Second-to-last

April 23rd, 2014 at 6:52 pm

Just to let you know, my friends, yesterday’s Flyover People piece was my second-to-last column. Next week’s column will be my Farewell piece.

I’ve written it for 11+ years, and it’s time for me to move on to other writing possibilities, without the pull of a weekly deadline. Deadlines are a mixed blessing, sometimes they help, sometimes they inhibit. I have so many ideas of where I want to take my writing, so you can expect more books in the future.

AND, in a month or so, I’ll be releasing my second book of Kansas columns/essays: WAITING ON THE SKY.

Lots of changes going on. Thanks SO MUCH for all of your support over the years, it has meant the world to me!  xoxo

And more good times are still ahead. Hang with me on these new ventures!

I’ll still be posting here regularly, so keep checking back. :-)

writing

CH-CH-CHANGES

April 22nd, 2014 at 7:25 am

 

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Bread album sm

CH-CH-CHANGES

By the time you read this, I will have mowed the lawn for the first time this year. Redbuds, crabapples and Bradford pears turn Emporia into an April wonderland, trees flowering all at once.

Spring, the most elusive season of all, has finally decided to settle in. Maybe. It snowed last week, followed by a hard frost. Mercury runs up and down the thermometer like a young pianist playing scales.

In this polarized country people don’t agree on much anymore, but I do imagine that most folks enjoy spring. Or maybe we’re all just ready for something new. Kansans tend to greet seasons with gusto. We celebrate the first snow, first daffodils, first day at the lake, the first football game. We put on a new season, wear it around for a few months, and then we’re ready to trade it in for a change of temperature, a change of scenery.

I’m scheduled for another birthday this month, so naturally I’ve been thinking about time and about change. My memory replays all the persons that I have been: a child, a teenager, a college student. I think about the stupid things I’ve done and smart things I’ve done.  We live so many lifetimes in just one body.

And yet time slips away. The calendar spins dizzily, and our horoscopes always promise change. But often, we like to keep things the way they are, or how they were once upon a time. We try to reclaim our youth or a particular way of life. However, society shifts, new laws are written, accidents happen, we get sick, we get well, people leave, we change jobs, we move. The world is continually in motion, taking on and letting go.

One thing that continually shifts is music. Each generation brings its own beat, a reflection of the times.

There’s something powerful for us in the music of our coming-of-age years. My teen years were in the ‘70s, and luckily, that was a time for great music: The Eagles, Foreigner, Kansas, Journey, Bread, Aerosmith, Electric Light Orchestra, America, Fleetwood Mac.

While shopping at Reebles North, I often hear ‘70s music over their sound system which makes me very happy. A few weeks ago in the produce aisle, I was trying to “name that Chicago song.” After a quick check of the lyrics on the Internet, I learned it was “Call on Me.”

When I was a teenager my mom wasn’t necessarily pleased about my musical choices. If she listened to music at all, she preferred the slower stuff like Burl Ives, Bobby Vinton, or Andy Williams. She said she liked the type of music in which she could decipher the lyrics. To Mom, who was of the poodle skirt era, my music was just “noise.”

And so on the eight-hour trips that we occasionally took to Arkansas, Mom didn’t care to listen to the radio. This was in the early ‘70s, before the Walkman and the Ipod of course, but I did what I could to get by. Before one trip, I played my albums on my cheapo record player, recording the music onto a cassette tape. Genius, right? So then for the trip, I took the tape recorder, earphones, an extra set of batteries, and I got to listen to my crazy music all the way to Arkansas.

On that trip, on an Oklahoma highway somewhere west of Tulsa, I made a vow to myself, that when I became an adult I would always keep up with the music of the times. I would be a cool grown-up, and change as the music changed.

I did not see rap music coming.

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have kids because when rap music barged onto the ‘90s scene, I totally understood my mom’s definition of “noise.” I had become an adult.

Rap music aside, I do like most of what I hear on the radio these days.

Music is always going to change. Just like life. We’re able to still listen to ‘70s rock if we choose, but the world has moved on. Sometimes the radio plays music, sometimes it plays noise. But one thing is for certain: everything changes.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

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columns, life on the ground, nostalgia, seasons

April 16

April 16th, 2014 at 11:10 am

April 16

Oh wind, you’re such a narcissist -
on and on and on you blast,
a tiresome soliloquy of run-on sentences,
reckless words that set
the prairie afire.
Leave this scarred and wind-scraped land,
take your empty chatter
on up to Nebraska, you’re headed
that way anyway.
Slam the door if you must,
just go.

