On Dust and Rain

Nothing smells clean. Outside my window, the willow struggles into a fragile green sheen; the redbud is millimetering into tiny sharp arrow tips.

In the storms racing through Missouri this week, we missed being in a tornado, tornadoes being lazy creatures, all in all, in spite of their fierceness, and don’t like battling through a city for the most part. Their preference is for flat land. We did get a half inch of rain, which brings our grand total of moisture since the beginning of the year to about an inch and a half. We’ve had one mild snowfall.

Last evening, I cleaned the back porch, screened on two sides, buttressed into the house on two sides. We carried out the leftover firewood and stacked it back outside. I began sweeping up shovelfuls of dust and dry leaves, nose twitching at the reminder of drought creeping in from the west. Everything has a powdery coat.

I feel like one of the women Gordon Parks photographed during the dust bowl days: hand shading eyes, watching for locust or a rolling dust storm. But I’m probably being over-dramatic. It’s not quite that dry although dry enough.

When I lived in Hawaii at Kalani Honua down by Volcano, my job, in exchange for free room and board, was garden work (once the memoir is published, you can read all about it). In the nights, rain often pocked through the jungle and across the compound. I’d wake briefly, glance out the screened window beside my bed, think I won’t have to water the garden, and fall asleep in the soft green scent of jungle, leaves rejoicing, earth wafting its gratitude. I wondered, from time to time, how you’d explain the smell of dirt to someone who hadn’t stuck their hands in it: loamy, yes, but that presupposes knowing what loam smells like.

There is a word to explain the smell of rain, petrichor, a combination of bacterial spores and plant oils, but about as useful in terms of scent as describing loam.

We have city water and hoses. I water the yard, taking care to soak the ground close to the house so the old rock basement doesn’t shift and crack walls. You’d think a house this old, built in 1924, with a rock basement, would have gone through all the shifting it was going to do in its close to hundred years. You’d think.

I thought the same thing a few years ago when we had a summer drought. The ceiling in a dining room corner dropped nearly two inches and the stairway wall cracked. We found a company who restores old houses. They restored.

Hence, a pricey lesson in old home management. I learned to no longer think that way. I water the house.

.

Best Writing Workshop Ever!

post-rock
Shot by Tom Parker at Jerry Stump farm

Last weekend, I was part of the best writing workshop I’ve ever attended. Ostensibly, I was the teacher, in Marysville, Kansas for a residency of teaching and reading my work. But the participants and their family stories made the workshop unforgettable.

We have a farm in Marshall County, seventeen miles from Marysville, and while ours is a long history on the land from the late 1800s, the family scattered like cottonseeds. None of us live there. Cliff and I go up and stay for a week every once in a while, but our parents were the last generation to live on and work the land.

The photo is not from our farm. It’s from one of the participants, Jerry Stump. His friend, Tom Parker, shot it on the farm Jerry’s  father bought and worked east of Blue Rapids, Kansas. As you can see, the land is still in production, and the photo is stunning.

On a side note, look up Tom Parker. He’s a remarkable photographer with a precision eye. I met him a few years ago when I did a workshop in Blue Rapids.

Many of the participants had boxes of documents and research, and we talked about ways to shape so many pieces of history. Jerry had the stories in his head. He’d driven one of his daughters around the farm and told her the stories, then a second daughter wanted to hear them, and a third. He came to the workshop to learn how to save those stories and maybe get them written down. He was a mathematician, he said. Not a writer. His experience with the daughters gave us a perfect format to talk about ways to reduce the overwhelming layers of historical documents many others had into a story.

Post Rocks have their own story.

From Jerry: “Post Rock is the proper name, so-called because it was used in fencing, especially where hedge posts from Osage orange trees were not available, such as further west in Kansas.  Hedge posts last forever as do post rocks. This post rock was used as a hitching post, a place to tie up your horse or carriage team.”

We had hedge posts on our farm. They do last forever! I can attest to that. And although some may lean a bit on our farm, they are still there and they do NOT rot. I helped dig holes, by hand, for some of them.

Post rocks come from farther west in Kansas where no Osage Orange trees grow; in fact, few trees in general grew in that western part of the state until settlers began planting them.

From the Kansas Historical Society: The area known as “Post Rock Country” stretches for approximately 200 miles from the Nebraska border on the north to Dodge City on the south. The limestone that is found here comes from the uppermost bed of the Greenhorn Formation. It was out of necessity that settlers in the late 1800s began turning back the sod and cutting posts from the layer of rock that lay underneath. By the mid-1880s limestone fence posts were in general use because of the widespread use of barbed wire.

The first time I saw Post Rock with barbed wire astounded me, growing up in eastern Kansas as I did. Rocks with barbed wire? Around wide stretches of grassland.

People who don’t live in Kansas think of the state as flat, flat, flat. And in Western Kansas, it is that. But the eastern third is the tail end of the Flint Hills with rocky outcroppings and hills. Our farm, for example, sits on a rise that gives us a view of the countryside for ten miles in each direction. Our east pasture sinks down into a rocky gully.

