High Courage: The Great Kansas Blizzard of 1882 – IV

Bushong, Kansas 100 years after Mabel’s story

A pioneer story of Kansas by Mabel Chandler Harris.

Part IV

George Chandler, his son Gene, and the horse Ned went doggedly forward and when the man felt sleepy in spite of himself, he knew he must act. He stopped the horse and slid out of the saddle. He could hardly support himself and clung to the stirrup. The horse dropped his head to the snow and snorted furry icicles from his nostrils. The man pulled the chilled boy into the saddle and carefully wrapped the blanket about his cold feet and legs. He removed the long wool scarf from his own neck and wound it round and round the head and shoulders of his son. He slapped his hands against his chest and stomped up and down until he felt renewed circulation of blood in his veins and his feet did not feel so much like frozen lumps.

When he felt somewhat restored, he gave Ned a slap on the rump and grasped the stirrup firmly. They proceeded on their way. The wind remained bitter and fierce. The cold grew more intense. George thought it must be after midnight. He was sure they were still several miles from home.

He gave himself up to thought. He believed in prayer and he had to have some help right now. He asked God for strength and endurance. He prayed for the son in the saddle and for the precious daughter who had been so faithful during these months when he had been forced to be away from home. As he prayed, he was strengthened. He felt reassured that they would reach home.

Gene seemed to be sleep on the horse. George’s thoughts drifted. He remembered himself as a mere lad in the Army of the Republic. He recalled the joyful day he married Hannah Priscilla Crabtree. He remembered the home life in Missouri and the glowing reports of cheap land in Kansas. These reports had fired both his and his wife’s imagination, so he had purchased their present home from a local land agent whom he had trusted implicitly. They had loaded their belongings in the two big wagons. With the crated chickens fastened underneath the wagon beds, and the boys driving the cows and extra horses, they came west from Kansas City on the great trail.

The Chandlers reached their destination in northern Lyon County, Kansas a week later. No one would ever know his bitter disappointment when he had first seen the treeless, poor upland farm that he had bargained for. He had not known there was so much pasture in all the world. He had dreamed of a farm in the bend of a creek, but the creek turned out to be a gully that passed through his land as a raging torrent after a big rain, a dry slough the remainder of the time.

The horse dragged on. George staggered as he clung to Ned. His arms ached. With thoughts of the family that waited for him, he poured his last ounce of determination into his efforts. He resolutely lifted one foot after the other, glad that Gene was quiet.

The night was clearing enough that he recognized the little cemetery in the whiteness. Ned must have come this far west to avoid some very deep snow drifts. The horse was doing fine to know so much even it if did make the way a mile longer.

Thoughts continued like a rushing stream that would not be stopped. The Chandlers had worked at making a home on that upland claim. And then—oh dear God—there had been Delphia, the blue baby. Disconnected scraps of memories filled his laboring mind. “Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.” Preachers always said those words in burial services.

With cold misgivings he asked himself, “Is there more than that in life?” Hannah was taken when he had needed her so badly. Was she better off than he this terrible night? The harrowing experience of moving little Delphia’s body from the corner to the place at the head of her mother haunted him. It was noon on a warm May day when the little disinterred coffin rested on the green grass. His helpers stood around while he obeyed an impulse to open the lid to peek at his darling child again. In the first instant as they all looked the baby form was there in its original angelic beauty. With the impact of warm air, the little form crumbled into a tiny mound of ashes.

Shuddering, George forced his mind back to his present surroundings. “I must be awfully cold to let myself think in this way,” he thought. “I will not doubt. The word says the spirit shall return to God who gave it. God help me,” he prayed, “to be able to say, even tonight, The Lord hath given and the Lord hath taken away.” Aloud he said, “Blessed be the name of the Lord. I know that God giveth His children strength.”

At his voice, Gene mumbled “What did you say, Pa?”

The father answered, “We will get home. We are almost there.”

It was about three o’clock in the morning when the horse stopped at the stone house. The man gave a shout and dragged the nearly frozen boy from the saddle. The door flew open and Henry, followed by the tall neighbor boy, rushed out and half carried them into light and warmth. Charlie, the lame boy, limped away with old Ned, and while the people in the house worked over the man and the boy, restoring them with a tub of snow, Charlie fed and rubbed the animal that had brought his father and brother home safely home.

