Tuesday, June 9, 2009

We've Moved!

I just moved this blog to CarynMirriamGoldberg.wordpress.com, which gives me the capability to have multiple blog pages. This is an important feature since I'll soon be posting podcasts and links to High Plains Public Radio on "Write From Your Life," with the new feature of inviting readers and listeners to respond to the writing exercises on this site.

So come on over to www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.wordpress.com!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Press Release for Book Launch and Poet Laureati Party

Come to the Lawrence Arts Center at 7:30 p.m., July 1 for the following event. Denise moves out of the poet's mansion that night, and I move in (I hear it has a hot tub, but then again, I hear it's an outhouse). Drop on by for a wonderful time.

The Committee on Imagination & Place announces the first publication of the Imagination & Place Press, Imagination & Place: An Anthology. This eclectic collection features poems, essays, and fiction by writers from coast to coast, broadening the conversation about place and its relation to the natural world and human culture.

Also, July 1, 2009, is the first day of the two-year term of the recently named third Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and represents the conclusion of the term of the second Kansas Poet Laureate Denise Low. Both Mirriam-Goldberg and Low are members of the Committee on Imagination & Place and from Lawrence.

Consequently, the public is warmly invited to attend a combined celebration taking place on July 1, launching the anthology and paying tribute to Mirriam-Goldberg and Low. The event will occur at 7:30 p.m. at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire, Lawrence, Kansas.

Admission to the event is the purchase of a copy of Imagination & Place: An Anthology per household. The books will be available at the door for $12.95 each plus tax.

A booksigning and readings by area contributors to the anthology, as well as readings by Mirriam-Goldberg and Low will make up the July 1 program. A poem by Mirriam-Goldberg is included in the anthology; Low serves on the Imagination & Place Press editorial team. Books by Mirriam-Goldberg and Low will be offered for sale as well. A reception will follow.

About her position as 2007-2009 Kansas Poet Laureate, Low said, "As a new poet laureate, I planned to make appearances and to create a series of electronic poetry broadsides to disseminate to poets, arts organizations, libraries, and publications. I did not expect to take on such a broad role as an ambassador for poetry to colleges, arts centers, libraries, social service organizations, and churches. I spoke on radio and television shows. I judged contests and ran my own series of contests for Poetry Month. In this time I discovered the profound hunger Kansans have for high-level communication. Poetry is not an easy art form, as it requires concentration, skill, logic, and heart. It is the most intense form of literacy. I appreciate the chance to be part of the Kansas Arts Commission-sponsored effort to bring arts into daily lives of my fellow citizens."

On becoming the 2009-2011 Kansas Poet Laureate, Mirriam-Goldberg said, "Over many years teaching and leading writing workshops in communities throughout Kansas and the U.S. and Mexico, I've continually witnessed how powerful our stories and writing can be when we speak in our own words and tell our own truths. My Poet Laureate project -- "Poetry Across Kansas: Reading and Writing Our Way Home" -- offers communities opportunities for not just readings and writing workshops, but support for ongoing writing circles facilitated by local writers, teachers, artists and community members. Building on the good work of our first two Poets Laureate, Denise Low and Jonathan Holden, I'm also bringing communities writing prompts based on the poetry of Kansas writers featured on the website Holden started and Low's Ad Astra project, which also, in turn, helps the people of our state get to know the poetry of our state, and how such poetry can help us see where we live and how to live with new eyes."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Who Knew? I Enjoy Being a Girl!

If you saw me at this moment, you might have a hard time reconciling my black satin with silver rhinestone high heels, silver sparkly jacket, silky black dress, make-up, hair piled on top of my head and jewelry with the uniform I wore for most of my adulthood: black jeans, oversized t-shirt, sturdy sneakers, short hair I never glanced at let alone comb.

Something happened in the last few years, something I made happen as a way to bring back to the surface who I always was: a femme in hiding. "But you would make a great diesel dyke," a friend of mine used to say me. Fair enough, but not who I am.

