Aired on Kansas Public Radio January 27, 2006.
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By Cheryl Unruh
I've leaned into the Kansas wind for 46 years. My life began in the middle of the state, in Pawnee Rock, a dirt-street town with familiar faces, loose dogs and few opportunities. At 18, I fled.
But, as you may have noticed, I didn't get far. Yes, I'm still in Kansas, along with 2.7 million other people.
Why do we stay? What keeps us in Kansas? Is it family ties? Do we really love the place, or are we just too stupid to leave?
A few years ago, I began a discussion about Kansas with a friend who had recently moved here from New Mexico.
One of the first questions he asked was, "What's your take on what it means to be a Kansan?"
What does it mean to be a Kansan? That was too big of a question. I dodged it by responding, "To consider myself a Kansan, I am defining myself with lines drawn by someone else."
True, perhaps. And those invisible state lines do make us different somehow than Okies.
But being a Kansan is more than residing within its borders. How can you take a lifetime of living here and condense it into a paragraph?
And when you explain your appreciation of Kansas to a non-Kansan, it all sounds so silly. ("Yes, we like the nothingness. No, really, we do.")
I don't know what it means to be a Kansan, but I can describe the days. Sometimes we wouldn't have clouds if not for the jet trails that mark the sky.
Our eyes travel miles ahead in western Kansas, catching sight of the grain elevator in the next town, the only vertical distraction.
In the Flint Hills, the grass and sky may look plain and simple, but once you step onto the land and take a deep breath, it can change you forever.
Not all Kansans have had the same experiences, but quite a few have tasted the stringiness of cottonwood fluff.
Some know the soft dust on harvested wheat and the quicksand feeling of stepping into a pile of grain loaded in a farm truck.
Many of us hear trains whistle through town, calling to the night like coyotes.
On summer evenings, we’ve been rocked to sleep by the pulse of cicadas.
Memories and experiences become part of who we are.
Kansas seeps into our cells, reconfigures our DNA, claims us as its own.
If we leave, it follows. William Inge, a playwright from Independence, said, "It wasn't until I got to New York that I became a Kansan."
What does it mean to be a Kansan? I'm not sure. Maybe I'll never figure it out.
But I do know that if we look beyond the jets that stripe our sky, we learn all the shades of blue. If we gaze deep enough into that blue, we understand infinity.
That's why we stay.
Copyright 2006 by Cheryl Unruh
Photos - Copyright 2006 by Dave Leiker
A longer version of this essay was published in The Emporia Gazette on January 28, 2003.
All Content Copyright 2004-2006 by Cheryl Unruh