Friday, December 12, 2008

Breaking the Mold

It started with underground rivers of salty water left over from the days when Kansas was part of a large inland ocean. At our house, we draw our water from 200 feet down, right from the core of one of these underground rivers. When we mix such salt water with metal piping, over time, of course there's erosion. That erosion led to a small leak under the kitchen sink where, unfortunately, we had a pile of newspapers to be recycled. Over months, it turned into layers of mold (mostly green mold, as I'm now learning, but still potent enough that we've had frequent colds lately).

Now, within a few days, the kitchen will be taken apart by some mold restoration folks, the air cleaned and exchanged seven times, boards and walls sanded down or replaced, counters removed and doors taken off. The air and mold guy tested the air, found enough evidence of mold under the boards and walls under the kitchen sink, and left us with a somewhat startling report and a big square of dark chocolate (in a mold of his company's name). Now we're facing our kitchen plastic-ized off with some kind of plastic-ized door and a lot of dining out for a few weeks (covered, remarkably, by insurance).

Within a week, we should be completely and thoroughly mold-free. By the end of the year, the restoration should be done, but it's still tricky in looking at an in-tact part of this home and knowing it will be turned inside-out. Breaking the mold. Knocking it down and building it back up again. Re-making home. I exhale, tell myself the only way out is through, and turn the new air purifier on high. May the end of this year bring new breath into all of our lives.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

7 x 7

Seven has always been my lucky number although I can't say it ever won me a lottery or a horserace. I've just always been partial to odd numbers, especially this one that encompassed the days of the week. This probably goes back to my imaginary friends of childhood and beyond -- the days of the week. Each day I hung out with an invisible pal. Monday was more mature and little anal. Wednesday was my best friend, and quite naughty at times. Saturday was sensible and laid-back. Sunday was a slightly uptight, prissy man. Tuesday and Thursday were twins, each with a distinct personality although both preferred wearing green.

Today, although it's the 4th (not the 7th), I celebrate being 7 x 7 year's old, a perfect square and also the Jubilee birthday. In ancient Hebrew traditions, Jubilee meant two things -- one was that every seven years, you let the fields go fallow so that they could regenerate themselves. The other was that at your Jubilee birthday (your 49th, your 7 x 7), you gave everything away and started over again. It was a way of giving you a clean slate, a new start, a lighter way of being while also helping out those less fortunate.

Although I don't plan to give everything away (although I have been making my usual deposits to the local goodwill), I've been thinking for months about what I'm ready to release, and the list is long and, at times, trecherous: inactivity, compacency, all vestiges of self-hatred, the kinds of judgments of others rooted in the need to protect myself, little meannesses, big impatience, rushing around for no good cause, and yelling for no good reason. It may well take me another 49 years to give away what I'm accumulated.

So as usual, it's breath by breath, stretch by stretch, story by story, word by word, and deed by deed. When I blow out the candles, I'll be wishing for enough awareness to see where to turn and how to step next.

Pix: Elvis, Juan-Tomas, Ken and me in Nashville, and me one morning after the coffee.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love America

A Black man is president-elect. A man who calls on each of us to bring our highest calling to our work and thoughts has been elected in one of the widest margins of popular vote in decades. Someone who speaks of sacrifice and hope in one breath is our president-to-be, and one I can call "my president" without sarcasm or shame. For the first time in my life (to paraphrase the oft-misrepresented words of Michelle Obama), I am proud of my country, but in my case, I don't mean "prouder"; I mean, "for the first time."

Last night, sitting on the couch with friends and family, glued to the television screen in between leaping up to check one of eight websites or listen to the radio, I felt the kind of elation I only knew decades ago, when I made my living as a political organizer (mostly working with labor unions), and occasionally, I would stand with labor bosses in some dingy basement hall, singing out "Solidarity Forever." I was young, told often I was naive, and totally in love with doing something to change the world, even if it mostly entailed taking many notes and sorting bulk mailings. At the same time, I knew the labor movement was an ambling, often-falling-down old soul, someone most people outside the movement (which is to say, most people) looked at as some nonsense-filled kook.

Over the years, like many of you, I've been involved in armfuls of campaigns and mailings, event-organizing and putting together testimonies or attending city commission meetings. I've stirred soup for a dozen, and joined a few to do bulk mailings for thousands. Whether the cause was environmental, labor, gender or educational, I've often found the most profound fellowship and meaning in this kind of work. Yet like many of you, I've also felt isolation at times, doubt, and a kind of trembling hope that just a few people (as it was and is often just a few) can make some kind of difference even though the difference is mostly a hundredth of an inch forward.

With this election, it's the same but different. The fellowship is vast and infinite. I think of the elders in Barack's father's village in Kenya, the kids now attending his old elementary school in Indonesia, the sea of humanity in Chicago or LA or New York. I think of my friends and neighbors in downtown Lawrence, cheering and crying, or driving down Mass. St. honking horns. I think of my family in Florida, my dear friends in Tennessee, my marvelous colleagues in Vermont, and the many of you I visit virtually each day on Facebook, all of us united by this event, this evolution, this breakthrough.

While I've always loved what America could be, now, finally, I love America.