When I was a kid, I used to draw for hours each day, and what did I draw? Women in dresses, skirts, evening gowns. I had secret ambitions to be a fashion designer. Put a catalogue in front of me in 1969 or a clothing website today, and what I look at first are the dresses, especially the frillier ones that feature black lace, gold silk or hot pink ruffles. As I got older, I tended toward dresses and skirts whenever possible, even going so far as to camp regularly in denim dresses or corduroy skirts.

But then something happened: I gained weight, and decided I didn't look thin enough in anything that flared from the waist. I hunted down princess cuts with that v-shape waist that gives the center of the torso the illusion of narrow girth. Yet it became increasingly difficult to find things that fit well, flattered and were comfortable, and so I succumbed to jeans. Black jeans, with a hidden elastic waistband or stretch fabric, and over them, t-shirts large enough to give coverage. Three pregnancies, two graduate degrees, many teaching jobs and thousands of dishes later, I didn't pay my appearance any mind, to the extent that a former rabbi once told me it was great that I didn't ever think about how I looked. Or was it really?

Eventually, and fairly recently, after living through cancer and then with low-grade chronic illness for three years, I realized that there was a direct line between health and beauty, and following it led me back to who I am. I've gone through various passions since then, all of them sticking: first exercise and especially yoga, then clothes cut to fit and full of colors and textures I loved, jewelry -- which I started making myself, make-up even (right before a show with Kelley Hunt, when I saw her applying bare minerals on her face and asked me to put some on me too), shoes, and lately, even comfortable heels, and of course, dresses.

While I wouldn't doll myself up this way too often, tonight, right before I give a joint poetry and song performance with Kelley, I put on the dog, and this dog likes being walked, groomed and aiming itself toward what flows, shines and delights.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Bar Mitzvahed!

The weekend was a wheel of people and joy turning through our time. We began with a pie-making party Thursday night -- the Weedle Caviness Memorial Pie-Making Party -- to try to replace what can't be replaced: Weedle's amazing pies she made for Daniel's and Natalie's Bar Mitzvahs. The joy, however, and humor were there in full-force as about a dozen friends and family came over to mix and roll dough, cut fruit, and gingerly lift the pie crusts into the pans.

On Friday night, we had regular Friday night services at the Lawrence Jewish Community Center with a twist. Instead of just doing the normal candle-lighting prayer, Ken called up six other men important in Forest's life -- his uncles, Mark and Brian; family friends, Jerry, Jack, Herb; and his brother Daniel -- to join Ken in honoring Forest's crossing over into adulthood. Each man lit a dark green candle in a blue glass candle holder and said his wish for Forest as a man. It was moving, gentle, strong and beautiful.

Saturday was Bar Mitzvah central -- the actual event began at 10 a.m. at the LJCC, filled with over 130 of our friends and family. So much was moving about the ceremony, but what stands out for me and what others told me they loved include the blessings of both his Grandmothers, Alice and Barbara; our family carrying around the torah while all of us singing; Forest's wonderful speech about the importance of kindness and listening when it comes to living a holy life; Ken and my talks (mine is below); the gorgeous duet sung by Susan Elkins and Natalie, our daughter; the throwing of the candy and how, just beforehand, Daniel and the torah scooted off to one side of the Bema and the rabbi to the other side to miss the onslaught of Tootsie Rolls.

In the evening, about 80 friends and family came out here for a pie party -- 15 pizza pies and 16 fruit pies, plus all the other dishes people brought. People spilled out onto the newly-finished front porch, and the back deck, in the drive and throughout the house, visiting, laughing, eating, telling stories. About 9ish I got suddenly tired and actually took a 10 minute nap, then found myself rejuvenated until 11 when the last people, dear friends we had a blast visiting with, left.

Now it's quiet and peaceful as I type this on the front porch, all the cats and the dog out here with me, focused on the singing of a bird nearby.
Dear Forest,

Here it is the night before your Bar Mitzvah, and I can't help thinking of the night before your birth. It was a windy, rainy May night as I sat in your grandfather's heated car at 2 a.m. while your dad ran back and forth from house to car to load up everything, including the other kids. Throughout contractions and the all-too-short-space between, I was held in the most beautiful choral music playing on the radio, women's voices entwined in multiple harmonies that poured through me like the wind poured through the trees I watched in the dark.

