3 May Poems

Riding the Yellow Whale

Riding the yellow whale
through green alfalfa fields
– a roar from the back,
a glare from the front.

They are young and that is good –
inquisitive, defiant
funny, dumb
self-conscious and oblivious.

Past the basalt, past the hay, past
the iron horses all graffitied and
over the wide Columbia, with white ladies
twirling on the bluffs.

Climbing the Cascades now, the black snake straightening
in the rear view mirror, and twisting, winding ahead.
It’s quiet now. Charades give way
to Mocking Jay and Anne Frank.

 

My Muir Hill

I named the place Muir Hill.
It belongs to the neighborhood, but really
only I and my dog and my daughter go.

We like it that way.

In suburbia, five acres of wild woods
—with deer and coyote and skunk and turkey—
are enough. Enough to hear the birds over
the traffic, nothing more than bulky basalt rocks to clamber and
Ponderosas reaching, (except those that fell victim to the November storm)
only sky overhead, only moss and pine needles below.

I think about the two stately trunks from which I hang my hammock —
I named them Sybil and Ferrell — a young widow and a farmer’s wife.
Both are my grandmothers, but those thoughts
are interrupted by the crows who are fighting —
screaming, it seems — maybe
over the tastiest bugs or the perfect branch.
All I know is they are louder today than ever — right across the street
from the old man who calls his wife Tiger and who
scolds the kids and who once pulled a gun
on a teen who rang his doorbell and ran.

I had words with him, but now
the crows are taking their turn.

I lie on a rock and watch the clouds drift slowly by. I hear
my dog – crunch crunching on the remains of a carcass, and later
when I rise to see her whereabouts, she is silently resting
in a field of wild purple lupines.
I lie back down and the next time I see my dog, she is standing
overhead, fleshy breath and glistening slobber hanging precariously.

The mountains are calling and I must go, Muir said.
I cannot flee to Yosemite today and hide for weeks in the granite crevasses
or wander through meadows and over streams.
But I do have Muir Hill and the sweet wild reprieve
from concrete and from deadlines
and from Tigers.

 

Rumi on the Rocks

Atop a rock in beloved Montana
watching the river rush by below
reading Rumi high above the falls on a ledge
covered by bluebells and goose poop.

He writes of running at boogeymen and narcissus and kisses
Says there are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Ah … Away from the roar of the man-made falls and the hum
of turbines turning water into electricity
for our phones and TVs and laptops.
I find respite in away in the woods, hearing instead
only a whisper of water, bathed in the shadows of trees.

Green, green, all around me green, for now
that’s all I need.

Wash yourself of yourself, says Rumi.

And so I sit.
Hello to the old man and hello to his Spaniel.
Hello little birds whose name I do not know.

Tall grasses toss their heads and branches softly sway
but the rocks, they do not bend, or twist, or soften in the rain.
They gather moss and lichen and wildflowers – sometimes even
give root to trees, and a stool
for a solitary derrière whose person tries to rid herself
of herself.

Kate Vanskike (C) 2016

Meeting Grampa in the Middle of Nowhere: a Montana Mystery

Many roads in Big Sky Country have become familiar to me over years of quick weekend getaways, but my favorites are the less traveled paths I take spontaneously without knowing where they will lead.  Oftentimes, a map doesn’t include these roads and there are no signs: this is the best way to explore Montana.

Part of the thrill is wondering whether my adventure may include running out of gas before finding civilization, and contemplating what that experience might be like with a toddler in the car. I was driving my old Explorer on one such excursion back in 2009, a vehicle that could plow through about anything but would guzzle fuel while doing so.  My daughter and I were on a winding dirt road through miles of ranchland when I began to wonder whether I might reach a dead end and have to retrace my path on fumes and prayer. Where I saw Grampa

As I topped the hill at this gorgeous point overlooking the Flathead River, I saw a man on a horse, walking another horse.  I stopped the car and waited for him to approach.

“Hey there,” I said.  “Can you tell me if this road will eventually take me out to a highway, or I do need to head back where I came from?”

He got off the horse and looked at my map, showed me where I was in the midst of blank spaces on the page, and told me where I would eventually come out.  Then, looking into the back window where he saw my daughter, he said slowly, “What are you doing way out here?”

“I just want to see Montana from the backroads,” I replied.

“Me too,” he said.  He was a trucker from Lewiston, Idaho, got laid off, and decided to buy two horses and pack them for a journey through the countryside up to Glacier. All the while we were chatting, one of the horses stuck its long nose through my window for a sniff inside the car and some friendly strokes on the nose.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“Rusty.”

