The Fox at Dawn

The Flood: Five Weeks Later
The Bridge over Troublesome Creek and Uncle Sol’s Cabin.

Most summers for the last twelve years you can find me at the Appalachian Writer’s Workshop the last week of July at the Hindman Settlement School on the banks of Troublesome Creek. Like a migrating bird, I cannot help but land at that same place at that same time. I was not born in Appalachia, but I’ve had many rebirths there. As a teenager, long ago, I fell in love with its music, which led me to its literature, then its history, its landscape and its people. I’ve managed to find work there as a teaching artists through the Kentucky Arts Council for months at time in years past, giving time to learn, time to explore. We often spoke of a chosen family, well Appalachia is my chosen home and the fierce, hilarious and talented people at Hindman are part of my family.

The Chapel near the graves of James Still and Elizabeth Watts.

The Hindman Settlement School was founded in 1902 by May Stone and Katherine Pettit, educators who were invited by Uncle Sol Evridge to build a school on his land for the benefit of his young ones and his community. There were no real roads, the creeks and streams were your highways. There were few schools and they were far away, hard to get to. This was a truth all over Appalachia. The hills and mountains rise fast and steep, there isn’t much bottomland to build on or to farm. Farmers joked that they scrape their noses on the rocks as they plant their uphill farms. Uncle Sol had a vision- To make a better life for his descendants. He walked more than 100 miles to mail a transcribed letter to Katherine Pettit and May Stone to convince them to start the School. And they came. With the help and support of the people in the community and with help from outside donors, they were able to build a school with houses for boarders, barns for livestock, gardens to grow their own food. They built right beside Uncle Sol’s Cabin which still stands today- a one room log house built sometime in the late 1700’s or early 1800’s.

The annual reading of The Brier Sermon by Jim Wayne Miler.

The School has come a long way since it began. No longer a boarding school, it serves Knott County and beyond through its dyslexia programs, the teaching of traditional folk arts, its burgeoning foodways program that is bringing small farming back into the region and it has been the center of Appalachian literature almost from the beginning. Kentucky treasures Harriet Arnow, Albert Stewart, Jim Wayne Miller and James Still began the annual writers workshop. James Still is buried on the hillside by the Chapel. Writers gather every summer and at times throughout the year to work on their craft, soak up fellowship and to teach each other.

There’s a lot of porch sitting too.

It’s a gorgeous place, a sacred place. Generations of people have made it so. When you are there, you feel that anything is possible and what you have to say matters. When you cross the bridge over Troublesome Creek, you are home.

There are fresh webs every morning on the much loved footbridge we cross to our classes.

Troublesome Creek. It’s a long long creek, with a couple of branches that meet in downtown Hindman, the county seat with one traffic light close to the school. It eventually flows into the North Fork of the Kentucky River and then on into the Ohio. It’s just a little creek. Sometimes the creek goes dry even. Sometimes it rises fiercely and escapes its steep banks. You can tell it’s a troublesome creek by those steep banks, cut by erosion which is a longtime problem in Appalachia. Logging and mountaintop removal have destabilized the area, making it prone to flash floods. They are a common occurrence, part of life. People know how to live with them, at least they thought they did.

July 28th, I was at the Appalachian Writer’s workshop when the flood came. We were halfway through our blessed week. It had rained a lot and we could see that Troublesome was rising a bit, one foot, two feet, well within its banks. Wednesday was a great day- classes, communal meals, evening faculty readings and a trivia game night. Alerts for flash floods came across our phones, you know, the ones we all have learned to disregard. But that afternoon I told my roommate that I thought she should move her car away from the creek side of the main building. Mine was already on a higher spot. Really? She said. Yeah. Just in case. So she did, finding one last spot by mine. It rained hard all evening through our programs and socializing. It had been such a great day, I had trouble falling asleep. It was midnight when I did. At about 2:30 there was loud knocking and urgent voices, something about moving cars if they were on the low side. I stumbled to the hall, heard them say that Troublesome was rising fast. I went to the bathroom and flicked on the light, only there was no light. The electricity was gone. There was this roaring sound I couldn’t place- I shone my phone light out the bathroom window and could see that the usually bone dry little channel beside our residence, called Stucky House, was a white water torrent of water pouring down from the hillsides into Troublesome. DO something, do something. I started filling all the empty gallon containers in the kitchen from the tap in case we’d soon be without safe water. I filled the bathtub. It was all I could think to do.