Pictures include you-know-who, plus Obama's 87-year-old Kenyan grandmother. Some interesting weblinks:
Lovely slide show of part of Obama's speech with great images
Colin Powell's reaction
Jesse Jackson talks about civil rights and crying with joy
Signs of Hope and Change
Springsteen sings Seeger while Obama talks of hope
Obama Rising (Springsteen)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Changing Light Reading at the Raven

I'm thrilled to be able to share a reading with two very fine poets -- Peter Wright and Kathleen Johnson -- at 7:30 p.m., Sat., Nov. 15th at the Raven bookstore. I met Peter over 17 years ago when he showed up in a poetry writing class I was teaching at the University of Kansas, and he dazzled me with his raw and alive poetry, which has continued to unfold over the years. I met Kathleen 20 years ago when we had babies to balance around our poetry, and even then, I was taken by how she used language is such vivid and delicate ways. I share a poem from each of them below. Please join us for the reading, in which we each will read poetry that has to do with changing light, sky and land.

Peter Wright -- from Cloud Poems
nothing is distinct
but echoing kettle drums
in this summer sky

from green rolling hills
a huge rose in black and white
blooming and blooming

slate green above
your inhabitants have morphed
into waves of rain

come hither earthbound
imagine we are your own
animals to ride

far away voices
hang in storm clouds and pouring
issue from my mouth

Kathleen Johnson -- from her debut collection, Burn


Poetry will always be
a wild animal
William Stafford, You Must Revise Your Life

I've seen a wolf
in the woods of a dream.

her canine contours run
ravenous with color:
sage, pine, sun-yellow,
adn canyon-brown, the rich
carnelian of a Mexican sunset.

Lean, leggy,
pink tongue wet and lolling
she stares me straight in the eye.

Silver moonlight on her back,
wildfire burning in her eyes,
she circles close in the night
daring me.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Walkabouts on the Prairie

It started with a simple yearning to hang out together, be outside more, and not add another meeting to our overburdened schedules. The "we" here was KAW Council, the local bioregional group I've been part of since it started in '82, that meets annually for a weekend gathering each spring, plus does other workshops, events, and mostly, a lot of potlucks. At our annual meeting last May at the usual place -- Camp Hammond (located between Lawrence and Topeka), we again perused the ways we could be with each other more and walk our bioregional talk until we stumbled on the idea of simply getting together one Sunday morning each month for a walk with each other, a walkabout.

I've come to love walkabouts, being outside with old and new friends, moving my body and feeling the earth beneath my feet. So far, we've walked along the Kaw river from points on each side, through the Haskell Wetlands, and circled Mary's Lake. This month -- Oct. 19 -- we meet at Clinton Lake. We meet at 9-ish most times, but I imagine we might move the time a little later to correspond with the colder months.

In any case, there's simple joy and connection in walkabouts, an Australian Aborigine tradition of singing/telling the particular song/story of wherever a person steps. While we don't sing out loud (at least, not yet), I feel the sense of each particular place -- met communally by our moving feet -- coming through each walk.

Through KAW, we've done long walks for years -- at Camp Hammond through woodlands to prairie, but also all around the watershed, including Castle Rock near Quinter, KS.; the Flint Hills on various occasions; along the Platte River in NE; at night and in the daytimes; in winter as well as summer. Walking together is a way to deepen our connections, sometimes just by stepping in concert with each other and the pale or fierce wind, early morning heat or cool damp air, in silence or while our voices tell new stories and re-tell the old ones we've come to love for how they make us laugh.

Come join us any time we're walking, and feel free to bring your coffee, kiddies or walking stick. See more at the KAW Website or blog.

Pictures: A bunch of us in a big hole near the KAW river, August; and some of us on a bench in the Haskell Wetlands, September.

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Sweetness of Between-ness

I write this from the Cleveland airport, where I wait in the in-between. The full moon has risen just over the terminal out this window, and it shines in that milky-yellow of harvest moons, holding its own and the sky above it that it will soon travel.

I travel home to Kansas soon, after leaving my other home, Vermont, where I spend an average of one month a year, although not any consecutive season. There's the green explosion of dark, late summer, an exhilarating leap from Kansas in late August where summer builds character (as we tell ourselves). In winter, I leave a Kansas landscape of muted black, brown and white for the white and green winter wonderland of Vermont, where no one lifts an eyebrow over a foot of snow. Then there's the autumn Power of Words conference, an event to grow Transformative Language Arts (TLA) that I started over six years ago and cajoled, organized, begged and pleaded into existence and continuation, despite bureaucratic obstacles, sudden presenter cancellations, and all manner of confusion about what I was doing.

But such confusion is to be expected when starting anything new. I was reminded of this the other day in Vermont when I went for a walk, somehow lost the trail, and finding 30 minutes' worth of thick bramble. The trek was an odd combination of pushing through attack blackberry bushes that left dozens of scratches on my legs, but occasionally presented me with a fresh blackberry, which led to an inner dialogue of a lot of cursing punctuated by ecstasy. Did I mention it was raining too? I experienced many thorny branches, some heavy rain, and great many wild blackberry moments over the six years of the conference and the 10 years of helping to found TLA.

