The Fox at Dawn

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.

2.25.2021 Snowdrops

They have done exactly what we asked them to do, the children. Last March, almost a whole year now, we asked them to retreat down into the safety of their screens as we closed the schools down. Of course it had to be done. Down down down they went into their respective burrows. Their lives became very small, smaller still through the winter that has kept us mostly indoors. Being with anyone other than family is a rarity. Going to the grocery is an occasion.

            The school where I teach has offered in person classes since the middle of fall. Not everyone chose to come back, but the ones who did, came back to a wildly different school. It’s a pod-based world where they sit in one room safely (it is hoped) distanced from the desk next to them. All day they sit there, unless the weather allows for breaks outside. The teachers of the various subjects come to them, lunch is brought to them.  They sit. A lot of us teachers try to get them moving as much as possible, but it is getting harder and harder to get them to do it. At least the middle school classes I am teaching. I go into their pods to teach them, but I am also simultaneously teaching the other pods down the hall and the kids at home who have chosen to simulcast their classes. So I am teaching the kids in the pod face to face, only I am tethered to the tiny computer camera through which I try to reach all the other students. It’s schizoid. I teach theater. Normally this is an on-your-feet class full of games, team building, improvisations and rehearsals all working toward an end of semester production. All of this has been shot to hell this last year, though my high schoolers and I have created original plays written for and about Zoom that I am very proud of.  Zoom plays don’t work in the hybrid middle school world though.

            The year has dragged on and on. Often I feel myself floating above my life feeling that I have dreamt it. I have to remind myself at times that I am actually a teacher, that I have a job at a school that is real and that I am teaching real classes. And if I feel that way, I know the kids do too. School may not feel real at all to them, the assignments, the online lectures, the tests. There is so little you can actually touch. The body is not involved at all. It’s all blah blah blah, a tiny head in a box. 

            The winter has been hard on us all. I’ve become invisible to kids I have known for years, kids I’ve directed, laughed with, applauded for. The first day back from winter break, I walked into a classroom and said ‘hello, I’m so happy to see you’ and no one raised their head. They are sunk down into their chromebooks, some have earphones on. They don’t see me, they don’t hear me. I am not real to them. Their bubbly banter is gone. If they are communicating with each other, it is through subterranean tunnels connecting their burrows that we cannot see. Last March we asked them to live inside their screens and they complied. They are down there now, in their cozy tunnels or their snide dens (if they are seventh graders). I stand at the entrance and call down to them- Can you hear me? Is anybody home? Ollie Ollie in come free!

            The sun is returning, there are warmer days ahead. I’ll do my best to lure them out again, create a safe place for us all to play.  I pray that they are like the snowdrops now blooming all over my hillside. Once the weight of winter has melted away and the danger has lifted even a little, I pray that there they all are- blooming, undamaged, undiscouraged.

Spring. All is resurrected, you might as well be too.

1.30.21 The First Bloom

I have loved Cave Hill Cemetery all my life. I grew up a few blocks away and have been exploring it now for decades. It’s close to downtown Louisville, but is hundreds of acres over rolling hills, sinkholes, an extensive cave system, a rock quarry and a few lakes fed by springs. It is an arboretum along with being an historic cemetery and the final resting place of over a hundred thousand souls. Some are known names like Muhammad Ali, George Rogers Clark, Colonel Sanders, while others are names long forgotten like hundreds of women and children cast away by society, and thousands of men thrown into the teeth of the Civil War. There are endless stories at Cave Hill. A few days ago I took a long ramble there, thinking my thoughts and feeling the presence of a friend long gone.  I  chanced upon a tree by the lake that was actually blooming- so early! So unexpected!

That evening I took part in a workshop on Zoom called “Writing with Scissors” facilitated by the delightful writer Dianne Aprile. In it we explored a few forms in which we could combine collage with writing. Creating collages is deeply comforting, something about the action of cutting and pasting is healing. Unexpected relationships emerge, the sum always greater than the parts. I wrote a Haiku about the morning’s walk at Cave Hill and created a small collage triptych in the form of a little book.

This is the front:

It opens to this:

Then fully opens to this:

The back of the above page looks like this:

The day was a balm. It’s been a year of walls closing in, anything that opens them up is a great blessing.