When only partially recovered from his night’s experience, the man whose sandy hair had turned white during the last twelve hours, turned to the bedside of his sick daughter.

As he stroked her hair, she spoke her last words, “I knew you would come, Pa.”

The father, with spasms of pain crossing and re-crossing his fine face, held the hand that so confidently had been placed in his. He realized his efforts to save this beloved daughter had been in vain.

As dawn broke over the windswept hillside, Etta Viola Chandler died. George gathered as many of his children as he could clasp into his arms. They clung to him or to each other as he bowed his head in submission and whispered so all could hear, “Thy will be done.”

That was the morning of January 19, 1882. The place was a quarter of a mile south of the original Santa Fe Trail that wended its way across northern Lyon County, Kansas. The Old Santa Fe Trail was the way thousands of people followed west in the 1800s. With their heads, hearts, and hands they literally created a democracy the likes of which is not found anywhere else on our earth.

Because of the bitter cold, Etta Viola Chandler, seventeen-and-a-half years of age, could not be buried in the little Bushong Cemetery beside her mother until January 24, 1882.

The End

Notes about Mabel Chandler Harris, the author of this historical narrative, and the setting of the story.

Mabel was born to George Chandler and his second wife, Carrie, in 1890. She was one of eight children of this second marriage. The children in her “High Courage” story were mostly grown when Mabel was a child, but she must have heard this family story and her heart went out to their struggles.

Mabel married Loren Scott Harris, the older brother of my grandfather Charley Harris, on June 7, 1915. They had one child, Florence Ethel, born December 22, 1927, who was a favorite cousin of my father, Wallace. He called Florence by the nickname Pete.

Pete moved to Wichita during her adult years and shared this “High Courage” story with her dear friend and tax accountant. When Wallace moved to Cowley County from Lyon County, he also hired Pete’s accountant friend to handle his taxes, and I followed suit. During one of my annual tax meetings, she presented me with a copy of Mabel’s story about the blizzard of 1882.

Loren and Mabel lived in Dunlap, Kansas, just up the road from the Harris family homestead on the Neosho River where my grandfather and father lived. Mabel had the distinguished honor to become the first woman to be ordained as a minister of the Methodist Church in the entire state of Kansas. She performed wedding ceremonies, and funerals, for many rural folks, including the Harris family.

The settler’s town named in the story, Bushong, Kansas, is today little more than a few neighborly homes on the paved county road due north of Americus, Kansas. To put more perspective on the horseback journey of Gene and his father on Ned the trusty horse, Bushong is a good 20 miles from the heart of Emporia. The stone cabin where Etta waited would have been even further. Gene and Ned traveled more than 40 miles in that storm, 20 of them on the return trip with George, in the dark, facing into the wind. That blows my mind. Teenage Gene indeed showed great courage, as well as a deep love for his sister and the rest of the family.

On Hope, Peace, and our Future

During this tumultuous and challenging time, today’s holiday to remember one of history’s honored leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gives a chance to pause and reflect on some of his favorite speeches. Excerpts from addresses of Dr. King through the course of his career can be found engraved in granite at the MLK memorial in Washington, D.C.

Out of the mountain of despair, a Stone of Hope

We visited there a few years ago. The impact of those words gave a hush of reverence to the area. Today, I remember Dr. King, and ponder his life and his words, in the spirit of hope that the memorial offers to a divided country and world.

A few of Dr. King’s words, surrounding the massive mountain and engraved for posterity in granite, testify to the power of our spirit, through language. Long may the words provide hope for those in the midst of a struggle for justice and equality, until the day when everyone on Earth is valued as an equal member of the worldwide community.

 

I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.                                                                             (Norway 1964)

 

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.          (1963)

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.          (Norway 1964)

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.    (Alabama 1963)

Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.     (District of Columbia 1959)

I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.  (California 1967)

It is not enough to say, “We must not wage war.” It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not only on the negative expulsion of wat, but on the positive affirmation of peace.    (California 1967)

Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.  (New York 1962)

If we are to have peace on Earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical, rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation, and this means we must develop a world perspective.  (Georgia 1967)

We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.   (District of Columbia 1968)

Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.    (1963)

This is not a complete collection of the quotations at the memorial. But it is most of them. One could spend hours there, meditating on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and pondering his legacy which is forever established through the power of his words. Located amidst the awe-inspiring memorials in our nation’s capital, it is fitting to remember this man’s life today, on the holiday declared to honor his life and legacy. And we return to that stone of hope during these difficult times, with renewed anticipation that a corner of our history has been turned and we will look toward renewed progress to uplift every person, and every living thing on Earth, with honor and respect.

