yangtze from China.

Back out this morning, I found myself sitting next to Denise Skeeba from Homestead Ranch at the Farmer’s Market, delighting in the breezy shade, and eating a pistachio creme brulee, torched a minute beforehand by the vendor next to her stand, which all goes to show that you would be nuts to leave the center of the universe.

When A Government Turns Against Its Own People: Everyday Magic, Day 365

There’s been a lot to be upset about in Kansas since the election of our new governor, much that affects people I love and me, but nothing has broken my heart as much as the secretary of SRS (our state social service agency) making a quick decision, without any process, involvement of stakeholders or transparency, to close agencies across the state, including in my home town, Lawrence. At the public forum tonight on the proposed closure, over 600 people showed up, often walking long distances from where we found parking in the 100-degree heat to come together and speak. We were speaking to each other, and more importantly, listening to each other, and the “we” included our city commissioners, county commissioners, and state representatives and senators, plus half a dozen local ministers, all at Plymouth Congregational Church.

Whether you’re a fan of big or small government, or whether you think SRS is run well or not-so-well isn’t the issue here. I don’t know anyone — from Evangelical Christians to atheist libertarians — who doesn’t believe that there’s at least some need for some basic social services everywhere, let alone in the fifth-largest city of Kansas. That the governor’s people chose to close the Lawrence office, which last month served over 10,000 people (about 10% of the Lawrence population) makes no sense to no one. What it means makes me cry over my computer.

As Judge Jean Shepherd so aptly pointed out, effective services is dependent on relationships. Without case managers knowing and having experience with a city’s police, not-for-profit services, schools and other resources, how can these case managers…or the court system….or schools know how to help children in dire need? “SRS is the glue that holds all the services together,” one resident said. Without that glue, children in abusive homes would have less chance of being removed to safer environs, and children in foster care would have less chance of getting out of that system.

The closure of SRS doesn’t just affect children in need but the elderly, people with all manner of physical and/or mental disabilities, low-income adults and children, people just out of jail and needing support for turning their lives around, men and women leaving abusive marriages, families in crisis, and many others, plus the 87 people who work at the local office and know this community’s needs up close and personal.

One woman, speaking in a shaky voice because of her disability and having come here in her wheelchair, said she heard the SRS secretary said that sometimes some sacrifice is needed, even when providing services to children. “In America and in Kansas, we don’t sacrifice children. We help them,” she added. As I hunted my purse for a tissue, I saw that some of our legislators were wiping their eyes. Another woman told of the essential she received when leaving an abusive husband. A man spoke about how, in the three years since he got out of jail, he was able to set his life on the right path because of the services SRS provided. And directors and board members from many agencies — Bert Nash (mental health provider), Cottonwood (provider of disability services), Visiting Nurses, Lawrence Community Shelter (serving the homeless) and many more — spoke of how threadbare their budgets were, how overwhelmed their staffs and programs already when it came to meeting the needs of our community. Many explained that what had been proposed in lieu of a Lawrence SRS office — that people in need simply go to computers and file forms on-line, or travel to offices in other cities — isn’t feasible. This is because the people who most need services are least likely to own a computer or car (let alone be able to afford gas), and we live in a largely rural state without much public transportation between towns.

I have been involved in community work of one kind or another for decades, but never before have I see so vividly the tragedy of a government turning against its own people, or more accurately, a few in the government bypassing a fair process, common sense and compassion to such an extent.

At the same time, I looked around the church we filled and overflowed tonight to see so many people — elders with walkers, young adults with developmental disabilities, legislators and commissioners, people who had been living for years with great physical or mental pain, social workers and doctors, artists and business owners, ministers and volunteers, teachers and professionals, caregivers and the ones who need such care to survive. Listening to what we had to say to each other about next steps to challenge this injustice, and even more so, listening to how articulately and lovingly people spoke about and to the community they loved made me so proud to be part of our people. It inspired me as it did hundreds of others to use our voices to turn the government back to the people.

How Many Poets Laureate Does It Take To Screw In A Lightbulb?: Everyday Magic, Day 229

We’ll find out very soon because starting this weekend, the poets are coming: 20 poets laureate from Alabama to Alaska, and South Carolina to Colorado. As anyone who knows me surely knows by now, for better or worse, I’m the main organizer of Poet Laureati: A National Convergence of Poets Laureate, happening in my hometown of Lawrence, KS. Sun-Mon., March 13-14. For about a year, I’ve been churning out emails, fielding calls, building webpages and badgering all of my facebook friends about this event, all in an effort to make something out of nothing.

Ted Kooser, who is donating his time to read at our event. Thanks, Ted!

By nothing, I simply mean “no money,” and by something, I mean an event that has some kind of meaning for those of us reading, speaking, listening or hanging out within the swirl of readings, workshops, receptions and visits. We tried to find funding, but everywhere we looked, the cupboards were bare. So what was to be had to spun out of air, and spun out of air it was. Thanks to lots of local sponsors who donated making and distributing posters, featuring us on their websites, airing us on the radio (Thanks, K

PR!), sending us information to their members and customers, we succeeded thus far financially — meaning we raised enough $ to give the poets laureate coming at least a very small stipend to cover part of their travel expenses — and it looks like we’ll succeed when it comes to imagination, inspiration and invention.

Karla Morton, one of the state poets laureate coming. Guess what state.

We also ended up editing and having published (Thanks, Ice Cube Books!), an anthology — An Endless Skyway: Poetry from the State Poets Laureate of America, which will be launched at this event.

Now that it’s all upon me, it’s hard to believe that about a year ago, some of us Midwest poets laureate sat at a table at Tellers, conjuring up an event and a book, but also reminding ourselves that it might be too much to do both or either. Yet here it is: poetry on the hoof and wing, aiming itself toward Lawrence, and ready to land soon.