Archive for Kansas

Heat related

Posted in Me with tags , , , on July 31, 2011 by redswandiaries

It’s been thundering for more than an hour, yet no rain. With each rumbling in the distance, my anxiety grows. The windows in my car are slightly open and the charcoal briquets are on the deck, but I’m afraid if I rush outside to close the windows or bring the charcoal inside the storm will dissipate and the rain won’t come.

This is what it’s come to, superstitious behavior and feeling like I’m on the precipice of weeping for days. Whenever I hear someone, usually someone older, talk about the summer they’ll never forget “when the heat was so bad birds were dropping from the sky,” I smile and think to myself how it couldn’t have been that bad, everyone likes to embellish a story or two. Not anymore.

I know for a fact I will remember this summer and how the sound of the crunching brown grass beneath my feet as I walk to the community mailbox almost makes me sick to my stomach. Or how I’ve added to my prayers each night an ardent praise for allowing our AC  to make it through another day and each morning consider rushing outside to bless the struggling unit with holy water. Or how each evening I fill my watering can and douse the diehard few flowers still vibrant in their pots on the deck, refusing to allow the Kansas drought to wither them to yellowed stems, thinking if I let them die I might wither away along with them.

I’ve now created playlists on my iPod of songs with “rain” or “storm” in the title, almost 4.5 hours of rain summoning music I keep on repeat. I watch the skies, urging any tiny cluster of clouds to blossom into thunderheads and drench the earth. On Friday, when a small shower moved over SW Wichita and passed too quickly over campus, I ran outside and stood in the parking lot, letting the warm droplets splatter my clothes, skin and frizz my hair. It was the best four minutes out of the entire day.

Until today, I’d yet to let the heat win. I”ve continued to be busy going to concerts, riding my bicycle on Friday through Old Town, sitting on the patio in the humid evenings, and venturing out in the hottest part of the day. But this morning, I didn’t feel like fighting. I chose to hide inside, blinds drawn, AC chugging, fans whirling, and read a book. I picked it from the pile of summer reads I’d intended to rally through before Labor Day weekend. I’d only read one from the stack of seven before selecting a book today by Alice Hoffman, Fortune’s Daughter. In spite of the heat, I brewed a cup of tea, sat in my favorite reading chair and opened to the first page…

“…As the temperatures hovered near one hundred degrees the days melted together until it was no longer possible to tell the difference between a Thursday and a Friday…(coyotes) followed the scent of chlorine into backyards, and some of them drowned in swimming pools edged with blue Italian tiles…tap water bubbled as it came out of the faucets; ice cubes dissolved in the palm of your hand…for miles in every direction people just snapped, lovers quarreled in bedrooms and parking lots, money was stolen, knives were pulled, friendships that had lasted a lifetime were destroyed with one harsh word. Those few people who were able to sleep were haunted by nightmares; those with insomnia drank cups of coffee and swore they smelled something sweet burning, as if a torch had been put to a grove of lemon trees sometime in the night.”

Even in books, my one true means of total escape, the Kansas heat finds me. On the opening page, I am reminded I will never forget these long days of superstition, silent prayers, awkward rain dances, and a heat worn like an itchy serape, reddening my chest and sending slow caterpillars of sweat down my back. Many years from now I’ll recall burning my fingers repeatedly on the car door at lunch and sleepless nights spent pondering a move to Colorado or Washington.

I”m just waiting for those poor birds to begin dropping from the sky.


Auntie Em, Auntie Em

Posted in My Community, Uncategorized with tags , , on May 24, 2011 by redswandiaries

It’s strange how the name of a character in a movie can resonate so differently among people. For some, it recalls Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz, while for others it brings to mind tornadoes. And nothing but tornadoes.