 

 

 

Day 5: Never Lose Hope

Dear Tanna,

I have limited experience with hospice workers. My mother was on hospice before she died and my dad was deeply grateful for the compassionate assistance the workers brought to their home. This concept of providing dignity to those facing imminent death is fairly recent. There was nothing like that available for me three decades ago when my husband struggled with cancer.

It seems somewhat audacious, maybe even preposterous, to think that those responsible for the decline of our planet’s life systems would dare to consider themselves hospice workers. How could agents of death possibly bring compassion and dignity to the decline of the climate conditions that support all life forms on Earth?

When I am in a down mood, I see humanity as a species that needs to go, in order to save the rest. Nature needs to eliminate her threat and we are the major cause of today’s destruction. Those who care seem to have little influence on the those in leadership positions. We are caught in a system that we cannot seem to change, trapped like animals in a live trap.

As a young widow, years ago, I taught earth science at the local high school when I was struggling to find a new life and purpose. I tried to infuse awareness of the decline of the environment in the teenagers. Considering all of geologic history, today’s situation apparently is not the first time that a life form created mass extinction through its waste products. The waste product for early single-celled life in the oceans was oxygen. Through proliferation, the simple metabolic processes of early life changed the composition of the atmosphere, paving the way for new life to evolve.

Geologically and astronomically speaking, our solar system is roughly halfway through the sun’s expected life. Given a few more billion years, there should be plenty of time for new life to evolve from the scraps left after this climate crisis settles into a new equilibrium. Am I comforted by this thought?

I have mixed feelings about it. When I watch neighbors roar past my Prius on the highway in 4-wheel drive fuel-guzzling pick-ups, or watch Styrofoam cups blow into the tall grasses along the road, or see trash, littered by passing motorists, build up around our small pond at the corner of two paved roads, I think to myself, “Humans are such slobs. Maybe it’s time. Nature is out to rectify our wrongs.” If we view the entire planet as one living organism, we humans, through our collective ignorance and apathy, are a disease to the planet, like its terminal cancer.

Then I talk to cherished friends who suffer anguish at the exploitation of the natural world, or I work with my piano students to help them master skills that will enable them to express themselves through music, or I watch my grandson playing with the baby goats in our front yard, and I am reminded that “We aren’t all bad.”

The eras of geologic history are separated by mass extinctions, as witnessed in the fossil records. PreCambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic. Based also on the geologic record, the previous eras were millions of years in duration. We are responsible for the mass extinction we are witnessing now, and it’s happening much more rapidly than any we have evidenced in the rock records. If we compare all of geologic history to a half-mile walk, humans appeared mere inches before the end that represents today. From the first appearance of a human to now encompasses a few seconds on a 24-hour clock that represents Earth’s history.

To disregard and exploit everything on the planet for selfish reasons, with no check on ourselves, empathy for other species, or consideration for future generations, has got to be the biggest crime against this remarkable and fragile speck of a planet in the cosmos. We are guilty of that crime. Our lifestyles trap us in a system that is dooming life as we know it.

Nobody knows what will come of the situation we face today, but I have to wonder how we are any different from those early single cell life forms? One way is this: We know what we’re doing. Science has instruments to measure the health of our planet, and to record its ruin. Yet we seem unable to stop our actions. Assuming that the early life lacked thought processes and their waste contamination was purely accidental and a product of their success, I have to think this is vastly more irresponsible. To know and not to take steps to stop the atmospheric decline surely is an unpardonable sin.

Tanna, with the weight of this responsibility on our shoulders, how can we possibly presume to act as hospice workers in Earth’s decline?

I struggle to remind myself that we humans are as much a part of the universe as the meadowlarks and coyotes and deer and butterflies. And I also remember, through my mother’s experience with hospice, that it’s entirely possible to reverse the diagnosis. Mother was admitted to hospice, not once, but three times before she passed from this life. The first two times, she got better and was released. So hospice doesn’t always carry despair and finality with it. The challenge becomes restoring dignity, and easing the decline. Maybe—maybe—with enough of us working toward a solution, we can drawdown the greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere and restore the climate to one where life as we know it can thrive.

