Under a blueless sky
Maybe Kansas knew I wanted to feel something today. Maybe that’s why it looks so shabby.
I don’t blame Kansas for its colorless skies today. I could blame Canada. Canada has been pouring wildfire smoke into the interior basin of the country for the past few days. I could blame God.
Kansas suffers when the sky looks like this. Looking out in any direction, the sky is about 2/3rds of the canvas. And it can be spectacular. I used to spend too much time telling my friends who lived in other places about Kansas, and how gorgeous the sky could be. Ignore everything you’ve heard, I would write to them. Ignore everything you’ve seen while blasting through on I-70. Get on one of those long straight roads, with the low horizon and the big, big sky. Bright blue with painterly tufts of white. Or, in storm season, when those big tumbling cumulus clouds stir you up and blow you down the road. Maybe most beautiful are the low gray striated skies of late fall. Against the gray, your eye finds the deep reds in the grasses. The wet, black bark of the trees. No one ever wanted to hear about the skies as much as I wanted to talk about them.
I’m reminding myself of those skies now. Otherwise, there is only the overwhelming nothing of today’s sky and the nothing of today’s grasses. Under this sky, I’m like every other tourist who has sped blindly across the plains. I’m just praying for it to end.
I didn’t want to drive in this direction at all. If I had been heading from any other Point A to any other Point B, I wouldn’t have. But I began in Santa Fe this morning and I am on my way to Minneapolis, and there aren’t a lot of logical routes in between. I could have added hours to the itinerary by cutting a right angle somewhere, but I don’t love the interstate through Oklahoma or Nebraska either. So I am passing through Kansas again, where I lived for over a decade.
This is the third time I’ve been back since I left. First, in March of 2022, I flew in and rented a car to get my things from that tiny little town. I packed everything into a storage unit in Wichita and left. And then I came through again last winter, crisscrossing on another drive across the country. Since I got my things, I haven’t been within two hours of that town. I-70 is as close as I’ll get from the north. Garden City is close enough from the west. Wichita, from the east. If I drove any closer, I would start to think I should call my friends and try to meet them somewhere. Not that I don’t want to meet them. I do. One of these trips. But that would mean slowing down, and I’m just not ready to slow down in Kansas yet. I don’t want to come any closer. I don’t want to smack myself in the face with places I’m not ready to see again.
But even from a distance, I expected to feel something today.
I thought Clayton, New Mexico would feel like something. God knows I used to drive the diagonal across northeastern New Mexico often enough. I thought something would hit me in Boise City, Oklahoma. Or, at the very least, when I crossed the state line. But I felt as colorless as the scenery, navigating by memory through Elkhart and Hugoton. Now, just past Moscow, the sky above the horizon is a smudged brown—dust or else more smoke, I don’t know. It’s nearly 90 degrees. With no sky to make it beautiful, western Kansas is just brown dirt and overgrazed fields of yucca.
All I feel are little cramps and pains, a fatigued hangover from this morning’s sickness in Santa Fe. I’ve eaten a couple slices of bread since then and I don’t feel dizzy anymore. But, wherever I stop this evening, I’ll be worried about waking up disabled again by vertigo in the morning. I’ll be nervous to close my eyes. I don’t want to tip off the edge of the earth again and lose another morning of driving time.
God, if there’s one place on earth I don’t want to get stuck, it’s in Kansas.
I was reading an article last night about the people sifting through Emily Dickinson’s belongings in Massachusetts. All the piles of clutter left after she died. They were passed down through the care of Emily’s sister, her niece, her niece’s colleague, and her niece’s colleague’s devoted widow, before they were deposited finally into the waiting arms of Amherst College and the Emily Dickinson Museum. The museum has been sorting through all of it for the past few years, and now they’re going to release a catalogue of her items to see online.
And it just makes me think how odd humans are. We want to touch Emily’s teal cardigan. We want to hold her soup spoons and her picture frames and hair combs. It’s really only modern squeamishness that keeps us from hoarding teeth and snipping relics from the bodies of the dead. We still hold our saints that close.
