With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.
While you’re reading this, snug in your morning rituals, I’m snug on the farm. If you want a view of said farm, go here, or here, or here. There’s more. All you have to do is search “prairie” or “farm” and you’ll find them. There’s probably links to some of them at the bottom of this post.
That’s where I am now. For two whole glorious and quiet days out of the city.
I’m writing, as you read this, no doubt. And that’s what On Writing is about. Finding the place and the silence and the peace (no Internet, cell phone reception spotty, six miles from the nearest paved road).
But if you’ve read the other posts, you already know that. Imagine me in front of a window looking out on that prairie. That’s where I am. Writing.
While these windows don’t look like anything much, in reality they contain a dream. And not only a dream, but a dream of nearly forty years. Hard to imagine, isn’t it, that two windows and a red stepladder might hold so much.
Years ago, when I returned to college to complete an undergraduate degree, my life was in chaos; grief followed me; and I knew I was in trouble. While I have, as most will attest, a less than stellar memory, I clearly see myself walking across campus on a sidewalk bordered on the right by green, fresh grass and noticing a sign outside the low brick building on my left–Counseling Center. Abruptly turning in, I made an appointment. My counselor, Tim Lowenstein, taught me bio-feedback and self-guided visual meditation.
When I needed to go to a quiet and safe place, I’d visualize going to the farm, walking down the lane toward the road (Mom and Dad still lived on the farm so I couldn’t go to the house), turn left on the road towards the bridge over Mission Creek, climb over the fence to a wide grassy patch of pasture on the south side of the creek, and go to the cabin I’d built in my mind. I’d sit on the porch in a rocking chair to breathe and be at peace.
That went on for several years. I also talked to Dad from time to time about the farm’s future. When I worked on a BFA in metals, I’d talk about an artists’ retreat. How I’d build cabins at the perimeter, how his old heavy anvil would be useful again. I had to let go of that dream plan when I decided I’d never be more than an adequate visual artist and went back to acting. But I hadn’t forgotten the farm.
Mom and Dad moved to town; I moved everywhere else, including New York and Mexico, but the farm remained a place of peace and safety. After all, how loud can it be on a place six miles from the nearest paved road? By that time, I’d become a writer, but that made being on the farm even more attractive. I continued dreaming of a writer’s retreat.
My bookcase filled with Annie Dillard and William Least Heat Moon, Edward Abbey and Diane Glancy. Jane Brox wrote Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm and I underlined and underlined passages: “The heart of the New World had its own name: prairie. The long open center of the word conjures an endless, calm, undefined expanse…”
Dad died. Mother followed ten years later.
By then, I’d moved back to Kansas, my brother moved to Hawaii, and I took over managing the family farm, planted to tallgrass prairie, and with some of the outbuildings still intact although not the house. I’d helped Dad tear down to make way for a new double wide mobile home. But Dad saved the timbers of the old house and built a room onto the double wide, which we called The Little House, to accommodate kids when they came home. They’d sold the double wide when they moved into town, but the Little House still stood. Dead birds in the screens; pack rat nests in the basement; old jars of canned vegetables in the corner “cellar”; mold on the walls. I cleaned and tossed.
My husband and I bought an old camper and put it on the land. We’d go up when the weather permitted. Too hot and the air conditioner didn’t operate; too cold and the furnace couldn’t keep up, but we went. The folding panel of the camper shower cracked and leaked water onto the floor, but we went. We painted the inside walls of the Little House and turned it into a writing room. The antenna outside for television reception finally broke; we resorted to videos. The ceiling began to leak; we resorted to duct tape inside and vinyl coating on the aluminum roof; the mice and bugs got in; we resorted to moth balls, rat poison, and stinky air “freshener” when we left each time and swept up dead bugs and tossed dead mice when we returned. It was a process as they say, but the camper continued to decay.
It wasn’t until we were mid-way into the reconstruction of the Little House, adding a kitchen and bathroom, a new roof, new insulation and siding that closed cracks to critters, new front deck, and driving the two and a half-hour drive up, again, to take light fixtures and paint and to once more clean out the basement, when, on the two and a half-hour drive back that evening, I woke from a doze and realized a dream was coming true.
An artist’s retreat was about to be born.
This is land my grandpa’s father homesteaded in the 1800’s, the man who’d walked the long journey to St. Joe to buy supplies like salt and sugar and lug it back. Grandpa told stories of the Jesse James’ gang coming by one time his father was on a trek to St. Joe and how they’d asked for dinner, politely, and slept the night. This is where Grandpa traded with the Otoe Indian tribe–cattle for firewood–whose reservation was north of our place. This was where his wife died and where Grandpa died. This is where Dad grew up. This is where I grew up and couldn’t wait to get away. And then, it’s where I returned.
Dream your dreams, boys and girls. Because you know what? The more you dream, even with editing, they may just come true.
And the windows? I’ll put a desk in front of those windows and sit there and look. Here is the prairie. This is what dreams are made of.
When someone asks me where I’m from, my stock answer “Tell me a year and I’ll tell you where I was,” works pretty well. In this case, the prompt was very specific: describe the house you lived in when you were twelve. But if someone were to say where did you live when you were thirty, for example, I’d have to add thirty years to my birth year and then I’d know where I was. That’s why tell me a year is more effective. I know where I was each year. Otherwise, I have to add. I just added. At thirty, I was living in Germany in Army family quarters.