The quarry at Cave Hill Cemetery.

Troublesome: Hindman 2020
August 8, 2020, 2:47 pm
Filed under: Art of the Day, Uncategorized, Writing | Tags: , , ,
With the Land:5 drawn with leaves & flowers from the yard, and ink.

We have all of us felt it, all of us lucky ones.

We have felt that thing that happens when you cross over the little bridge spanning the creek. The creek. Troublesome Creek.

It’s a homecoming.

Interruptions INTERruptions IntERRUPTIONS

As soon as I almost (almost) get the thoughts into the corral, I’m texted by my daughter who needs me to come downstairs immediately to zoom in with the therapist who is helping her to dig herself up and out of the eating disorder vortex that has sucked her in during the pandemic lockdown. And so I go and just like that my thoughts, feelings and words gallop off in three different directions.

When you cross Troublesome, those interruptions stay home. They have to go to great lengths to track you down.


With the Land: 1. Flowers, leaves, pencil, ink.

Troublesome Creek runs through Hindman, the seat of Knott County in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. It is the home of the Hindman Settlement School, founded in 1902 by May Stone and Katherine Pettit. It was the first rural settlement school in the United states and is one of the few remaining. Its programs have changed over the years, but its mission has not: Honor the past, improve the present, and plan for the future of Central Appalachia. They have dyslexia programs for children, parents and educators, a burgeoning foodways program that is revitalizing agriculture in Appalachia and many cultural heritage programs, one of which is the Appalachian Writers Workshop. For 45 years it has been both incubator and life raft for writers with ties to Appalachia.

The last week in July, we lucky ones get to cross the bridge and spend a week in this place that has been held sacred for generations. Every year I reflect on what it is that transforms a place into sacred ground. It is a collective project undertaken by all who come. Everyone who crosses that bridge is there to teach or learn or to somehow support the work that is being done there. Minds and hearts are bent on exploring, discovering, sharing, expressing, supporting, celebrating. There is tremendous joy in such company. This joy creates a light that shines in the day to reveal hidden paths and glows through the night to heal the soul. It sounds hyperbolic written here, but anyone who has been will tell you that this is so. The busy-ness of our everyday life cannot reach us for a blessed while. Us! What happiness to be an us, to be a we not a me. In this company we do not need to explain or defend ourselves. We do not need to hide.  

With the Land:2. Flowers, leaves, pencil, ink.

This Year of the Plagues or Year of the Great Reckoning, Hindman was online. 

Enormous collective sigh. 

Collective mourning, too, of all that we would lose:

-The rituals of arriving, claiming your bunk, finding your roommates.

-The Welcome lecture that never fails to mention snakes.

-Hugging old friends, catching up in a heartbeat.

-Three delicious meals a day magically appearing just when you need them, eaten in lively togetherness. (Never underestimate how far this goes in setting the muse free)

-Dishwashing duty with old friends and new friends and literary heroes.

-The sparkle of dew on the morning spider webs spanning the footbridge to class.

-Staying up late talking in groups, talking in pairs, singing in circles, at the Gathering Place, on porches, up in the open air chapel on the hillside by the graves of James Still and Elizabeth Watts, passing moonshine in jars until far too late.  

-Negotiating sleep in the bunkbeds, being reminded of what it is to snore.

-The revelation of the participants readings, hearing a poem by your new dishwashing friend that makes you gasp, then cry, then laugh again, leaving you full of wonder.

-Laughing at Robert Gipe’s masterful introductions in the evening readings, performance events unto themselves. 

-More revelations as the instructors read their work. Damn, they can write, words so evocative and well-aimed that they can split a tree in two. 

-Feeling that time has stopped as you sit in your workshop class, finding facets in your own work you didn’t know were there, like that reoccurring dream you have of finding new skylit rooms in your house.

-Hiking the loop up behind the highest cabin, looking for the box turtles that always tell you the same thing: you already have everything you need. Just write.

-Listening to the keynote speaker after an unforgettable Appalachian feast. Such as Nikki Giovanni beginning her talk with “The penis is in trouble y’all”. And the glory of Dorothy Allison’s thunder and lightning, her gentle rain and the sun coming out, her benediction shooting us from the cannon: ‘Now get the fuck out of here and write!’