Hope is the other part of hospice. We must never lose hope. That’s why I’m writing these letters to you.

I love nature for the answers it suggests. How do we move towards the light? The prairie suggests, no matter how bad things may look, “Bloom anyway.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that “Earth Laughs in Flowers.”

I don’t laugh often enough, but when I do, it’s wonderful. Laughter is healing, as documented by Norman Cousins when he postponed his predicted demise by embarking on a process of regular daily laughter. Perhaps we should all do what we can to encourage flowers to bloom, to tickle the planet and laugh with nature.

I think it’s unlikely that any one effort of mine will make a difference for the planet. However, added to other efforts, we will make a difference. Maybe individual actions don’t matter much, but they count for something. If we do nothing, we are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This is absolutely an exciting time to be alive. We are on the edge of tomorrow, of a time when the course of history will be determined by our collective actions. Will we prevail? Will we assist nature to overcome this dire threat?

One thing that I plan to do very soon is vote. I will vote for candidates who are on the record for their commitment to act for the climate. I will vote for the Earth.

In the end, everything that we do matters. Every decision we make, every product we select, and every choice we make to fill our minutes will matter for the future. Through action, hope is born and hope is crucial to redemption. Never forget that. Never lose hope. To do so would cement the terminal diagnosis of the planet.

With enduring love,

Your seventh-generation Grandmother

 

 

 

Day 4: Hot Buttons and Getting Hotter

Dear Tanna,

The top priority in changing the course of our nation for some people is to abolish abortion. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Abortion is not an either/or issue, not simply “yes” or “no.” It’s not black and white. There are many shades of gray. There always are with complicated issues.

For me, the environment is the hot button issue. Exploitation, degradation, and destruction of the natural systems we all rely on for basic necessities are the biggest problems we face. Environmental destruction will destroy us, if we don’t hearken to the urgency. And then it won’t matter if women can govern their own bodies, or if we can shop for the latest fashions, or a new car, or even if we have enough to eat.

It. Won’t. Matter.

My love of the natural world goes back to my childhood. We traveled and camped every chance we had, all over the western states. I hope, Tanna, that you will have access to the amazing redwood forests like I did. I hope you will experience awe as you look over magnificent mountain scenes, canyons, rivers, and oceans of grass. This is truly a remarkable land and I hope we find the ingenuity—and the will—to preserve it far beyond your generation. Like every other child, you deserve the chance to feel wonder at the annual butterfly migrations, to catch your breath when an unexpected wild visitor turns your head, to watch a white-tailed deer chew its cud, to fill your lungs with fresh, clean air in an autumn breeze.

The concern for our wanton destruction and exploitation of nature is not new. It was well documented before I was born. By the time I entered college, there were ecology classes focused on our careless destruction of the natural world, and what that would inevitably mean to every living thing on the planet.

We are some of those living things.

To me, nature is teacher and healer, a holy place where I retreat to seek the divine. Nature can be that for you, also, if you learn how to listen.

I once watched an exhausted moose lunge through shoulder-deep snow and I learned the dangers of choosing an easy path. In a downpour I heard the rain plummet from the heavens and it spoke to me of cycles in life. I watched a family of ducks chase madly from one point to another and back again and I saw human fads and opinions mirror the whimsical parade of a flock of ducks. I watched my best friend waste away in a losing battle with cancer and I understood how the growing demands of humanity sap the vitality of our home planet in a similar fashion. Meadowlarks leapt into the wind so they might gain lift and fly away. And I learned I must face the adversities in my life before I could ever rise above them. A stately and beautiful tree crashed to the ground in tornado-strength straight line winds, and whispered that sometimes our roots will not be able to support us against a barrage of adversity. Messages arrive on the dust of a sunbeam and the wings of the wind.

Long ago, I read books by Thor Heyerdahl. One was titled Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature.  In the narrative of his return to simple life on a remote island, he described the music he found in nature. “There is fine music everywhere in nature between moss-covered stones and foliage. . .The lights, the colors, the sounds, the perfumes, the touch, the shapes were never the same, and were always playing on our minds like a vast orchestra. We could hardly take in more music—and I do not mean the singing of birds and the tinkling of a rivulet: . . .I mean music beyond the eardrums. We have had to create flutes and violins to leave impressions deeper in than the eardrums, where nature used to play.”