As a child, I remember my cousins yelling “Auntie Em, Auntie Em, it’s a twister” each time the sirens went off, be it during the weekly noon drill on Monday or an actual sinister warning of what was headed our way. And each time I come across the movie Airplane, I laugh out loud when Johnny tangles himself in phone cords and yells “Uncle Henry, Auntie Em, Toto, it’s a twister, it’s a twister” (if you click on the link provided, that particular scene with Johnny is at the very end of the video, but it’s worth the wait if you are an Airplane fan).

Growing up in Kansas, you have to laugh. As a child of the midwest, you learn quickly how to read the clouds, become nervous when it’s humid, and understand the dew point readings. You know the place in your home that is safest to ride out a tornado, be it basement, bathtub, crawl space or closet. And you become a professional at packing a tornado kit each spring (blankets, batteries, jug or bottles of water, flashlights, extra batteries, battery operated radio, cell phone, non-perishable foods) to keep in your safe place, as well as the extra bag beside the bed that includes medications, important documents, and other keepsakes you don’t want to lose when all hell breaks loose.

Because that’s what it does, this tornado. It unleashes hell on earth. Just ask the survivors of Joplin, MO; Reading, KS; and Greensburg, KS. In one terrifying moment, all you’ve known, all you’ve worked for, all you’ve cared for is gone. Obliterated or vanished, it doesn’t matter because the end result is the same, life is changed.

A person from California once asked me how I could live in the midwest with “those tornadoes.” I asked how they could live with those earthquakes, after all we do get 20-30 minute warnings, sirens screaming to turn on your televisions or radios and take cover. We have Doppler radar and text message alerts, plus years of examining the sky and air and differentiating between a typical Kansas thunderstorm and an afternoon filled with  foreboding. What do they have?  

But in light of this year’s deadly twisters, I’m beginning to think all of our weather technology, early warnings, and personal weather experiences are not enough. When a half-mile wide tornado comes at you packing 200 mph winds, destruction is inevitable, survival is diminished.

But we are a resilient bunch. And I know the communities of Reading and Joplin will rebuild and move forward, just as the people of Greensburg.

And those of us out of the path of the storm will watch, pray, and cry for those who lost relatives, friends, and everything they possessed.  We’ll check our tornado kits, monitor the local radars, and be sure and check on those we love, all the while knowing Joplin could have  been and still could be us.

A little reminder

Posted in Our World with tags , , on September 16, 2010 by redswandiaries

Actually, quite a few good-sized reminders. Just when we began to envision the trees blooming with fall colors, feel a hint of crisp air at night, prepare for the chill of autumn evenings and mornings…Mother Nature decided to slap us with a little reminder. She rules this earth. She is the Mother. And don’t forget it.

I don’t blame Her for being ticked. After all, we continue to pollute her skies, thicken her air, and poison her seas. We build mountains of trash, waste gallons of water, and take all she has given us for granted.

So she decided to remind us just who is Queen. She set her path and let fall nuggets of vengeance. Many of which rocketed through our roof. 20 to be exact. And smashed guttering and vehicles.

As they say, hell hath no fury. Especially when we’re talking about the Mother.

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Harriet’s Flowers

Posted in Our World with tags , , , on July 28, 2010 by redswandiaries

Harriet J. Graham was an incredible woman. In 1964, she was the first female elected to the Kansas State Legislature from Sedgwick County. The lone female in the house, she served on the committees for Roads and Highways, Education, and Welfare. But when the chairman of the tax committee blocked her from serving, stating “women don’t know anything about taxes,” she became determined to fight gender discrimination. Soon after, she introduced a bill requiring equal pay for equal work, an Equal Rights bill, and an anti-discrimination bill. And when President Kennedy appointed a National Committee on the Status of Women, Governor Robert Docking appointed Harriet head of the Kansas commission where she lobbied for a legislative endorsement of the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution.  All during her active political career, she raised three children and served as leader of the Bluebirds, Campfire Girls, Cub Scouts, coached a girl’s softball team, and participated in community theatre. After her divorce in 1969, she earned a BA from WSU, and later earned an MA from the University of Kansas, and maintained her lifelong love of nature, bird-watching, and canoeing. She taught all of her children and grandchildren to respect Mother Nature and all her gifts, and to take time to view the world while seated in a canoe gliding silently on a river.

