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.


Enter Spring (soon we hope!)

The Spirit in Spring


March 21, 28, April 4th: Three one-hour online evening classes.  Contact Me for details.

Treat yourself to renewal. Join me for a quick burst of energy as spring arrives. Write open your heart as you write open your senses to shake off winter doldrums.

The focus on sensory details will help you develop seeing, hearing, touch, smell, and taste and how to incorporate those into your writing. The focus isn’t so much on a finished essay, although I’d be happy to see one if you want to submit it, as on learning how to richly describe the five senses in writing. Each week’s class will build on the previous week, but much of our work will be on finding freedom in writing.


Best Writing Workshop Ever!

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.



A Very Big Hole in Front of My House

holeRemember the I Love Lucy shows and how Lucy was always getting into trouble of some kind or another, usually messy, and Ricky had to rescue her?

Yesterday, I became the Lucy with flour on her nose and batter in her hair. Or something, and it all began very early.

About the time I yanked myself into focus with the first cup of very black tea, I heard a knock at the door. I went downstairs, still in my long flannel nightgown, and opened the inside door to a tall man who said, “Are you having any sewer back up?” And I said, “No,” and he said, “Good. Thanks a lot,” and began to leave. And I said, “Could you take those yellow flags with you?” and he said, “Sure,” and pulled them out and went away.

You see, there’s a back story to the above photo which I took through the window this morning although current story began yesterday.

Back Story: ten days ago on a Sunday morning, my husband noticed water pouring out of a hole in front of our house next to the curb; I called the emergency city number and reported it. They came and over the next week, day after day a repair project went on: a big yellow machine like the one you see in the above photo but driven by another man, pounded out the already weak and troubled side walk slabs in front of the house, dug a hole, neatly, men climbed down into it, and over the next several days, a series of events occurred which included repairing the water main leak, replacing a section of sewer pipe next to it, refilling the hole, replacing the sidewalk slabs with new cement, replacing the dug out ground next to the curb, and seeding it all with grass seed. Done. Neatly. And over the succeeding week which I guess was last week but I had a bad head cold and nothing was making sense, people stopped by to see if we had…well, whatevers, and I told them all what good work the city did, and they said thank you and went away until the next round of whoever coming by to check and see if everything was okay. We had three days of quiet with no one checking until yesterday morning. End of Back Story.

So. Yesterday: tall man came, went away and took left over yellow flags with him.

A short time later, I came into the writing desk for something, goodness only knows what at this point, and saw out the window a man planting yellow flags and spraying paint on the grass and street. I went out and said, “They just dug this up and fixed it,” and he said, “I don’t know anything about it I’m just spraying lines.” So he did and checked the gas meter and planted more flags and went away.

About that time, two men showed up with a big Water department truck. I went out and said to the young man standing in front of the house, “They just did this a week ago.” And he said, “I don’t know, he has the order,” and pointed down the street to a man at the corner with another truck. “Oh,” I said. “Okay.”

And then, well, it’s been bedlam. Checking lines, them standing and staring down at the new cement blocks, me telling them that if they were going to dig, to dig up that crumbled bit of sidewalk and replace it and the young man laughed, and then the main man, more serious, called someone and I stood on the step saying what the others had done and the man with the phone relayed the information.

In the meantime, I started cleaning the humidifier because we’d had head colds and it hadn’t been cleaned in probably two weeks and taking it apart and rinsing it with vinegar water etc etc etc, to remove build ups of calcium, and the older man knocked to ask if we’d had any backup and I asked where it would be and he said back into the toilets or into the basement and I said no there hadn’t been and he went away and I went back to cleaning the humidifier.

(By the way, we need to remember to do that each Sunday or it gets too caked on. I had to scrape and scower. How do you spell scrub hard?)

And then they knocked on the door again, both the young man and the old man and had a paper cup with stuff in it and said they wanted me to flush this down a toilet but be careful and don’t get anything on your hands it won’t come off. So I did and they stood in the middle of the block looking down a sewer hole at something, water flow I guess, and I flushed the toilet (and had to scrub it as some of the red stuff splashed) and flushed and flushed and in the meantime another backhoe showed up and there were more phone calls, and the colored stuff never made it down the line so now the street in front of our house is blocked off, and cones out and God only knows what’s going to happen next, but it looks like more digging.

My husband would not be able to come home to his wife with cake batter in her hair.

Or maybe it’s calcium. Who knows. But the humidifier is clean but I didn’t know how to put it back together.

The backhoe or whatever that big yellow machine is called with the bucket on front (I call it a dinosaur), pounded and pounded on the new cement slabs, which were, obviously, well constructed, until the whole house shook (this is a 1924-build house with stucco sides and walls) and I went outside and said, “The whole house is shaking! This is going to crack walls!” But by then the dinosaur was clamping up bits of shattered concrete and re-digging the hole that was dug maybe ten days ago. Much less neatly, by the way.

That was yesterday. They dug the big hole, covered it with plywood and went away. For the night to their families I presume but if I did that job, I’d probably head straight for a bar. My husband did come home although he had to park around the block until they finished yesterday and then he parked in our driveway where the dinosaur was no longer sitting.

Now it’s today. The hole is still there. Four men stand around looking down most of the time. It seems to have befuddled them. Oh! Wait! A new truck has arrived! It has a large spool of what looks like a blue hose and the blue hose or whatever it is seems to be flushing out or rinsing or who-know-what.

I have not gone outside to admonish or ask today. Husband left for work before dinosaur arrived. He said to let it be. I have. Mostly. Closing all doors to the writing room so I didn’t hear the banging or see the standing around and get frustrated.

But now I’m sitting here and writing in front of the window in front of my writing desk.

I think I need to go have some yogurt. And not get it in my hair.

Your friend, Lucy.

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.