The Fox at Dawn


Hindman/Home

“You gotta make the work sacred,

because it happens to be sacred.”

-Adriana Trigiani

Adriana Trigiani was the keynote speaker for the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop at Hindman Settlement School this year. On Zoom she was powerful, intimate, dynamic, funny, full of respect and truth. I’d want her in my corner when I’m on the ropes. She’d find a way to get me up and fighting again.

            Here’s the struggle- for one almost whole week I had the great gift of being at the writer’s workshop there at Hindman where all my needs were met- really delicious food (dessert with every meal!), a lovely room, inspiring and generous teachers, trails to explore, quiet places to sit and think, a beautiful campus rich with history, and a community of old and new friends all working to shine some light in this world. All week we were surrounded by beauty and art and heritage. We were in a place that has a long history of lifting people up. It is sacred ground, truly. And now I’m home.

The foot bridge over Troublesome Creek at Hindman Settlement School in Knott County Kentucky. That’s Uncle Sol’s cabin in the distance. It was his desire to educate his children that was the catalyst for the school.

            Last year I attended the workshop online along with everyone else. Hindman did a great job with it, but we all felt the loss. At home, I tried hard to make the time sacred and for moments I could fool myself that I was there, lose myself in the readings, the discussions, the sharing. Just hearing everyone’s voice was enough to keep me afloat. But there was always the moment of hollowness when the Zoom screen disappeared and there I was sitting alone at home about 30 seconds away from having to take care of something or someone. I remember sitting there feeling like all the water just drained out of the tub. It was heavy work hauling myself out and putting myself into motion again. I do not think I was alone in feeling this. I know I wasn’t. And I know that those who attended online again this year felt it again, even more so. It just hurts.

Former Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon, a most remarkable writer and teacher. She looks kind of mean in this photo but it simply isn’t so. This is what the set-up looked like from our classroom on campus this year.

            Lucky, so lucky to be there this year. It was an oasis I badly needed, an oasis I hated to leave. The degree to which I am mourning it shocks me- do I really dislike my life so much? The one I made all by myself over all these years? Of course not. But there are so many things I dread and even despise about what everyone agrees is the necessary business of life. Not so long ago I wrote in my journal that as I lay dying (someday far far from now) that I will toss bouquets to heaven, rejoicing that I will no longer have to fill out financial aid forms, file taxes, pay bills, navigate mortgage refinancing, fight property valuation increases, rob Peter to pay Paul. ‘Hallelujah!’ I will shout- or gasp, or whisper or maybe just think- ‘I can just be me again!’

I always see turtles when I hike up on the trail behind the school. They always tell me the same thing: You already have everything you need.

            That’s what it felt like this last week. I was just me. Not responsible for anyone else. I am amazed at how little I thought of my family, those I’ve lost, even my daughter who is everything to me.  I forgot all week that I was a mother, a daughter, a teacher, an employee, a homeowner, all of it. I allowed myself to simply be. I didn’t have to justify the time I spent reading, writing, listening, making art, exploring or simply looking out into the distance for long periods of time. I mean justify it to myself because it’s mostly me looking over my own shoulder saying ‘don’t forget you have to… remember to… it’s been a long time since you… you really ought to- clean, cook, shop, weed whack, visit, call, pay, plan, work your two jobs since that is what pays you.’

Circle time with new and old friends in the evenings was a great joy after the last 18 months.

            I am not alone or unique. It is what many experienced at the workshop. This glorious week and then we go home floating high with what we have learned, experienced, created. And there are our lives waiting for us to pick up the reins again. How do artists, writers, dreamers keep it all going? Those dear mothers of small children have an especially hard time because finding time to write feels like stealing time from your babies. Say what you want, that’s what it feels like and how can anything beautiful come from what is stolen? I remember well that precious, tender, terrible time.  We talked about this in our last class with the remarkable George Ella Lyon who is a wonder and a gift. She walks us through our own mansions with an enormous keyring at her waist unlocking door after door for us, saying ‘here, did you know you have this room in your house? Now you can come in anytime.’ But on our last day, many of us were despondent- how on earth can I even find that room again once I get home?

Every morning, spiders webs magically appear on the bridge over Troublesome.

