I drove the length of Emporia, Kansas, from the college that my great-grandmother and my grandfather attended, to the river at the other edge. They have 25,000 people.
My current home which has 96,000.
My great-grandma’s hometown is currently at 383.
The perky downtown has ramen, Mexican, a wine bar, a brewery, and a place called Bourbon Cowboy, which I only notice on Sunday, when it is too late to check it out.
Past downtown, I cross the tracks. Emporia has more trains than anywhere I’ve been. I had heard them all night, upstairs in the house built by the founder of Emporia’s bank, Will Wayman, in 1901.
The edge of town is the Cottonwood River and Veterans Memorial Park. Someone has mounted a Huey, and someone has parked a Sherman tank. There is also a huge anchor, painted white so it looks like a twisted elephant bone. Our American wars are memorialized. Emporia was only five years old when the Civil War began.
I walk out on the bridge. The shape is rainbow, but the color is grey. A shirtless guy is fishing off the side. The water is roaring dangerously, making a short but powerful little waterfall. Bobbing sticks and one sad blue beer can bubble around so vigorously I imagine being pushed underwater and ruined.
A couple with decidedly old-fashioned haircuts and sunglasses are looking, too. “It’s really raging, huh?” I say. We chat about rain, about the floodgates of the Missouri River.
This White was a good friend of Teddy Roosevelt’s. TR visited White in Emporia.
I check off another Roosevelt box on my Roosevelt pilgrimage score card.
White is most famous as a newspaperman, and I have a newspaper fetish. I got a copy of the still printing, still showing up Emporia Gazette. It is owned by descendants of White’s.
News: Mr. G’s Express Car Wash to begin washing cars at 6th Avenue and Prairie Street. Mr. G’s dream was to own this “friction” car wash, and this makes me wish I had a dream that seemed that approachable.
“The lot was supposed to be the location of Walgreens.” W.A. White would be happy. He did not like chain stores.
Volunteers needed for Bingo Every Tuesday Night.
There is no Sunday paper, which is an affront to my civic religion. The museums are all closed, too. What does one do on Sundays? When I was wandering Sunday morning, church time, I did have the sensation I was walking among the heathens.
On the campus of Emporia State, I find one building, Plumb Hall, that was there when my great-grandmother was in school there, in 1919. The institution was transitioning from a get these kids taught model to deeper philosophies and ideas of pedagogy.
Tuition was free because everyone was lazy relied on the government for everything.
The bookstore in town is also named after a Plumb, Plumb’s daughter, who was one of the Teacher’s College. In the window of the bookstore, a white cloth mannequin with an alien-length neck wears one of Miss Plumb’s dresses.
Also on campus is the memorial to Fallen Educators. The memorial has a big slab of marble like an open book, and several more, smaller marble pieces that are engraved. Someone has left a wreath of flowers, and someone else has left a bouquet of white roses. I find the names of teachers at Columbine, and names of teachers at Sandy Hook.
In a place so peaceful, cheerful, thriving, it is strange to see.
But that weekend, there are two more mass shootings in America, adding to the casualties of our second Wild West period: people die at a Wal-Mart in El Paso, and at a bar in Dayton, Ohio.
Very soon, students will be back at Emporia State University, and all our other public schools, making history we can’t see from here.
I get coffee at a lived-in little place with a whole wall dedicated to Dirty Kanza, which I later realize is an annual bike ride. Waiting in line, I use my sunglasses to flirt with a kid who is amazed that my eyes can appear and disappear like that. I chat with his parents, who tell me they can drink coffee as late at night as they please. The kid asks for coffee, and they tell me they already give him coffee. He has their genes, so it doesn’t hype him up.
I don’t know whether to be sad or happy for their genetic situation.
We may think of Kansans a hundred years ago as provincial or isolated.
My great-grandmother went to college.
She traveled to San Francisco to visit her daughter, and her husband drank his first glass of wine, as fast as he would drink milk, gulp, gulp, gulp.
She received regular postcards from the son who traveled the world, and then dealt with his divorce and many remarriages.
She saw electricity, indoor plumbing, airplanes, and television come in. Maybe a hundred years ago there was actually more to see.
We go into the American Girl Store at the mall. I am looking after her, as we are in the middle of a medium-sized family crisis, and others need to be at the hospital. I have never been in this store. My parents did not love me enough to buy me an outrageously expensive doll that I would no doubt destroy, as I destroy most things, with affection and intensity.
