Hiding From the World In Hindman

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At the time of this writing, ISIS was on the move in Northern Iraq, heading toward Baghdad, cease-fires were not holding in Gaza,  Malaysian flight 17 was still not recovered, spread over a nine-mile swath in the sweltering heat of a Ukrainian summer.

The weekend came and went and a new work week started, and still I refused to watch the news, broadcast or cable, and I turned my attention instead to old reruns of “The Middle”  and “The Andy Griffith Show.” And sometimes even Andy was too modern and I settled in for long evenings of British mysteries set in the 50’s, or costume dramas set in distant centuries.

Because I simply can’t take it anymore. The news is as distressing as I have ever known it, and I have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the Challenger explosion, 9/11, natural disasters splayed all over every channel  on a continual loop, wars, famines, outbreaks of plague.

But never do I remember so many distressing things, so close together,  and a feeling of such utter helplessness and…I don’t want to say it…but hopelessness, too, on really bad days. Each crisis seems to beget another crisis which backburners yet another crisis that stews away until it boils over and some invisible chef rearranges the pots on the stove and it starts all over again.

My mother, who was too young to remember the depression but recalls clearly the war years, says right now is as distressing a time as she can remember. The worst, maybe. She will tell you, though, that they only saw the news at the movies, on carefully controlled newsreels, but the newspapers, big thick things with tiny print, were full of accounts as were the news reports on the radio.

As it is,  the 24 hour news outlets have done me in. I can’t watch any more. I can’t listen to one more “ping” as I receive a push notification of some on-line outlet updating me with news. I want off this ride.

So, I watch “Endeavor” and “Lark Rise to Candleford,” and maybe a Vera Stanhope mystery here and there. And yes, they are murder mysteries, but nothing gory or gratuitous and the plot just clicks along with Vera hurrrumping from one place to another in her baggy coat and unflattering hat.

th-4She calls everyone “pet” or “poppet” but she says things like, “aye, you might be the murderer.”  You gotta love Vera. She’s got issues but she is good at her job and all she wants to do is go home and put her feet up and enjoy her pint.

She looks out over the bleak Northumberland landscape and she seems, if not content,  at least resigned.  But we don’t live on the edge of the North Sea, where I am guessing television and cell reception is poor, and they are spared some of the bombardment of the news.

So, I have turned off the television. I allow myself visits to well-selected and respected web sites of new outlets where I read detailed reports and fair analysis of world events.

And I am looking forward to a week in the mountains, which might as well be Northumberland, at least as far as phone service goes,  And there are no televisions. None.

At all.

Do you know what a rare and lovely thing that is? Not just now, but in general?

I will be at the writer’s workshop at the Hindman Settlement School thand I should be learning a lot and reading good work, and laughing with my friends. We will make up things to laugh at. I call my mother a couple of times, check in with my messages off and on, and then don’t look at the phone for hours, days, because everyone I want to talk to is here.

I am looking forward to silencing the outside world more this year than any other I can remember. I might have reached my capacity for understanding world events. It’s all just too much, too complex, too something.

The forecast for Hindman is this. Temperatures in the 70’s, rainy but still, people, the 70’s. That has never happened. Almost every one of our group will be there, which also almost never happens. We haven’t seen each other in a while so that means pent- up stories begging to be told.

We will serve all our local delicacies at our impromptu late night th-2soirees, things like pickled bologna and fresh-made pesto.  I bring the hot olive cheese spread from J’s, and it goes quick.  I always take extra but they are just pigs, what can I tell ya.

Maybe if the music is fine and the laughter loud I might be able to come home and face the news. Let’s hope.

We’re Going to Graceland, Graceland…

Graceland signMy first visit to Graceland was over thirty years ago.  My sister and I were driving up through the Delta in the middle of a heatwave in my little un-air conditioned Datsun, and she was, I must say,  tad tetchy.

We had been in Greenville, Mississippi where it was 100 degrees at ten o’clock at night, and during the day the heat from the parking lot radiated up one’s legs and lingered, oh, about knee high.  It was an awful sensation and scary.  I had never experienced such a thing.

While we weren’t at each other’s throats, we were soon about to be, so in the spirit of detente, we agreed to take the Memphis exit and go visit The King.  Memphis in the middle of the summer is a hot and sweaty place, and this was an exceptionally hot and sweaty day.  In line with us was a young couple from Scotland, very fair, very red in the face, fanning themselves feverishly, with the look of the doomed about their eyes.

Scotland, remember, is a land of summers in the sixties, with heat waves topping out about 76 degrees Fahrenheit.  I thought it possible we might lose them altogether, and they were sweet, too.  Looked like newlyweds, maybe.   They rallied, though, as they linked arms and half-swooned, half-dragged themselves to the front door.  They were, after all, on a pilgrimage, and that requires sacrifice and discomfort and pain.

