November 30, 2017

How I finally ended up in Kansas

The following essay was judged a Finalist entry in the Poetry Unites Kansas contest held earlier this year for essays on poetry. Of about eighty entries received, this was selected in the top six by the jury. Four Finalists were selected to become short subjects for the remarkable filmmaker Ewa Zadrynska, and this documentary had its premiere on November 28 as part of the Uhlig LLC Distinguished Speaker Series. The film demonstrates the resilience and depth of faith possessed by these Kansans as they move through their daily routines, and the impact that poetic verses have had on their imaginations and hearts.

Being a part of this contest has shown me once again that you don't have to be a poet to love poetry – or at the very least, to interact with it enough to be moved by it every now and again. When it's good, it speaks down into the heart of the human condition.

I am grateful for editorial assistance from Julie Goldberg Springer, Michael McFarland, and Lorienne Schwenk; and for the presence of mind of Mark Uhlig to bring this movement to Kansas.


           In my mother’s hometown of Waldron, Kansas (population 11), Main Street terminates at the Oklahoma state line. My father’s people were from Offerle (population 199) and later Dodge City, whose population was simply too much for my child’s mind to count or imagine.
            Neither here nor there, I came into the world a landlocked Oklahoman by birth and rearing, but willed myself to one day become an official Kansan.
            On maps, my ten-year-old fingers traced the road veins north and west, Oklahoma to Waldron to Offerle to Dodge, willing these places to coagulate into some sense of origin out of which a calling for life might arise. I pored over these slight geographies until they poured themselves into me – and determined that what my parents had lacked in foresight and planning by moving us south, I would one day recapture by design.
            Much of early adult life was lived in places that made mocking circles around Kansas: Oklahoma, with its beckoning north border; Colorado, its eastern plains sloping home; Texas and Iowa, at a pronounced distance. Even in my niche work as an Episcopal priest, I tried to come to the place I wanted to call home, sending letters of application to altars in Newton and Lawrence and Edwardsville, always being turned back for some good reason, some slice of incomprehensible providence.
            In the spring, from adulthood on, as I danced around Kansas, there was Robert Bly. Every March, his poem “Waking from Sleep” expressed its need to be re-read. I went and unearthed it, and still do, and always will. Perhaps this ritual is an attempt to recapture the time I first read it, when I was 25 and working on my life, and the work deeply spoke into my need for purpose on a day I happened to have been prepared to receive such a homily.
            In the poem, Bly conjures a microcosmic world that lives in human blood – a harbor in spring, shaking off frost and chill, of “navies setting forth” every morning. He shows us bodies putting down books, emerging from winter’s cocoon, compelled by natural forces into the morning sun and deeper possibility, to exploits and jeopardies out beyond the sea line. He implicates us (“Now we sing”) and liberates us (“our master has left us”). With beautiful economy, he begs us to gamble on something like adventure, something like forgetfulness about the past.
            Through years of ministry, in prayer, in leading, in study, in preparing and delivering messages, I have been exhorted to attain to the status of the beginner’s mind – that emptied place of relative innocence in the heart out of which all new growth might flow. Ministry, like reconciliation, like forgiveness, is the act of consistently re-beginning, having almost forgotten something critical. The life of faith is the daily acquisition of a fresh heart – in St. Paul’s words, becoming “a new creature.”
            Bly tacks that same course. He offers both absolute absolution and fiery sermonics. I read “Waking from Sleep” and I know two things: all is well, and it’s time to get up and do something. He pushes me out the door for my own good. It’s fine ministry by an old soul – renewed, aging again, but still ever renewing.
            Now that I live and serve at last in Kansas, this poem calls me to work in another way: as the consecration of midlife, house-holding, wisdom-building. This too is adventure even if it looks like inertia from the outside. For in every transition is a hallowing and a pulsation of the new, and a letting-go of old winter things.

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