The next afternoon, you were born, and the first look on your face – just like the first look of total intensity on Daniel's face and total joy on Natalie's – conveyed your temperament. You simply looked around casually and seemed to shrug. If you could have talked, I think you would have said, “So this is life? Oh, well.” You were present, accepting and interested in all your encountered.

Since that time, you've brought the most amazing enthusiasm and whimsical curiosity to whatever you find – whether it's basketball follies, the economic crisis' latest flurry of bankruptcies, or the cat sleeping in a basket. When I pick you up from school or downtown, you always both ask me about the news – “Mom, what happened with the Dow today?” and your trademark question, “What's the plan?” You follow music, film, news, sports, and all manner of quirky information widely and deeply, telling me something you found on The Washington Post site or Rotten Tomatoes. You listen to radio, television, read papers and magazines, updating your acute sense of where we are as a country. This world is interesting to you, and you bring to it a wonderful ability to take it all in, apply critical thinking to evaluate and integrate what you really believe, and then tell us about it.

You've also brought your big heart, always present and always accepting, to all you encounter, which over your life, has been full of fierce challenges – the car accident you survived, in part due to the love and support of this community; my cancer; and some difficult-to-shake illnesses you're enduring – and heartbreaking losses, mostly in the last year, of both your grandfathers, your namesake, and a good friend. In all of this, you've shown up – in all senses of that term – to learn, mourn, find, and carry on as well as to share your wide pool of kindness with whoever else is hurting. You know well what it is to just be with someone going through a hard time, how to listen, and how to listen for what would really help. It's no suprise that the words you wrote in your speech about how to live a holy life came so easy to you – they are words you live everyday.

What's the plan? The plan – I hope and believe – is for you to simply keep being who you are. For all of us who know you, you're a shining light of all these qualities: kindness, presence, curiousity, enthusiam, patience, earnestness, and many times, joy. For a long time, I've believed we become more of who we always were as we grow older, but you were born that way, and already, you live guided by your desire – besides to play the wii and watch countless episodes of “The Simpsons” – to help others and celebrate the amazing gift of life.

That night, nearly 14 years ago, before your birth, I was about to receive one of the greatest gifts of my life. Of course I'm proud of you for all you've done at this Bar Mitzvah, but I'm even more proud of you everyday for how you live. I love you with all my heart forever.
Love, Mom

Monday, April 27, 2009

Spring and the Bar Mitzvah Express

Spring has sprung wildly in the last few days thanks to several days of fast, hot wind and the several more days of intense rain. Meanwhile, we're working in the yard continuously, riding the Bar Mitzvah express which is high-speed, expensive and has frequent breakdowns.

What this translates into is a lot of yard work, including putting in some shade gardens, spray-painting rusting folding chairs, making pots of mixed flowers for table center pieces for the actual event, and outrageous amounts of weeding and mulching.

The great part of this is how much time we have outside. The not-so-great part is how the chiggers have sent out a few scouts, way before they should be out in force. There's also some poison ivy, seed ticks, and large startled snake (plus many nests of baby ringnecks).

Meanwhile one of the most lush times of the year unfolds quickly and vividly -- irises ready to break open, leaves unfurling at the speed of sound on the Cottonwood, and lilac in full bundles of blossom. I keep reminding myself to step off the train and take this in.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Prairie Fire!

Saturday around 4 p.m. when we were at the hardware store, Ken said, "You know, I think the only window to burn is about right now." He was right: it had rained for days beforehand, the morning was barely dry enough, but the winds were too high, and more rain was coming. Considering it was April 11, and we were supposed to have the fields burned the first week in April, it was time for action.

Luckily for us and maybe not so fortunate for him, I ran into Mike Caron in the check-out line at the hardware store. "Want to burn some prairie in an hour?" I asked him, and after juggling his schedule a bit, he said yes, and he even brought a friend. We called the guys who lived on the other side of our hill -- Monte and Brent, and they also showed up along with Brent's girlfriend Amy. Ken's pal Dave came out, and within an hour, we were lighting matches, dragging pitchforks of fire (it works best to wrap up the loose grass like spaghetti on a fork and then drag it), and hauling water in case things got out of hand.