Flyover Weather, Poetry & Haiku

Our Midwestern Home

April 15th, 2014 at 11:50 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

sunset Dodge _smSunset, rural Dodge City

OUR MIDWESTERN HOME

When a national weather map shows up on TV, where do we look? At the center of the screen, of course. Map-wise, Kansas is the star of the show, sitting in the heart of the country.

There are pros and cons to every state, but land-wise and location-wise, this a pretty good place to be. In the middle of the country, we have a healthy mix of the four seasons, but we don’t get Texas heat, nor Minnesota cold.

Sure, we’re landlocked, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We can get in our cars and drive well over a thousand miles east or west, or 700 miles north or south.

Last May, I took a trip with my mom to Savannah, Ga. To get there, it took more than 24 hours in the car from Emporia. After three long days of molding bodies to fit car seats, we got our reward – walking barefoot into the Atlantic Ocean at Tybee Island Beach.

Nothing could have drained away the stress of three days on the road as well as feeling the May sunshine on our shoulders, warm waves washing our shins, the tide pulling sand out from under our feet. Every problem in the world disappeared. This was surely heaven.

Tybee Island_smOcean play, Tybee Island, Ga.

A huge container ship, off in the distance, moved slowly toward the horizon. In looking across the ocean, I could actually see the earth bend away from us, and I wondered how the water stays on the planet.

Years ago, on another visit to Georgia, my stepfather took us out onto the ocean in his 22-foot sailboat. We were far enough from shore to watch shrimp boats drop their winged nets to the side and then draw them back in. Seagulls swarmed the boats, diving for food. It was all very picturesque.

So, I understand part of the attraction of the ocean. Well, mostly the beach part. My lack of total enthusiasm for the sea is that once you’re out there, there’s nothing to see through your sunburned eyes except water and sky. I can only assume it’s the same view in every direction, all the way to Portugal.

Blame it on my roots: I’m a Kansan. I like dirt, earth, solid ground. I like walking, hiking. I like cars and driving. I like long straight roads. I like the plains and the prairie.

Now, it’s been a long time ago, but Dave and I once visited New York City. I loved the energy there, I really did. I hope to return someday.

There’s nothing like the thrill of walking into the New York Public Library and seeing those long wooden tables with the green lamps that have been shown in dozens of movies and TV shows. Dave and I walked through Grand Central Station and the beautiful Central Park. We took a carriage ride, a subway ride, and a scary cab ride.

In the Big Apple, I walked with my head leaned back. I don’t really understand skyscrapers, because that’s not how we build things in Kansas.

We walked in shadows of buildings, never seeing the horizon, barely seeing the sky. In New York City, it seemed as if there would be no place to be alone, not truly alone. You would always be within earshot of people or of the city’s noise. I worry about residents who probably never even leave the city.

And that’s why I love Kansas. Within ten minutes of home, we can be out roaming the countryside. In the Flint Hills, we step onto the land and feel the heartbeat of the planet, or maybe that’s just the wind beating in our ears. But we do feel the pulse of the earth as it moves through our feet and into our souls.

Like being exposed to the elements on the ocean, we, too, are vulnerable on the open prairie. Out there, thunder rolls like stampeding cattle. Lighting, hail, or a tornado could take us out without a second thought. But most of the time in the Flint Hills, we feel so protected, so comforted by that buffer of space between us and the crazy world.

We are lucky to live in this state that has plenty of breathing room, plenty of wide open spaces.

This place, this place, this place. Home.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

cottonwood_smCottonwood tree, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City

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columns, Kansans, landscape, life on the ground, nature, sky

A Flint Hills Meander

April 8th, 2014 at 10:00 am

 

Flint Hills tree

A FLINT HILLS MEANDER

A March day without wind?

Yes. It actually happened. The last Saturday of March was sunny and the breezes were shallow. One shouldn’t stay indoors on a nice day like that, so Dave and I ventured into the Flint Hills.

The lack of wind made it an active day for pasture fires, and therefore it seemed somewhat appropriate to take a lunch trip to Burns. Burns has about 230 residents and is on the Marion side of the Marion-Butler county line.

