Why Would Anyone Leave Lawrence, Kansas?: Everyday Magic, Day 869

Last night I dreamed that we had just moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where our oldest son now lives, because Ken got a kick-ass job directing a nature center. As soon as we arrived at some friend’s house and brought in a suitcase, I started crying uncontrollably. Ken was sad too, and eventually, a friend from Lawrence showed up for a walk that ended up at the curb outside a Walgreens, where all three of us were very sad. I woke up thinking what I often think when anyone I know leaves Lawrence, Kansas, center of the universe as far as I’m concerned.

I don’t mean to put down anyone’s decisions to live elsewhere and call it their own center of the universe, but there’s something about Kansas that got a hold of me a long time ago, and there’s no place I would rather live. Yes, there’s the politics, more despicable these days that the worst most of us could imagine. There’s the weather, sporting stretches of summer where the temperature barely falls below 90 and can top 100 for days, tempered by ice storms and sub-zero winters. There’s the chiggers, public enemy #1 for many of us who step into fields in summer. There’s also far too many conservative Christian Republicans for my taste, and slim chance of finding a real bagel, let alone a bialy. There’s rattlesnakes, cougars, and too many mosquitoes.

But there’s also this: the wind right now pouring through the Osage Orange around the porch. There’s people throughout the state who would, if your house caught fire or car broke down, show up to help build you a new house and trouble-shoot your car for hours. There’s pie to die for. There’s long and curvy roads as well as endless horizon roads where your own company is the tallgrass prairie, wind, sky and an occasional coyote. There’s a panoramic view of wild weather, the thrill of lightning striking all around you, the purple flash it ignites, and the very generic cialis drugs rare tornado that wakes us all up and sends us outside to watch (close to a basement of course). There’s our Free State history along with the history of the Kaw, Osage and many other tribal peoples so resonant in this land. There’s Castle Rock, the whole town of Lucas, wonderful neighborhoods in Wichita, amazing Vietnamese food in Goodland, and the best fried chicken in the universe in a St. Francis gas station.

In Lawrence especially, there’s long brunches at the Roost while sitting outside on Mass St., the most beautiful floor tiles I’ve ever seen at Kring’s, astonishing fabric at Sarah’s, and coconut cream pie at Ladybird after a great pizza at Limestone. There’s the river and our many walks across the Kaw alone or with big groups of friends. There’s swirls of goldfinch reflecting back the light, bluebirds and eagles in winter, and indigo bunting exploding from tree to tree to summer. There’s the gorgeous Snow Hall building on campus with Snow White lettering, and thousands of iris in spring down Jayhawk Drive. Of course, there’s basketball, fireworks, the old-fashioned Christmas parade, the Final Fridays when the streets fill up with art and a building in east Lawrence is flooded with blue lights. There’s Clinton Lake in kayaks while the moon rises, and the Baldwin Woods in early spring when the Spring Beauties appear. Mostly, though, there’s a sense of community and magic made of knowing many of us are in for the long haul and eventually, we’re run into each other at Liberty Hall and dance to the music of Kelley Hunt like there’s no tomorrow. There’s also tomorrow.

While I love visiting the places my work and kids have drawn me to in my life — amazing cities like Burlington, VT., Minneapolis, and Madison — along with the city I’m from, New York — it turns out that this place, battered by history and politics and once a microburst, is my place.

Ronda, Grandma Barb and the Long Way Home: A Miracle of Poetry: Everyday Magic, Day 525

Why the poetry caravan went to St. Francis for a reading had everything to do with one of the town’s prodigal daughters, Ronda Miller. Ronda and her sister mostly grew up here, living with grandparents outside of this extreme Northwest Kansas town after horrendous losses in their childhoods, first with the suicide of their mother, then with the loss of other family members (including their brother, who was ripped out of their arms and sent to live with other family members).

Ronda's sister and her husband, and a cousin, all flown in from far-off places for the reading

Arriving in St. Francis at age seven, heartbroken and afraid, Ronda encountered great kindness in Grandma Barb, who was Ronda’s teacher at the one-room school house. “I just remember a beautiful little girl,” Grandma Barb told us over breakfast at the Majestic gas station/cafe. “And I did with her what I did with all the kids: I wrapped her in love.” She also encouraged Ronda to read and write as did other teachers later on.

Fast forward over 40 years, and here we are: Ronda’s sister and husband flew in from Virginia to surprise her, a cousin came from the Northwest, and many family members from near and far converged for the Poetry Caravan reading and release of Ronda’s first book of poetry, aptly titled, Going Home. Grandma Barb, after being up on the band shell with us during the reading so that Ronda could honor her (along with a high school English teacher), joined us for fried chicken dinner at the Majestic and breakfast there the next morning.

Over tasty fried food, Grandma Barb shared her secrets for a life of meaning and joy: “Honey, I don’t like to cook or bake. I like to dance!” she told us, explaining how she learned the Charleston as a girl and has been dancing ever since, sometimes driving 80 miles to a local (local in Western Kansas is less than 100 miles) dance although she’s “90 and holding.”

Grandma Barb and Forest

This kind of spirit speaks volumes about what difference a loving mentor can make and did make and still makes. I was so inspired by Grandma Barb’s life — attending all kinds of events and groups, gardening, helping others, and planting joy wherever she goes — that I told her I wanted to be like her when I grew up.

I’m just as dazzled by Ronda’s spirit, strong enough to thrive in unlikely places and carry her through a bevy of vocations (police officer, fashion model, child care provider) to her poetry, which she returned to its source here in St. Francis. Poetry not only brought together her extended family for a variety of pie at the local gas station, but it brought us together to learn the secrets of healing that happened and are still happening all the time all around us.

(Thanks to Ronda for arranging this trip, and fellow poets of the caravan: Nancy Hubble, Karen Ohnesorge, Lee Mick, Rick Nichols. Special thanks to a special patron saint for underwriting our trip.)