The American Girl store is indeed a wonderland. Just because the doll is smaller than humans, all the stuff for the doll is incredible, and when it actually works, no one says, “Of course.” They say, “Wow!” As if small things could never work.
When a gaggle of aliens that size arrives on Earth, they will no doubt be disappointed. The microwave really opens, but it does not microwave. There are tiny plants you can pull up, yes, but the plants are not actually edible, as the “Vegetable Garden” sign says. (Well, they could be edible for aliens, what do I know?)
My niece and I marvel at the doll-sized bowling alley, which automatically keeps score and returns your ball. We ogle the Mars capsule, where a doll has test tubes, a clipboard with a blueprint and a list of steps for an experiment, one of those glove-reach-in safety things you can use to handle plutonium, and silver bags labeled “mac and cheese” and “green beans.” It’s the coolest toy I’ve ever seen. But then, would I want to play “alone on Mars” with my doll? There’s only room for one.
Around the corner, there is a room where you and your doll can get your ears pierced. A little girl is in the chair and the mother is trying to soothe. “It only hurts for a second.” Does it? I had my ears pierced 33 years ago. I don’t remember.
“I didn’t cry. She cried,” my niece says, referring to her sister again.
I understand that older sisters best not have emotions.
The room is pink. The gun fires. The little girl cries. But it’s over.
Image: Marble grave stele of a little girl, Greek, ca. 450-440 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
We went to Galaxy’s Edge on Day 4 of public access. Our level of “Star Wars” interest and expertise ranged from loving the first three movies and having seen the others to that plus some knowledge of comic books and books.
Our group got two reservations because there were 8 of us, and only 6 could go at a time. Children can be passed between adults, if you have a larger group. Our kids were not that into it, so they toured only part of the time. Our check in was easy.
CANTINA WARNING: The day we were there, you had to line up to get a RESERVATION for the cantina. We thought the line was to actually get in, so we didn’t even try to line up until two hours into our reservation. We had done a lot of research and read that we should not line up right away. We had several obsessive Disney park readers/podcast listeners, and had chatted with people who had already been there in days prior.
So when we were not able to have a drink at the cantina it was, needless to say, a real bummer.
A cast member did let us go in the cantina for a second to look and take a photo. That was very kind of her.
We had to ride Hyperspace Mountain to feel better. Hyperspace Mountain is incredible, incredible, the best thing that ever happened to you.
SHOPS: I also felt a little better when I bought my souvenir, a little plush Lando with bedroom eyes.
The shops were very cool. There were fun things ranging from $10 to $25,000. Or however much the real Stormtrooper suit and bespoke droid cost. I wasn’t paying close attention, to be honest.
The creatures are cool. The whole place looks real cool.
PLAY APP: The game on your phone was… a lot. It was too much running around and phone time for us. It did seem to do some interactive things, but we didn’t feel like we had time to mess with it much.
You earned credits for stuff, but we didn’t figure out what that meant. I assumed it didn’t mean you could buy anything (haha like Disney would charge you less), but they do refer to money as “credits,” and photo pass people were fun to talk to, as they are in character.
CHARACTERS: Meeting Chewy was my greatest joy. I just love meeting Chewy. He’s a deeply empathetic, spiritual walking carpet.
We also met Rey. Well, she met us. We decided not to line up to meet her, and she approached us. It’s cool how the characters mingle, though it could be frustrating for some not to know you will get your moment with the character, and the photo you want if you wait in line.
Blue milk is tasty. Get some.
The popcorn we found gross to just okay.
The sausage sandwich our testers called “the weirdest thing I’ve ever eaten,” with a “sour aftertaste unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
SMUGGLER’S RUN: Look at the “windshield”even if you’re not the pilot. Keep your job buttons in the corner of your eye. What you do isn’t super critical. We were just okay at our jobs, and we didn’t crash or anything.
If you want to be a pilot, stand to the left of the person passing out your cards. This is right after you are called from the room with the chess set. For both of our rides, the first two people get pilot, then gunners, then engineers.
I enjoyed it, but in many ways, honestly, I like “Star Tours” better, because the original characters are in that ride, and there are no familiar characters in “Smuggler’s Run” (well, a tiny bit of Chewy, but that’s it).
We discussed how the land appealed to deeper “Star Wars” fans, and is probably incredible for them. But it’s true, a lot could have gone over our heads.
Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.
Fear of falling asleep at night.
Fear of not falling asleep.
Fear of the past rising up.
Fear of the present taking flight.
Fear of the telephone that rings in the dead of night.
Fear of electrical storms.
Fear of the cleaning woman who has a spot on her cheek!
Fear of dogs I’ve been told won’t bite.
Fear of anxiety!
Fear of having to identify the body of a dead friend.
Fear of running out of money.
Fear of having too much, though people will not believe this.
Fear of psychological profiles.
Fear of being late and fear of arriving before anyone else.
Fear of my children’s handwriting on envelopes.
Fear they’ll die before I do, and I’ll feel guilty.
Fear of having to live with my mother in her old age, and mine.
Fear of confusion.
Fear this day will end on an unhappy note.
Fear of waking up to find you gone.
Fear of not loving and fear of not loving enough.
Fear that what I love will prove lethal to those I love.
Fear of death.
Fear of living too long.
Fear of death.
I’ve said that.
I’ve previously taught that Carver poem to high school students. I found some lesson plan on catalogue poems, using it as inspiration. It was different reading the poem with middle schoolers. I didn’t know them, or get to know them. It was an hourlong, one-off workshop.
They shared their favorite line. “I live in a bad neighborhood,” one kid said. “So I know about the police car.”
I don’t think I responded to this right.
I wasn’t expecting it. We had a mixed group, of students from more affluent schools, and schools with great struggles. I want to affirm this, to say, “I know, too, being afraid of violence in the neighborhood. Not like you. But I know people getting shot down the block, and sitting in the gym the day after our students, our friends, our kids, were shot, a completely silent gym with three hundred teenagers in it. They have never been silent.
Maybe I said, “Thank you for sharing that.” I didn’t have time to open a whole can of, what our are neighborhoods like? And that wasn’t my job that day. Writing together was the thing. The connecting with people different from you happens on the side. It’s more effective that way. I know as a student in the Richie Rich suburbs of Kansas City, I never worked alongside students from the city. I wonder how I would have reacted.
What I wanted to say was, “I’m sorry that’s normal for you. I wish it wasn’t. You deserve to feel safe.” But I didn’t even know the kid. And it wasn’t about me and my white Richie Rich school guilt, or me looking like a nice person in front of them.
Many students chose the lines about sleeping as their favorite. “I have a hard time sleeping,” several said, in different groups. “I’m afraid to sleep because I have nightmares,” another said.
No one chose the cleaning woman with the spot on her cheek, which is my favorite.
I fear middle school students because their need is so raw. My high schoolers were about half open, half shut. My college students are 95% shut. Middle schoolers are 95% open. I’m so nervous about damaging them.
Fear of not falling asleep. Fear of seeing that the oil cap is missing, and that when I get to the car parts store and buy a new one and put it on, the car will belch white smoke and lurch because I overfilled it with oil in my panic. Fear of ruining the car my dad is loaning me to help me get through grad school. I’ve said that.
I had also written my own catalogue poem. I write my own when I have time. I didn’t even remember writing the thing. Writing for the audience of my students means I keep a distance, I write as a character.
Rejection lurks wherever people want something,
Which is everywhere.
It is in a new school, at all the lunch tables….
Rejection is sometimes so silent that
You don’t realize he’s gotten you
Until you recall, vaguely: how long ago
Did I send that?
We just read mine, and then they wrote their own poems. A student came up to me at the end: “Your poem was really good.”
It’s easy for me to forget that this is any part of writing, that someone just likes it. That a kid could read it and think, that’s right. Other people feel rejected, too. Adults feel rejected.
It’s easy for me to get lost in writing as defending what I think I am (a writer, an artist), achieving some thing that will justify me calling myself a writer (get published again, publishing without publishing a book isn’t good enough), nagging myself to write just as a healthy practice (I’m bored with myself, why bother).
“Thanks,” I said. “That’s nice to hear.”
Image: Cuneiform tablet, fragment of the Weidner God list, circa late 1st millenium, BCE. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In these last few years of (sort of) voluntary reduced means, one spending pleasure that remains is the grocery store. There is no concern at the grocery store for if one should be spending money, one must buy food, mustn’t one? A child of the ’80s, the grocery store is also the only place I feel good about capitalism, with all its choices.
(This comes at the cost of periodic fury when, with all the myriad options, they still don’t stock my New Orleans coffee, or my vanilla yogurt.)