I never knew Harriet. But I know her legacy. And I know many people loved her and respected her. I attended her funeral service in May, a representative of WSU. I’d helped her family establish a memorial in her name at her alma mater. And I felt such joy at learning so much about one woman’s path from the people she touched. And I was moved when her friend of 45 years played the organ, one last serenade for her beloved friend. By the end of the service, I felt I carried a piece of Harriet within me. Her committment to seeking equality for others is a large reason I am the woman I am today. The ripple effect of her life has touched many women in the state of Kansas, whether they realize it or ever know of her. I am truly grateful.

At the end of her service, we were asked to select a packet of flower seeds from a large wicker basket. Take the seeds home and plant them. I selected a packet of sunflower seeds in honor of this inspiring woman. Today, Harriet’s flowers stand tall along our back fence, peeking into our neighbor’s yard and the field of milo behind us, their large heads following the Kansas sun. And whenever I see them through the kitchen window or gaze upon them from the deck, I remember the women I never knew, but will never forget. Thank you, Harriet J. Graham.

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A place where there isn’t any trouble

Posted in Me, Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 26, 2010 by redswandiaries

That is what Dorothy asked of Toto in her black and white Kansas. She was searching for the perfect place, beyond the moon, beyond the rain. When I was eighteen, I thought such a place existed. A place outside of Kansas. Born and raised in Wichita, I was the typical teen, always searching, always dreaming, and somehow believing that life would be better beyond the state line. One year following my high school graduation, I moved to Illinois. I packed up my ’78 blue Camaro with a suitcase full of clothes and a few boxes filled with stuff (nothing memorable, just junk an eighteen-year-old girl believes she cannot live without) and headed northeast.

My time in the suburbs of Chicago was a rollercoaster of firsts, including my first apartment, my first full-time job, and my first attempts at paying my own bills, providing my own groceries, and learning how to survive. It was scary. It was crazy. It was fun. And teetered on the edge of disastrous. But I learned a lot those four years, about life, about myself.

My first Christmas away from home, my cousin Becky sent me a present. It was an 11 x 14 framed photo of this:

A note inside the box read “so you don’t forget.” I understand the Wizard of Oz means much to many: a reminder of a bygone movie era, the beginning of an icon’s career, personal childhood memories, and a music soundtrack filled with innocence and familiarity. But for a kid from Kansas, that movie takes on a whole different meaning. Both good and bad.

The bad? When someone discovers you are from Kansas, they feel the need to assault you with Dorothy jokes, usually beginning with “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” No kidding. They also believe that life in Kansas consists only of farms, Auntie Em’s, girls wearing gingham, tornadoes, and mean spinsters who ride bicycles. Oh, and everything is in black and white. They are always surprised to find we have indoor plumbing, drive cars, watch cable television, and that my hometown is a city of almost 400,000. When I see the confusion and somewhat disappointment shadow their faces, I like to inform them we do have tornadoes, including loud sirens that send us fleeing to our basements (most of us), and hail the size of cantaloupes. This always seems to perk them up.

The good? Most of us can relate to Dorothy. We spend our early years confused and frustrated by the ones who are supposed to protect us, disappointed by those we love, and dreaming of a far away place where everything is perfect. We spend so much time on the run, we fail to see where we are going or where we have been. And too late, we are in the vortex and spinning out of control. Many of us land in a place we trick ourselves into believing is the place we were searching.

I hung that photo on the wall of my bedroom in each of the two apartments I lived. I would go days without noticing it, then one morning or evening I would find myself standing in front of the photo, knowing Becky’s note was taped securely to the back of the frame, and recall my favorite line from the movie. No, not the typical, more familiar line, but the following:

If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.

