Friday, April 16, 2004


I expect to post Saturday's Poem tomorrow, then I'll leave for Iowa. I'll stay with my parents overnight Saturday, I'll take them for biscuits and gravy at the Seven Stars Restaurant in Hampton, Iowa, on Sunday morning, and I'll head for Emmetsburg for a week of poking about and interviewing. On Wednesday I'll do some reading from Curlew:Home at the Emmetsburg Public Library, some talking about how folks might go about writing their own life stories or family histories, and some explaining of my Vagabond project. I have two hours, which will be enough time if I talk fast and they listen hard. On the Saturday following, I'll be at Tuesdays Coffee & Books at Southpark Mall in Spencer, Iowa, doing a book signing. Some writers don't like book signings but I don't mind: I've never had to sign so many autographs that my hand cramps up. Besides, you meet some interesting people in bookstores, and hear some interesting stories. At least I do.

I suppose I'll be back to blogging on Monday, April 26th.



It was, once again, a small, intimate group who heard me read in Waupaca last night. I gave one of my better readings. One of the fellows in the audience was a "semi-retired" farmer. "If a farmer retires entirely," he said, "he's got no reason to get up in the morning." Said he had two ewes drop lambs yesterday, said he's had nearly eighteen so far this spring. I could tell he was enjoying the farm poems I read, "Making Hay," "A Neighbor Hailed Out," and such.

I read from the "Married to Prairie" poems, too, about the woman widowed on the tall-grass prairie in the 1880s. A woman came up and talked to me afterwards; those poems astonished her: her grandmother had been widowed on the prairie in South Dakota in the 1880s, some fifty miles or so from Redfield, my Vagabond community out there.

About half-way through the reading, a dozen or fifteen high school students came in; they had been busy elsewhere until then. I am glad to see young people at poetry readings, I just wish I'd see a few more males showing up. I guess the way we teach poetry is scaring the guys away. Though the farmer in the audience said I'd read a lot of stuff that fellows could relate to.

One of the high school girls asked if I'd been interested in poetry all my life. Yeah, I said, I'd written my own version of "Snow Bound" during an Iowa blizzard when I was in the sixth grade, I'd written a poem in high school about the loneliness and longing I felt, called "End of th World." Fortunately both of those poems have been lost.

We had cookies and coffee afterwards, then made the drive home in a slow, steady rain that will be good for the farmers' fields.


FEBRAURY 3, 2003

I arrived at the weekly Evergreen Outreach get-together at the big meeting room in Vandalia's United Methodist Church just before the wave crested, which is to say I was there fifteen minutes early, about 12:45 p.m. I had time to meet Phyllis Rames and a few other people, then took a seat among the crowd of a hundred. The afternoon program opened with a rendition of the Outreach song, new words put to a familiar tune; followed by another song, again new words to a familiar tune. Evergreen Outreach is twenty-three years old, it brings together old folks from assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and the hospital's long term facilities, along with a group of Vandalia's handicapped.

"Inclusion," Phyllis Rames would say, is the theme of her life; and those who come to Evergreen Outreach seem to appreciate being included.

Phyllis is an original brick in the Evergreen edifice. She has a Master's degree in English and has taught part-time at St. Elmo High School, Greenville College, and Graham Correctional Center in Hillsboro, Illinois, but never let her job get in the way of her Monday appointment at Evergreen Outreach. Her first business has always been family, she said, then Evergreen Outreach, then teaching English part-time.

Phyllis's husband was a family practitioner in Vandalia from the 1950s until he retired just this past December. He was a practicing family doctor in a world headed more and more towards managed care medical clinics and medical specialization. I arranged an interview for Wednesday with Phyllis and her husband when we'll talk about Evergreen Outreach and the career of a family doctor in a small town in rural America.

I also set up interviews with some of the people I met. One is tomorrow with Mary Peyton Meyer, 93, at the Hospital's Long Term Care facility. She said she would have to miss her exercises to talk with me. She is from St. Peter originally, she has lived in the country all her life.

Delbert Cothern played a couple of songs on harmonica for the Evergreen group. A lot of people have told me to talk to Delbert. He has been paralyzed since he was a young man. On a dare he had dived into the river without putting his arms out in front of him on the dive, and his collision with the river bottom paralyzed his legs for life. He sat in a wheel chair dressed in blue overalls, the microphone in front of him, he said "I'm gonna play an old fiddle tune here called 'Silver Bells,'" and his harmonica took off like an accordion, as lively as a fiddle would be. Then he said: "Now here's a waltz," and it's 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Where did he learn his songs? Was he interested in music before he was paralyzed, or did that come later? What has sustained him over the years? When I asked Delbert if I could interview him tomorrow, there was a playful dance of light in his eyes as if to say, "Silly boy," but he said yes.