The rain pounded, lightning flashed. More and more people were waking up, some heading to their cars. Josh Mullins, Hindman program director was soaked, the other Hindman staff too- all going to and fro trying to make sure that folks in the lower apartments were out. Former Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon was in one of those apartments with poet Nickole Brown who had a hunch the world was about to explode. She didn’t go to sleep, but packed up her things at midnight and kept watch over the creek. It started rising so rapidly that by the time she alerted George Ella and helped her pack, water was coming through their door. They landed up at Stuckey, which became the refuge for all the Hindman folks in precarious lodgings. I grabbed my keys and moved my car even further up- driving up the little road that wends its way up past Stucky to the highest house on campus, others followed. People were crying, some had already lost their cars, their trucks, Tamela’s brand new dream BMX motorcycle- they had moved too late. That little tiny creek had risen impossibly fast, higher than anyone had ever seen. Some people stayed inside the living room together, some in their rooms, some on the front porch waiting for the glimpse of the creek that the lightning would give us. It’s over the bridge now, no way out or in. Josh and his team were down in the MIke Mullins Center, trying to pull things to safety from the downstairs offices- the computers, the archives. Josh could see that the creek was up against the new plate glass windows. He was thankful they had put in steel doors when suddenly the creek busted them wide open and all of Troublesome poured in. They got upstairs safely and out the second floor exit. 

Emergency lights in Stucky gave us some dim light, there were some emergency lights on the outside of the Mullins Building. There were four white domestic ducks trying to get into a door, a window, anything. They moved as a frantic little group, they had been washed out of the home. There was an overpowering smell of gasoline, underground tanks had been ruptured and the creek was full of gas and propane and oil. It smelled like it could catch fire at any moment. 

There was one member of the Hindman staff unaccounted for. Corey, his wife and three young daughters, lived across the creek in a sweet little house. The last anyone had heard, they were trying to get to a neighbor higher up, but they didn’t seem to be home. Their home was flooded and Corey’s wife had fallen and had broken her leg. Then we heard nothing. Phones weren’t working, cell towers were down. All night we huddled on the porch or in the living room, unable to believe what we were seeing. Unable to do anything to help. About 40 people, three dogs and two cats had found refuge at Stucky.

When the sky finally began to lighten at about 6:30, I grabbed my umbrella and walked over to the chapel with my friends Tia Jensen and Carter Sickels to see what we could see. From the chapel by the graves of James Still and Elizabeth Watts, you can see down to the creek, the health department and across to downtown Hindman. This is what we saw-

Under that Health Department building there is a parking lot besides which is Troublesome Creek. Then it pans over to the town of Hindman, the taller white building is the county courthouse.
Uncle Sol’s Cabin looking across to the Knott County Library and Opportunity Center. The water had receded about 5 or 6 feet when I took this.
From the porch of the gathering place looking over to the library.

It was about 7am when I saw Corey walk up the hill to his colleagues. He was soaked and muddy, but smiling. Thank god. They all burst into tears and hugged him over and over. ‘I thought you were dead, I thought you were dead.’ They were all safe, but had lost their house, their cars. Corey’s wife needed medical attention badly. He was trying to get her to a hospital, was looking for a vehicle and hoped there was a way to get through the roads.

The water dropped quickly- faster than I thought possible. In a few hours it had dropped 10 feet or more. I felt sure it rose over 20 feet that night, later measurements showed this was correct.

The footbridge over Troublesome after the water had dropped about 12 feet.
The doors to the office busted open. The water reached to the top of the doors at its peak.
Taken from the bridge going to the main road into town after the waters had receded. The water had reached to the top of those doors.
Downtown Hindman. The waters had reached into the second floors.

All of us were numb, in shock really. Some cried, others figured out where to stand to get cell service to call their insurance agents. The smell in the air was noxious- some gaseous bi-product that no one should be breathing. No one knew what to do. We workshop folks knew we were going to be in the way- there was no safe water, no electricity, food was quickly going to be a problem. We knew we had to leave, though we could get no information about what roads were closed, what was open. More rains were forecast and who knew if we would be cut off again. There was a window for leaving and we just hoped for the best. People who had lost their cars were taken home by those who still had them. It took all of us a long time to navigate the way out- turning back when a road was washed out, finding another way.

I drove around someone’s home smeared all over the road. It went from life to litter in an hour.

Our part of Troublesome creek rose like that in the middle of the night, in the dark. What is hard to comprehend is that ALL creeks and streams rose like that across 12-13 counties. It’s unimaginable. Truly. So many homes lie alongside the creeks and rivers- there is nowhere else to build. So many communities nestled down in the hollers were scrubbed out by the roaring waters.