They didn't, and the wet ground made for a good safety valve although we did see a few cedars go up like, well, Christmas trees (but that always happens). The burn was also very fast -- we burned over 15 acres, broken up into about five fields, in less than two hours.

Why do we burn? Prairies need to be burned to bring more nutrients to the soil, clear out the invader trees, and make way for new growth. The history of the prairies shows us that lightning was a great fire-starter, especially during a time when prairies weren't 99% replaced by farms and concrete. There's also evidence that many plains tribes regularly burned the prairies. We also burn because we're required to by the law -- it's a condition of the USDA program the farm is enrolled in to restore and maintain these native grasses.

But there are other reasons to burn: it's outrageous fun, a great way to get to know fellow-burners, and for me, always a ritual of spring -- clearing away the falling over remnants of an old season, preparing the ground of this land and my own heart for what's next to come.

Pictures: All from the burn, plus Ken afterwards, catching up on some sleep.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I Live In Big Wind Country

Kansas is windy, often, and not just a little. When spring comes, the big wind comes with it, and yesterday was a vivid illustration with gusts up to 90 mph in some parts of the state and ordinary old 45 mph gusts regularly around it. It's hard not to tilt a little when you walk, and when we did balance poses in yoga -- in a room in the country, second story, windows all around -- it was hard not to fall over (but then it's often hard not for me to fall over).

Yesterday, semi-trucks overturned on the turnpike, mailboxes left home, our bird feeder flew the coop, and the top of a hard-plastic child playhouse unfurled itself. It was the kind of wind that made me and everyone around me feel a little crazy, off-balance, agitated, confused and overwhelmed.

It reminds me of a good wind story too -- and in Kansas, many of the good weather stories (and most of the good stories do involve weather) are obviously wind-related. When Ken, my husband, was but a lad, his family had a mean attack rooster named Chip-Chip, who attacked (using his nasty spurs) everyone but Ken's grandpa, who had basically trained him to be a the rooster equivalent of Cruella DeVille. One day a tornado, with accompanying big winds, came to the area, and Chip-Chip mysteriously disappeared. Days later, his wasted body was found a few miles away. When humans didn't, out of decency, exact revenge from Chip-Chip, the wind did.

So now the wind has settled down, and it's good to be back in the saddle, crossed over to spring with the grasses seeminly scribbled bright green and the trees budding. Yesterday's big wind is today's sky all bright baby blue and pristine white clouds, all the debris blasted free from our minds.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Hanging Out In The Giant Parking Lot of Grief

In the month since my father-in-law died, I've revisited the giant parking lot of grief, the one where you can never remember where you parked or even what car you were driving at the time. What I mean by this is that grief seems to be the most unmappable of all emotions. If fear, depression, joy, boredom and other day-to-day feelings we move through are seasonal weather, grief is more like those wild card days when it can change over a long afternoon from a dainty day among to tulips to a blizzard to a thunderstorm with a small tornado on its back end.

My family, like me, tends to not act as I would imagine. Sure, there's stretches of quiet sadness and that big gaping hole in the center of our lives, what a large meteor would leave once a large yellow crane lifted out the rock. But how grief manifests in us is variable and unchartable. My youngest son goes from characteristically chirpy to sullen and slurring his words when I ask him questions. My husband hurt his back about two weeks ago, and can't easily shake, work, rest or walk through the pain, which recedes far slower than usual. My teenager daughter goes from one overwhelming sadness to being a cool customer. My oldest son had a long flare up of digestive issues. And I'm struggling with the draw to cozy up with some bad old habits (mostly workaholism, thank heavens there's not chocolate in the house) that just die hard.