From Emporia, Dave and I headed east on U.S. Highway 50. The old, tan grass along the way was matted like buffalo hide. It takes awhile for the thick grass to turn green. Unless fire is applied. And then, oh, the grass turns ever so quickly.

We left Highway 50 at the Cedar Point turnoff in Chase County and stopped for the obligatory photo of the Drinkwater-Shriver mill. The cracks in the five-story stone building seem to be getting larger, and each time I photograph the mill, I assume it will be the last time.

Dave and I stand on the bridge over the Cottonwood River and four or five cars pass by and each driver waves. Cedar Point residents are used to tourists.

Southbound on dirt roads from Cedar Point, we meander, and there comes a place where we’re not quite sure where we are. The GPS wants to send us to the turnpike entrance at Cassoday, which won’t help at all. We check the Gazetteer map but road names on the map don’t match actual road signs.

However, the countryside, mostly still wearing its winter colors, is beautiful, and the radio plays everything from Pink’s “Please Don’t Leave Me,” to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” There is dust on our dashboard and white-faced calves catching our gaze through barbed-wire fences. Other than a 2:00 p.m. café closing time, there’s no hurry to get to Burns. This is just another day in paradise.

The Burns Café and Bakery is a great community restaurant. Good meals – and there was pie. We were too late for lemon, but I got in on the coconut cream and Dave chose apple.

It had been seven or eight years, I suppose, since we’d been to Burns. They still celebrate roosters as a town symbol. A concrete rooster sits atop rocks at the town’s welcome sign. As I was photographing that rooster, I heard a live one crowing in town.

Along U.S. Highway 77 at Burns is a magnificent elevator with a corrugated tin facade. It’s rusting a bit, but the building has a unique shape and stands straight and proud. This elevator was shown in the 1996 science-fiction comedy film, “Mars Attacks.”

After leaving Burns, we saw a road sign for Potwin. Having never been there, Dave said, “Let’s go.”

Potwin, population 450, is in Butler County. Here, we had our first henbit sighting of the year. Henbit is a low-lying purple weed that blooms in April. One thing that struck us about this town was how many people were outdoors. Sure, it was a glorious Saturday afternoon, but we noticed that so many of the houses had picnic tables in their side yards. There was a gathering on every block. It was the most social small town I’ve seen in a long time.

On the way back to Emporia, we followed Kansas Highway 177 to Cassoday, then drove east from Cassoday toward Teter Rock. Near Teter Rock, we headed north on a low-maintenance road.

We got out of the car on a hilltop. To the west, an oil well pumped a fast heartbeat. I noticed the cattle trails worn into a nearby hill, a dozen paths, like tributaries, that came together into one stream, one path.

Fires burned off in the distance. Free-range smoke drifted, seemingly not attached to any particular fire. The air was hazy and gray-brown. The greening of the Flint Hills had begun.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

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columns, Flint Hills, landscape, nature, seasons, traveling

The Viewfinder

April 1st, 2014 at 10:01 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Donna 8th gradeOne of many blurry photos I took in junior high. After track practice in 8th grade, Donna Smith Boese and other friends came over to my house.

 

 

THE VIEWFINDER

Do you know what I miss? I miss having a viewfinder.

I have to admit, taking photographs is easier with my phone than using a real camera. I don’t have to close one eye and peer through that tiny viewfinder. And I hardly even have to aim. Point, and shoot. And later, using a handy phone app, I can crop the photo to meet my needs.

Things were much different back in the olden days when I used an actual camera, one with film.

My interest in photography began when my brother took up the hobby. As Leon’s little sister and biggest fan, I wanted to do whatever he did.

One September evening in 1972, during my eighth grade year, I took our family’s Brownie camera to the junior high football game. I shot some blurry far-off photos of the game, but mostly I took blurry pictures of my friends acting like their 13-year-old selves.

A few years later when my brother upgraded, I inherited his single-lens reflex camera. Leon taught me how to roll my own 35 mm black-and-white film, develop it, and how to print photographs in his darkroom.

After Leon left for college, I took his place on football sidelines and under the basketball hoop, that heavy camera hanging around my neck. And like my brother once had, I stayed up until 2 a.m. Saturday mornings printing Friday night sports photos. I mailed them to Larned before noon on Saturday and they were published in Monday afternoon’s Tiller & Toiler newspaper.