-Partaking of holy communion in the ritual reading of Jim Wayne Miller’s “The Brier Sermon”, a poem that exhorts us: ‘You must be born again`.

And we are, every year. 

We wondered, I wondered, each of us wondered- would any of this survive the 2020 Pandemic edition?

I had my doubts. For one thing, there would be no journey. There wouldn’t be planning, packing, securing the household for my absence, loading up the car and pulling away. There wouldn’t be the long drive from the flatlands, to rolling farms, to foothills and off the highway into the mountains. I wouldn’t see my cell service come and go, pass the signs for Frozen, Typo, Flat, Mary, Dice, Pigeonroost, Rowdy and Dwarf. I wouldn’t rejoice when I finally get WMMT on the dial, wouldn’t feel my heart quicken when I got to Hazard, frown and shake my head as I passed the Lost Mountain, smile the rest of the way up the Daniel Boone Parkway, still refusing to call it Hal Rogers, positively sing as I take that turn past Yoder’s, down the big hill into Hindman, turning left onto the James Still Highway at the Midee Mart and right again over the bridge spanning Troublesome. And there I am, looking for a parking space and scanning the porch at May Stone- who is already sitting there rocking away, waving as the cars pull in?

Clicking on a Zoom link is a poor substitute.

With the Land:3. Flowers, leaves, pencil, ink.

And yet- it was there after all. The Hindman Heart. I felt it pounding as I clicked on the links. My friends and teachers were there and new folks too.  Their talent and courage and generosity touched me even as I sat curled up in the armchair by the writing window with my cat Dr. Wilson. We had our classes, the daily participants readings, the evening readings. We had nightly Zoom hangouts with conversation and music, the evening beverage of your choice. My young friend Clayton started a Zoom breakfast club that quite frankly was the highlight of the week for me, coming closest to the pleasure of sitting down and sharing a meal together. I hadn’t realized how much I needed company. We even had suggested attire for each day- formal wear one day, western wear the next and so on until we had a bona fide spirit week. Again, I hadn’t realized how much I needed play.

For the first time this year, Zoom felt homey to me, a comfort. This is miraculous, because after teaching online all spring and having my second job online as well, I have come close to flinging my small screen overseer into the fish pond on many occasions. Sure there are ways that the virtual workshop might be improved if, god forbid, it has to be online again next year, but the school did an amazing thing in building a platform that could support the spirit of the workshop in this grand online experiment.  We even managed a reading of The Brier Sermon.

“They say people can go blind gradually.
They say people can go deaf gradually.
Lose the sense of taste little by little.
They forget the shapes of leaves on trees,
forget the sound of the creek running,
the world just blurs, grows silent.
They forget the taste of coffee and all their food.
Now what would it be like if that sight were given back?
If they heard the creek running again, or a crow call?
If suddenly they could taste their food again?
Something is restored to them, a richness.
They’ve found something they didn’t even know they’d lost.
They’re born again to sights and sounds and tastes.

Oh, you must be born again.”

With the Land: 4. Flowers, leaves, ink.

Were we born again? Here I leave the we and go back to just me.

Rebirth? No. But I have been given enough gas to get to the nearest service station. And I am learning how to create the space my own work requires so that I don’t  lose my mind once and for all. Some folks were able to go off and get a hotel room or arrange things so that they had utter privacy as they engaged in the virtual workshop, others continued to work and fulfill family obligations while attending, most tried some sort of compromise between the two. When the children hollered ‘Mom! The dogs got into the garbage and it’s all over the house and they’re throwing up everywhere’, they hollered back down the stairs ‘I’m not here, I’m at Hindman!’  Those people are my heroes. But damn it’s hard to set those boundaries. For me there is tremendous mental resistance and guilt. I’m up against my own fundamental belief that my work is not nearly so important as working the jobs that pay the bills and tending to those I love.

If I don’t fight for the time, I won’t get it. No one else is going to hold that sacred space for me the way Hindman does one week out of the year. I have to hold it sacred myself.