Meanwhile, nothing seems to have changed. Meanwhile, everything has changed. Through it all, I know two opposite things to be simultaneously true: this is a huge loss, and as Theodore Roethke wrote, "What falls away is always, and is near."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

"I'm Sorry" and "Congratulations": Death and Poetry

All week, I've experienced a juxtaposition of "I'm so sorry for your loss" and "Congratulations!" side by side, sometimes even simultaneously, like at my father-in-law's funeral when one person gave me a copy of the small article on me being named poet laureate in the Kansas City Star while someone else offered his condolences. The cards and notes that come in the mail and the emails I download offer me the same mixed message, which seems to add up something my brain hears as, "Mazel Tov! And remember, life sucks" or "This too shall pass, so don't get too excited about any of it."

Perhaps what's most odd about it all is that I can't tell by the face of whoever is approaching which message will pop out. I'm sitting at my computer at a coffee shop, a man behind me turns around, taps me on the shoulder, and says, "Sorry to hear about your father-in-law, and please give Ken my best" or a woman I don't know on the street passes by and yells over her shoulder, "Great to see you in the paper."

For years we've dreaded the loss of Gene, and for years, I yearned for some recognition and a lot of readers, compounded by the piles of rejection slips, and years spent shepherding books to publication. No surprise that now, during a very good year indeed as a writer, the void left by Gene is like the Grand Canyon compared to the little ant hill of successes. This is not to say that I don't appreciate being congratulated, the forthcoming publication of books, and the quiet calm of being seen alongside the hard-won peace of feeling good in my writer's skin.

Meanwhile, there's the Grand Canyon behind my shoulder, a place I peer into and, just like the actual Grand Canyon, can't see to the bottom of it all. My father-in-law, although he used to tease me that "how could this be poetry when it doesn't rhyme?" -- even while he stapled together copies of my chapbook for six hours one day -- never issued even the vaguest rejection slip or "this doesn't quite suit our needs at this moment" messages. In the almost 26 years I knew him, he accepted me always, helped when I asked, tried not to impose when he needed help, and probably served me hundreds of tacos, dozens of roast beef dinners, and a whole lot of bowls of hamburger soup. Despite the reality that since his heart surgery four years ago, and his seizures two years ago, he had lost a lot of short-term memory, mobility, strength and lung capacity -- and he was leaving this life a little bit at a time -- his death is still unfathomable to me.

Yesterday, lying in corpse pose at the end of yoga class, I saw him in his oversized red woolen cap and 30-year-old gray coveralls, just coming in from chopping wood and happy to stand close to the fire place. He was always cold, and it broke his heart a little when he could no longer run that blower connected to his fireplace when he went on oxygen. In a strange way, it's as odd that he grew so old and fragile as it is that he died. Diagnosed with rheumatic fever during WWII, he tinkered on the brink of serious illness and regular life for over 60 years, and now that he's gone, I am sorry for his loss, but I could almost congratulate him for leaving behind years of illness, pain, and discomfort.

But since he's gone, and I can't tell him anything directly, I just share this poetry -- which doesn't rhyme, but I think he would be okay with it anyway:

In the End, There Is Only Kindness

for Gene
February 19, 1925 – February 10, 2009

When the floor slips and the time comes,
when interventions falter, there is only kindness,
a lantern to hold at journey's end, then hand over
so someone else can lift the light enough
to illuminate where to step next, and how.

In this kindness, there are always stories:
Telling the checker who rang up his milk twice,
don't worry, everyone makes mistakes.
His long wait among aging magazines at the VA
so a homeless vet could get his medication.
Gravel on our walkway because he didn't want
us slipping when we brought home the new baby.
The vase of roses he left on my kitchen table
and for Alice because roses were on sale.
Jokes about being old and decrepit while he
cooked everyone dinner. How he power-rocked
the babies to sleep, his heart beating through theirs.
Christmas stockings and grandchildren to wake up early,
coins to collect for each one. Oxygen in one hand,
a cane in the other so he could see a grandchild
in orchestra or band, graduation or swim meet
even when his back and memory hurt.
The dishes or long drives, reaching for the check,
and taking the time to greet the stranger eating alone.
Only kindness matters in the circle of love
he made out of this world.