What's sustained me most are those who also resonate with how our words, aloud and on the page, can change our lives, and how I've seen -- through TLA -- how a few people, and then a few more, and eventually a community can make something worth sustaining. I had always envisioned that a TLA professional organization would one day take over the conference, and that a group of dedicated people committed to transformative uses of language would step in and grow TLA. I also sensed, without yet knowing the form, that something else was calling to me, which I've since realized was simply a less-intense and more embodied way of being.

Now the dream I once dreamed solo is being sung in chorus. The TLA Network -- composed of past and current TLA students and others in this emerging field, profession and calling -- slow-danced through a mindful process to decide to take over the conference, hired a coordinator, and then stepped with great heart and deep thinking into making all of this happen. Heather Mandell, our marvelously gentle, wise and compassionate coordinator, began last spring , and she has been shadowing me since. The TLA Network Council members are already planning next year's conference with verve and creativity, wisdom and vision.

Last night our whole conference community sat in a circle in the moonlight after an astonishing "Coffeehouse of Wonder" (two hours of song, poetry, story, drama by some 24 participants) to sit in silence under the moon. The closing circle, held and led by Callid and Kristina Keefe-Perry in the Quaker tradition, brought us together in silence, complimented by the language by the wind and by any of us who felt so moved to speak.

As I sat there, looking around at the 50-60 people on chairs and the ground, between the Haybarn Theatre and the grassy hill that led to the dorms, everything framed by the swaying Firs and Pines, and the full moon, I knew the sweetest peace. The peace of community speaking its mind, the peace of letting go when the time is right, the peace of the gorgeous wind that held us all, the peace of people speaking about the beauty of reclaiming themselves, the peace of one time coming to its close to another can begin.

According to the airline representative who just spoke, that time is delayed about 37 minutes for me, but no matter. I'm savoring the moon, now higher and brighter, a full disk that carries me between that time and this one and the next, between those I love in one place and in another, between two lands that seem -- despite being 1,400 miles apart -- to be just over the bend from each other in my life. I am grateful for the stories -- and the power of words -- that link these lands like the same moon I can see from here, there and in-between.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Sky Begins at Your Feet and Is Going to Be Published

If you've known me for a while, you know that I write like crooked politicians vote: often and always. For me the wall has never been about writing, and I confess, dear reader, that I don't experience writer's block, maybe because I keep rotating among projects, aiming for where the energy is, and loving the act of writing. What don't I love? Not being able to get writing published, even after years of trying, reading books on writing the perfect query letter, writing agents who are friends of friends, and feeling generally hopeless for long stretches of time (I also don't love the Bush administration, the scary look in Sarah Palin's eyes, and cottage cheese). All of this is to say that I have good news: my memoir about breast cancer, bioregionalism and community -- The Sky Begins at Your Feet -- is going to be published.

Ice Cube Press
, a small Iowa-based press that specializes in books about the earth is publishing my memoir. The little email I got today from the publisher with the contract attached showed me what I've been wanting to hear for a very long time: yes.

My woe-is-me-and-the-publishing-world-sucks story is long and boring, and suffice to say, I went through all the stages of grief. After years of yearning to be "choosen" by, say, HarperCollins or another big press, despite all I heard about the screwed up state of publishing and how authors are treated, I persisted in holding onto the old dream. For decades.

I went through bargaining (please publish my book and I'll polish your poodle for you); anger, mostly when I walked through bookstores (why them and not me?); denial (maybe the 20 agents I wrote to simply misplaced my query letter); and depression (and how!). Eventually found myself to looking more honestly at the situation, which some might call acceptance, and thanks be to good and patient friends, who helped me cultivate more curiosity and tenderness about it all. The old dream about being chosen didn't hold so much weight anymore, but the writing itself did, and if I wanted to get my work out, I could, which led me to where I'm landing now.

On the ground, where the sky begins.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

When Downward Dog Goes to the Dogs

After a solid week of ecstasy over my realization that I was truly in love with yoga, the small punctures of self-doubt deflated my starting-to-soar mind. Luckily, my body is still a happy horse, although one that seems to be trotting or even walking slowly at times instead of galloping. I'm still going to yoga daily, and I'm still reading, watching yoga videos, and often -- when standing in line or talking on the phone -- doing some simple balance poses. But I'm also encountering my original response to yoga: it's just hard for me.

It's hard for me to get into some poses. It's hard for me to hold some poses. It's hard to remember to breathe. It's hard to get down. And it's hard to stand back up. At each class, I find myself going through a tragicomedy of emotions, starting with the thrill to being ready to go again, tthe surprise at how unflexible I became overnight, the trembling and hard breathing and onslaught of doubt (occasionally interrupted by looking at people around me step wider, bend lowerand reach higher), the reprimand not to compare myself to others, the second wave of doubt about becoming a teacher, and then -- usually in the middle of Corpse Pose -- a slow chime of joy that's so exquisite at times that it's all I can do not to cry on my mat.