During my high school years, my mom and I occasionally took rides in the country. This tradition began when she taught me how to drive at age 13, but the Saturday afternoon trips continued until I graduated. We drove around Barton, Rush, Pawnee and Edwards Counties.

I started taking my camera along on these car trips with Mom. Although I had been on many country rides in my life, it was on these Saturday drives, with stops to look through a viewfinder, that I began to see Kansas as beautiful, Kansas as art.

Near Hoisington, at a tiny ghost town named Boyd, I photographed what was left of an old gas station with its glass-topped vertical pumps.

In Rush County, Post Rock country, I photographed limestone fence posts with barbed wire wrapped around or running through the posts. And out in the sand hills of Edwards County, I photographed a weathered barn and sunflowers.

Everything was in black-and-white, but I learned I could use a polarizing filter and pull some incredible clouds out of the sky.

I had that camera against my face for pretty much my last three years in high school. And an odd thing began to happen. Even when I wasn’t holding a camera, my mind would create its own viewfinder. I’d scan the horizon and my eyes, trained to the rectangular frame, naturally searched for the shot I would take if I had my camera.

You’d think that a tiny rectangle would be very limiting, after all, there’s this whole big world around you, but you can include only one small portion of it in your photo.

As in life, however, sometimes limitation can be your best friend. If you have or do too much, life becomes full of distraction and clutter, and lacking an obvious focal point.

With a photo, you’re allowed one rectangle of space at a time – but you can put whatever you choose into that frame.

It’s all well and good to see the big picture, but sometimes it helps to narrow one’s focus, pay attention to the light, and take the best shot we can.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

 

life on the ground, nostalgia

Good Stewards

March 25th, 2014 at 9:48 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

Mennonite 1s

Pawnee Rock Bergthal Mennonite Church, May 2013.

GOOD STEWARDS

Last week, while sorting though a box of my late father’s photographs, I found several pictures of our family church. Had my dad been alive this past year, he would have been deeply saddened by the news of the church’s closing and demolition.

The Pawnee Rock Bergthal Mennonite Church was a red brick country church, located on a paved road about 3 miles north of town. When I was young, the stained-glass windows were raised on summer Sundays, and so the congregation heard the occasional whoosh of a passing car, or, more often, the bright chirp of a western meadowlark.

In late December, my stepmother and I drove to the church to check on the progress of the building’s removal. Headed west from Great Bend on Tenth Street, Betty and I passed mile road after mile road, plowed field, stubble field and pasture. When we reached the paved road, the church road, we drove south three more miles.

Last year, on Memorial Day Sunday, Betty, Dave and I attended the church’s farewell service. The building was in disrepair and the congregation had grown too small in number to have the financial resources to maintain it. Church members chose to have the building torn down rather than let it turn ugly with decay and vandalism.

I had no idea what the demolition schedule was, but on that December Saturday, I guess I had expected to see the church perhaps half gone, with a bulldozer or a wrecking ball standing nearby.

Instead, when Betty and I approached the hilltop intersection, we saw nothing. Nothing. The church was completely gone. In its place was a flat patch of soft dirt. The sandy parking lot had been covered with buffalo grass for decades, so that hadn’t changed much, but the outbuilding, the power pole, and the propane tank had all been removed.

I felt an emptiness in my chest because there was nothing left to show that the church had ever existed at all. The property had been returned to a natural setting.

The empty feeling faded when I began to realize that this was exactly what I would have expected from the church members. They have always been good stewards of the earth.

As farmers, Mennonites respected the land. And they took care of their personal belongings. My dad never left dirt on a shovel. Tools were cleaned and put away. Like many survivors of the Great Depression, my frugal grandmother washed and reused aluminum foil. She saved rubber bands and buttons and fabric scraps. She cut cereal boxes into squares and triangles and used them as patterns for her quilt blocks.

The Mennonites seemed mindful of the work before them. When the older women gathered on Wednesdays to quilt in the church basement, every hand stitch was sewn with attention and care.

In October 2013, an auction was held at the church. Those who felt a connection to the place were given the chance take home a physical reminder: wood flooring, light fixtures, pews, and stained-glass windows.

A newspaper article by Veronica Coons in the Great Bend Tribune told about the auction. Coons interviewed the church treasurer, Jolene Hetzke, who said that tables, chairs and hymnals had been sent to a church in Texas. Hetzke mentioned that a few of the bricks would be used to build a memorial at the Mennonite Cemetery a mile away, and that the highway department at Larned would use the remaining bricks as road base.