I loaded up the cart and pulled out my debit card.
I had $85 in my checking account.
The clerk had already loaded all $85 of my food into my two reusable bags. One was a bag someone gave me, with wildlife on it, showing someone else had donated to wildlife. The other was my New Yorker tote bag, which every snob needs, to show that one is that type of person.
I said, I work! I swear I work! And I’m a good person! I’ve been working in public education for twenty fucking years and I still owe $30,000 in student loans, I don’t need a house with an ‘updated kitchen’ or a speaker I can talk to because I’m lazier than George Jetson and can’t even push buttons, just let me have some fucking groceries, man, be cool!
Oh, I’m so sorry, ma’am, I didn’t know who you were, the check out guy said. I had no idea. Our educational system is so messed up. Thank you for all your hard work. I respect you so much. Please take your groceries, and this coupon for a free bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon next door, and a free orchid on your way out, and have a nice evening.
It’s no problem, I said. Everyone makes mistakes.
We will not be charging you for groceries in the future. Please come see us again.
The reason our family had money, for the first ten years of my life, was that my dad happened to have been born with skills and interest and been born at a time he could go to college cheap, he met a woman who helped him return to college, and he did work men had traditionally done, work that was well compensated and highly respected by most people (except Shakespeare).
If you can’t get your parents to stop fighting, you will have to start worrying about so many things you never considered: did you bring your gym clothes to Dad’s? Who are you going to ask for money for the field trip everyone else is going on? Whose house will you be at on that day?
When I couldn’t pay for my groceries, I wished I was back in my Brooklyn, where I knew a lot of people were struggling financially, and I did once have my card declined. I went ahead and sorted out what I wanted and didn’t, and I felt okay about it. Shit happens, right? Even to white ladies. In the scruffier part of Brooklyn or Queens, I felt like we all knew good people sometimes came up short because it was hard to make ends meet. Everyone knew the city was a hard place to make it.
I decided that the Lawrence gods had punished me for going to the too-fancy grocery store instead of what everyone knew to be the best local, no-frills grocery store in the world. I took my mom’s money and bought trash bags and cat litter and a few green vegetables. The card went through.
I carried five bags of groceries around the side of the house. They were so heavy. In New York, I never would have bought this many groceries at once. I wouldn’t have been able to haul them home, or get them up and down subway stairs.
So it worked out this time, the cat said.
Well, I brought you some wet food, I said.
Meow, she said. Meow.
I picked her up, and she purred for 30 seconds. Then she wiggled.
I put her back down.
I’m sorry you live under this brutal capitalism regime, she said, as I put half and half in the fridge.
Can I have some wet food?
I’m sorry, too, I said. Here you go.
Image: detail of “Grocery Store Window, Macon, Georgia, February 1935,” Walker Evans. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He was telling me he forgot the name of the town that is just south of Garnett. I wonder if he is a Trump supporter, I thought. “I’m sure I don’t know it, anyway,” I said. “I hardly know anyplace in Kansas, except along the way to Colorado. My great-grandparents’ farm was near Lancaster, though, that’s a pretty small place.”
“I know Lancaster!” he said. “I used to work on some equipment up there.” He worked on aircraft engines, and now he is a volunteer at the train-station-turned-museum.
“I’m already forgetting things, too,” I said, the fortysomething to the eightysomething. As we looked at object after object in the museum, a hand-built miniature, a case for an exhibit, several times he said, “The guy who made this used to volunteer here, but he passed away.”
The Grand Overland Station in Topeka has some displays on the Harvey House that was there, a spunky repainted ceiling, and replicas of the light fixtures, which were melted down to help with, as they say, “the war effort.” (Not “fighting the war,” or “making tanks or bullets,” but the effort.)
I was in Topeka for a meeting, already conducted, and had time to see something. A tiger just attacked a zookeeper at the zoo, and I’ve already seen the Brown versus Board of Education museum, so I ended up at the train station.
“The kids love this,” he told me, as we looked at a child-sized train car playhouse. “We can hardly get them away from here.”
How had we survived this, how were we surviving this, the president claiming there had been a “coup,” when referring to an investigation by a Republican prosecutor, which had led to several convictions by federal courts.
“You want to take the stairs, or the elevator?” the man asked me.
I had just injured my knee, but I was feeling better, so I said, “The stairs are fine.”
“I don’t want to wear you out,” he said. We walked slowly up the steps.