Figures.  My grandpa had a pony named Rusty.  Grampa and Gramma loved Montana, having started a family there before moving to the Midwest to farm. Years later, Gramma would tell me Montana still called to her.  It called to my aunts, too, who moved from Missouri back to the Wild West where they’d stay for the rest of their lives.  It had my number as well, beckoned me back with regularity; it anchored me, it connected with me, it always left me feeling at ease.

I was thinking about all of this when the traveler’s eyes met mine, and for an instant, he was Grampa, back in the flesh. 

He shook me out of my reverie saying I’d be on the highway before too long, and to enjoy the views along the way.  He winked at my daughter and called to Rusty to move along.

I stared ahead, a bit dazed, as if in the desert confusing reality with mirages.  Then I grabbed my camera and stepped out of the car to capture the image of the man with his horses walking on down the dusty road.

There was no one there, and the only picture I took was of the silky green river winding its way to the mountains.

Grace for the Sparrow

2 Girls & a birdIt was like a Windex commercial, except without the laughing crows.  The small sparrow on its morning trek was blissfully unaware that the scene ahead was framed by brick and encased in glass.   The legal assistant inside the office building turned in her swivel chair when she heard the thud, just in time to see the frail bird fall to the ground.

She had dozens of phone messages to return, and a pile of papers stacking up at the fax machine, all of which would result in hours of paperwork to prepare for her anxious attorney.  But for Shirley, the last moments of that bird’s life were more important.

Dressed to the nines and sporting her new five-inch red stilettos, Shirley dashed outdoors and knelt down next to the window.  The bird was gasping for air, and seemingly crying out for comfort.

Shirley scooped it up in her hands and wept over it.  “No one should die alone,” she whispered, “I’m here for you.”

Hers was a heart that was wrenched daily by clients suing neighbors, doctors, family members; criminals avoiding due punishment for heinous acts; couples ending marriage in nasty court battles.  She read and filed and recorded countless stories of child abuse and saw failed cases where justice was not found.  A thankless job like this would harden the softest soul.  But for Shirley, it made her that much more tender and resilient and compassionate.

The bird witnessed this truth.  As did many a scorned teenager.  And plaintiffs wrongly accused.  Even her ex-husband.

As the bird closed its eyes and took its last breath in the comfort of Shirley’s hands, she was transported back in time to her youth, when she and her sister would feed the squirrels and birds, rabbits and geese that wandered freely through their Pennsylvania property.  Inevitably, the two girls could charm a feathered or furry guest to come and be stroked or even held.  In those moments, nothing else in the world mattered.  At those times, being so deeply trusted by another was as fulfilling as life could be.

Shirley dug a small hole in the ground by the window, clumps of earth collecting beneath her manicured nails.  She laid the bird in his final resting place, wiped the dirt from her hands and the tears from her cheeks and returned to court documents awaiting her attention.

If justice couldn’t be guaranteed for each client who came through her office, at least there was grace for the sparrow in its time of need.

*Editor’s Note: This photo was among hundreds in a box at an antiques store in Philadelphia’s historic district.  It was begging for a story, so I bought it, for $1 and gave it “Grace for the Sparrow.”  I have no idea who these girls really are—and if some soul out there recognizes them as part of a lost family history, then please reach out. While their identity is unknown, “Shirley,” is indeed based on the life of a real woman, a real legal assistant with a real heart for those who suffer. — kv

Finding Ghosts and Beauty

Moon PassI have unfairly judged North Idaho.  Terms like “backwoods” and “redneck” most often come to mind, based on experiences during my five-year residency there—the same timeframe as my five-year marriage to a true North Idahoan.  I’ve written off the panhandle of the Gem State as a home for bigots and racists, with a smattering of California transplants who’ve successfully transformed some beautiful landscapes into well-known tourist spots.

While my sentiments still feel (somewhat) legitimate, I must recognize there are many well educated, thoughtful, open-minded souls residing there, and beyond those fine individuals, North Idaho mustn’t be written off.

For one thing, I love good, unadulterated wilderness, and there remains plenty of it in the state’s panhandle.  North Idaho has a collection of pristine lakes and rivers, and ranges of mountains and forests left to themselves, seemingly empty of capitalist commercial juggernauts ruining them for the sake of a buck.  No, here—where locals drive big trucks with fishing rods, rifles and dogs—the land is pure as it can be.