I returned to Kansas in 1989. I returned to the family I achingly missed, and the friendships I longed. And while I speak of leaving one day for the  mountains of Colorado, or the long winters of Maine, I don’t believe I’ll ever go. My heart belongs to this sun-yellow state of wheat fields, flint hills, sunflowers, brisk winds, hot summers, cold winters, and memories long as a walk beside the Arkansas River and through the parks of Riverside. I am a child, a girl, a woman from Kansas. And it’s the little things that remind me of my place, like the round hay bales I passed this morning on the way to work, Rolo candy-shaped bales placed abstractly in the field. Like a curious art form. A sort of Stonehenge of hay, or Hayhenge. Or a farmer bringing in his wheat,  the sunflowers peeking over the back fence or the emerald-green milo in the field behind our home, almost iridescent in the full moon.

I still have that photo. It hangs in my walk-in closet, just as I enter. I placed it there because I pass through that door every single day to select clothes and shoes, so not one day passes in which I don’t see that photo of the lion, the tin man, Dorothy, and the scarecrow. And I remember someone loved me enough to give me a gift that would serve as a reminder that while I searched for a place, there would always be one waiting for me. The wizard was right. A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.

Birthdays, babies, and monsoon season

Posted in Mi Familia, Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 13, 2010 by redswandiaries

The gutters are again gushing with rain overflow. These recent downpours remind me of visiting my Auntie Blanche and Uncle Otis in Arizona as a child. It seems we always scheduled our vacation during their monsoon season. The storms were fast-moving and torrential. In between the onslaught of rain we would play miniature golf, soak in the hot tub, or see the sights of Arizona. As the rain thumps against our office window, and I hear the waterfall from the gutters and ponder the life of my already rain-drenched flowers, I’m reminded of those summers. I can hear Auntie Blanche calling us “love,” an endearment she picked up while they lived in England. I can see my dad and Uncle Otis hefting their golf clubs into the trunk of the car. And I can feel my mother’ s gentle touch as she smoothed Noxema over my sunburnt shoulders. The one thing I don’t remember is the humidity. That is a gift of Kansas following a downpour in June, heavy humidity.

This weekend was busy with birthdays and babies. While attending a  birthday party Friday night,  the realization came over me that yes, my brother and his friends are all turning 40. Friday night was the belated 40th party for Terry, one of my brother’s best friends and a great friend of ours and my family. The realization came over me when I looked over at the swimming pool and instead of seeing the usual group of guys, beers in hand, coolers afloat in the pool, there were children. Many children. And the coolers were tucked safely in the garage. After many years of birthday pool parties with my brother and his friends, this was quite a new sight. Unfamiliar, but pleasant.

Then our granddaughter celebrated her second birthday on Saturday. It seems only yesterday we were at Wesley Hospital, Rainey was barely 12 hours old, and the tornado sirens were sounding. She is rambunctious, smart, funny, and adorable. Everything a two-year-old granddaughter should be.

And Sunday was the baby shower for my niece, Holly. When I saw her protruding belly for the first time (she lives in Chicago), it suddenly became clear I am to be a great-aunt. A great-aunt. Hard to imagine. Holly, my second niece and God-niece, the independent child, the young girl who loved to wear overalls, the young woman with the strong voice and strong mind, is going to be a mother. I still remember holding her as an infant, her coal-black tuft of hair soft to the touch. I remember how she loved music and would memorize songs after one listening, mimic Mtv videos, and was generally the loud child. She is having a boy, a son, Lucas Michael. I’m intrigued to see the little man that he is and will be. We shared a wonderful afternoon with the great-great aunts, the great-grandma, the grandma, the first, second and third cousins. We ate, we laughed, we told stories, and we fell into that familiar rhythm of family, a music we have all memorized and are familiar.

It continues to rain. Flashes of lightning, loud claps of thunder, and the wind slashes the rain against the window and house. But strangely, I am content, in tune to the movement of the storm, and the heartbeat of my memories.