I set interviews with Pauline ("I'm the last of the Sampson family") Hicks and Beulah ("Every hour is spoken for") Brown, a very busy volunteer. I took down the names and phone numbers of a few other people I'll want to talk to - Beverly Hood, who sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth" to a room that could not be silent; people had to share the sense of community by talking or they had to sing along, they could not contain themselves.

I'll want to talk to Floyd Meseke. He had been a farmer in the area. When he'd heard a radio program about the Evergreen Outreach program, Phyllis told me, he had called her and said: "When I retire, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to volunteer on transportation at Evergreen Outreach." And so he has.

And Joan Kelly, from London, with quite a British accent still. She has lived in London, she lived three years in Los Angeles, she came to Vandalia, and "I would never leave Vandalia."

Inge Compton, one of the piano players for the program, came here from Austria and stayed even when she divorced.

I was sitting next to Mary Peyton Meyer at the program, and when they came around handing out bells for the songs with bell-orchestra accompaniment, she made sure I got one of them. She didn't want to play it herself, she was sure I'd understand the instructions and would do just fine. There was really no arguing with her, she'd made up her mind. Phyllis Rames was up on stage, and when she held up a card that had the same color on it as my bell, that's when I was to ring the bell. The first song she had selected for the bell orchestra today was "Let There Be Peace on Earth," which Beverly Hood had sung earlier. "Bev and I must be thinking of the same thing - peace in the world," Phyllis said. She started the tape recorder, she held up the cards in time to the music, the bells rang out "Let There Be Peace on Earth." Then we did "Amazing Grace." By the third song I was having such a good time with the bell I don't remember the name of the song. My bell was red; whenever I rang it, a "C" note pealed out, joining the notes of two or three other bells to form a chord.

When it was my turn to speak to the folks gathered for Evergreen Outreach, I told them I couldn't help recognizing the sense of community in the room. The lively conversation. Singing, ringing of bells. Applause for those with birthdays, for the winners from the Olympic Corner of the room. Paintings proudly displayed on the stage. Everyone was welcome, they all seemed to feel included.

I told them about my Vagabond project, that I was already setting up interviews with people in the room. There was a glow in the crowd, pride that the people of Vandalia were being included. When I finished, a few people took the microphone on the pretext of asking a question. One of them led us through a version of "God Bless America," ragged but right. Others offered suggestions of people in Vandalia I should interview.

Even when the program was over, even as those in wheel chairs were being lifted hydraulically up into the Operation OUTING bus, I had a hard time leaving. Phyllis and I were talking, Phyllis was pointing out some of the volunteers without whom the Evergreen Outreach program could not operate.

Finally I walked out into a rainy mid-afternoon.


APRIL 16, 1998

Rain did come yesterday. I walked in it to go to lunch at noon, walked in it again at quitting time. Water in the ditches on the way home was running fiercely as a result. The world goes on re-making itself, whatever we think or do. It is still grey and wet this morning, and somewhat chilly, too.

I often say what we get is a reflection of what we give. We create our reality to some extent. We are about as happy as we choose to be. Shall I curse these wet streets or praise Allah for the moisture. Knee-jerk response is not enough but often it is all we muster.

Not fifty miles north of here, they got three to five inches of snow; that will slow their lawns some.

One of our daffodils is entirely beaten to the ground. The forsythia is half nekked - her yellow dress gathered in a heap 'round her feet.

A red-wing blackbird sitting on a fence. Now that sounds like the start of a child's rhyme. What rhymes with fence?

Hence, thence, whence. Dense, pence, tense.

Tents, cents, dents. Gents, rents, vents.

Is it true the search for clarity is a search for truth?

The bare fields look slick and greasy this morning. The windshield wipers, all the way to Ripon. The wind, all the way to Ripon. At Five Corners, the ditches run heavy with water. The world falls all over itself trying to keep up with itself.

This life is too good a show to want to leave it behind. See the girl with the puzzled look. Give me another day like this.


APRIL 17, 1998
Blue sky. A bright day. O spring. Hope is eternal. We march forward, another day. On a day like this, one cannot despair.

The river through Fairwater still runs high.

What we call prairies - Round Prairie just north and east of Fairwater, Mackford Prairie south and west. Why do we call them that? I assume our fathers saw these swells of land as flat and grassy plains like prairies.

Three geese against the blue of sky. They are heading north. Three sea gulls, heading east.

People died in storms across the south yesterday. Today, here, the sky looks so innocent. We know it can turn on us in a moment, though.

New and tiny leaves on the trees are now staining them their pale green. It is as if the sky behind the trees is tinted.

Water continues to run in the ditches at Five Corners. It is chilly enough that where the water is calm a skin of ice has formed.

Even so, on a day like this, one cannot despair.

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