And my first perverse thought, as I finished reading the article, was to hope that maybe the things weren’t really Emily’s at all. Who would know, after a century of hand-me-down caretakers? Maybe the green straw hat was left by a neighbor. Maybe she never touched that waffle iron.
Shouldn’t we be able to escape our belongings? At least with death, surely. We can’t be expected to portion our soul among our silverware and vases and hair accessories, and then wait drearily to be summoned, not a whole a century later. What a waste of precious anima, to sprinkle it over your andirons and your punch bowl and buttonhooks as you depart.
Or maybe I was just in the mood to be perverse last night, knowing I was driving into Kansas today. I left my belongings all over this state two years ago. I don’t think anyone is sifting through the donation piles at the Wichita Goodwill in order to catalog the things I wore and touched. My old sweaters and paperbacks. Didn’t I forfeit those things when I tossed the black garbage bags into the donation bin? Whoever is wearing my old wool pea coat now, whoever is reading one of my old Anne Rice books, I have nothing to do with it. The old scarves and rain boots and all of it. I don’t believe I left even the smallest dusting of who I am, or who I once was, or… honestly, why am I belaboring this topic? It’s just stuff. That’s what I’m trying to say. It’s just stuff.
I remember standing at the door of my little storage unit in Wichita last year. The room was the size of a closet, according to the advertising materials. A five-by-seven foot closet. Larger than any closet I’ve ever had. It was nearly empty. I had driven from Wichita to my old home the day before and chosen what to take based on the interior size of my rental SUV. Then I returned to my hotel room, threw everything on the floor, and spent the night, then the whole next day, sorting and boxing and, for the most part, getting rid of the things I had owned.
By the time I stood at the storage unit door, lock in hand, I had distilled my belongings down to four small boxes of books, four medium-sized boxes of clothing, a box of keepsakes, a box of papers and desk stuff, a box of art, and a guitar. I stood there before I locked up the unit, knowing I wouldn’t be back for a while. I had a flight out the next morning and these things—which is to say, basically everything I owned—would stay behind in this little room. I wondered how I would react if a fire burned through this steel, fireproof building, or if a flood swept everything into the Arkansas River, before I could return to pick it all up.
I decided what I would be sad to lose: my father’s books. His rosary. A small vase and a wooden jewelry box of my mother’s. A stuffed bear I got for Christmas when I was seven, and my childhood journals. I could survive without any of those things, but I would feel their loss. Just those things.
Everything else I could lose.
In the silence of the car earlier today, as I was shoving a piece of bread into my mouth and driving without sensation across the Oklahoma panhandle, I heard the first intrusive repetitions of the song that is now inarguably, painfully, stuck in my head. The song I’m hearing would be Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma” if I knew it better. But I don’t, so really what I’ve been hearing over and over is just one phrase of the lyrics from that song. Specifically it’s the line, “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
I don’t know where it came from. Before today, I hadn’t heard that song in ages. But, regardless, it arrived in my head earlier as though I’d requested it on the radio. After an hour, I relented and pulled up the song on my phone. I played it over the car speakers and hoped that hearing all the other lyrics would kill out that repeating phrase, but it didn’t work. Now I can hear the muttering, musical build-up and the guitar riff wind-down on either side of the line, but on and on it goes in my mind… *blah* *blah* *blah* “that he not busy being born is busy dying” *guitar* *guitar* and it queues up to repeat.
Maybe Kansas knew I wanted to feel something today. Maybe that’s why it looks so shabby. It’s colorless in the wildfire haze. Windy, cloudless and parched all the way across. It must have been a dry year. In fact, I already knew it was a dry year. I’ve known for months. But you know how it is, when it’s just news reported over the phone. Now I can see how dry it’s been. I am a little sorry for the place, this poor brown unloved spot on the map.
Was it presumptuous to expect to feel anything? It isn’t like I’ve ever been great at feeling what I’m supposed to feel, at least not at the moment when I’m supposed to feel it. And particularly when I lived here. That painful sense of what I “should feel” was one of the worst parts.