I realize too how choking and hot this doubt can be -- the same kind of doubt that has plagued many students I've worked with over the years about their desire to write and call themselves writers. While tabletop (a pose) and forward bends might come easy to some (but not me), writing always came easy to me. Yet whoever we are, and whatever we do, to practice an art is to bring yourself to your edge, breathe, relax and dwell there however long it's healthy and productive, and then exhale slowly and stand back up.

I tell myself this while holding downward dog (a supposed rest pose that's always been more like running a marathon for me). I also tell myself that like any good practice, I'm just showing up, trying to cultivate curiosity and drop judgment, and find greater compassion for living in a body, this body, forward-bended or stretched out, upside down or back on its feet.

Pictures: Me doing Downward Dog-With-Photography-Variation; other -- someone on the internet I found doing Downward Dog.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Galloping Toward Becoming a Yoga Teacher

On Tuesday I said out loud something floating through my mind for months, a thought so strangely persistent and impossible I kept trying to dismiss it just like the farmer in the movie Babe tried to ignore his idea to enter Babe in the sheepdog trials (Babe is a pig). Sitting in my therapist's office, I said, "I want to become a yoga teacher."

"Of course you do," she said, completely convinced it was the perfect next step. Reeling, I left, went out to lunch (or was I metaphorically already there?) with my friend, Kris, who gave me further encouragement. I jumped on the internet, and despite other things to do, started cruising for yoga teacher training programs, of which there 5.2 million, most sporting pictures of 20-somethings in spandex doing headstands or balances more delicate than peace in the Middle East. Without ever having been there, I instinctively knew my program was Kripalu, one of the premier and oldest yoga centers in the country, located in Western Mass and offering long-distance training (two 12-day intensives as the main teaching format).

At first, I thought I would work up to the training in, say, two years or so, and by that time, I should be able to do a shoulder stand without my legs falling over. On some level, maybe I was thinking I would also "look" just a tad more like someone who teaches yoga. But after a wonderful phone call with a former lead yoga teacher at Kripula and student at Goddard, the lovely and inspiring Susan Moul, a writer and yoga teacher I admire tremendously, the gate opened and the horse of my body shot out.

I know it's a dualistic way to talk about the body as if it's running with the mind saddled on, yelling, "Whoa!" and "Oh my god!!!" as it tears across the field, but it's obvious that my body is way ahead of my thoughts. My galloping body surged into research and found some important books to read. My galloping body took me to yoga practice already five hours in four days, and now it wants to do it again today and tomorrow. My galloping body took me shopping for more yoga work-out clothes, and told me, "Who the fuck cares?" when the yoga pants I tried on showed me how the straight lines of my legs led to the large bowl of my stomach. My galloping body took the prerequisite information for Kripula of an hour of yoga a day for six months, and instead of thinking it needed a few years to even begin to begin, immediately started fulfilling that requirement.

Coming from a history of some mild eating disorders, an avoidance of exercise, and a wide swatch of overweight family, just the notion of practicing something like yoga regularly is a radical departure from my genes and upbringing. My people, when there's a family gathering, tend to bring a dessert (as in a whole pie or cake) for each person attending. When we get together, the news is the latest gastric bypass experience among us (out of a dozen of us, four have had the surgery). Most of us have been through deep pain and years of struggle over our bodies, peppered with shudders of shame and infused with hopelessness.

Yet what makes becoming a yoga teacher unlikely for me is also why I need to do it. It's the best initiation into the rest of my life that I can imagine, and the process alone of going through the training and deepening my practice through training and teaching is the best way for me to continually strengthen my health and enhance the rest of my life.

This summer, I taught a class on finding your calling with no notion where putting that out was going to land me. While I watch this new calling unfold, I'm thrilled, scared, and I know this is absolutely the galloping motion I'm in love with and need to ride out.

Photo of yoga practitioner is Meer Patricia Kerr, founder of "Big Yoga"
Other photos are a horse and me when I was about 8, and photos from
Check out Susan's website/blog too!

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Brigadoon of Goddard

As many of you know, my day job is teaching in Goddard College's low-residency Individualized MA Program. Because the college in Vermont, the students are all over the world, the faculty is in the U.S. and Canada, and I'm in Kansas, I often find myself having to convey the geographically-challenged workings of such a job. By the time I get through how students and faculty come together for a week-long residency twice a year, followed by a four-month semester we then do through students emailing packets and faculty emailing back letters, then detailing how students design their own studies, I've usually thoroughly confused my listener too much to bring up the time travel dimension of our residency, which is a little like the story of Brigadoon.

For those of you who haven't seen the play/movie, Brigadoon is secret Scottish village that wakes up to once every hundred years, then disappears into the highland mist. Witness one lovely June 1 in Brigadoon in 2008, and then come back for June 2 in 2018. In the case of our residencies, we go from summer to winter seemingly overnight (never mind the three of snow replaced by nine varieties of green) when we leave in August and return in January.

What happens in that mist that swallows us back into our home communities is as mysterious at times as Brigadoon itself. People change. Through packet work, and the spaces in between, we start to articulate more of our life's work, and what it means to craft lives that are more engaged with the local and the global, not to the mention the body and the mind.