So yes, the building materials and its fixtures were recycled, given new assignments on this planet.

The building was not left to decay. And the spot of earth where the church once stood can be used again. I felt a satisfying sense of wholeness and of completion. In an act of reverence, the Mennonites gave the land back to itself.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

Mennnonite 2s

 

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churches, nostalgia, small towns

Late Winter Road Trip

March 18th, 2014 at 10:00 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

taj palace_sm

LATE WINTER ROAD TRIP

Just after Dave and I got on I-35 at Merchant Street, I glanced to my right to the ESU parking lot near the highway. What had once been huge mountains of snow were now molehills of black encrusted ice.

Snow may be pretty when it falls, but by the time it gets around to leaving it’s a sad and sorry mess.

This has been a long winter. Dave and I spent too many days cooped up in the house; it was time for a road trip. Because the day was cloudy, cool and breezy, we decided to do something indoors and we headed for Kansas City to visit museums.

Just outside of Emporia, at the private ski lake south of the interstate, we were excited to spot a bald eagle in a tree. In a field farther east, cattle gathered at a farm pond. And next to mud-banked streams, bleached limbs of sycamores shouted out from the sullen crowd of generic gray branches.

Trails of thin white lines striped the highway where salt had been applied, more of winter’s residue.  Evergreens along the way were not green at all, just a hopeless shade of brown. And like they have been for months, pastures and ditches remain the color of shredded wheat.

“I don’t see any color showing up yet,” Dave said. “The only green is on the highway signs.”

Winter has been like a low-grade infection that lingers. Usually January and February provide a respite from the cold, a week of 60 or 70-degree days. This year we missed that usual winter thaw.

It was, instead, a winter of unforgiving cold. The polar vortex drove icy air through jeans and heavy coats. We spent too many days under quilted gray clouds.

As a season, spring doesn’t have great leadership skills. It kowtows to winter, and then later to summer. Seriously, have you ever known spring to go on and on?

Sometimes in February when warm weather does show up, you think, “Ah, spring. Finally.” You get one 65-degree day and step into the warm sun and it feels like you’re sailing in a bubble of laughter. The next day the temperature plummets. Like a con artist, the false spring is gone.

The hum of the highway is a pleasant sound. I’ve missed seeing the open road and the open prairie. We pass through the outskirts of towns – Lebo, Williamsburg, Ottawa, and Gardner.

For lunch, we found a great Indian restaurant, the Taj Palace, on 39th Street in the area of Prospero’s Book Store and the KU Med Center. Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art was our next stop, and then on to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

I especially like the Bloch building at the Nelson-Atkins. It holds the museum’s contemporary art collections and for me that art and that space has the most vibrancy. There, I find the color and the energy that I have been missing on the Kansas landscape.

Dave and I are always drawn to the photography exhibits. As a writer, I look for the story in each photo of modern life, because surely there is a story in a 1963 photo from the Birmingham riots, or in a photograph of a suburban tract house, or in a picture of Charles Lindbergh’s boyhood bed.

Viewing art brings us back to our own selves. When we find a piece of art that we want to stand in front of for a few minutes and study, there’s a message in it for us. The message may not be obvious, then or ever, but it has done its job. Something within us has shifted.

Dave and I drove around Kansas City and made a few more stops. And then we got to the saturation point – with people and crowds and cars, and we aimed our own car down the long, open highway for home.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

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columns, out of state, seasons, traveling

Color Confusion

March 11th, 2014 at 10:02 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

car thermostat dial

COLOR CONFUSION

On a recent weekend, snow fell overnight.

Usually my first look at the world on any given morning is through our bathroom window. Through that window all I can see is the neighbor’s roof, the sky, and the tops of trees – and there’s one broken limb which has dangled for a month, waiting to fall.

On that particular Sunday morning, the sky was blue and the roof was covered with three inches of snow and sleet. With the sun blasting away, the snowy roof was blinding white. For just a moment, the brightness of snow and the thousand glints of reflecting light tricked my brain into thinking “hot,” as in white-hot.

It was 3 degrees outside. Not hot at all.

This wasn’t the only time that color has tricked me, temperature-wise. One July, on the hottest day of the year, also known as Olpe Downhome Day, Dave and I got in the car so we could take in the festivities in the shining city to our south.