We were lucky, us workshop folks. We had homes that were safe and sound, waiting for us on higher ground. Many thousands did not, having now only the clothes they were wearing. And they lost not only their homes, but their neighborhoods, their roads, bridges, grocery stores, churches, businesses, schools. Outside looking in, you’d say they lost their communities, but you’d be wrong. Appalachian people are uncommonly resourceful, resilient and loyal- That is what a Hillbilly is in reality. They’ve had to be. They’ve never been able to count on outside help, only outside exploitation. So they help themselves and each other. I do not discount the heroic and swift efforts of the National Guard who were able to pull over 700 people off their rooftops, but it was neighbors who saved thousands more- wading chest deep into dark houses to get their older or disabled friends to safety, who paddled up in kayaks, canoes, john boats, rafts to get their neighbors off their roofs, who tied each other to trees to keep from getting swept away. It’s neighbors who are now mucking out each other’s house, building their debris piles, sharing their food, water, clothing, anything they have. The restoration work will take years, and it may well happen again. Hydrologists have estimated that water runoff in the area is now 1000 times worse thanks to strip mining and mountaintop removal, and the heavier rains of climate change make this a real and terrible threat. 

The very morning that Hindman Settlement School woke to its own loss, they pivoted to become a shelter for others, a center for supplies. They scrambled to find grills and found a way to provide three hot meals a day to the community, even as they were trying to save their collection of instruments and their precious archives, a legacy of Appalachian culture. All over Appalachia, this is happening- people coming together to help each other, a true Water Communion, an ingathering of love and care. 

Those of us standing on higher ground have the opportunity of joining this ingathering, of saying “We are your neighbors and we want to help”. That so many people are doing just this, gives me hope. But it’s been over a month now and folks are starting to forget, the news cycle has roared on. I’m writing this now to remind myself, and anyone who will read it, that the flood is not over. Many are living in tents on contaminated ground, others are living in FEMA trailers parked on unreclaimed strip jobs, roasting in the sun, no shade, no way into town, no schools for the children who have nothing else either.  It’s time to build schools, homes, businesses. It’s time to build bridges.

To help Hindman Settlement School check out their website:

To help rebuild schools, check out Buckhorn and Robinson Elementary in Perry County:

To help rebuild LIbraries check out Letcher County Public Library:

Look at the amazing folks at Eastern KY Mutual Aid Group who brilliantly get money and needed goods directly into the hands of people who need help. It’s neighbors helping Neighbors, but they can use the help of neighbors farther afield. Check out their Facebook Group:

Thank you.

June 26th 2022: Two Days After The News
June 27, 2022, 9:43 am
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , ,

Seeking the peace of wild things, I crossed the empty Sunday morning street to make my way to the ravine woods hidden behind the veterans hospital just after dawn. Three young bucks have pulled up short on their crepuscular gallop to assess the threat I may be, sitting here writing in my journal on the stone bench by the trail. Their verdict is not yet in. Now one has ambled quietly away while the others continue to stare. Decision made, they turn their velvety antlers in unison and stroll off after their brother. It comforts me. Comfort too, knowing that if I were to walk back up the trail and go only a little way down the ivied deer path, I would see the barred owl sitting placidly on a low limb, unconcerned by the quiet, gawking me who stood there not long ago silently composing a silly poem in rhyming couplet that went something like this:

God bless the owl
standing guard in the wood
making sure I behave
just as I should.

God bless the trees
whose sheltering arms
keep us all safe
from the world’s many harms.

God bless the little birds
who sing in the dawn
letting us know
the night fears are gone.

A poem I might have written carefully on blue lined paper and laid shyly on my teacher’s desk when she wasn’t looking.

Women and girls will die. Like slavery, a woman’s right to bodily autonomy is put into the hands of states. While the right to carry a concealed weapon is too important to be left to the whims of state legislatures and is now federally protected. As always, it’s the poor who will suffer most. It ought to be comforting to see the collective outrage as I scroll relentlessly through social media and news sites, but I am only further sickened. Women and girls will die. Women and girls will sacrifice their dreams, their ambitions, their gifts, perhaps their lives to have children they never wanted, weren’t ready for or weren’t medically able to bear safely. And society will not help them. Forced to bear children, but no universal healthcare, no paid family leave, no affordable childcare or income help, and no guarantee of paternal support. They are on their own and will be made to feel guilty and worthless as they fill out those humiliating and exacting financial aid forms, endless endless reapplications, that demand much and deliver little. They will work too many jobs for too little money and not be able to make ends meet, not be able to give their children the lives they want them to have. Even more women and children will join the ranks of those who live off the crumbs from the Righteous Table.  I hate our country today because our country hates us.

It doesn’t help, these thoughts. They are a slow dark death. And so I walk, hoping to come through to a clearing where I can see some light.