To get a tad more specific, I've had the joy of witnessing student projects that include:
* Developing a new expressive writing model to help children use poetry to counter the trauma and stress in their lives. See Heather Mandall.

* Creating a community trance dance ritual that fosters joy and connectedness (Gary Meitrott's Soul Bath Trance Dance).

* Traveling the world to take part in pilgrimages in Spain, France, Tibet and Peru, and from this walking, come to understand the psychological and spiritual stages of pilgrimage. See Angela Mullins.

* Building "a room of one's own" for women in Trinidad/Tobago in which these women can read and write their way toward a greater sense of self (Sue-Ann Commissiong)

* Exploring and challenging beauty conventions, and unfolding a new way of claiming beauty through the arts and the natural world (Patricia Fontaine).

* Making a film about how to transform moments of competition into cooperation and community-building. See Ben Stumpf.

* Explore and reclaim what it means to be a body, particularly a body living with chronic illness, through writing, embodiment and photography practices. See Rhonda Patzia.

The mist that envelops the residencies sometimes makes it hard for us to see what we're doing, but within that space of letting go of what we thought we knew to uncover new knowledge and new ways of knowing (and living), magic prevails. It's the kind of magic that continually addresses that core question of how to live. Yet there's also immense joy in the process of being together, going to too many workshops or staying up too late, hanging out with others following the work and studies that thrill them. To quote Gene Kelly in the movie version of Brigadoon, it's almost like being in love.

Thanks to Cynthia Curley -- who's created a young adult novel that blends fantasy with overcoming racism for her Goddard work -- for the great Goddard photos of some of us faculty (top photo: Francis Charet, Ruth Farmer -- program director, Ralph Lutts, Ellie Epp, Katt Lissard, and me; bottom photo Janet Tallman and me).

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Dog Days of Summer Turned Cat Days

Today and yesterday and probably tomorrow is rain, but not the ordinary kind of hard and fast-moving summer rain. This storm is a dying hurricane, swept inland about 1,000 miles to linger slowly and gently over us, fading to almost nothing, and then nothing. Last night, we saw a white volcano-looking cloud standing in the middle of the storm, the center of Hurricane Dolly, Ken told me.

Usually, we have the kind of hellish heat and sun that we jokingly tell non-Kansans "builds character," and by that, we mean, "we still live here and often love our home despite the absolute horror of summer of late July and early August." This period of time usually is marked by highs in the over-100s, and lows in the low 90s. I remember someone telling me he moved to Lawrence in early August, arriving in the middle of the night to see a bank time/temperature sign that said, "1:30 a.m. Temperature: 99," and he seriously considered turning right around.

Inside our house, where our air-conditioners are lounging about instead of pushing iron, it's also anything but dog days. The kittens are about 16 weeks, and the older cat, Judy, hasn't seriously injured them yet although she growls, spits and hisses like the kitty version of "The Exorcist" when she sees them. The kittens just come right up to her, and cock their heads as in, "Oh, aren't you fascinating."

So it's cat days here, somewhat naughty, almost getting into the kind of weather and paper bags you wouldn't expect this time of year, and still ample with napping. The sky yawns. The kittens stretch out and sleep on the laptop. The big cat stands in the mild rain, still distraught over these new invaders. And the dog sleeps in the closet, terrified of the thunder and lightning that come at night. Nothing to complain about, but not what we expected.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

One Cool Breeze in the Seasons of My Life

It's mid-July, and in Kansas, that means heat, more heat, and then even more heat. This year, we seem to be lucking out in that it's mostly hovering in the low 90s this week, but that stretch of weeks between mid-July and mid-August is usually when the temperature starts hanging out in the 100s, and the nights sport lows in what most people would prefer to see as highs.

I keep thinking of that small poem I wrote about some months back.

Then thousand flowers in spring, the moon is autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.
-- Wu Men (Hui-k'ai), 1183-1260

This small poem has become a talisman for me as well as guide for how to live. And this is just what I thought about while sitting on the back deck tonight, watching the wind swoop up Old Cottonwood Mel (the giant cottonwood tree I named for my dead father) while the leaves shimmered that bright, pale green at their edges against the stunningly crystal blue sky.

For me, the problem isn't necessarily finding beauty in all moments, but figuring out how to stay with that beauty instead of getting mind-clouded (to paraphrase the poem). But at that moment as I sat with the tree, I realized dropping all the tiny hooks that seem to grab me from across my computer screen and within my mind could be easy. It could be like just watching a tree, enjoying the cool breeze, the light, the color and simplicity of a singular moment in life.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

From the Mountains to the Ocean and Back Again: Two Deaths in One Week, and a Whole Lot of Hats

A week ago, we hit the road to attend the memorial service for Woody (who I wrote about in Dec. on this blog), our very dear and beloved cousin, who died from a rare form of lung cancer on July 2nd. We got to Fort Collins, CO., where Woody's wife, Janet, lives, and we were soon meshed with family, friends and neighbors, there to show their love for Woody and Janet.