We drove with the car windows down for a few blocks to let the heat escape. Then I turned on the air conditioner and spun the temperature dial from the blue zone into the red zone.

“Why did you turn up the heat?” Dave asked.

“I didn’t,” I said. “I made it colder.” I put my hand in front of the vent. It was blowing out warm air. “Oh gosh, you’re right.”

Now it’s not that my mind shorted out, it simply reverted back to my childhood days when I first learned to associate colors with temperatures.

At 4 years old, I would come inside from playing in the snow, plop on the entry way floor, and release the clasp on my rubber boots. As I pulled off the boots, globs of packed snow came out as well. When I removed the wet socks, my frozen feet and ankles were bright red. And that’s how I first connected color with a temperature – and it stuck in my brain. For me, red equals cold.

It doesn’t help that I also associate blue with hot. And that’s another trip back to childhood. Our kitchen stove was gas and it had an open blue pilot light in the center of the stovetop which burned like an eternal flame, day and night.

When we’d light a burner there would be a whoosh, and a ring of blue fire appeared. My brother and I found that we could roast marshmallows over the burners. Stovetop hot dog roasts lacked appeal somehow, but the indoor marshmallow-roasting was a great discovery.

Anyway, for me, blue became associated with heat, and my red chapped feet were associated with cold. And that explains how my mind sometimes works contrary to the way everyone else interprets color.

Speaking of color associations, Andrea Scher, an artist, blogger and Facebook friend, recently mentioned that while her husband was cooking burgers, her preschooler, Nico, asked what the smell was, so she told him. And Nico said, “No, it smells like a color. It smells blue.”

In her post, Andrea then explained that she was “feeling weirdly excited” to learn that her son experiences synesthesia, which is the evocation of one kind of sense when another sense is stimulated. She said that she herself associates numbers with colors, that 1 is white in her world.

I like the idea of being able to mix and match sensory experiences. In general, I don’t connect colors with numbers, except for 4, which I think of as blue. And for me, Wednesday is green and the smell of Play-Doh is yellow.

With my tendency to reverse red and blue when it comes to hot and cold, I do have to check myself occasionally when I’m setting the car’s temperature, or turning on the faucet in a motel shower. I always figure it out, but every once in awhile I get burned by my color disorder.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

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columns, Flyover Weather, life on the ground, seasons

Anticipation

March 4th, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

bracelet sm

 

ANTICIPATION

For several days this winter when I walked through the door of the post office, I thought, “Maybe it’s here today.”

I had ordered a bracelet online from a Hesston business called The Rusted Chain, and was awaiting the bracelet’s arrival.

The anticipation and the peering into a post office box reminded me so much of my childhood days. When I was a kid in Pawnee Rock, I was often the one in my family who walked the block to the post office to pick up the mail.

I had several pen pals and received a letter or two every week, but it was even more exciting to have a parcel on its way.

We were not strangers to mail order in the ‘60s and ‘70s in rural Kansas. That’s how we purchased many of our belongings. As a family, we just didn’t do much store shopping.

When I was young Grandma and Mom made most of my clothes – all of my dresses to be sure. But the rest of our family’s apparel, from shoes and socks to underwear and jeans and coats, was purchased from the Sears & Roebuck catalog.

We also had the heavy Montgomery Ward catalog and one from J.C. Penney, but back then Sears had the best stuff.

So, Sears & Roebuck dressed me. My favorite red Keds that I wore when I was 4 years old came from the catalog. My incredibly cute turquoise pedal-pusher outfit came through the mail. And, when I was in junior high, my maroon, zippered sweater came from the catalog’s Lemon Frog Shop.

Each August I’d sit on the living room couch, the Sears catalog on my lap, and go clothes shopping. Because most of my clothes came from mail order, I had seldom been to a store to “try things on.” Living in the outskirts of the world, we took our chances on size and fit.

Mail order was the old-fashioned way of the new-fangled online shopping. We could order anything from clothing and jewelry to gadgets and beauty supplies.

Back in the day, most magazines had tiny classified ads in the back pages. Many ads had just a dozen or so words and were no larger than a 140-character Twitter post. The item for sale was described, sometimes illustrated with a drawing or photo, the price was listed and an address given.

I must have been about 11 years old when I ordered a ring through the mail. The ring was silver, the band thick and wide, with three peace signs embossed around the band. It cost $1.25, I think, with .25 for shipping. Still, when your allowance is only a quarter per week, $1.50 was a lot of money.