Jerry’s farm is in southern Marshall County lies east of Blue Rapids, named as you might guess, from water: The Big Blue River. And while there are plenty of flat fields, there’s also the outcroppings and springs and hilly gullies that defy farming. And the powerful Big Blue.

Blue Rapids, Kansas – Wikipedia. Among the first projects in 1870 were a stone dam and a wrought iron bridge built on the Big Blue River. A hydroelectric power plant was then added to provide power for manufacturing and for the town. The power plant was destroyed by a flood in 1903. In the late 19th century and early 20th century there were four gypsum mines in the area. The population peaked around 1910 at over 1,750. The public library, built in 1875, is the oldest library west of the Mississippi in continuous operation in the same building.

So much for nothing to see in Kansas except for miles of flat roads.

The next time you’re driving I70 through Kansas and bored, get off the highway, Manhattan is a good place to exit, and drive north. You’ll find some remarkable country, not boring at all. You might even spy a Post Rock if your wander off to the west.

.

 

The Women’s March 1/21/17

It’s all over the news, this march, and all over the Internet. It is, in fact, a worldwide event. I’m glad and proud of the women and the men who are there.

My husband and I planned to go. But I woke this morning with my body uncomfortable, feeling resistant, uneasy, tense. And wound through it all, sorrow. I’ve learned to pay attention when my body reacts.

I sat with the feelings, brewed tea, gazed out the window. While I vote every election, city, state, federal, financially support candidates when I can, and watch and read and evaluate, I’ve been out of politics for a long time. I wondered at my resistance. There’s a march here in Kansas City; many of my friends are going. Why didn’t I want to go?

I kept remembering a vow I made years ago: I would no longer man (or woman) the barricades (civil rights, women’s rights, anti-war protests) but would change the world one person at a time.

Shift to Germany, late 1974. My first husband a soldier and the family had transferred to Germany. The Watergate hearings were going on, but all I could get on our military housing television was German-language hearings, and printed information from the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

I’d just come from three years of Texas politics. In those days, Texas politics were fun: Barbara Jordan, Sissy Farenthold, Sarah Weddington. The Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification (and ultimately failed).

(As a digression, what’s interesting is that Civil Rights has passed; Gay Rights and Gay Marriage has passed–all of which I’ve supported–but no Equal Rights for women.)

In those Texas years, I was deeply involved in politics and in the women’s movement. My friend Cynthia and I formed a consciousness-raising group in Temple, Texas, and joined as charter members of The National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). We attended the first women’s convention in 100 years at the Rice Hotel in Houston. Here’s a post on that if you’re interested.

But in Germany, there were only Military Wives Clubs. My politics did not fit.

And so, I read. Fortunately, the post library had a good selection of novels and I checked out Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey. I don’t remember what it was in the novel that suddenly lifted my head, but I remember my snuggled body in a patch of weak sunlight by a south window. I stared at the television, tuned in to the Watergate hearings, sound turned down, and the realization struck: I would no longer man the barricades, I would change the world one person at a time.

And so, this morning, when I remembered my vow of so many years ago, I thought that was the reason for my body’s resistance. But the resistance didn’t fade. And the sorrow deepened.

That’s when I remembered Cynthia. Here’s one post on life with Cynthia; and here’s another.

That’s when I realized what the resistance meant and why the sorrow. If she were alive, we would have gone together today, either her coming to me or I to her. We would have laughed and told stories and remembered together.

But we can’t. I’m still traveling on this plane and she on another. Perhaps that’s why death is so hard–not just the missing or the emptiness, although there is that, but the stories we held that can only be told by me to others who will hear them for the first time. Or the second time, since I’ve written so much about her influence on my life.

But no chance to reminisce together, to laugh, to fill in each others’ lost pieces.

I could not go without her.

With the realization, my body relaxed, and I sighed. There are some things that cannot be done without the other part of who you are.

.

 

 

January 20th, 2016

Inauguration Day. It makes me sad. Not sobbing sad but melancholy for a First Family that felt like mine. Like one of my kids has lost a job he was good at. And while I know there will be another job, this is, after all, a resourceful and diligent child, I won’t see him as often.

Yes, I know you know I’m white and you may think I’m being melodramatic. Perhaps I am.

Here’s the thing: I grew up in a family of six white Kansas farm kids with a Quaker mom who wrote stories, a hard-working step-dad who told stories, and his dad, Grandpa Albert, whose stories were of “trading with the Indians” and scary stories from his Bohemian immigrant father. We always had books in our home. The farm, an 1800s land grant farm, is still in the family.