            I have some thoughts on thresholds and doors you can close. When everything shut down in March 2020, we all went home. It was exciting at first, an adventure, something new. I require solitude, crave quiet. The busy-ness of traveling here and there, being split between my two jobs can be very wearing, so being at home really appealed to me. In some ways life was more peaceful, in other ways it was maddeningly loud inside my head. Suddenly there were no boundaries between work and home, between my two jobs, between my family and my writing life. No thresholds to cross, no journeys to help reset and refocus for the next task at hand. There were no doors to close to keep the outside from coming in and I felt I had to be reachable at all times. Tethered to the computer screen, I worked to figure out how to teach theater online, how to have Sunday school, how to keep children from feeling the way I did- unconnected, unreal, unimportant. Truly maddening. 

Statue of boys sledding high on the hill in front of Preece House.

            My office at home isn’t a room exactly, more like an odd-shaped hall at the top of the stairs leading to other rooms, a feng shui nightmare as energy hemorrhages from that space. It’s okay for business type stuff but not for the deep dive needed for writing. I fiddled with spaces all last year- found the best settings for my various zoom classes, rearranged furniture, created a writing space in my bedroom where I actually have a door to close. I designated different desks in the house for different endeavors. I have a ridiculous number of desks, perfect for someone who habitually takes on too much. 

So here’s the current line-up: 

The Business Desk: At the top of the stairs. It is an office type desk with filing cabinets that I bought at Big Lots ten years ago. It’s for businessy type things, including my work for school or the church. 

The Letter Desk: Not six feet away is my childhood dresser desk, a Victorian affair with drawers and a desktop you lower to reveal cubbyholes. For letter writing and my international postcard obsession, for correspondence of any kind that involves paper and pen and the stamps that I love so much.

The Poetry Desk:  A small cherry school type desk with a sloped top that I got in a neighborhood second-hand shop. It sits in a window dormer to the right of the Business Desk. It has been largely ignored these last couple of years but it is reasserting its importance.

Lap Desks: I have these two very old pressed cardboard lap desks that I got when I helped my cousin clean out an old relative’s house decades ago now. They have held up remarkably well. They travel out on the patio if it’s nice or beside the fireplace if it’s cold or in the armchair upstairs that looks out into the yard if I want to keep an eye out for the birds and the postman. This is where I do most of my journal and blog writing and my reading.

The Magic Desk: In my bedroom/meditation room with a door I can close, a gift from a family friend long ago. It’s an antique secretary desk with a drop front and cubbyholes, like the letter desk. This is where I work on The Tapestry Room, a historical fantasy novel for young readers. It’s a solid push week or two away from completion. Here is the one place in the house I can close the door. If I mindfully cross the threshold into this room, say ‘I am a writer entering a sacred space’, the chatter in my head quiets down. I close the door, take the three steps down in to the room, play the music that is my touchstone and almost immediately the peacocks swish their tails and I can enter the world of the book. 

The Magic Desk

By moving from desk to desk, I can change gears and officially set aside the thoughts that do not belong to that desk. It’s how I trick myself into focusing and mostly it works, helps keep my work separate and clear. It helps to make a little room for the private work of my soul. I write, not because I especially like writing, but because I love having written. It’s a lightening of the heart, the spirit, a secret bright joy. But then that feeling wears off and you have to write again. Patsy Kinser, one of the remarkable poets in my class, said that writing is her exhalation. She breathes in life, loss, love and exhales poetry. I love this. Inspiration, exhalation. Yes.

The Chapel up the hill by the burial places of writer James Still and teacher Elizabeth Watts.

In her keynote, Adriani (I feel we are on a first name basis now) told us to set our alarms two hours earlier to write, fresh from sleep, before the world starts making demands. She said to create a sacred space for writing, even if it’s just a corner of the kitchen table. A woman after my own heart, she advocates getting dedicated notebooks for projects- no writing the grocery list or the household chore to-do list in the novel notebook. She said ‘Love everybody, take care of everybody, but put yourself on that list too’. Over and over her message was: Don’t waste time, don’t kick that can down the road, you’re feeling pretty good right now- get it down. Don’t. Waste. Time.

On the last night, it’s a longtime tradition to read The Brier Sermon by Jim Wayne Miller, one of the founders of the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop. It’s about being born again to the birthright of Appalachian heritage. Everyone in the circle reads a part of it and joins in on the refrain “You Must be Born Again”. We ended this year by singing Will the Circle Be Unbroken, hoping that next year everyone will be together on campus.

            Making time to write is very difficult, then actually writing is harder still. The world leans in hard telling us that what’s in our hearts and heads can wait, isn’t important, will never lead anywhere. That’s the voice of Death. It will come soon enough, no need to listen to it right now. Write. Glory.