I am in Kansas now, like some through-the-looking-glass Dorothy, where left is right, and I know this isn’t home but my fleeting, exhausting, ruthless and wind-blown fairy tale, and soon an airplane-shaped tornado will carry back home the little old me, just the same as I was and yet not the same. Because I’ve been taken to Kansas on the wings of its wind, and now my skin is sun-burned and my heart is forever wind-blown, and part of it flies over the Great Plains, God only knows where. On the Kansas wind.
My purpose here has been to help some Dominican Sisters run a summer day camp for 8-11-year-old children on their farm. I’ve been here just more than a week, and I’ll be nearby one week more, but I came to spend one week working and one week praying in silent retreat, and today is the time to change from one to the next. So tomorrow I’ll be leaving the farm that has become Kansas to me and going to Great Bend, where Kansas is different, I don’t know yet how.
I don’t want to analyze this time or this place. Maybe not yet. I want to tell you — a few things only. And I want to show you a few things. They are images stilled with my cell phone camera — a hint of a world I cannot capture, cannot explain, cannot deliver. I cannot turn the wind in your direction and ask it to bring you the breath of Kansas. So I bring you this:
The space. You cannot envision the space of the Great Plains unless you have been here — not even if you are a sailor. The ocean’s vastness is different, framed by the softened horizons where the sky and the sea merge with each other in an embrace of haze. The planet on the water is round. Not here. You don’t understand the flatness of land until you come here and step onto it and trace it with your eyes all the way to the line of horizon so frighteningly sharp that it seems to have been cut with an enormous, gnostic razor of some mad demiurge. At night, do not be deceived by the few lonely lights just because you can see them: they may be many, many miles away along the flat land, on the receding line.
The skies. The dome whole, uninterrupted by hills or skylines, it takes my breath away with its very size, that it isn’t falling upon the ground but levitates above us, just so blue — with what streaks of cloud God has graced us on this day. Sometimes none. Sometimes — about the sunset or in the early morning — a banquet of shades so spectacular that only tears and whispers can do it justice.
It is all laid out above there for us, here in Kansas. Every tree that grows here is planted by someone. For some purpose: to give shade, to break the wind… And watered. If you’re close to one, just turn the other way, and chances are, you’ll face the vastness of wheat fields or pastures, rows of turned-over soil.
This is the cultivated prairie, where buffalo used to roam in uncounted herds and Plains Indian foot hunters made their rounds behind them, where now artesian wells drilled by weathered descendants of European agrarians feed the endless fields of crops and flocks of animals that would wither and die in a day without this man-made relief under the nuclear blaze of the sun.
And the wind. Oh, the Kansas wind… It’s not like any other I’ve known.
There isn’t gentle breeze here like on a lake shore in early mornings, isn’t a terror of pounding gusts like in a storm on the Pacific. It isn’t the rhythmic rise and fall of the Russian steppes, not the Arctic chill that thickens your blood in its veins along the tundric North. It’s not the sweltering, unpredictable Sirocco from the Sahara. The Kansas wind is its own entity — and yet it’s the fabric of life of this place. And the fabric of its death. Like the breath of God, it is all-permeating and never-ending, though it is slow enough one day to walk and rises the next to a near-constant, awesome pressure, dragging and turning over every single thing careless enough to turn a surface to it, tearing clothes from your back and papers from your hands.
In Kansas, you live with the wind. You learn to lean into it and to hold on to your hat. “Wind-blown hair,” the locals laugh, “is our popular Kansas look!” You live with the dust. The Kansas wind fills the air with fine dust and drills it into your eyes, your ears, your pores. Through laced-up shoes and socks, it coats your feet in grey dust and packs it under your toe nails. It carries straw and splinters of wood and spears you with them, its tiny weapons. It brings no relief from the heat — it IS the heat. The dry. The air itself. It is the desiccating, almighty breath of the Infinite that sweeps over the Flat Lands, always and always. Or so it seems. I haven’t seen a tornado, but somehow I can imagine one now, born in this place, from this wind, from the heart of the Heart Land.
And then, there are meadows. Grasses. Blossoms. The most delicate wild flowers in God’s imagination, waving knee-high in the amber seas. I don’t know why it is so astonishing to discover them swaying there, low to the earth — little bluebells and dandelions — maybe because of how fragile they seem under the wind and how untouched. How comfortable this frail creation in these skin-shredding streams of boiling air. In the high noon of the Great Plains, wild flowers are here instead of rain, instead of dew. Instead of shade.
The longed-for mornings. When it’s calmer still, before the wind is at full strength. When the heavenly furnace is low in rising, still thinking of what it will do to us, still lazy in its early shine. In the morning all things are possible — strength might endure and rain might come. The air feels moist. Hope feels inexhaustible.
I won’t tell you much about the farm. I’ll tell you that it has some amazing people on it who are tired and yet tireless, funny, serious, dusty and crusted over and never stop when they are hurt and always know what’s important. They love this land and each other and the creatures that breathe the same air they do, and they spend their days taking care of things. When the meal is ready for all, the sound of the bell soars over the farm to all of its corners, and people put down their chores for a while and come to eat.
And there live here also some multi-colored and multi-tempered alpacas, and some chickens in a large chicken coop, and two of the best anywhere dogs. And there is a fruit garden and a vegetable garden and flowers and houses and pastures and chestnut trees and an old silo where prayer and thought flow so smoothly to heaven that it feels like a chapel. And there is a barn and houses and buildings and places to work and places to walk and places to hide and places to pray. And places to get a little bit lost until you want to be found.
And over the last week, it had two dozen children or so on it, running and screaming and sitting and crying and laughing and whining and fighting and smiling and asking us questions and working and helping and helping each other and eating and sweating and drinking and not drinking enough and losing hats and losing things and wasting time and finding themselves and swimming and making things and making sense and making noise, lots of joyful noise unto the Lord.
This is a place that is scorched by the wind and baked by the sun and nourished and nurtured by the hands of these people who love it to such tender beauty, such resilient health that I don’t think I can honestly and completely leave it. I came here for a week, blown in by the wind. And wind-blown I go, scattering myself bit by bit, leaving behind my heart — my heart, from now and forever full of Kansas — here, in my heartland.