There are hills elsewhere, but there is something about the soft waning of the pastel light over the Flint Hills of Kansas that is like nowhere else. There are prairies elsewhere, but there is something about the wide, wide open expanses of western Kansas that invites a man to breathe and expand like nowhere else. Other places have their loves, too, yet one may be forgiven a particular attention to the sort of loves one may find in Kansas.
But let us set down some truths lest a certain enthusiasm carry us into fantasy. Kansas was built amidst the blood and violence sewn up with man’s desire to own another man. Cold-blooded murder is not unknown in Kansas, nor, too, other unholy desires. A husband may exercise his infidelity, a wife her shrewishness, as well in Kansas as anywhere else. Kansas is not the land of fairy tales. And if it may rise to the mythic it does so through a host of quotidian mercies woven together from a common life.
I have seen the loves of Kansas, and it seems to me that if a man tilts his hat just so against the wind, he, too, may see what another may miss. In a non-descript diner on a four-block townsquare, the grey and the stooped lean over their potatoes and gravy. They eat in silence, an easy quiet built on years of working together in the fields and in the home. They will slowly rise, and he will shuffle off to pay. She will take his elbow more from habit than from feeling. And yet, one is not wrong to suppose that beneath that great-grandmotherly bosom an old heart will still flutter as he opens the car door for her, and amid the pain of mortal flesh, help her settle in her seat.
Out in the field, a clear voice that will pierce the roar of the engine will call his name, and he will dismount. She has something on her mind and he will hear it. Her stance, hands on hips, skirt and apron blowing in the wind, dares him to rise to the challenge in her. He may clench his jaw, and draw off his cap to wipe his brow. He may stifle the cussing he’d like to unleash. But his admiration at the fire in those young gray eyes won’t be hidden. And as she sees him meet her half-way, she will recognize his restraint and love him the more.
In the church building, they will sit and listen to the gospel being preached, amidst the overalled men and nylon-stockinged women, while the prairie wind whistles in the eaves. They will close their eyes in prayer, and maybe doze a little during the sermon. When one rises, monastic-like, long before daybreak, one may be forgiven a little failure of attention to the preacher’s words. Too, they may be forgiven a slight breach of stoical farmer protocol as her once beautiful fingers, find his large and gnarled hand, holding it warmly.
These have never seen Paris. Their honeymoon was spent herding cattle and bringing in the wheat, rather than in Cancun. And when they finally made it home from the wedding, they’d find their neighbors had come in and removed all the labels from their canned goods. It was, in its own way, a measure of wisdom meant to knit together. For God knows that theirs would be a life built on their handling of the unpredictable: the flood, the cattle blight, the sudden whirling winds from the sky, the stillborn infant.
But a man having become accustomed, for however short a time, to such things as canned chili served aside his fried chicken, a woman having learned to drive the grain truck just so next to the combine, and all the thousand and one ways of life which thread by thread are knit together over years and decades, will learn what it is to face these darker catastrophes. And if it should be that bad behavior threatens to wear a channel of resentment between them, they have only to look and to see the life they have built and to remember the cost. That repentance will be in deed more than word: he will stop longer and look at her as he heads out the door, she will fix the pork just so. The loves of Kansas have their romance, if it is built on the pragmatic and the everyday. However simple a dance, it is not without its grace and beauty.
But let us not forget we eschewed speaking here of fairy tales. The loves of Kansas are as fallen as they are elsewhere. Kansas men and their women know well how to hurt one another. Channels of resentment are sometimes carved which cut one off from the other. Women will leave their men. Men will take other men’s wives. That cussed stubbornness which Kansas life at times necessarily forms in their hearts, will likewise inure them against repentance. Having torn the fabric of their souls, they tear too their love. It may be that the fabric may be rewoven. But this is a rare and chancy thing, wholly supervised by God’s grace and only in willing hearts. Let us speak the truth: it most often is left in tatters.
Having come to this sort of pass, a man may be forgiven if he buries such things in his heart. Some pains are too particular and therefore too raw. He has his lessons to learn, of course, and like all men, may learn some better than others, and a few not at all. Too, he may be forgiven if, with that streak of Kansas pragmatism to which he was born, he calculates a somewhat monastic future, though one lived in the midst of the everyday. It will take some time with himself to find the man he needs again to be.
But as a man, such a vocation, however real and firm, may always be disturbed by new longings once known: the hair blown by the wind, the bright eyes, the tender heart over which hangs the golden cross. Because once a man looks to that wide open sky, he will want to breathe in that air again. As the years go by, such longings may sting a little less. But the prairie winds will stir them again in his soul. This is his particular askesis.
[Other Kansas reflections are here.]