However, twelve? That’s easy. By the time I was twelve, I was only on my fifth residence. By thirty? I’d have to make a list. We moved to the farm when I was nine so by the age of twelve, I’d stayed in one place for three years and would be there for another five.
In those years, the house we lived in was built in the late 1800s by Grandfather’s father. The farm, a hundred and sixty acres of original Kansas homestead, had only one owner before Grandfather’s father and that for only three years. Probably a Carpetbagger (did Kansas have Carpetbaggers?) who claimed it during the land rush and sold it at a profit. We still have the farm and the original land grant deed.
The high plains were built for spectacular storms, wide stretches of grass which often became prairie fires, high winds, and a lot of sky. The first grandfather, however, found the only hill in northern Marshall County and built his house there. Tornadoes rolled to the south and down a draw (a gully) or around the north side of the hill. Never over the top. Tornadoes, for all their fierceness, are lazy. We could see ten miles in all four directions which is about how far it is to the horizon, and storm days, Dad would stand at the back fence and watch. I only remember being herded into the cellar twice. I hated the cellar. Shelves lined both walls and the door opened from the ground like at Dorothy’s farm in The Wizard of Oz. An awful place where being sent to the cellar to get….well, whatever: a jar of canned meat, beets, beans, or potatoes from the sack at the floor made me imagine rattlesnakes at every step and giant spiders hanging from the rafters. Neither of which I ever saw. Hated the place nonetheless.
The house: no don’t imagine 1870s antebellum columns or colonnades of trees on each side of the road. Imagine tar paper, thick, scratchy, and pebbled, in a brown-to-look-like-wood siding. And the staircase? No wide sweeping curve up from the foyer floor, rather an enclosed narrow and steep flight of stairs that grew up the kitchen wall and made a sharp left turn three-quarters up. You could imagine the occasional spider or mouse if you like, but that’s a little creepy. As were the stairs. Did I mention steep? At the bottom the door opened onto the kitchen and at the top, opened into two bedrooms, one on the left and one on the right. Grandpa slept on the right up two steps off the top landing. We girls slept on the left. I guess that’s how it happened although I’m not sure how we got four girls in one bedroom. We probably fought a lot. But I’ll stick to house. Which makes me wonder how our bedroom over the kitchen ceiling was lower than Grandpa’s bedroom over the living room. Maybe the house had settled.
My older sister went into high school, however, when I was thirteen, and Dad built a separate room for her off Grandpa’s room in what was the old attic. He put up wall board and painted it blue. The room had one window that looked out over the yard and the lane leading down to the road. It’s the room I graduated to. Perfect for a teenager. A sanctuary. No one could go in without permission–my sister started that and hung a blanket across the door for privacy. When she moved to the attic room, there were only three of us in the bedroom with the gas heater for cold winter morning. In that room, we had to lie on the floor and look out little windows that tipped up to find out who was driving up the lane.
Downstairs, a big kitchen, a living room, a south porch perfect for sleeping on hot summer nights, and an east porch that served as a mud room and a separator room (a separator separates cream from milk) and a place to store milk buckets after they were washed and eggs we’d gather each morning and evening. The east porch is where we cleaned eggs – a task I never cherished – and stored five-buckle galoshes for trips to a muddy farmyard.
I don’t remember when Dad added the bathroom on the north side of the house. It may have been a few years earlier when his mother was ill and couldn’t go outside to the outhouse. She died before Dad and Mom married so I didn’t know her. But the outhouse was still usable if you were desperate. By the time I was twelve, I guess we were six kids since Mom and Dad had birthed another girl, so with five girls and one boy, desperation time could come at any time. Grandpa often used the outhouse. Probably just for a little peace of mind.
The south porch was my favorite room–well, not so much in the winter since it wasn’t insulated and winter put frost on the bed–white with windows that stretched around three walls. Maybe not antebellum but close.
I wish I had a photo I could attach, but all the photos are stored in big albums at another sister’s house. So instead, I’m attaching a view from the window on the west side of the Little House. We tore down the old house when Dad bought a new double wide for mother after we all left home. She was tired of living in an old house. I’d moved back from Germany and helped with some of that. I remember pounding plaster off lathe in the upstairs bedroom where I once slept so we could take the house apart board by board and save what was salvageable. After they set up the double wide, he built on a 21’x24′ extension room attached to the west side of the mobile home so there’s be a place to put us all when the six kids and their kids descended for one reason or another. That’s the building that’s still standing and we call The Little House. He built it out of the salvaged timber after digging a full basement just in case for some reason a tornado decided to come over the hill, and in one corner he built a fruit cupboard.
That’s the cupboard I had to clean the pack rat nests from if you’ve read earlier posts. Or maybe that’s in the memoir I’m writing. Words are getting mixed up from one deal to another.
Anyway, this summer we’re building an addition on the addition. An eight foot extension with a composting toilet and a shower and a corner kitchen inside the little room. We’ll have a year round house. Not that we’ll live in it all the time, but it’s there.
You see, you can go home again. It just takes some work to get there.
We recently visited the geographical center of the United States in north central Kansas. Along with a monument and a flag, something you’d expect, we found a tiny chapel. This is the inside of the chapel. Note meditational/prayer booklets in the rack on the left.
The outside looked like this.
Inside and Outside are certainly relevant to the culture one is in! We’ve seen churches of one sort or another, cathedrals to chapels, across the country and in many parts of the world, but this is definitely a Kansas prairie chapel. No need for very many at one time. Seating limited to eight.