At the beginning of the summer all sorts of little IED’s exploded in my road. Exhausted and depressed from the online school semester, there was the discovery that my daughter had successfully hidden the resurgence of her eating disorder, the failure of a class at college and the subsequent loss of financial aid for the coming year. She was in big trouble, all hands on deck. Weeks were spent wrangling her back into an Intensive Outpatient Program, having to play the villain to get her to eat again, and appealing the financial aid decision based on her learning differences, the pandemic and her mental health. Then there was the pain I felt in not being able to help my mother and her own pandemic isolation because I was spending so much time putting out the fires at my house. I watched my plans for writing retreat further and further down the calendar.

One night in mid-June, I felt particularly low. To distract and amuse myself, I pulled up the Randonautica app,  an oracle adventure designed by quantum physicists. Set an intention, (you don’t enter it, you just think it), keep this in mind as you click on the app requesting a destination that is generated through random quantum calculations that I cannot even begin to understand. I have had remarkable experiences doing this, the interconnectedness of thought and manifestation on full display. My intention: Giving myself permission to write. I got a location that took me to this newish house on Rudy Lane, not far from my mother where I had spent the evening. It was a large house that appeared to be empty. I pulled into the circular drive but felt like I was trespassing, so I pulled out again, drove a little ways off and stopped the car to write my report in the app as being not meaningful. You win some, you lose some. I wrote ‘Just an empty house, maybe I’m missing something’. I decided to ask for a second location, I used my same intention with a great deal more mental intensity “to give myself permission to write, to make the space for it without guilt”. It seemed to take longer than usual to get a destination point. Then there it was- the exact same location I was given before. This had never happened before. I was stunned. Clearly I had missed something.

I did a quick search to confirm that the house was indeed empty- it had been sold only three days before. I went back, parked the car and went to the back of the house where the destination beacon blinked. There was a creek running right behind the house with steep banks shored up in places by caged rock to fight the erosion. The creek was nearly dry, (leap minnow, leap), but evidence was everywhere that it could be wild. It could be, well, troublesome. Of course. That’s where I give myself permission to write. That’s where I give myself permission to think only of myself. It was very green behind that house, thickly shaded by trees on the banks, the light beautiful as it faded. I quite forgot that I was in the middle of Louisville. There was a soggy deck off the back of the house that looked right over the creek. I walked up on it and then saw that there was a wooden footbridge across the creek, where the property expanded into an open field. I crossed the bridge. Permission to write. I need to cross Troublesome Creek here at home.

And that is what I am learning to do. It’s a struggle to override decades of programming. The virtual week at Hindman has given me the fuel to power on. I must cross Troublesome Creek for a time every day, speaking firmly into my own ear- You have nothing to feel guilty about, nothing to fear. Waste and lose no more time, poet. You must be born again.

The palette.

4.13.20 Young God
April 13, 2020, 9:02 pm
Filed under: Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing | Tags: , , ,
Spent a little too much time in front of a screen today.

I wrote the piece below some time ago, a few years ago in fact. I came across it a few days ago and it made me think again about how much I’ve been longing for a change in the way time is spent, about how hard it is to step outside time’s current. I’m sorry, deeply sorry for the pandemic and the loss and suffering it is causing. I’m also relieved to sit on the bank for a time and watch the river rush on, online teaching aside…

Young god
Just try getting to the heart of anything
in the divided day,
patchworked with tasks
driven by calendar alerts,
servant to the god of Newton.
·      don’t forget you have to
·      make sure there is enough to
·      pick up so and so at such and such a time
·      you must remember to
·      do you have time for
·      make sure that so and so knows
·      how long will it take to
(plan teach assess grade sweep clean weed water 
feed clear wash dry fold put away pay collect 
calculate estimate gather cook serve take away 
pick up drop off control keep safe compose send
 flag mark as unread trash)
The gods of Jung sow seeds of revolution 
in my sleep,
where strange long halls in my house open 
to unknown rooms whose ceilings 
are nothing but stars,
where icy seas lap the curbs of my city
and navigation requires a true horizon.
The ancient ones are roused,
the gods of breath and pulse,
of water, wind, leaf and stone.
They are shouting now,
Clamoring between my daylight steps,
I must stop or be tripped-
    Smash all the clocks!
    Tear the leaves from the calendar
    and let them fly through the windows!
    Throw them all on the tracks,
     the train you scheduled is barreling through!
You foolish young god, you,
Time is your own invention.