The musician inside me revels in the symphony of nature. I have delighted in taking piano students (and a grand piano) to outdoor recitals where every piece they played showed a musical glimpse of nature. Everything we humans have created has its source in nature, one way or another. I cannot find words to describe that inner union of my consciousness with the constant prairie symphony in my backyard. Without nature, I would be nothing.

Nature is not exactly constant. It is, if anything, constantly changing, providing variety in daily life. Even the sky presents many faces and no two are the same. We see a lot of sky out here above the prairie. It is our grandiose landscape. Clouds provide our mountains, the earth propels us forward, and the view changes hourly.

From observing my grandchildren, I realize fresh eyes see things as new and wondrous, no matter how much they have changed in my lifetime. My wish for my grandchildren—times seven generations and more—is that they never lose a sense of wonder. Natural processes continue. Even the Earth’s response to humanity’s bludgeoning of the biosphere is Nature’s way to restore a sort of balance. What will emerge from this process is something I can’t imagine, but will be awesome in its own right. Perhaps your generation, if there is one, Tanna, will be able to answer that question.

In the evolution of homo sapiens, our intellect seems to have surpassed our compassion. We have developed the ability to manipulate the physical world—to the point where we even create earthquakes—but not the will or the heart to care enough to halt in our tracks and find another path, a better path, a path that leads to sustainability and life for future generations.

Currently I am dealing with a sense of profound loss for what I once knew the natural world to be. In some ways, this can be compared to the radical loss a person feels after the death of a spouse and soulmate. The loss of a spouse is a radical loss, tearing a hole in the fabric of your being. You not only have lost a person, a partner, and a friend, you have lost a marriage, a relationship, the shared experiences, the dreams and plans you made together. Everything—Yes EVERYTHING—has changed.

 

What do you do? Widowhood can become a very empty place. In some respects, the changes occurring on Earth are like witnessing the last agonized moments of a beloved soulmate. Many of us are grieving already, to the point where we are paralyzed by hopelessness and inaction.

Grief is not possible without love. And, perhaps, love is not possible without grief. If you never feel sad, lonely, or in despair, you will never appreciate the times you feel ecstatic and joyful. I treasure the joyful memories of a vibrant natural world. The process of working through the sense of loss makes me wonder many things. Are things so far gone that there is no hope? In our final attempts to right the wrongs of humanity toward nature, are we merely playing as hospice workers in a futile attempt to ease that final decline?

“Hospice care is a special kind of care that focuses on the quality of life for those who are experiencing an advanced, life-limiting illness.” How can one person provide this kind of care for an entire dying planet? How can thousands of us? Millions? How can we restore quality to the living systems surrounding us?

That is a huge question. I think the answer begins with hope. And I will tell you more about that tomorrow.

With my enduring love,

Your Seventh Generation Grandmother

We Need More Hugs

Meadowlark Books (https://www.meadowlark-books.com/) recently sent a book I’d ordered, accompanied by a couple of bookmarks and a “Thank You” insert. On the back side was a list, “How to Hug an Author.”

I started thinking about hugs. We all need them but they’ve become scarce in this age of social distancing. A quick google search will turn up beneficial information. Family therapist Virginia Satir is credited with this: “We need four hugs a day for survival. We need eight hugs a day for maintenance. We need twelve hugs a day for growth.”

That gives us a real quandary during the pandemic. Of course we can rely on our housemates for a few genuine squeezes, and of course, we’ll reciprocate. But will it be enough to keep us sane?

What happens in a hug? More google information: “your muscles relax, circulation increases and this helps release endorphins that reduce tension and soothe discomfort. Hugs can increase levels of dopamine and serotonin, which elevate your mood and relieve depression.”

Goodness knows we need lots of that these days.

On a roll: “Hugs boost oxytocin levels to decrease stress hormones and reduce feelings of loneliness, anger, and isolation. They build trust and a sense of safety. They strengthen the immune system.”

But when your health and survival depend on keeping your distance, how do you manage to keep up with the hugs?