Because Woody loved fireworks, the memorial service was set for Fri. night, July 4th, with optional firework viewing afterward, and beforehand, the passing around of hats. You see, because Woody lost his considerably long, reddish blond hair due to the chemo treatments, and because Woody was born for storytelling with a particular bent toward dark humor, Woody was flooded with funny hats to wear. There was a cow hat (complete with mooing button), a cup-of-coffee hat, a viking helmet with blond braids, an ace newspaper man hat, a baseball cap with Woody's cut-off-ponytail attached, a giant fish hat, and many others. Of course we each donned one for the memorial service which, led by Woody's brother, Dennis (who is also a minister) in a multi-colored jester catp, included telling stories about Woody. Woody led us off -- via a recording Dennis did in the last year -- in a long and vivid story about how he and others dyamited out everything in the hole under an outhouse (way up in the mountains), or as Woody concluded, shooting the shit.

The next morning, my mom called to say that our very sweet and dear Henry died after his struggle with pancreatic cancer. Henry is my mom's great love, our kids' grandpa (called "Epa" since my mom is called "Ema," which is Hebrew for "great mother"), and Ken and my dear stepdad. So we loaded up the van, drove to Janet's for French Toast and goodbyes, and then booked it back to Lawrence, arriving home at midnight, just in time to sleep for four hours before leaving for the airport. The trek to NJ, via Baltimore, and via the July 4th weekend traffic jams, is something I'm trying to forget, but suffice to say, we were soon at my mom's house along with all my sibs and their families.

Of course, too much traffic and travel led us lock the keys in the rental car trunk which, it turned out, couldn't be opened because this car sealed its trunk as a security feature at such moments. After AAA and the car rental place gave up on helping us, we were at wit's end. Our funeral clothes were in the trunk, our hotel was 12 miles away, and we were blocking mom's car. After three hours of struggle, I looked up and said, "Help us, Henry." At that moment, Eddie stuck his hand into the trunk through the backseat being pulled out, and landed on the keys. Thank you, Henry!

On Monday, we had Henry's funeral, which also included the telling of stories. My sister Lauren said how thrilled Henry was when, at age 85, he rode one of the wildest rides in Disneyland. My sister-in-law Tammy had stories about Henry's generosity and sweetness. And my mom said that she had just lost the one great love of her life. Back home, there were more hats: Henry loved hats, especially beautiful caps commemorating wherever he traveled. We were each to take one or two, and for the rest of the trip, I wore a Grand Canyon cap I had bought for Henry's 85th birthday.

The trip home included another new experience. When our flight was delayed enough to ruin our connection, the airline put us in a taxi from the Baltimore to the Wash., D.C. airport, and off we went with an Iranian taxi driver who delighted us with stories of how he and his wife married in a mosque (his dad is Moslem), a church (his mother is Catholic) and a Buddhist Temple (his wife is Japanese Buddhist) while he cut across lanes quickly to speed through the rush hour traffic.

Now we're home, loving and missing Henry and Woody, and sending our deepest love and wishes for comfort to Janet and my mom.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Wild Women (W)Rite: 7:30 p.m. July 19th

I'm thrilled to be doing a poetry reading with my dear friends and poetic wonders. Dixie Lubin is someone I've known for seemingly lifetimes, and I've always thought of her as the closest thing I know to a female impersonation of the Boddhisattva via Wild Kansas Woman style. She writes fluidly and with enticingly raw and compelling images, unfolding her remarkable life (both the inner and outer lives) with ease. Nancy Hubble was born to read her strong poetry aloud and to write it also. She has a voice that sounds like equal parts field of peonies, hot dark chocolate, and hand-made quilts with patterns of naked women dancing like chickens. Chantel Guidry comes to us via Louisiana, and the wonders of eating succulent melon in the middle of the night in Harveyville, Kansas. She writes with gentle fiercenss, and an open heart as well as a mind fluent in deeper awareness and radical change.

I'm honored to be reading with these women at the Raven Bookstore at 7:30 p.m., Sat., July 19th. Who knows what we'll do and say, but I guarantee it'll be fresh and alive. There'll also be wine, cookies, and much visiting, spilling out onto the sidewalk where we delight in the wild edges of words even in the dogdays of summer.

Please come and hang out with us. Thanks to the amazing Ailecia Ruscin for the fun photos, and to Nancy to the more-than-fun flyers floating around town....and of course, thanks to the Raven. Long may our local bookstore perch and fly!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

9 Hours in New York, 12 Miles, 5 Trains & One Garden

I've just returned (2:30 this morning after flight delays I'm trying to block out) from New Jersey and New York where I visited my loving stepfather (who is sadly dying from pancreatic cancer), and my equally loving mother. Because I was flying home in the evening, I took advantage of a long day and a lot of public transportation so I could do one of my favorite things in the world: Walk the streets of New York City until my feet blister, and even then, keep going.

Why do I do this? Well, for any of you who have walked in New York, you already know the answer. The energy for walking there is unparalleled in its vibrancy and variety. Crossing a street in a stream of people, once you get into the rhythm, is a musical blend of languages, cultures, and destinations. Each block is a small universe of its own making, whether there's a gourmet pet store with someone playing African drum under the awning, or an ancient cemetery next to a shop that sells lingerie for transvestites. The city was made to be walked, and once you get going, it's too delicious to stop (speaking of which, you can easily eat your meals still walking: I had a bagel, slice of pizza, and knish without losing the pace).