IMG_6417Take, for example, the St. Joe Scenic Byway and rugged Moon Pass through St. Joe National Forest.   Every twist and turn in the road delivers a new treat to behold—from marshes to road-side creeks to mountain-flanked riverbeds.  Moon Pass follows part of the old Milwaukee Line—which would be an adventure unto itself, even without the surrounding mountain views, thanks to its tunnels and single-lane trestles high above the valley floor.  Moss-covered rock walls tell where water rushes over in the spring and trickles down in summer.  There are picture-perfect picnic spots high above the river, where the only sound comes from the water itself and the air is so crisp and clean, you want to bottle it up to take home.

And then …

Then there are the ghosts.  The cedar ghosts.  Hollowed out shells of trees left standing since the big burn of 1910 when fire roared through the forest and the lives of countless acres of giants and dozens of human lives, too.  They were 300-500  years old when the fire scorched their trunks and snapped off their tops.  And here they stand – gray and cold and unmoving, but not dead.

Cedar Ghosts

Oh, not dead.  For something in them spoke to me.  They want to recognized, loved. They have stories to tell and I must listen.  Stories of a land called North Idaho that calls to be loved rather than labeled.

August 2013

Funeral for a Chipmunk

March 2012 (Reprinted by popular demand!)

Today, the girls found a dead little chipmunk in the road. When Abbey and Emily brought it home and were inspecting it in the yard, I suggested that they put it in a box and give it a little respect, in hopes that this would discourage them from a natural instinct to touch it. I gave them a shoe box and thought they could take it from there … which they did … to extremes I had not imagined.

Emily wrote on one side of the box: “The Chipmunk who was special on Stonington Lane and who died of a crazy driver.”

Preparing the funeral site
Preparing the funeral site

Abbey wrote on another side: “Saved by Abbey & Emily and honored in this box on 3-18-12.”

A good while later, they asked me to join them outside for a ceremony. The box was in the center of a hula hoop, Abbey was sprinkling rocks around it and Emily was parading around the hoop with a garden sign that says “Peace.” They had my rocking chair in the yard and had moved a table to the edge of the porch to be a pulpit. Abbey and I sat while Emily opened the ceremony in prayer for the Chipmunk they had named Fat Cheeks. For a scripture reading, she went to Isaiah where she read the prophecy of the birth of Jesus. She then launched into quite a sermon about how the Bible says we should care for animals. “In Genesis,” she said, and opened her Bible to Genesis where she ended up reading about Joseph and his brothers. When she snapped the Bible closed, she said, “Well, I don’t really know that that had anything to do with this chipmunk or about caring for animals. …. But … I hope that it made your heart tick anyway.” (What?!!)

Emily eulogizes Fat Cheeks the Chipmunk
Emily eulogizes Fat Cheeks the Chipmunk

Then it was Abbey’s turn and she wanted to pick up where Emily had left off (sort of) and began reading about how Joseph when into Potiphar’s home and how Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him. I’m thinking to myself, “Okay Abbey, you can stop here…” knowing that we’re embarking on a soap-opera-esque story about a married woman luring a young man.  Abbey reads that Potiphar’s wife says, “Come to bed with me…” and I am just dying (what does this have to do with poor little Fat Cheeks the chipmunk, and what are these young girls thinking of this tale?).  I start to say something but Abbey keeps going and comes to the point where the wife screams and tells guards that Joseph came to sleep with her. Finally, Abbey stops after it says “Joseph left his cloak and ran out of the house.”

“Well …” says Abbey, “I don’t think that’s what we’re supposed to do — just run out on someone when they have asked for help.”

(How I managed not to burst into laughter at this point is still a mystery.)

Emily’s ready to take over again and asks us to stand and sing a song. “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” is her selection, and I add a verse about how “He’s got the Fat Cheeks Chipmunk in his hands” and am really amazed I am still standing and not rolling on the ground laughing. The song is over and I sigh and think we’re done, but Reverend Emily gets back up to the pulpit and really starts sermonizing away. She’s going on and on and on, and even Macy, our dog, starts yawning loudly as if to tell Emily enough is enough.

We went through two more rounds of eulogizing and sermonizing before they invited me to share and I said I was sorry the poor baby didn’t live longer but was glad he (or she, Abbey corrected me) was okay now. Then I left them to finish the job of placing the box somewhere in the bushes by the porch.

I must say it was the most entertaining funeral I have ever attended. Quite possibly the longest, too.