A local friend, instructor at the private college in town, encountered my daughter this summer while she was home for a few days. His first inclination was to wrap her in a big hug, to let her know he was glad to see her. BUT, he couldn’t do that, given all the unknowns, and unseens, and risks that are too great to be ignored. His solution was to reach toward her, keeping the prescribed distance, and draw his hand to his own chest, over his heart, with a smile. See the suggestion here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfuRYBsX9F0&feature=share&fbclid=IwAR3cyfU45kSKp1g8J5jhtymOyQF7-Q6pnw7tqWodvDRgp8eBiey0feP62nk

I have been in Zoom meetings where at the end participants all reached their open palms toward their computer/phone cameras as if they could touch those in the meeting, no matter how far they were scattered. There are ways to connect, emotionally and mentally, even without physical hugs. We benefit from little votes of confidence, nods of our worth, and respect for our efforts in life, the little hugs regardless of the way they arrive. But without a genuine physical squeeze, we may need more than 12 to prosper.

The note inside the cover of Julie Stielstra’s new release, Opulence, Kansas listed a few simple steps for “How to Hug an Author.”

  • Read a book
  • If you like a book, tell everyone—friends, family, people you meet in passing
  • Write a review of a book you enjoy and share it on social media, an online bookstore, or with your local independent bookseller!

We all need hugs. I resolve to give more bear hugs to my family, and more virtual hugs to those I encounter online, more encouragement to my distant friends with acknowledgement of their accomplishments, musically, rhetorically, physically, intellectually, and in the publishing world.

Hope to get some back!

Here’s a hug for Julie.

Opulence, Kansas This story follows a high school student as she harbors with distant relatives to heal from a family trauma. It is labeled YA (for young adults) but long past my teen years, I found it enticing. I loved that Kate was a photographer. I loved the scenes set in the underground tunnels of a town in central Kansas, much like Ellinwood. I loved that she discovered the secret that we Kansans guard so well: that there is mystical, magical beauty in our rolling hills and heavenly vistas. Kate faced lots of life’s social challenges in one short summer, almost too many to be adequately explored in the 37 chapters of the book. It left questions that made me wonder if a sequel is planned. What will Travis decide to do? Will the friendship between Kate and Travis grow? What, exactly, did Kate’s dad do that triggered his suicide? How did she come up with the book’s title? I hope there will be further stories to answer these and other questions.

Awakenings

For the last few weeks, I’ve contemplated the question raised by Marvin Swanson decades ago. What things do hamper our awareness of our immediate surroundings? Things that distract our minds, keep us focused on inner dialogue, perhaps. Though he noted several young friends who were television addicts forty years ago, I suspect Marvin would be amazed to find that today we can take our screen distractions to any place at any time and ignore what’s happening in front of us.

 

From Marvin:

I’ve been thinking of what puts blinders on awareness: feeling down, worry, being an eccentric wheel around an unproductive crush, too much alcohol or drugs.

And what increases awareness? How can one develop greater awareness? It often seems to take a change from the ordinary—a change of feelings, of routine, of environment. How can we make the familiar stand out in freshness and newness? Go outdoors. Enjoy stimulating conversation with a new acquaintance. Read a good book. Listen to music. Sometimes a good TV show or movie works. A change of season helps too.

Awareness is increased by (1) change (2) time to analyze experience. Can we add more to our list?

MS

What have I missed by being self-absorbed? How can I break out of that box?

What works for you?

Writing as a Rehabilitation Tool

Twenty years ago, volunteers from the University of Kansas started a writing program for men incarcerated in the Douglas County jail. At the 2019 convention in October two leaders who are active members of Kansas Authors Club and a “graduate” of the program will share thoughts about its origin, what a typical session involves, and how everyone—inmates and leaders—benefits from the writing program. They will also read selections by a few participants.

What makes the weekly writing class the most popular activity offered to Douglas County jail inmates? Why is it consistently the largest class offered at the jail? Why does the program director often have to turn away class members when the room fills quickly? And why do the class facilitators continue to return week after week and year after year?

Many writers will affirm that writing is good therapy. In fact, that is the first reason they give to continue writing. There is something about recording words, thoughts, feelings, fears, and ideas on paper that can be cathartic and healing. People who write search for something. Perhaps they seek meaning in their lives. Perhaps they are looking for a personal identity, for a purpose, or as Sister Helen Prejean said, for “what truly matters.” What does matter? Maybe it is some semblance of control over life circumstances. Maybe it is acceptance, companionship, or bolstering a struggling self-esteem.

Perhaps it is hope, as an entry by Donndilla Da Great in the published collection Douglas County Jail Blues begins.

