Taking the Hindman Cure

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)

Judging Books By Their Covers

There is much to be said for the  cover of a book.   We all know what lies within may, or may not,  bur well-written.  However,  when the two match up, cover and content, and in a good way, it is a joy not to be taken for granted. 

Here are some of my best loved books, in no particular order, that are as pretty as they are wonderful reads. In fact, sometimes I just go gather them up, together or on their own, to look upon their loveliness.  

In an English bookstore somewhere in Prague, maybe, or Krakow, I picked up “The Miniaturist” by Jessie Burton.  I needed something for the flight home, and the cover just compelled me.  I would describe it to you, but the book is long gone.  I gave it to my friend, Alice, to read.  She refuses to give it back, doesn’t even act sorry that she won’t return it. 

Talks about how it will hurt the book’s feelings and other such nonsense—although she actually believes this, I think—but trust me, the cover is beautiful and the story, set in a 1600s Amsterdam, is wonderful.  So much better than the mini-series. 

Jessie Burton has written a sequel, “The House of Fortune,” and I was so eager to get it I ordered it from London.  This cover is beautiful, too,  the end pages like elegant wallpaper and the text block and foot bands, too. I haven’t read it yet, so I keep it tucked out of sight for those times Alice visits. 

“The Essex Serpent” is another book with a beautiful, flowery and mysterious cover.  My pal, Silas, pulled it from the shelf when a bunch of us were book shopping, just to show me the cover. He said I didn’t have to buy it, he just wanted me to see it.  So, of course it came home with me and sits with my other chosen few, on a bookshelf all by themselves.  I’ve read it twice now, maybe three times, mostly to hold it in my hands.  A hardback book is as comforting as a blankie, all warm and the hefty, but not too heavy. Engaging the senses, the way it smells, the way it feels, the way the words make images in your head. 

Perhaps my favorite book is “Kristin Lavransdatter,” by Sigrid Undset.  This book is not so easy to hold, as it runs 1124 pages in the paperback edition.  But it is a trilogy, three novels in one, so I can forgive the length. The first of the books was written in 1920, and they follow the life of the title character from her adolescence into her adulthood. Set in 1300s Norway, it fascinating and yet relatable.

My friend, Charlene, recommended the book and she would never steer me wrong. I am so glad she told me about it.  Everyone I know who has read it loves it, and vicariously loves Charlene for the recommendation, too. 

Get the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition.  It is beautiful and is translated by the award-winning Tina Nunnally.  Oh, and Sigrid won the Nobel Prize in Literature for it, too.  This might be the one book I would recommend also in the Kindle edition, just because of the size of it.  But at least look at and admire the cover. 

The hardback edition, the one with the feather, is my favorite edition of “Hamnet,” by Maggie O’Farrell. It will break your heart—the cover and the book.  A fictionalized telling of Shakespeare’s family life, and his son, Hamnet is beautiful written, compelling and fascinating. It is really a story of the plague, but so much more. 

I needed a copy of “A Tale of Two Cities,” for my book group.  I settled on a copy from Penguin Classics for only one reason.  The cover is blanketed in knitting needles and yarn all done up.  Now, who could pass that up, when one of the most iconic images in literature is Madame Defarge sitting by the guillotine, knitting?  The print is minuscule, and I mean, fine print tiny, but I don’t care.  I upped the magnification on my cheaters and off I went.  

“A Tale of Two Cities” is hard on me, fine print notwithstanding.  But I like knowing it is there, on the shelf, with my other pretty books, and that any time I want I can take it down and pretend to read it. Or actually read it. We will both look good, however it goes. 

Easter Blooming

Sterling was helping me with yard work on Monday.  She is my favorite helper, having been taught all the specifics and important gardening tips from her grandmother, Ruth.  She has ten years of experience already and isn’t even out of ninth grade.  

So I defer to her expertise and asked about the best time to plant something or other, and did she think it was too early.  

“Give it another couple of weeks,” she said. “The weather has been so crazy this spring.” 

I was thinking it had returned to normal. Remember when there were tornado watches and warnings almost every week in spring?  Spitting sleet in early April, only to sunburn a few days later when the weekend warmed.  The trips to nurseries because you just couldn’t stand it, all that green, all that color waving and making you want, want like you never had before. 

And giving in to the craving, you drive all your little darlings home, line them on the porch and admire their brilliance.  You have sense enough not to plant them in actual dirt, actually outside. A cold snap, one of the notorious little “winters,” and you drag them indoors.  There they adorn the hearth and get so cosy and snug they think their work is over and after all fear of frost has passed, you send them outside, but they refuse to bloom until June. 

This is how it is. This is how a Kentucky spring is supposed to be. 

This is what Sterling doesn’t know. 

Even so, her instincts are spot on.  Not that long ago I had this very discussion with my pal, Sally.  She said, in her clear and unassailable way, not to plant anything until Mother’s Day. 

Mother’s Day. I mean, really.  But then, weather changes. What is warm and balmy, like the breeze this morning as I write on the patio, will give way to clouds and storms by noon.  Even now, I feel the temperature drop. 

I have missed the drama of spring.  Even as I cleaned garden plots in February for an early March planting, I had pangs of sadness, or if not sadness, then wistfulness for the reminder of life’s elements larger than I. The mystery of it.  The test it puts me through.

Easter Week in the Christian tradition begins with the triumphant arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem to cheering crowds and palms at his feet.  It ends with Golgotha and finally, the empty tomb. 

Growing up we didn’t observe Lent, with the fasting a reminder of forty days in the wilderness, didn’t keep an Easter Vigil, didn’t have ashes or palm leaves. 

We had hymns. Each week as Easter approached, the music and the message moved us closer to Good Friday, Easter Sunday.  And the weather helped, in its subtle way. Sun on our faces, warm earth beneath our feet.  Then something turns. Storm, hail, darkness at noon. 

And yet.  And yet. 

A promise.

Things bloom.  They die.  They bloom again.