Voices. Someone dares to enter my woods- are all earth’s creatures territorial? I feel they are spoiling it, these people talking in the wood, I am peeved and put out. But their voices are low and as they turn the bend of the trail I see them, an older couple with an older dog. As they near my place on the stone bench, I tell them of the three bucks ahead in case they want to leash their dog. ‘Her name is Phoebe’- and Phoebe comes to me, a graying standard poodle with a close summer cut, thin, her old hip bones sticking out, her eyes a little cloudy. She is gentle, she exudes love. She bestows a kiss upon me I did not know I needed so much. We talk a bit, the couple and I- of the woods and the weather. This morning walk of theirs is a lifelong ritual, a partnership settled into comfortable balance. A small movement in the trees catches my eye and I see the three little raccoons I encountered with their mother last week. About 25 yards off, they are clambering up a vine-covered tree, their mother must have gone up ahead. I point them out to the couple, but only she is able to see which tree before they disappear into the canopy. I watch her try to show him where to look, kindness flowing between them, and I am suddenly glad for our encounter. My selfishness falls away like a cloak I have dropped. Three encounters of three, a fairy tale scaffold- three bucks, three raccoons, the old woman, man and dog, all these moments of peace under the watchful eye of the owl as the wrens chitter away. I set out for the peace of wild things and found it too in human hearts. I am happy to share this path with them.

Morning Grace 3.10.22
March 10, 2022, 9:06 pm
Filed under: Faith, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

March 10th 2022

“The Calle Florida, roughly equivalent to London’s Bond street but more the width of Wall Street, may well have been one of the prides of Buenos Aires…..but it was not a main attraction to a man in love with the open sky” Stacy Schiff wrote in her biography of Saint-Exupery. It has set me thinking.

This world. This sweet old world.

I’m in love with creeks and unexpected waterfalls, rocks sculpted by time and water.

I’m in love with birds, their songs, their flights, their total lack of concern with me.

I’m in love with the fox, the hidden den, the jubilance of kits rough tumbling in the spring grass.

I’m in love with the voice of the owl.

I’m in love with how a snowfall can blanket the world with beauty and peace.

I’m in love with how flowers push their way up through the winter mud to bloom long before it seems possible.

I‘m in love with music and how the human voice can contain the universe.

I’m in love with the infectious glee of a baby’s laugh.

I’m in love with fresh sheets on a well-made bed.

I’m in love with the miracle of homemade ice cream, with blueberry picking in the early summer, with maple syrup made from trees I am standing under.

I’m in love with my fountain pen.

I’m in love with the sudden summer storm that changes everything.

I’m in love with Orion wheeling across the winter sky and the moon in all her phases.

I’m in love with bookstores and cemeteries, with a sailing ship that sits proud and brave on the bottom of a frozen sea.

I’m in love with a picnic table in the Little Wood where I write by lantern light before the dawn.


Driving to school, I listen to the news. The bombing of the maternity hospital, the escape routes cut off, the soulless attacks on Ukrainian civilians. The world wrings its helpless hands in witness. I sit now in the peace of my classroom getting ready for the cheerful rush of children. The sun rises from behind the winter trees and I hear only the sounds of the school waking up. Ukraine, I send this morning grace to you.

My classroom.

12/24/21 Christmas Eve in the Little Wood

            It’s the day most longed for in childhood, better even than Christmas. It’s that delicious sense of being just around the corner from wonder and miracle, just about to see the true beneficence of the Universe. It’s a Holy Day of Expectation, perhaps better than the day itself- the unwrapped gift might be anything, the child coming into the world might shine a great light.

            Once I knew the secret- that the miracle lived under my own roof- I was allowed to sneak back downstairs after my younger brother was tucked into bed (my sister was not yet born) so that I could become part of that miracle too. Back then, when we were small and the world was large, we put up our tree and left it undecorated when we went to bed on Christmas Eve. Coming downstairs on Christmas morning to see the tree ablaze with glory was the first magic I ever knew. And if the daylight revealed a rare and fresh snowfall- my goodness, what wonder there was in the world! What a glorious place to be! So much of the hard parts of life melted away. Of that I will not write, I will not conjure back into being. 

Once I figured out from whence this wonder came, I was invited to be part of it. The thrill of being a co-conspirator, a fellow magician, a Christmas angel! I got to help decorate the tree, I got to set out the cookies and milk and beer for Santa, for by the time Santa got to our house he needed a beer. When it came time to set out the gifts, I was sent upstairs to bed. But how on earth could I sleep when I knew what was happening below? Listening closely, I heard their voices, the tone, not the words. I heard rustling, an occasional clank. I lay there calculating- could it actually be —- that I hinted at last week? Would my brother be getting the — he wants so badly?

In the morning, we sat at the top step above the turning at the landing where we could not see below and waited for the all clear to come from below. We rushed down the steps, only I’d hold back a step or two. My eyes were not on the tree and the generosity that spread out beneath it, my eyes were on my brother’s face. I watched for that moment when the glory sprung full upon him, as it would never fall on me again. But getting to see his joy made my own even sweeter. And so it has been. It became my practice to sit at the top step sometime around midnight every Christmas Eve to simply contemplate the unopened joy that lay waiting below. Whatever house I am in. However old I am. Being one of the Wondermakers of the world is a great privilege and Christmas Eve I breathe in the blessing of it. 