He told me about where they had taken out train tracks, where tracks weren’t, anymore. I said I missed taking the train on the east coast. He said he was from Vermont, originally. I said my stepmom’s dad worked on mail cars. He showed me the contraptions that let men on trains hold out paper messages to be grabbed by someone at the station (or vice-versa).
I wondered if he thought any change was good. He explained how he met his wife, and said they had been married 56 years.
He showed me a giant bell. “We put something inside it so they kids can’t ring it. It was so loud you could hear it through the whole building!” He showed me a steam whistle, with a flowery pattern around the bottom edge. “Think you can lift that thing?”
“Oh, no,” I said.
He got out a remote control and pointed it at a miniature train. “They’ve got just about everything you’d have in a real town,” he said. “A blacksmith shop, I mean, of course you wouldn’t have one in a town now, but in the town I grew up in, there was one at each end, so your horse wouldn’t have to go so far.” A farm, a carnival, a church with a wedding, a parade, a fire house. “And every animal!”
“And Mickey Mouse,” I said.
“And see Hong Kong over there? I mean, King Kong?”
“I’m sorry the flags aren’t up right now,” he said.
It was a windy day. When I had gotten out of the car, dozens of bare silver flag poles were having their ropes whipped in the wind.
“The wind has been so bad this year, they took them all down for repairs. We have 50 American flags and 50 state flags. And they are expensive. But we got volunteers to repair them. When the volunteers are done, they’ll be better than they were to begin with.”
“It sounds like you have great volunteers,” I said.
“Well, all of them except me,” he said, and we chuckled.
This is the first Maundy Thursday in maybe 800 years without mass. Notre Dame is empty but for the ashes of her considerable hat, and the waterlog of the saving spray. There must be people who always have the triduum at Notre Dame, and this time, for the first year, they will hear the Passover story, the Last Supper story, somewhere else. They will get eucharist from different silver or gold. They will watch a different altar stripped. Or they will stay home.
The last two years have been one long Lent to me. I didn’t need any additional practice. I went back to church on Ash Wednesday, after a hiatus, and feeling good about returning was enough. It wasn’t God’s fault that the president lied so much. That the holiness of accepting the stranger was ignored. Well, it is, but I guess I set it aside. The only way I can make sense of it is to say that on a terrible reality television show I watched, a couple talked about being completely disconnected, though still married, and hoping someday they would feel married again. It was like that.
This year I went to new, small town church, two blocks away. Maybe because of Notre Dame, I noticed the floor was linoleum. I noticed I wasn’t at Kansas City’s cathedral– no Notre Dame, but with haunting icons up front, of Christ, Peter, John. I wasn’t at the magnificent downtown church I went to in Manhattan, with her enormous ceilings, stained glass Jesus and saints. I wasn’t at the little church I went to in Brooklyn, which was painted like I’ve only seen French churches painted. Every other church I’ve frequented, I chose partly because I found it inspiringly beautiful. Not so much this church. It’s just all right.
I wasn’t sure if they would foot wash. It’s the outer limits of what Episcopalians can accommodate, so much touching. But they did. I lined up. A young man in front of me quietly asked if I wanted to go first. I said I was fine either way. I said I was experienced. That’s good, he said, because this is my first time.
So he sat first, and I poured the water and touched his feet.
The process of doing this, and having it done, a little water, hands, and a towel pat dry, made me present. When I got back to my pew, I knew I had hands, and they were touching the wooden rail in front of me, and my fingers were touching each other, and the kneeler was padded, and I was breathing.
I’ve been waiting for this big day, The Mueller Report. I listened to a lot of commentary on the radio, read my usual news online, refreshing the home pages hoping for more. I feel numb. It’s gone on so long, the insults to care and compassion. A president who name-calls and lashes out with hate. The insults to the concept of democratic dialogue, acknowledging the other side, and staying committed to truth. Even if spun, or winked at, still: truth.
There are more ancient things than democracies. Notre Dame knows that. I remember seeing the lines at La Chapelle, nearby: below here, the revolutionaries stored grain, and above here, the walls were left with their paint. Notre Dame was beat up at that same time. I don’t blame them. I would have wanted to beat up The Church. Sometimes I still do.
She is ancient, letting wounds bruise, letting the swelling set in. Her people let her rest until she’s ready to be cleaned, and dried, and dressed again.
Image: detail of Rose Window, Notre Dame.