The ring was the first thing I ever bought through the mail all by myself using my own money. I wrote my name and address on a sheet of paper, included a dollar bill and two quarters, and sent the envelope to an address in New York. And the anticipation began.

Every day I walked to the post office and spun the dial around on P.O. Box 7, hoping to find a ring. One morning, perhaps two weeks later, the small manila pouch arrived.

I don’t know if I still have that ring. I haven’t seen it for years, but maybe it’s tucked away in a drawer somewhere. I wish I could hold it right now because I loved that ring. I was invested in it. I put in the money for it and I put in the waiting time.

That ring from long ago came to mind every one of those days this January when I walked into the post office to check for the bracelet that I ordered.

I suppose things really haven’t changed that much in 40 years; we still order things, it’s just that most of the ordering is done online instead of from print catalogs or from ads in the back of magazines.

And there’s still the anticipation when we go to the post office, or look for the mailman or the delivery driver. With a mail order purchase, part of the fun is the wait.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

life on the ground, nostalgia, other people's stuff

A Sense of Place

February 25th, 2014 at 10:09 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:

  Tallgrass Trail

Hiking Trail, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Chase County, Kansas

 

A SENSE OF PLACE

I love it when a writer, in her poem or short story, gives me the native’s tour of a small town. Maybe she takes me to her town’s only tavern where several locals sit at the bar, and she tells me the story of each person there.

In the dimly lit room, with Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” playing on the juke box, perhaps the poet will show me the initials that she carved into a wooden table, and point out that it has always bothered her that the “Gals” sign on the restroom door is crooked.

That is the kind of writing that excites me, the stories of place. And I suppose that’s why I tend to write so much about place myself. I write about what I know: open pastures, my dusty hometown, or my grandma’s farmhouse, because for me it’s the details that bring a place to life.

The other day, Dave gave me a book called “Good Poems – American Places” compiled by Garrison Keillor. Over 100 poets are represented in this volume including William Stafford, Jane Kenyon, Sharon Olds, Walt Whitman, Ted Kooser and Charles Bukowski.

The book has poets I’ve read and poets I haven’t. What I love about poetry is the power that each word carries. A poem’s strength is its brevity; so much is conveyed in so few words.

This book in particular makes me happy because each of these poems focuses on a setting: a Laundromat, a Greyhound bus, a hardware store, a gravel road in Nebraska.

What kind of place is worth writing about? It can be anything, anywhere. It can be any moment that we look around and notice things. Perhaps it’s an antique store where we hear the whirr of a ceiling fan, notice fingerprints on the glass counter, and paw through a bowl of costume jewelry that was worn by someone else’s mother.

To feel a sense of place, it’s about being fully present, to take in what’s going on around us.

Maybe we’re in a wooden barn and we see horse hair caught in a hasp. We catch the smell of horses, even if horses haven’t been there for a decade. Light enters the barn from above and we look up to see that roof slats are missing, replaced by the summer sky.

We’ve been in countless places in our lives and for some of them we attach a level of importance, for whatever reason. Maybe there’s a certain emotion involved, or a connection to a friend. When thinking of a particular place, we might recall thoughts we had there, or maybe a song we heard while standing in that spot.

I can think of a hundred places that I’d like to describe myself, places that come to mind while reading through this book of poems. Each topic brings a rush of ideas.

If the topic is rivers, I will, of course, first think of the Arkansas River located about a mile south of Pawnee Rock. When the river still had water in it, my friends and I watched high school boys leap from the wooden bridge into the stream. I was always nervous crossing that bridge; the low railing was uncertain, slapped together with 2 X 4s.

My memories of the river go in a dozen directions – the time my friends and I spotted a mattress overhead in a tree and wondered who had hauled it up there. It was on the banks of the Arkansas that my dad, in his 30s at the time, taught my brother and me how to skip rocks across the water. I remember hunting morel mushrooms here with my mom.

So, if a Pennsylvania writer describes a stream, the Arkansas River will naturally to come to my mind. And other readers will be thinking of their own personal river.

Good writing introduces us to new perspectives, things we had never considered. But good writing also brings us back to our own selves, and reminds us how and where we fit into the world around us.

Copyright 2014 ~ Cheryl Unruh

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columns, life on the ground, places