This middle-America family raised wanderers. Likely, that influence came through my biological father’s family, the Sunderlands, who wandered: six brothers who wandered from England in the 1800s, whose children who took up the wandering, and whose grandchildren did the same. My biological father was one of those wandering grandchildren. (Although Quakers wandered, too, my great-great-grandmother, for example came across the country in a covered wagon, and my step-dad’s family wandered from Europe but stayed put once they found good farmland.)

By the time I was five-years-old, we’d lived in five different places. Unfortunately, heart disease wandered with the Sunderland family and my father died young, hence the step-father. But my siblings and I took up the heritage and kept traveling.

Our children, raised by this eclectic and wandering group of siblings, married a world: one Korean, one Filipino, one African-American, and two Hispanics, and a bunch of various background white folk. Barack Obama is two years older than my oldest son who now also has gray hair and a gray beard.

What gives me hope is that there’s more of us multiple-race families who love each other; more of us who welcome strangers and make them family; more of us who care deeply for the country and our family. I’m proud to say all of us were Obama supporters.

I hope Barack Obama has a good break. Sits and stares out the window. Sleeps late. That’s what I’d wish for any of my kids/nieces/nephews after a long stretch of work.

But I’ll miss him and his elegant wife.

Afraid isn’t one of the things I do much. It’s an over-used word that means nothing. I’m afraid it’s going to rain; I’m afraid the mail hasn’t come yet; I’m afraid it’s windy today; I’m afraid they were out of mayonnaise at the grocery store.

Really? You’re afraid? Do something about it. Write letters to congress – not blasting letters but letters well-reasoned; write letters to the White House – not denigrating but

reasoned; get involved with doing instead of fearing.

I’ll join the women’s march tomorrow but avoid the sections where yelling and anger are going on. It’s not my first march. There’s a trail of them behind me. I will walk for my mother who remembered when women were “given” the right to vote; I’ll walk for my mother-in-law who never took authority, church or any other kind, seriously; I’ll walk for my friend Willy’s mother who was, eight years ago, denied communion because she wore a Hillary Clinton button to church one day. My first women’s march was in 1972, so it’s about time for another. I will support the younger ones, women and men, who are determined to change the world.

But I won’t watch as the Obamas take off in the helicopter or however they are leaving. They’re not going anywhere.

.

 

 

Banana Bread and Mayonnaise Cake Recipes

There’s been considerable interest in the recipes I wrote about yesterday, so in the spirit of the holidays (and so you don’t have to look them up on Google and wonder which one) I’ll write them out. It’s not like they’re family secrets. Sorry there’s no photos – we tend to eat them (the goodies not the photos) too fast to remember to take pictures.

Mayonnaise Cake

3 cups flour

1 1/2 cup mayonnaise (I use the mayo made with olive oil, and no, salad dressing won’t work)

1 1/2 cup water

1 1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cocoa

3 tsp baking soda

1 1/2 tsp salt

I mix the water and mayo together first and then just dump things in and whir them around. I have one of those big stand mixers so it’s easy to set it going and go get other ingredients. It’s a pretty forgiving cake. The salt and baking soda I add with the flour. After it’s thoroughly mixed (and tasted, nothing like chocolate cake batter) pour it into two 9″ greased and floured round pans if you want a layer cake or one 13 x 9 inch (greased and floured) which is what I always use.

Bake at 350 degrees for roughly 30-35 minutes. I always stick a toothpick in the middle to test for done-ness and if it comes out gooey, leave it in a few more minutes but not too long as you’ll want the cake to remain moist.

I’ve made various icings for it from chocolate to mocha, but our favorite is a creamy lemon made with whipped cream cheese and confectioners sugar and squirts of fresh lemon juice until it tastes like you want it to. Just make sure to completely cool the cake before you ice it.

Banana Bread (2 loaves)

2 c. sugar

1 cup butter (you can see why I only make this once a year)

4 eggs

4 cups white flour

1 1/2 tsp salt

2 tsp soda

2 tsp baking powder

6 to 7 fairly ripe bananas (depending on size)

1/2 cup nuts

1/2 cup chocolate chips

Cream butter and sugar, add eggs, add bananas one at a time, add flour and salt, soda, baking powder, mix well, add nuts and or chocolate chips. I always cheat a little on the chocolate chips because they are soooooo good with the banana flavor but don’t cheat a lot or they will end up heavy and gooey on the bottom rather than mixed in the batter. Sometimes, I toss the chocolate chips lightly in flour to help them stay where they belong.

Pour into two greased and floured loaf pans and bake at 350 degrees for about an hour. I use a knife blade to test done-ness in these. If gooey, I let them bake another few minutes but again, you don’t want the loaves to dry out and they’ll continue baking a bit from interior heat after you remove them from the oven.

Okay. Go have fun. Eat lots over the holidays. We’re celebrating, right?

And cheers to all of you. Thank you for being the gift of a loyal reader. You’re the reason I keep doing this because I know you’ll like it and comment (well, I do it for me, too, because sometimes I just need to write something that’s off the cuff and fun and I don’t have to revise and revise and revise and think about…).

Janet