Kite Tales Introduction

I decided to title this book Kite Tales and divide it into three sections: Kansas Kite Tales, California Kite Tales and Kite Tale Musings. I use the symbol of a kite tail to connect all these life stories because I have learned that each phase of my life, filled with many different experiences, are all tied together and have enabled me to fly. I first learned of the important role of kite tails by spending the long, hot, windy summers on the western Kansas prairie. There was not much for kids to do for fun. However, the wind did provide us with one enjoyable activity. My brother, Harley, and I would entertain ourselves by making kites.

Dad encouraged our kite flying activities by bringing home strips of wood from the lumber yard in various sizes. We’d take a long strip and a short strip and tie them together with twine to make a cross-bow. We’d always make our kites out of the Denver Post newspaper. We had lots of them available, stacked in neat piles in the shed. The kite tails were the most challenging part of our kite making adventure. We used cloth from worn garments Mother gave us. We’d have fun choosing the pieces of cloth we wanted to use and then cutting and ripping the cloth into colorful strips.

We learned through much trial and error that it was tricky to get the right amount of tail on the kite — too much and it would not fly — too little and the kite fluttered in the wind until it reached a tree top and crashed. We lost many kites but we didn’t get discouraged. We’d just make a new kite which was about as much fun as flying them.

Now, when I go to Kansas, I go to search for my younger self, the girl, shy as a deer, but with a long lovely future ahead of her. I was close to five-foot-nine, which was terribly tall for a girl during the era when song writers wrote about girls five-foot-two. I was knee-knocking thin, with stick arms and sharp wings for shoulder blades. My straight brown hair was cut short with bangs.

The house that protected me from wind and rain and snow through my teenage years was torn down. The last time I saw that house the porch steps were sagging, a giving-in to gravity due to all of the footfalls that had passed over them. Along with other women, I wasted a keen mind in those circumstances. Whole parts of the country were literally out of reach for any education beyond high school. We were teenage girls who lacked self-esteem. Plausible career aspirations held very little promise of opportunity. I didn’t have the example of Madam Curie or Georgia O'Keeffe or Jane Austin, but I possessed a noticeable longing to write stories, design buildings or paint pictures. And I am fairly sure I had the gifts that could have allowed me to answer such worthy callings. When I look into the eyes of the women living in Russia, they seem set on some distant point, far beyond most human perception, a place they escape to in their poverty. Many lack the very basic necessities of life: food and shelter. My poverty was in beauty, design, architecture and stimulating books or conversations. It was a poverty of the soul but poverty nonetheless, an abject poverty that I can label only now many years later.

Growing up during the Depression, I gained an awareness, an empathy for the pain and suffering endured by people. This is instrumental in keeping me humble, grateful, and grounded. The message was subtle but clear: Always make an effort to understand, to connect with others, to be careful with words, and to never be discouraged in finding an alternative approach to solving problems.

I have not, however, been as easy on myself. It’s frightening how when the going gets rough, I can easily fall back on whatever awful thing I grew up with – it returns, a genesis of some personal past experience. If something hurts me, the injuries I suffered when young come back to me, and when I feel guilty, the past feelings of guilt return. If I yearn for something today, or feel homesick, the yearnings and homesickness of my youth flow back to me.

California is a bounty of flowers everywhere you look, all year long. I've become accustom to seeing them in the landscape and when I travel elsewhere often I realize that it's the flowers that are missing. Every kind flourishes here, some more than others. Lilacs and peonies are my favorites. White peonies take longer to open, but when they do they are fully the size of a salad plate. You can see the little red pieces of the stem inside them. But I am seduced by their fragrance into a state of remembrance that pulls on my heart strings and I make the journey back in time to the prairie and that small town in western Kansas where I grew up.

The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of another that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as a matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside but absolutely present, fresh and alive. I understand this. I sometimes find it hard to bear. Maybe I write the story to be free of it, even if I can never be. Back then you didn’t ask people, even your family, to lay bare their innermost feelings.

At first I wanted to write my stories to be free of them. But the memories wouldn’t come back for that. Then I realized my stories were slipping away from me and I wanted to recapture them by writing them down. But trying to coax the memories out of the shadows didn't work either. For the last few years, I’ve left them alone. Then they started coming back, detail by detail in such a fully formed, rounded out fashion, with its own direction and its own sense of completion, that it no longer makes me sad.

When we’re young, time stretches beyond the horizon toward infinity. There is always another day, always another chance to set our priorities straight. Then we notice the horizon doesn’t move back as we draw closer, it gets larger and clearer. A regular James Joyce epiphany, “a revelation of the essential nature of a person.”

The problem with telling the story of a human life is that it’s easy to state. Even the lives of the wildest lovers or the bravest souls are uneventful for three-fourths of their length. If you don’t believe that every instant in a life is relevant to that person’s fate, then you write a satisfactory biography on the life of the busiest man or woman who ever lived in less than two pages, often on a postcard. Most things that happen to a person leave no more trace than last month’s raindrops.

Compared with spoken words, written words are stronger, surer. They have a longer lease, a greater lifespan. They demand more in the making and offer more potential for the long term. When I capture a thought or a memory or a hope in writing, I can let it stand possessing all of the force and energy that was brought to bear when it was born, emerged from the womb of my heart. If our spoken stories can sweep across our souls like a strong wind, our written stories have hurricane potential.

~ Em Yates

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