Hope

As I sit in my cell

I get stronger and stronger

I walk and I pace my cell

like a caged tiger

but as the unit comes to a lull

I think of hope . . .

Facilitators of the panel discussion in October include Brian Daldorph who has worked with the jail writers group since 2001. He has taught writing classes at KU since 1990. During his employment at KU, Brian taught in Japan for a year as a Visiting Professor, as well as shorter terms in England, Senegal, and Zambia. In addition, he is the publisher of Coal City Review and has published a number of books, including a book of the inmates’ writing in 2010. His most recent book of poetry, Ice Age/Edad de Hielo was published in 2017. Last year he was recognized as the Kansas Authors Club “Prose Writer of the Year” at the convention held in Salina.

Brian Daldorph

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antonio Sanchez Day, formerly a participant in this project, is the only ex-con allowed to be a volunteer at the jail. He assists with the writing group as a “graduate.” He will share his perspective on writing from jail, and explain its benefits to himself and others in the program.

Antonio Sanchez Day

Mike Hartnett, a retired business journalist (magazine editor/newsletter publisher), has been a co-leader of the men’s writing group at the jail for four years. He currently serves as the president of the District 2 of the Kansas Authors Club in Lawrence.

Mike Hartnett

Exposing the threads of life common to us all, this class will share emotions recorded in prison verse, and put faces of humanity on those all too easily forgotten. The panel will take one part of the theme for the 2019 convention a step further, from “Book ‘Em” to “Heal “Em.” You won’t want to miss what they have to share.

http://www.Kansasauthors.org

October 4-6, 2019

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KS Authors Club

There are New Stars Tonight

For Floyd and Heidi

Sometimes words come hard. With only a few days left in this year’s countdown to the big holiday celebration, I am overwhelmed thinking of friends facing Christmas with new holes in their hearts and tears in their eyes. Some of my friends face their first Christmas after the death of a baby. (Kayla) When there should be joy and excitement, there looms silence and sadness. Some of my friends are newly widowed (Don). Some, I learned yesterday, face Christmas in the hospital (Florence). And some have recently made the heart-wrenching decision to euthanize a faithful, but ailing, furry friend. (Floyd and Heidi).

There’s just something wrong when all the joy evaporates from life at Christmas time. When miles separate me from grieving friends, I lie awake at night wishing I could help. In spite of my best wishes the world still crumbles around those with grief-stricken hearts.

The best quote I have found to help with new grief is from Jamie Anderson. “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and the hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”

Sometimes the loss is compounded when your faithful Peppy has been a shining spot in your own physical decline due to ALS. The loss is so devastating you may sink into inconsolable despair.

If you find yourself facing this year’s holiday season with no joy in your heart, please know you are not alone. Along with many others, I wish for you a spark of Hope. The future may weigh heavily today, but all we really need to do is get through the coming minutes, one-by-one. Try to keep on keeping on, one day at a time. If there’s one thing people are good at, it’s finding creative ways to open new windows when a door slams shut in our faces. We find ways to persevere. I wish for Hope and the power of its gentility to find your wounded heart.

May you also feel yourself buoyed in an ocean of invisible Love sent across the miles from everyone who has ever lost a beloved friend. Those who have gazed with compassion and sadness into swollen, bloodshot eyes begging for release—those who may have wept with remorse that they ultimately failed their best little buddy—they understand your pain and send you Love, even if they don’t know your name.

I wish that you will find comfort in cherished memories, those quirky little endearing things. Did Peppy have a favorite game? Warm your feet at night? Sit on your lap while you watched the old movies? Run and hide at the first sound of thunder? Was there a special way he looked at you that spoke of his unconditional love and affection? I wish for Peace to fill your heart as you cherish those memories.

Hope, Love, and Peace. A recipe for the holidays.

Here’s to Peppy, a good dog, a star among all those new stars in the Milky Way.

The Year Came In; The Year Went Out

http://www.amazon.com/Tears-My-Mother-Rashbaum-Burt/dp/145020399X

The year 2017 started for me in Japan. I read on my Kindle during the long flights and the first book of my year was Burt Rashbaum’s Tears for my Mother. It is a vividly graphic account of a family struggling with their mother’s encroaching dementia. Alzheimer’s remains a dreaded word for many families. It spares no group the horrors of mind disintegration.

