The campus looked much the same, at least at first glance, the slanting of light as it does in late afternoon, and everything just a bit hazy and just a bit dappled and in spring, just a bit too green.
I have not been on the Hindman Settlement School campus for years now. Not since the pandemic and perhaps a couple of years before that. Sometimes I might drive over for a couple of nights during the Appalachian Writers Workshop, but mostly I keep up with the goings on with newsletters and Facebook posts or chats with friends who are through there often.
Last weekend I packed up the car and my old pal, Alice, and we headed east for a weekend writing retreat. We would be there in time for Earth Day, and we would see Silas House, the retreat leader, just days before he became our Commonwealth’s new Poet Laureate.
The weather was good, the porches were full, friends I’ve just met, friends I haven’t seen for years, and friends I have only known as Zoom boxes were there, and it was fine, fine, fine.
That sounds like it was a horde, but really, we were less than twenty, and a perfect number. For some, it was their first glimpse of the campus since the devastating flood last year. For others, it was that and then some. They had been at the settlement school the night the waters rose, the night they huddled in the dark on higher ground, the night terror could only be gauged when lightening illuminated the approaching water.
The staff and volunteers have done an heroic job of cleaning up, setting the place right, and the flood’s damage isn’t so obvious to the casual eye. But there, around back, a boarded up window, here the door propped up against the side of a building, the door that flood waters ruptured and allowed a torrent of rushing water into the room where two staff members stood as they tried to save what they could. First water around their ankles and then an explosion of force and water chest deep.
We asked for their stories. These conversations were quiet, small. Murmured remembering, soft whispers and the space to hang suspended for a moment, above Troublesome Creek, above the watermark, safe in the moment and together in a precarious world.
The settlement school sits on the side of a hill, looking out across Troublesome, and Highway 160 just beyond, a snaking road carved and dug from a rock face. Over there the meadow, over that way the town. On Saturday the campus filled up with carloads of families, girls in first-time formals, every thing in their way, the high-heeled strappy sandals, the tight dress or the volumious one, neither designed for car rides and walking on uneven ground. Their stiff necks, corded and craning, a great balancing act of hair—piled, curled, bedazzled and unnatural in every way.
Boys in tuxes and Chuck Taylors, cool young men. Only their hands give them away.
Beaming parents, younger siblings, a photographer with a gigantic lens, posing the prom-goers on the bridge, in front of Uncle Sol’s cabin, any number of beautiful late afternoon spots.
We forget sometimes the settlement school doesn’t belong only to us. From the beginning it anchored the community, served the community, held the town in its lap like a mother. And the town of Hindman often returned the favor, and has done since the first days.
Some of us spent the weekend writing, some didn’t write a single word but listened to the words of others. Some of us, and I am in this number, carefully filed and bookmarked the great writing Silas shared to celebrate the world around us. I will read it later. I had to get my quota of laughing in, the old stories I have heard a hundred times and ones I might feature in. The stories of new friends about people I don’t know, as funny or funnier than we think our stories are. This is more lullaby to me than the brook skipping over rocks outside the window. I didn’t sleep well, but I loved long alll the weekend through. It is the nature of the place. And it remains.
Hindman was hurt, but she heals.
(Feature image: Lisa Parker, 2023)