They had come to give homage to Elvis.  The King.

Not much has changed at Graceland in thirty years, at least not Graceland itself.  I discovered this back in June when my pal, Alice, and I took her two granddaughters on a pilgrimage of our own.  We talked about taking the girls last summer and it didn’t work out, so this year we got it on our calendars early.

We packed the car with iPads and pillows and took off early one Wednesday morning, the day already hot and humid, as it should be.  The girls giggled in the back, sometimes erupting in outrageous laughter at things only eleven-year olds find funny.

We arrived in late afternoon, too late to tour Mud Island, so we decided to hit Beale Street instead.  How to describe it?   Perhaps a BB King ClubPG-rated Bourbon Street, but it also reminded me a little of Broadway in Nashville, but more cramped, with tiny shops stuffed to the gills with Elvis and blues memorabilia–shot glasses, trinkets, caps, t-shirts and ties.  Just store upon store, and tourists everywhere. Where else but on Beale Street can one score a Bessie Smith postcard as I did?

Nowhere else, I tell ya.

While I took pictures of a metal studded bra through the window of a shop, Alice and the girls wandered down Beale, goofing around with the street performers who paint themselves all in silver paint, stand on boxes and act like statues.  Oh, but I never tire of that spectacle.

Mercifully, the girls were ready to go back to the hotel and swim, and I was all for that, knowing we had a big day tomorrow.

How to describe Graceland, the house?  I really like it.  There.  I’ve said it and I am not apologetic for it.  The joke is to hate it, talk about how tacky it is, and to roll your eyes a little, an indication of your superiority and good taste.

Of course it is dated, DSCF2981 stuck in an early sixties decor, but even thirty years ago Kathy and I agreed that it had a livable look to it, not our style, perhaps, but comfy in its way. Human-scaled, humble.  A house for having friends over to hang out.

What strikes you about Graceland, besides the modest proportion of the house itself, is the near-reverence of the tourists churning through it.  It is quiet.  People talk in hushed tones, not like church, but respectful.  I think it is because Graceland really was his home.  It doesn’t take long to view the house, and then you are in the memorial garden, moving toward the horseshoe of ground where Elvis, his stillborn twin, his mother, father and grandmother are buried.

It’s quiet here, too, out in the sunshine, and the girls are quiet.  Thereare still airplanes to tour, fancy cars to ogle, and t-shirts to buy. A museum to tour with his hundreds of gold and platinum records, his Vegas costumes.

But for a moment, we stand at his grave and think about Elvis. Even the eleven-year olds.

Baby Lil

We are over the moon in our clan because we have welcomed a new addition, Little Miss Lillian. It has been almost seventeen years since we have had a baby around and we just about worn that one out.

He drives now, when he can get the keys and frankly, he has taken a lot of the fun with him. Once they are that kind of mobile, good luck pinning them down after that, and it is a sad day, and there is nothing to do but pack up the Legos, bundle up the colored markers, corral the balls and frisbees and contemplate your decline and eventual demise.

But this new baby, why she can hardly move at all except for her little newborn reflexes—rooting, grasping, startling and the like–so she is apt to stay where we put her for a long time. And that’s just fine with us.

Little Lil is barely a month old and spent the Fourth of July as the main attraction on her grandparents’ sofa. She and her parents–whom we love but are a bit old hat—made the trip home for her first unveiling for the extended family. She must have gotten a bit carsick and by way of greeting she upchucked impressively as soon as they walked in the door. Her evening went downhill from there.

So she was catching up on her beauty sleep on the sofa when we arrived and I wish you could have seen it, all these adults, just sitting on the edge of their chairs and standing over her, never taking their eyes off her sweet little face and all that hair.  For this child was born with some hair. So much that a few days after she was born she had reached up and grabbed a fistful, and didn’t know how to let go until her father, hearing her cries, came to the rescue and pried her fingers loose.

Her mother says she has good dreams, and it must be so, because as we all gazed upon her transfixed, her little nose would scrunch up, she would smile and gurgle, while she dreamed and dreamed and dreamed.

It took some doing, exhausted as she was, but someone, I think her Great Aunt Judi, woke her up. It wasn’t me. We then passed her DSCF3034around like a nice loaf of rye and she was warm like new bread, and smelled divine. The men weren’t in the queue to hold her, because come on, let’s get our priorities straight, but even when they were talking about manly things, the didn’t look at each other but kept their eyes on her.

Because babies are mesmerizing. There are all sorts of theories on this, psychological, anthropological, but why sully a perfectly good story of my sweet little great niece with all that smarty-pants stuff. Babies are mesmerizing because they are ours, they are us.