It’s before dawn out here in the little wood. The unseasonably warm weather has called me out here. I feel much better having written a bit. The prosaic demands of the holiday obscure the poetry of it, obscure the soul of it, which I crave. Kept too long in the saucepan of checklists, I bubble up into irritation, my gratitude sailing off like steam. Our family plans have changed fifteen times since Sunday, as fully vaxxed and boostered members of the family test positive for the insidious Omicron variant. Time here in the dark, under the trees helps me recover my footing. 

A photo has fallen out of my journal- an old black and white one that Mom gave me some months ago of Great-Aunt Virginia Cook and her infant daughter Carole. They are in front of their long ago Christmas Tree, hung with silver bells and tinsel. Aunt Gigi (not my real aunt, I only found out as a teenager) is smiling so beautifully, so much happiness radiates. A young widow, her horrible husband gone. She raised her daughter alone, working at a bookstore to do it. In the photo, there’s a stack of identical books on a table, with empty boxes set on top. Perhaps she is about to wrap them for gifts. I never noticed that about the photo before now. Many years after this photo, I would be one of the recipients of well-chosen books from her that would be touchstones for me throughout my life. Pickle Chiffon Pie by Jolly Roger Bradfield, The Tapestry Room by Mrs. Molesworth, Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt. Aunt Gigi scraped by, as I do, but she was one of the Wondermakers of the world. As am I.

The sky is lavender now- the light is coming back into the world and the birds are beginning to call to each other- did you make it through the night? I did! Did you? I did! We all did- Halleluiah! Merry Christmas, all you Wondermakers out there. Have at it.

11.26.21 A Full Plate

It’s a sunny, cold morning, the day after Thanksgiving. I only have an armful of firewood left, so I’m sitting in the living room pretending that the fire is lit. It’s cozy anyway. We, my daughter Jess and I, took my mother and Jess’s boyfriend to my brother’s house for Thanksgiving yesterday. There were twelve of us, much larger than just the four of us last year at the height of the stay-at-home era. The year before that, we had travelled to Zionsville, Indiana to have Thanksgiving with my cousin and aunt. And the year before that, we were at my brother’s- a dreadful time I cannot remember without pain. Jess was in the full grip of her eating disorder and I was just beginning the long journey of seeking help for her, finding out what treatment options there were, trying to understand what exactly we were dealing with. I was plunged deep in darkness and fear and the agony of guilt. How could I have let this happen? Why didn’t I notice sooner? Why did I take that second job that kept me from home so much? Why can’t I make more money? How am I going to pay for all of this? What can I do to help?  You dogpaddle, go under, sink down, fight your way back up for air. Over and over.

It was so very painful at home. Day after day, Jess closed herself up in her room, answered only in monosyllables or not at all, cut herself with blades she’d steal from my pencil sharpeners. She had nothing but contempt in her eyes for me as she fought all attempts to get nutrition into her before the silent, grim drive to school where I knew she’d eat nothing. Intake interviews, meetings with therapists and doctors, directions for what she should be eating, the endless looping fights, the ‘I’m fine, you’re the problem-leave me alone- I hate you-I wish you never adopted me- I wish you were dead’. No life partner to tag team with, no arms to shield me even a little from the attacks that seemed to come from an alien inside her. In the middle of this we had to celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family and with new family from my brother’s recent marriage. What a trial it was. Walking on tightropes, on eggshells, on broken glass, on hot coals. Any of those, all of those. Some of the family knew what was going on, most didn’t. I didn’t have the language to talk about it, didn’t want to cause pain to Jess by talking about it to people she didn’t want to know. She was a long way from being able to talk about it herself, a long way from admitting that starving herself was wrong. She was a long way from even being herself. Mental illness is the devil.

Sitting here in the peace of this beautiful day, the panic and fear I felt then rise right back up as I write. Within a week or so of that dreadful holiday, it was clear that she needed to go into residential treatment. McCallum in St. Louis was recommended. It was a race against her 18th birthday- I had to get her well enough by her birthday in February to recognize the severity of her illness and the value of continuing treatment, or she would walk away from it all and cling fast to her anorexia, choosing it over life. I’d then be in the position of taking her to court to get medical guardianship. That Thanksgiving was the beginning of very dark months.

I’ve always been an intensely private person. Something I have always kept to myself was my pain. A lifelong habit, a reflex. Snapshot: My brother and I have spent the morning down the street in the tot lot, sent out to play because Daddy was ‘sick’ and needed a quiet house. I was six, maybe seven, my brother was four or five. Dad had come to get us, calling us when he was within earshot. We went to him and then walked toward the house. Out of habit, I reached out my hand to hold his as we crossed the street and met the lit end of his cigarette. The cherry ember lodged under my thumbnail. I whipped my hand away and held my fist behind my back. ‘Oh baby, are you alright?’ he asked. ‘I’m fine’ I lied. I remember feeling embarrassed. I remember feeling it was my fault. I remember not wanting to make my dad feel bad, even as my thumb burned.