Rashbaum’s account was deeply personal. The characters were patterned after some in his own family. He tapped vividly into the reality of what it could be like to watch your own self slipping away. Significantly for me, the author is part of my own family, the Jewish cousin who married into one side of my husband’s family. I enjoyed a few days in this cousin’s Nederland, Colorado home last summer, rewarding myself with a writing retreat in the artsy mountain community.  Before I left, Burt and I had swapped books and I came home with another novel of his, the 2015 release of The Ones That I Know.

http://www.amazon.com/Ones-That-I-Know/dp/1511961716

Like Tears, this story is based significantly on events in Rashbaum’s life. One of the characters resembles him a great deal, and another resembles his wife. Through the pages of this book, I again found myself immersed in post-holocaust Jewish reality, which unless you’ve been there is hard to imagine. It tells the story of a group of neighborhood friends, who grew up together in NYC and lost touch as adults. They reunite when one of them publishes a book about their youthful adventures. The book examines how connections of family and friends possibly go beyond the grave and revisit the same group in a fresh incarnation. It explores life’s purpose, as well as its challenges. It is a snapshot view of a variety of contemporary issues that have a basis in historical drama.

At the end, after reading these books, I felt I knew and loved my newly found cousins much better.

The year 2017 was ushered in for me by Rashbaum’s novel Tears for my Mother. It is fitting to conclude this book journey series with The Ones That I Know. Through my reading adventures in 2017, I felt my family expand. My circle of friends has grown as well, and that’s no small matter in today’s uncertain world. We hear much about alternative facts, conspiracy theories, rigged elections, international threats and climate change. The news media is under fire. Our courts are being stacked by extremists. Our constitution itself is on shaky ground. If one thing is clear, I believe that “the ones that I know” have something to say. As long as our constitution stands we need to exercise our right to write, to share our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams, our memories and fears.

Americans consider free speech to be a birthright. It is guaranteed by the first amendment. Free speech serves to hold the powerful accountable and for that reason we must defend it fiercely. Our freedoms and rights will exist only as long as we keep using them.

For all my writing friends and cousins scattered across the country—“the ones that I know”—I say, “Write on!” And may the force be with us all.

the december project by Sara Davidson

http://www.amazon.com/December-Project-Extraordinary-Skeptical-Confront-ebook/dp/B00DB3D348

Sara Davidson’s the december project is a  treatise on how to navigate the December of life and “not freak out about dying”. It is a joint endeavor by Davidson and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, wherein “An extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery.”

Having the distinct privilege to meet some cousins of my husband’s during the summer of 2016, I came home with the realization that there are Jewish people in my own family. Not only that, but Jewish writers and kindred souls who appreciate the counter-culture of my youth more deeply than I do myself. And, though I do not personally know Reb Zalman, my cousins do. That made the book intensely more personal. Cousin Burt explained, “Reb Zalman was the closest I’ve ever come to meeting/knowing a true ‘holy man.’ It seemed every breath he took, and every word he spoke, was holy.”

Returning home from our 2016 visit with some reading recommendations from cousin Sharon, it was early 2017 before I got around to reading them. the december project was one of those books.

I was enthralled with Rabbi Zalman’s story. He had escaped the Nazis in Europe during the Holocaust years, and struggled with his faith upon arrival in his new country, America. Years later, after personal audience with the Dalai Lama and Thomas Merton, among other notable events, he became a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.

I read the book because my cousin recommended it, and because I figured I was on the verge of my own life’s December phase. The book concludes with several exercises to help folks prepare for their check out. I found many of them to be good tips for any stage of life. Among them:

Begin each day with a thankful heart. Give thanks often.

Practice forgiveness. Forgive others who have wronged you. Ask forgiveness for your own mistakes. And perhaps the toughest, Learn to forgive yourself.

Review your life. Explore your purpose. Claim the life that is yet yours to live. What is urgent and needs to be done before you feel complete?

And one that speaks to my introvert’s craving for personal space: Make friends with solitude. Create an inner sanctuary—a place to go where you can feel the spark of the divine within you.

Solitude and sanctuary are concepts that are fast becoming archaic among the younger generations. Yet, I crave the space to find myself. And I wonder, if we can’t stand to be alone with our own selves, how can we expect others to find solace in our company? We came into this world alone, and most certainly we will leave it in a solitary experience as well. Get to know and love yourself.

 

Up next: About contemplation, or Discovering a few Kansas poets