I spent ten years wondering whether I could belong in this place. If I would ever stop feeling rejected by it and eternally separate from it. Even on the days when I looked at the towns and felt something like love. Even when I was bowled over by its beauty—which happened often—I still felt so separate. I always felt like the person at the party who didn't know anyone. Or like a foreign exchange student who spoke a little of the local language, but never quite enough. It was like that for a decade, and it never got better. If anything, it got worse.
I remember driving these same highways and considering the possibility that I would spend my whole life here. The whole rest of my life in that house, in that town, in this state. None of those things—the house, the town, or the state—were terrible. They weren’t terrible at all. The house would have been enough for someone; the town would have been enough. But they weren’t mine, somehow. And the thought of nailing my hand to that table, and sitting to eat in the same seat for every meal the rest of my life… When I begin to think of it like that, I could almost wreck the car. I could fly so fast away from that thought, I’d be sailing past the moon by the time the car figured out I wasn’t driving in Kansas anymore.
We’re still moving, I tell my growing panic. Quiet down. I’m taking considered breaths. My mind interrupts to remind me, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” It plays the guitar interlude again and I sigh in agreement. Yes. Right.
A few months ago, I walked into a Dollar General store in Eloy, Arizona for some allergy medication and discovered that the store was laid out exactly—not just a little bit, but EXACTLY—like the Dollar General store had been laid out in my little Kansas town. I didn’t scream or run out, though I’ll admit I moved quickly. Within a few minutes, I wasn’t just out of the Dollar General. I was out of Eloy, Arizona. I kept my eyes on the tail of a double decker freight train on the tracks way out ahead of me, all the way out into the desert.
Is that what being born feels like? The rush of air after a quick escape? I rolled down my windows and caught that sweet desert air outside Eloy. It was so sacred to me because it smelled like nothing I could remember.
I used to stand at the kitchen window in Kansas and look out into the side yard, thinking about other places. I did that often, too often, standing at that window, as the trees turned yellow outside and lost their leaves, and then as the frost melted and the new leaves came out. And still standing there as they began to yellow again… I don’t know much about being born yet, but I know something about dying.
I’ve gotten older since I lived here. Over the past two years, I’ve grown out my hair in its natural color, after almost a decade of dying it blonde, and I discovered that, not only is my hair darker than I remember, it’s also peppered with strands of gray. And I have freckles at my hairline, on either side of my cheeks, that don’t fade after summer. A freckle under my right eye. I know these are just the first signs. I’m noting the changes with interest.
I only have so many days. That was the thought that took me out of Kansas. I have only so much time. There were years in Kansas in which death was a constant topic—that last year before I left was one of them. That year, death was the conversation that began in the morning. It carried through the day. But somehow, after months of talking about little else, one afternoon that winter, it occurred to me, you know, I could die too. Not just sixty years from now. Not just after a long, gradual illness with plenty of time to sort out my affairs. It had never come to me that way before, with such force. I had been on another of my long walks. I was almost back at the house. I was stopped on the sidewalk. I stood there, very still, on the concrete and stared into the street. Me, too. I could die at any moment.
This is my only life. These are the only days I have.
There are other reasons why I left. But that thought, standing on the sidewalk, is the one I return to most often.
If only the skies were better today. Then I would know whether this feeling of nothing is real or not. But these are the same skies that always felt like nothing. Blank, hazy sunlight and wind and dust. Some summers, I saw this sky every day. And, when I couldn’t find the enthusiasm to write to my friends about the loveliness of Kansas, sometimes I would write to them about this. The bluelessness of Kansas. The big empty skies with nothing in them. Sometimes you walk out into the prairie, and it’s like you’re screaming into a garbage can. It can be such an airless, unresponsive place.
What did I think I would feel? I think I was afraid I would feel a longing for this country again. I expected a pang of sorrow. Or, at the very least, a melancholy. But driving into Kansas has been like sorting through a pile of poorly shot photographs in an antique mall somewhere. I guess I recognize it. I know the roads. I remember which turns to take. But if I feel any longing, it’s for the promise of tomorrow’s drive. Another state line. Another scent in the air. I keep reaching over the coffee cup in the center console to find the next page of the atlas.
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