That Thanksgiving, the dark months that followed, I let go of that silence. I let the people at my jobs know what I was dealing with. I knew I needed to talk about it, be open about her illness. For her sake and for mine. I didn’t want her to be ashamed of it I didn’t want her to blame herself. If she was going to get better, she would have to embrace it, accept help, talk about it. If I was going to keep myself from coming apart, I was going to have to do the same. I had just started sharing art again on this blog as a practice, as a source of fun. Those drawings reflected a little of that early pain. I didn’t start writing about J’s journey with Edie, the demon Eating Disorder, until her return from residential treatment. 

The writing helped, the talking about it helped, not having to pretend that everything was okay helped. My family was there for me. My friends were there. I was still falling through space, but not quite so afraid. There was so much to navigate- working with her high school, would she still graduate? What support could she get at school? Would they accommodate her half-day group therapy treatments? The looming 18th birthday- would Jess sign on to continue treatment? That was a terrifying day, skillfully handled by the doctor she loved. Jess signed the papers, she would continue therapy. My knees were literally weak as I walked out of the doctor’s office to drive to school. I was still working two jobs- full-time drama teacher at Walden School and part-time Director of Religious Exploration at 1st Unitarian Church. I was in the middle of directing Mary Poppins, for chrissakes, the all-school musical involving 85 K-12kids. I was told I should join a parent support group, should get therapy myself- but when? When? I wrote, I shared, I made art, I talked. It helped. 

It’s been three years. She is in college now, studying early childhood education. She has joined a sorority, has a part-time job. She has worked hard, very hard at her recovery. There have been trials, setbacks, additional diagnoses, medication changes, trips to the emergency room, progress, many tiny victories, several larger ones. After three years, we are back at Uncle Will’s, back with family after a long Covid separation. It is Thanksgiving and there she is- Jess, herself. Smiling. Cheerful. Helpful. Funny. Beautiful. Proud. Her plate is full. My plate is full. Thankful, so so thankful.

Dusk and Dawn 10.9.21

Men and their leaf blowers have no love for the unwinding of the day as the sun slips down between late afternoon and evening. I shake my fists at them and walk by with my middle fingers in my ears. I know I am invisible to them, all they can see is their task. My neighbors in the big white farmhouse have set up a long, long table in the middle of their yard with white linen and enormous candelabras. I expect the Mad Hatter and the March Hare will arrive soon followed by a sleepy Dormouse and then a befuddled Alice.  It is a delightful sight. It’s a Friday night and once again I am home alone, breathing a sigh of relief. My week is always so very full, so many students, colleagues, all in motion, a buzzing hive of exploration and things that must be done.

Home again from school and from retrieving my dear old cat Piper Rose from the vet I set some things right in the house and step out again with my binoculars and field bag holding my eyeglasses and journal, intending to find magic, intending to take my time walking and looking at the world as if it were new. Remembering the owl’s song this morning, calling from the languishing black cherry in the back of my yard, I do not go far. I can hear the cars rushing along Brownsboro Road, folks hurrying home to their weekend, blind to everything thing else- I don’t wish to be swept into their current. I walk slowly around the little wood behind my garage, then slowly around the block, letting the tiresome leaf blowers complete their tasks. I sneak up the wooded lot next to the new neighbor who has never actually moved in, though she bought the house back in May. I stop every few steps to look, to see, to take a breath. A pair of young squirrels run off a tree in a game of chase, one of them nearly runs up my legs as if I were another tree but swerves at the last moment, unconcerned that I am human. It makes me smile, I feel honored. Now, here I am at the picnic table in the little wood where no one ever sits except me, once in a blue moon. 

The trees are so patient. I sit and wait with them. Still holding their summer leaves for a little while longer, except for the tall black cherries who are starting to let those tired old things go. The green is giving way to gold and yellow, other colors creeping in. The sun is setting soon. I look for the owl and hope to hear its call before I head into the house. I wait, the trees wait, the traffic roars in the distance, the crickets sing, the breeze disappears, voices from Alice’s party grow merrier and louder as the guests arrive. Owls do not care for parties. There’ll be no calls this evening, but I’ll be back before dawn. 

Saturday morning, I am here and so is the owl. Alice’s party has been long dispersed, the tea has grown cold. I woke at six, fed the clamoring cats, put on clothes to protect me from tick and chigger and mosquito, picked up my binoculars, journal and a little lantern and stepped quietly out the art room door to the call of the owl, sitting high in the black cherry, my old friend Orion shining in the sky behind it. Good morning, my blessing.

            I’m at the table writing by the light of the lantern, the night insects sing. The owl moved from the cherry into a tree here in the little wood where it sang a while longer and then grew silent. Perhaps it has moved on. Perhaps it will come back. I hear the distant hum and thrum of the roads, even early on this weekend morning people have places to be that aren’t where they are. I dream of living where I cannot hear them, cannot hear their busyness. I dream of living where the song of God quiets the noise in my head.

