Monday, May 14, 2012

This Limestone Life

I speak often about the tall grasses and long shadows on my beautiful Flint Hills prairie.  I maintain that this is a magical place, that the long horizon and nearly constant wind are a daily reminder of the rotation of the planet and of my place on it, though that wind is hell on a girl whose va-va-voom curves crave wrap-around dresses.   And who also likes to ride a bike.   And who occasionally rides a bike in a wrap-around dress.  I’ve been that girl more than once: left the house in my dress on my bike at a perfectly calm 8 am only to find myself a spectacle of comedy as I try (and fail) to ride home gracefully at 3 pm in 30 mile an hour winds, with one hand on the handlebars and one hand futilely trying to subdue my skirt.  Never trust morning in Kansas.  The timid Kansas morning is fucking with you, ladies.  Bring tights.  In any case, when I stand on the prairie and watch the shadows shrink with the rising sun, and listen to the wind blow up from Oklahoma, through the grass that tickles my bare legs (tick check, but worth it to be barefoot on the prairie), I stand in awe of the processes at work under my feet and over my head.

I spent some formative years in Southern California, and bounced around a couple other parts of the country after that to see what I could see.  Back and forth between colleges and the beach.  There was a time that I realized one place was pretty much as good as another if I could find work and a boy to fall in love with.  I was a moderately attractive girl, and an exceptional waitress, so it was easy enough to find either.  I never felt purposeless.  On the contrary, I was always very sure of what I was doing.  Right now my parents are rolling their eyes in agreement.  I had intermittent periods of intense focus, sometimes on a boy, sometimes on a college degree, what have you.  I think I was ambitious, but in a really ADHD way.  I was impassioned, but tersely so.  

I was raised to believe I could be anything I wanted.  That's what they told me, and they seemed so certain of it that I believed it myself.  I still do.  But every calling inevitably became a mutter that lost its volume and clarity.  I was also raised to believe that if you start down a road and find that it's not your own, you can just cut through the brush and go find a new road.  You might scratch your ankles on some prickly bushes, but that's no big deal.  So I just cruised around a while, looking for my special purpose.  Sure, any place is pretty much as good as another, and I could have been happy on the moon, provided I had a place to work and a man to make my stomach ache.  But this prairie is the womb for me.  I am of this place.  When I came back to Kansas to raise a family, I lost my sense of purpose altogether, quite fortunately.  It was the rocks that stripped me of my drive to conquer anything but the day in front of me.  

The Cottonwood Limestone Shelf was was formed during the Pennsylvanian epoch in North America.  During this time, a shallow, moderately turbulent ocean advanced and receded across the inner continent 14 times.  You can count that in the stratigraphy of the limestone.  Every time the ocean receded, it left all these tiny marine carcasses to calcify into rock on the ground.  You can see them, too.  Poor little buddies.  Life is hard in shallow, turbulent water.  You have to go with the flow.  What choice do you have, really?  The net result of 20 million years worth of oceanic activity, roughly 300 million years ago is a shelf of limestone... 7 feet tall.  7 feet.  That’s barely taller than my husband.  And what composes the rock is billions upon billions of teeny tiny little lives (and a few big ones, which are exciting to find) that settled on top of each other.  

I live in a house made of limestone.  I like to sit outside and study the fossils in the rock.  I’d be able to do it inside, too, but some asshole painted over the exposed stone with some kind of NASA grade plaster.  Dick move.  If I live to be a hundred and study them every day, I’ll still never memorize all the critters that make up the walls of my small house.  Lots of stuff around here is built from that limestone.  Most of the older buildings downtown, houses, fences.  In the 1800s, it was cheap, sturdy building material, though I’m guessing the horses hated hauling it.

That rock is significant to me for a couple of reasons. Okay, first, let’s get this out of the way: I’m a geology weenie. I mean... a super weenie. My youngest kid has a rock collection and has already learned to hide her finds from me. Not because she’s afraid I’ll take them away and keep them for myself (I said weenie, not monster), but because she doesn’t want the boring lecture that accompanies her proudly presenting her newest score. “Pretty!” she says. “Ohhhh, yes, that’s an extrusive volcanic rock called basalt, probably all the way from Oregon. May I see it?” “Pretty!” she insists, and shoves it deep into her pocket, then runs the other way while my voice trails off “...can you say igneous?”

But there’s something else.  Something that I like to think I’d notice even without the influence of my inner rock dork.  It’s the life in the rock.  The entire limestone shelf is made of life.  Teeny tiny life.  You can't miss it.  

When I say that I lost my sense of purpose in Kansas, it’s not as bad as it sounds.  It’s more like I see my life as billions of very small moments that settle as they pass to form something solid.  I can study the individual fossils of these moments, that’s interesting for a while.  There are some big ones that leave big impressions.  I think Oprah calls those “defining moments” or some shit.  That’s an expression I intrinsically hate, but I guess I get the concept.  Yes, there are those.  We all have those.  But as exciting as the big fossils are to find, they are a pretty slim percentage of the overall composition.  

I wake up every day and have thousands of tiny moments that settle onto the floor of my life.  When I absentmindedly stir the milk into my coffee, still stuck in the dream I just had; when I make eye contact with my children, smile as I flip pancakes onto their plates; when I stand in the driveway in my jammies with my coffee and watch them ride their bikes up the street toward school; on and on through the day.  The moments come, they churn around in the shallow, moderately turbulent waters of my forty to ninety year lifespan (to be determined), then they settle to the bottom.  I turn back toward my house, coffee cup in hand, and the house reminds me to be mindful of the way their backpacks hung from their shoulders and the way they waved back at me from halfway up the block.  The moment passes, sweetly, to become part of something concrete.  When I married my husband, I told him that forever was the sound of his watch hitting the nightstand table.  Modest, but solid.

For Mother’s Day this year, I gave my mom a carved gourd with some treasures inside: an arrowhead, a dime that the baby tossed in for reasons only known to her, and a piece of Kansas coral.  The coral is a symbol of my appreciation for our shared moments, the little ones, the big ones, that have hardened into a love so solid I feel as though I could hold it in my hands.

If, as my life passes, as the moments pass, I could choose how I’d like the fossil record to look, I think I’d prefer a landscape like this prairie.  Soft and breezy on the surface, with whispering grasses and sparse shade trees, but with a layer of soft rock just under the surface, only a bit taller than my husband, and made up of all the teeny tiny bits of life that have settled through the years.    


  1. Love, love, love this! It resonates so deeply!! Love my Kansas coral. For a much less lyrical explanation, check I'll stay with Meg's version!!

  2. Just discovered your writing. I'm simply astonished at the lack of comments. Aside from the big picture, the single line: "When I married my husband, I told him that forever was the sound of his watch hitting the nightstand table" is well worth the read.

    Well done indeed.

  3. I just love your writing. It resonates with me so deeply, especially your article about your divorce. Thank you for your talent and honesty and dead-on wit and politics.