I also walk because this is home for me, or at least, one of my homes. I grew up downtown, at the Nassau-Fulton subway stop where my father had a very small (10 x 10 perhaps) stamp store. The Subway Stamp Shop was in an arcade with all a kid could want: a Greek diner, complete with Greek lesbian waitress, who fed me chocolate malts and grilled cheese while telling me how to live my life; a barber shop full of stories; a much-loved candy stand; a shoe shop with old Black men who called me Sugar and told me crazy things my father did; and a jewelry shop run by a paranoid old man. My Saturdays and many summer days were spent underground, between layers of trains above and beyond, sitting in the stamp shop and drawing abstract art.

Even at age 8, I was old enough to go above ground and wander the city a little on my own, stopping for pizza or ice cream, and knowing how to avoid making eye contact with the occasional pervert. The three blocks between the stamp shop and the World Trade Center, along with a long stretch of Nassau street, were my territory. So now when I head downtown from Penn Station (where I've just taken NJ Transit from near my mom's house), I feel that blast of home every time the heat rises from the subway grates, and I see Ann Street, Church Street, and the other friends of my childhood wanderings.

Yesterday, I did my usual routine: I went first to the subway arcade where I grew up, even if all the stores are gone and sealed in steal curtains, and I went someplace new. This time it was to Battery Park, just 10 blocks or so south of the stamp shop. There, I sat on a bench, ate a hot pretzel, and watched the Statue of Liberty watching me while lines of tourists snaked into the ferry and pigeons gathered at my feet. There were also men dressed up like Miss Liberty herself, wearing iridescent green-silver masks and gowns (that covered their stilts).

On the way there, one of my favorite only-in-New-York things happened: a stranger walking beside me just started telling me her thoughts at the moment. "That man has lady legs," she said. "He's got the legs of a beautiful woman. I wish I had legs like that." We both laughed and compared notes on the lovely and feminine legs of the man in front of us.

Later, I took the train to Brooklyn (after my ritual stop at the Duane-Reade pharmacy for foam shoe inserts), where I went to the Botanical garden. When I first walked in, the twisty and tall pines were so enchanting that I stepped off the path to sit against one in the shade. Then there was the Japanese pagoda -- brilliant orange-red -- sitting in the pond where I could see gold fish the size of hot cats making the rounds. A German woman spoke kindly to a small Japanese boy about the beauty of the fish. A Chinese man took photos of his beloved with the pond behind her. Strollers and backpacks abounded.

Back in New York, I was determined to hunt down the greatest knishes in the city, so I set off for Houston street, which meant taking a train to Chambers street (about 10 blocks south), and walking through Soho between the French boutiques and elegant apartments. Once on Houston, I headed east for a long, long time until I got to Yonah Schimmel. The knishes didn't disappoint, and neither did the corned beef sandwich at Katz's, the same place where Harry met Sally (and they had the "I'll have what she's having" scene).

Walking back to the subway, a half-dozen knishes heavy in my backpack, the sun starting to set and a steel drum band performing across the street from a pick-up basketball game, I felt totally at home....and ready to go home too. Two trains, a tram, a long wait for a delayed flight, a long flight, and a surreal drive home later, I was back in Kansas, climbing into bed. And making plans to eat a knish for breakfast.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Juxtapositions When Things Go Wrong

I'm driving home from the airport, thinking how surreal it is to is to have just driven there, taken the blue bus from long-term parking to terminal C, stood in line with others who thought they were Newark, NJ-bound until they saw the florescent blue "Canceled" under "Departures," and after waiting a suitable amount of time, learned my fate. I would be flying to Newark tomorrow, through Cleveland, at a time that would necessitate waking before 5 a.m. I nodded, took the new ticket, and traced my so-previous steps back to the blue bus, the long-term parking lot, the car, the highway, and then the interstate.

As I drive, everywhere the sky is brilliantly blue. The storms -- which flooded our basement from the bottom up -- passed, right on to New Jersey, which is why the flight is canceled. The light is so clear that the green, every direction, glows. Yet there's a dead deer near the medium of the interstate. Yet there's outrageous waves of construction, which slops the line of cars I'm in to at times. Yet when I called Ken, he told me he was at a light in Lawrence that went out, and every direction he looked, electricity was off. Yet my son is in a job interview at this moment in a place with no lights.

The easy is juxtaposed with the hard all over this weekend. We spent hours last night soaking up water in towels, squeezing those towels into buckets, and hauling out 50-something buckets of water. The night was silky beautiful, one of those just lightened up and cooled rare summer night when the humidity doesn't beat up everything in sight. Being our habit when faced with sudden stress (and don't old habits die hard?) we juxtaposed screaming at each other about the way to clean the basement with laughing, hugging, and joking about how we needed to clean the basement and get new carpet anyway.

Everywhere I look, all the time if I were paying attention, there are these juxtapositions, these "how-can-that-be?" buddied up with "thank-heavens-for-this." Right before I went to the airport, I was paging through Buddhist Sylvia Boostein's book Happiness is an Inside Job. I was caught by a comment from the Dhammapada, a compilation of sayings attributed to the Buddha: "Anyone who understands impermanence, ceases to be contentious."