            I do love it though, my house on the hillside, my willful yard, this hidden little wood and lane behind it, right in the heart of Crescent Hill. I love that owls live here, that foxes and deer have made their way here from time to time. Raccoons, possums and rabbit are longtime residents. I love that I can walk to the library, bookstore and bakery, to Oscar’s hardware and Tammy’s consignment shop. I can stand in the road and talk with my neighbors, be part of block parties and celebrations. It is good, so good. The stars peek through the trees, the sun won’t be up for another forty-five minutes or so, the night sings on.

I’ve been reading The Tapestry Room, the book I am writing, here by the lantern light. Little insects make their way across the page, I note their progress. I look up to see the morning light creeping in. Suddenly a bird sings, she has seen the dawn too. More birds are joining in. I can see the ground more clearly, can hear the traffic grow louder, more insistent on its importance. The stars have disappeared. Night’s song is over- not quite, not quite- the owl is back, calling ‘who cooks for you? who cooks for you?’ I do, my friend, I do. I turn back to my reading, live inside the world that is as real to me as any. Each time I look up from it, the outside world has changed. Color is creeping into it as the earth turns toward the sun. 

(Drawn with plants from the neighborhood.)

My neighbor Bob just walked past on the little lane, off for his morning walk and coffee. I don’t think he even saw me sitting here. I turn off the lantern, useless now, and go into the house.

Froggyland: September 8 2021
September 7, 2021, 9:16 pm
Filed under: Teaching, Theater Making, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

Sometimes we chase that rabbit right down its hole. We did it today in my second period drama class, my smallest high school class of two students and myself. We went over Cassie’s assignment from last week- “Ripped From the Headlines”- one of several generative writing prompts for our ten minute play project. The assignment was to find three headlines that caught their attention for dramatic possibilities. They were to write about how it might be explored on stage, including the link for reference. Like most of our drama assignments, I give them time to work on them in class and then we share them and talk about them. I offer all sorts of news outlets for them to explore, but they are more than capable of finding their own. We are all inundated with news headlines wherever we go and whatever we do, most of it click bait, designed to make us want to click on it so that we see their particular ads ads and more ads. But I love these juicy headlines, and so do the kids. Florida Man headlines alone could fuel our whole play festival. Well, Cassie found this one on NPR: Welcome to Froggyland, the Croatian Museum that may soon come the US. 

I clicked on it there in class and a rabbit hole opened up that was, and continues to be, irresistible. We were fascinated, delighted, repelled and awestruck all at the same time. It is a museum dedicated to the work of Hungarian taxidermist Ferenc Mere who created it sometime between 1910 and 1920.  Over 500 frogs in 21 dioramas depicting a wide variety of human activities, life in the early 20th century. Beautifully preserved, no incisions, he used a laborious process of removing the insides of the frogs through their mouths and then stuffing them with sawdust and cork. He then posed them in a circus, a schoolroom, a pool hall, an orchestra, a dentist office, on and on and on. Really you can’t take your eyes off them. 

The whole collection was found in a Serbian attic 50 years ago and then sold to the grandmother of the current owner, Ivan Medvesek, whose parents started the museum years ago first as a traveling exhibit. Now it’s in a building outside the walls of an ancient palace built for the 4th century Roman Emperor Diocletian in the Baltic resort town of Split in Croatia. Its brochure says “Froggyland and first love will never be forgotten.”

I haven’t stopped thinking about Froggyland all day. I abhor taxidermy, it makes my skin crawl, and yet…and yet- why can’t I stop looking?

I guess it’s because of the questions. How did Ferenc Mere start this? Why frogs? And most importantly to me, I can’t stop wondering about how he accomplished this work in the midst of the Great War. Was it made as a sort of response to the war? That war was the end of a way of life as it was known in Europe, it ushered in the century of violence that followed. Did Ferenc labor on preserving his small world as his larger world was blown to bits?

And I wonder how the collection came to be in a Serbian attic. What journey did it make, how did it survive. Was it stowed there for safe keeping during the Second World War and then forgotten? I am imagining a new homeowner making a shocking discovery as they come into possession of their new home. 

Attendance at the museum has been down during the Pandemic. And the current owner is a little weary of the frogs, a family inheritance he never asked for. He says that he is selling it to US investors. I find myself hoping it might go on display somewhere nearby.

It is a morbid fascination I admit, but look at the artistry! The skill! The humor!  And it doesn’t hurt that I have my own love of frogs, though I prefer them alive or fictional. There are quite a lot of them in the middle grade novel I have almost finished writing. And there is the prettiest young frog currently residing in my little fish pond. I spy on her with my binoculars any chance I get. 