In the end, there is always the beginning,
a seamless turn from here to there
even if everything is different from
the irreplaceable loss shining and aching at once,
a kind of river running alongside our lives,
or weather reminding us that
we love, were loved by a man here only
for kindness, which is not just a kind of love
but the only love there is.

– Caryn

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Remembering Gene

Today my father-in-law, Bill "Gene" Lassman, died at age 83 after many years of severe health issues and breaking his hip two days ago. While there's a lot to be said about how hard he struggled, how long he outlived all predictions, how strong his spirit was despite the frailty of his body, and the details of his dying, I want to focus here on what Gene meant to me.

I met Gene when Ken and I started dating in 1982, and the first thing he told me, when he was giving me a lift back to town from the country, was how sorry he was for accidentally running over Ken's dog when Ken was a boy. This may seem an odd way to get to know each other, but it showed me right away that being a good father was at the core of who he was. That core glowed around his children and grandchildren, all of whom were surely the light of his life.

Having grown up with an difficult father who was only about emotionally mature as a sullen 12-year-old, it took me a long time to really understand just how loving Gene was. Over the years, it began to sink in: when he rocked my babies to sleep and held them for hours, when he babysat and drove around my kids; when he dressed up and got his portable oxygen to see any performance the kids were in; when we were broke and he lent us money; when we were exhausted and he invited us over for dinner; when he went out to buy me jumbo maxi pads after I gave birth; when he left roses for me in a vase on my kitchen table because they were on sale, joking that his no-good son didn't buy me flowers so he needed to. Gene turned upside down what I knew about men of his generation just as Ken turned upside down what I knew about men in general.

His generosity extended itself well beyond the family. After 38 years of teaching printing at the high school -- which, in the early days included many kids who didn't fit in elsewhere -- he retired, but found friends everywhere he went, who called out, "Mr. Lassman!" He spent a lot of his retirement going from one supermarket to another, to get the bananas on sale here, the milk on sale there, but mostly just to be social. I didn't really understand why he shopped so much, but he once told me that if he could help a checker at a grocery store or janitor in a department store feel a little better by showing them friendliness and kindness, that made his day. It obviously made the day of a lot of other people, the ones we often don't see as we rush from one thing to another.

I'm in the odd position of writing this from Vermont, 1,400 miles from home, Ken, and our kids, but I'm flying home Saturday in time for the funeral, burial, and sitting shiva. Although Gene wasn't Jewish (Lutheran turned Methodist), I look toward my own tradition's way of opening up space to feel the loss, and from far away, I say Kaddish for him. This poem, which a good friend sent me, speaks to my soul right now.


Look around us, search above us, below, behind.
We stand in a great web of being joined together.
Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent
passing through us in the body of Israel
and our own bodies, let’s say amen.

Time flows through us like water.
The past and the dead speak through us.
We breathe out our children’s children, blessing.

Blessed is the earth from which we grow,
blessed the life we are lent,
blessed the ones who teach us,
blessed the ones we teach,
blessed is the word that cannot say the glory
that shines through us and remains to shine
flowing past distant suns on the way to forever,
Let’s say amen.

Blessed is light, blessed is darkness,
but blessed above all else is peace
which bears the fruits of knowledge
on strong branches, let’s say amen.

Peace that bears joy into the world,
peace that enables love, peace over Israel
everywhere, blessed and holy is peace, let’s say amen.

~ Marge Piercy

Friday, January 16, 2009

In the Batcave Doing Yoga

Today I hung upside down -- a bat in a line of other bats. It was my first time doing this pose (see picture on right although I didn't look quite as poised as this woman, and also, not quite as happy as the bat on the left). Still, I was thrilled. I was also terrified. As I hung there, after my very gracious yoga teacher for this class -- Anne Underwood -- helped me jump, pull myself up and climb into this inversion -- I felt waves of panic. What if I fell and broke my neck? What if the ropes didn't hold? What if I just freaked out in front of everybody?

As usual, I countered the fear by telling myself, "breathe, breathe, breathe." Each asana, each breath, is a continual way to come home to my body, and to re-program how I inhabit my own body.