Meanwhile, there's power outages, little floods in our basement and huge floods that cover over 40 square blocks in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, just northeast of here. There's canceled flights and big, open, shining skies. There's roadkill outside and lovely air-conditioning inside. There's also occasional moments like this when I find myself immersed in empty, alive time; hours not planned into any one thing or place anymore. All impermanent, and in pausing, observing this constant passage of weather, change of plans, and wide skies between the airport and my house, I realize there is no need to drive myself crazy over any of this. All I need to do is drive myself home.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

My Wabi Sabi Life

When I found the term "Wabi Sabi" several years ago, I was thrilled to discover there were actually some words to easily describe that sense of everything always in flux, always falling apart and sometimes coming together in new ways. Wabi Sabi, a Japanese term, means the beauty in the impermanence of everything, or as my mind shorthands it, the perfection of imperfection.

Since that time, I try to look at piles of laundry, dirty dishes on the counter, and the occasional pile of credit card applications to shred in the dimming light of the late afternoon as examples of Wabi Sabi. Stepping outside, the examples -- particularly the ones I'm responsible for -- abound, such as exhibit A: our yard (or that portion of the big field we consider our yard). You can see from the picture what happens when, due to a broken mower and too much else to do, we skip doing the first spring mowing until early summer. Wabi Sabi: the tall, overgrown grasses spinning against each other in the fierce winds of our stormed-over land lately juxtaposed with the somewhat neat rows of the freshly sheared grass. It's all in flux, and there's beauty on both sides of the mower.

Recently, and simultaneously as Ken was doing this mowing, I was outside on the deck with a digital camera in hand, a nightgown on, and because I wanted to look better than bedtime, a pair of earrings, too. I needed to send a photo of myself to a reading festival where I'm sharing some poetry next fall, and all my other head shots were of a head with very short hair (having kept my hair for over a decade as close to the ground as many lawns). After who-knows-how-many photos I vetoed, I realized the silliness of judging each shot as not-yet-fit-for-consumption. The more I can see myself as Wabi Sabi, the more sense aging makes, particularly given the alternative of wasting what's left of life fretting over wrinkles, extra fat, and changes in the weather of the body.

Speaking of which, the weather is obviously and especially in Kansas always Wabi Sabi. So much beauty, and so much changing, just like the Zen Buddhist notion that everything is passing memory, all of life is just a dream as we row these boats. I think of a poem I found:

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn,
a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

-- Wu Men (1183-1260), translated by Stephen Mitchell

I love this tiny poem that reminds me how, in each season, at each moment, there's immense beauty in the simplicity of what's right here, Wabi Sabi, in front of our eyes.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Ad Astra Poetry Project and and Ad Astra Poet Denise Low

I wanted to share with readers the wonderful web blog of Denise Low, Kansas poet laureate, who is featuring Kansas poets and also Kansas poetry happenings on her site regularly. While my sharing at this very moment is obviously very biased (you'll see why when you go to the site), and absolutely overdue, I wanted to give thanks in general for Denise's generosity as a writer, scholar, mentor, teacher, and friend to humans and the more-than-human world. Denise has written and edited over a dozen books of poetry and prose, many of which explore our relationship with the living earth and how to further cultivate that relationship. She's also been a source of inspiration and support for me as a writer, in great part because of how she models a way to inhabit this work and role with great compassion, awareness, determination, and balance.

Some of her poems, such as "Place," are particular favorites of mine and people in my writing workshops. I often ask people, after reading this poem, to start writing questions that ask what place is for them, questions which help us find greater insight as to the answers.


Is it the eagles returning to Lecompton,
Old Eagle Town
that stretch of lookout cottonwoods on the
Kaw River,
or is it those rivers we measure towns by,
where we wait for flood and drought tides?

Or finding my grandfather during a storm,
clouds and lightning and his face by the window?

Is it the house I grew up in,
the way sun slanted through the front window,
warm bars of winter dust and light?

Is it a locus inside a muddy muscle,
the heart squeezing rivulets of bloods
again, again, again?

-- Denise Low

View her blog at

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Kitten Season

After a winter of losses, including the loss our beloved cat, Akio, we have moved through our mourning enough to open our home to new life -- and in this case, we're talking kittens. We brought home the two newbies -- an orange male named Hideki (Japanese for valient, strength and tree) and Miyako (another Japanese name, which means "beautiful night child").

We found these two in a small East Lawrence house where 14 kittens from three litters raced around and piled on each other. Hideki likes to sleep and purr, and Miyako prefers pouncing and throwing herself over Hideki when she's ready for another cat nap.

Meanwhile, Natalie -- who is the mama to these miniature beasts -- is losing some sleep to their nocturnal ways, is overjoyed. And the rest of us cannot help but to keep sneaking into her room to see how they're currently sprawled on top of each other, or what new forms of attack and counter-attack are at play.

Irises outside exploding in color and height, among the tangle of the overgrown grass, outside, and inside it's kitten season.