Froggyland makes me happy because it makes me wonder. Humans are often terribly disappointing, but then they are also endlessly interesting. In such an horrific time, Ferenc Mere made a harmonious and timeless little world, literally out of death. I want to learn more about him. I want to see his work. And I hope Cassie writes her play.


“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. 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.

Blueberries on the First Day of Summer
June 21, 2021, 4:46 pm
Filed under: Art of the Day, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,
The rows of the blueberry farm 
are dotted with women, 
some alone and some in pairs, 
tending each other’s children. 
Their voices are so kind 
as they intone the blueberry mantras-

  Remember, only pick the blue and purply ones. 
If they are white or green or reddish, 
let them alone to ripen a bit more for someone else.

  You may eat one, 
but see how many you can put in your basket.

  Oh that’s a beautiful big juicy blue one! 
Perfect to bring home to Daddy.

They talk to each other in low voices, 
sharing ideas for the cooking, 
baking, eating and drinking 
of blueberries. 
They talk of their grown children 
or their little ones. 
The summer plans, how different this one is 
from the last dreary year. 
How often they call their parents, 
How often their children call them. 
How peaceful it is 
How they wish they could pick all day, 
the gratifying sound of berries 
being dropped into their buckets. 

My mother has worked her way well down the row. 
She can’t get low to pick the ones underneath anymore,
she reaches only what she can and that is enough. 

I look down the row from time to time to make sure she hasn’t fallen. 
It is getting hot and our buckets are getting heavy. 
We agree it’s time to stop, though I ache to pick more-
Blueberries make you greedy. 

We head slowly back to the entrance where we will pay. 
Her back to the sun, her hair is soaking wet.
I carry her bucket now, so I’m balanced I say.  
We take our time. It won’t be long years before
My daughter will carry my bucket
On our slow walk back.

“I’ll pay for everyone’s blueberries. That’s what I’m here for,” 
she says and I think of Great Aunt Mimi 
standing at the kitchen sink decades ago, 
doing the dishes after a big family meal.  
‘This is my contribution’ she would laugh, 
‘I never learned to cook, but I can wash dishes.’

This is what women do-
They do what they can.

Land of Oz: six

The K-12 Musical is an impossible event that happens every year at the school where I teach theater. Impossible and yet we do it. This year could have been the year we didn’t do one, and no one would have taken it amiss. But I wanted my seniors to have their last show. I wanted the school to have something we could all do that was three dimensional, something that engaged not just our minds, but our bodies and voices as well. And so I devised a version of The Wizard of Oz that took place outdoors before a limited audience that travelled with Dorothy through the Land of Oz. Over a hundred children aged 6-18 took part. Even more added their voices to the music recorded in music class, some even composed the spooky music I added to the sound design. These blog entries are a brief chronicle of the production, the following pieces were born just before before the last great week of rehearsal known as Tech Week.

Cue the despair

I’ve hit that inevitable stage
Where I’m certain
There’s no way in Hell
Heaven or Earth
I can pull it off.
The tasks are insurmountable
The kids don’t know what they are doing,
And what’s more, they never will.
No matter how hard I pull,
It’s not going to cross the finish line.

Time to get a big haircut.
It’s my only hope.

Sunday morning at Cave Hill

I am pretending for a little while that the world of Oz is not barreling down on me, that I have all the time in the world to sit here on this stone bench, content in the knowledge that there is a fox family safely cuddled in its den, just to the right of the azalea hedge. A glimpse of them would be more than I could stand. The gates just opened, I’ve not seen anyone else except for a grounds crew whacking the grasses around the graves near the great gingko tree-  FOX!

Look at what the Korte Family made! Glory!
All the things 
still to be done
Jostle for center stage,
Twist into a familiar headache
And wake me hours before dawn-
What about me? Me! I was here first,
You haven’t forgotten about me, have you? Me!
Puzzle pieces clamor
To be put in their place.
Breathing at the meditation window,
The sky is full of helicopters
Hovering over some disaster 
Unfolding across the river.

There’s a brawl inside my head,
I cannot hear the birds who sing before first light.
Their faith in the dawn does not forsake them.

Dorothy’s House under construction.
Careening into Tech Week

Fatigue makes it harder to keep my footing
In the stream of special requests
To miss rehearsals
To miss performances
dance recitals, horse shows, 
track meets, college visits, 
haircuts, doctor’s appointments
so sorry couldn’t be helped 
hope it’s not too much trouble
too much trouble
too much
my brain is spinning 
like Dorothy’s house-
How do I make that work?
Steal ten minutes here, fifteen there,
lunch, recess, practice, prepare.
I’m supposed to be able to pull
Whatever I need out of my little blue bag,
Voila, I’m supposed to say,
Here is your solution
Here is how we will make this work
But today I don’t think
I’m a good enough wizard to manage it.