This month, I'm doing YoMo through the Yoga Center of Lawrence , a commitment to do yoga everyday through January. A few days ago, when I had a virus, I wondered if a prolonged time in corpse pose would count ("Hell, yes," said Kelley), and some days I feel myself stretching, reaching, almost soaring through Sun Salutation. Often it's just the old struggle: how to try my hardest without putting so much effort into trying that I make the pose hard. Today, at least, I found a way to hang. And in the hanging, there was no such thing as trying too hard or not hard enough. There was just the support of the wall, ropes, and Anne, the strength of my body, and the beauty of gravity. The hard part was surrendering to it all. Now that I'm upright, I want to do it all over again.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Stories and Healing: Barbara Esrig

Okay, so I'm stealing this item from another blog I edit -- http://TLAzine.blogspot.com, but the story is just too compelling to not share. Barbara Esrig tells the story of surviving a car accident that nearly took her life and finding meaning through the power of words -- and her story is now featured on the StoryCorps site. Barbara is writer-in-residence in the Shands Arts-in-Medicine program in Gainesville, FL. where she does oral histories for patients to remind them that they are more than just a diagnosis. She's presently collaborating on a book on these oral histories as well as writing about her own work. Listen to her story and check out her amazing work. Barbara has been a frequent attendee at the Power of Words conference, and she has been active in the field of Transformative Language Arts for many years.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

What Happens When Kelley Hunt Performs

New Year's eve, and again, Kelley Hunt sang us up and over, far and wide toward the changing of years. This time, it was in the Lawrence Arts Center, where Kelley performed "I Dreamed of Rain," a benefit concert, with an astonishing drummer, Diego Voglino from Brooklyn, and also the soulful Gary Mackender on accordion and percussion. Throughout the concert, I found myself feeling a deepening connection with the packed audience as the boogie-woogie unfurled and long notes rose. While this was a performance, a form of entertainment, it was much more a long conversation, a ceremony, a meeting in the calm hum of our dreams, and then an awakening when we can't help but dance in our seats.

I remember several years ago another Kelley Hunt concert -- this time in Liberty Hall, and on the New Year's eve eve. On the dance floor, in the middle of "It Ain't Over When It's Over," Kelley had us all belting out with her, "I'm gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside." I remember how glorious the meeting of worlds was: two elderly women sang with all their heart, lifting their arms to the stage that they stood before. A woman with short hair and maroon pants and top shimmied up and down along with her midrift-baring teenage daughter, holding hands and singing to each other. A older man, unshaven and gray, jumped up and down with his arms waving above his head. Two young women in love wrapped their arms around each other and leaned close with their eyes closed. An older lesbian couple swayed as they spooned and sang quietly. An young African-American woman jitterbugged with a middle aged white guy. It was quiet and ecstatic, sacred and wild. The music made us all family at that moment.

I felt the same thing at this concert. Kelley's beautiful arrangement of Jan Garrett's song, "I Dreamed of Rain" threaded into "We Shall Overcome," which she also sang -- the traditional song of freedom and equality. Yet Kelley's song also acknowledged that we will not only overcome some day, but this day; that we won't be afraid some day, but this very day. The song paid homage to Barack Obama's election and to all the ongoing struggles for civil rights and social change.

The final songs of the concert echoed this message -- that the struggle goes on, but the light comes through. Kelley sang a newer song, "There is No Place That God Isn't," a tribute to healing and comfort, and also the power of words, and then exploded into a boogie woogie jubilee in "Say the Word."

The songs circled through us, circles through us still, calling forward the soul of community, the heart of love that so seamlessly blends the political, spiritual and artistic; the power of a single voice and the beauty of harmony and rhythm; and always endings and beginnings, showing us how we can lift above the cusp of what blinds us and see the rain, the freedom, the change we dream of.

Pictures: Kelley and a friend at Camp Wood, where we'll do our next Brave Voice; Kelley and me in Vermont after she performed at The Power of Words conference; Kelley's latest CD, "Mercy." See more about Kelley at her website, mypage site, and the website we share for our business, Brave Voice.