We have decided, for example, that she looks like my niece, Katie, but only from the eyes up. She looks like Katie because when she was a baby, she had lots of hair, too, and dark eyes, and a wrinkly forehead, just like Lil. I can’t tell you the amount of time we have spent discussing this. As I am sure the relatives on the other side of the family are equally convinced she looks like them.

After hearing the hair pulling story, which is really cute and is destined to be her first family story to follow her the rest of her life, my mother said, “well, I think she might just be something else.” Which means, a character, high-spirited, engaging, all sorts of good things. A funny little girl.

But of course, we don’t know anything yet. Don’t know who she really looks like, because she will look like herself, with glimpses of all of us, here and there, but only in this feature or that, or in fleeting moods across her face. What we are doing, I suppose, is daydreaming about her as a new little person, and thinking about her in our lives and what we might do together, Christmases and birthdays, and summer afternoons blowing bubbles in the backyard.

We are studying her face to learn her, this tiny thing who we will protect, defend and cherish. We are fierce, already, in our love for her. She’s ours. As simple as and sudden as that. Asleep on the couch with a headful of hair.DSCF3019

Crisis in Ukraine 2014

-At the time of this writing, Russian troops were inside the eastern borders of Ukraine, the fighting that broke out over night resulted in three deaths, Putin called for dialogue and caution even as he is accused of fomenting the unrest and instability.  Diplomats   from the U.S, Russia, and Europe were due to summit, again, to discuss matters. The Ukrainian crisis is so fluid it is difficult to know what the news will be on the morning this column appears in the paper. But I suspect, whatever the news, it won’t be good.

The parallels between the taking of Crimea and the ceding of the Sutentenland in 1938 are instructive. You will remember the Munich Agreement. Hitler expressed concern for the safety of the German-speaking people living in a the Sutentenland—a large swath of central Europe that encompassed Czechoslovakia–and in an effort to appease him and help stop his meanness, it was decided to just give it to him.

The German-speaking Czechs, it must be noted, were not in danger and needed no protection. Crimea is populated with many native Russians, Russians who have lived and worked with Ukrainians for decades with no unrest or upset. Yet, the excuse Putin used to invade was to “protect” the native Russians. From whom, from what, remains a mystery. But as excuses go, it will do, and there is uneasiness in Central Europe as they think about the Munich Agreement while events in Ukraine unfold.

I am often asked what is going on in Ukraine. I am no expert, although I have traveled there on several occasions and I can tell you what my Ukrainian friends tell me. The country is divided, not physically, but ideologically. Ukraine is the largest country in Europe and is the gateway to Russia from west. The western part of Ukraine wants to be in the European Union and it has an affinity for Western Europe. The eastern part of Ukraine identifies with Russia, and wants to reunite with Russia. It is more complicated than just this, of course, but this gives you some framework.

Ukraine is important strategically, with eighteen pipelines traversing the country carrying Russian oil and natural gas to Western Europe, just as the Crimea is important to Russia because it is the only warm water port to which Russia has access. And Ukraine is poor. Very poor. I haven’t the space to tell you about the tragedies that have befallen this country, but I can tell you that today it is reminiscent of a third world country.

The roads are cratered and pocked-marked. In the countryside  Cows Through Windshield  Ukrainians drive their cattle down the roads, switching their bottoms with a stick. Women who look seventy but could be fifty spend all day this time of year up on the steep hillsides cutting and stacking hay, using scythes and pitchforks. Then they walk down the mountain to prepare dinner for their families in centuries-old houses with no electricity or running water. There are few cars, but lots of mules and wagons.

There is no medical insurance. There is no healthcare, period, unless you procure it under the table. If you need an operation the doctor sends you to the apothecary with a list of everything you will need: sutures, scalpel blades, bandages, pain medication. You might be in the hospital but your family must feed you, sit with you, change your dressing. And it is expensive. Your child’s bronchitis might cost six months’ salary.  So much, that a young mother telling me this can’t do so without tears of desperation in her eyes.

And there is corruption. Everywhere, corruption.

IMG_4169Yet, the Ukrainians are generous. Full of life. They dance, they feed you, what little they have. They make an effort. But they need help. While diplomats do what diplomats do, while power mongers do what power mongers do, while ineffectual political leaders do what they do, the everyday Ukrainian suffers.

There was recently a benefit concert held in Owensboro, KY, to help with Ukraine relief.  Donations are still welcome through the following link or mailing address.

http://www.ukrainebenefit.com

Or, by sending a check directly to:

 

Owensboro Sister Cities and Regions

2901 Western Parkway

Owensboro, Kentucky 42303

Your money will be given to Caritas Charities, which works  within Ukraine.   I have traveled there with Caritas humanitarian workers.   Here is who your money will help. It will help elderly Ukrainians who have no family and who come to a community center twice a week for their only hot meals—soup, rice, bread, an egg.

It will help my boys in the orphanage, beautiful boys, in their cast off clothes and lob-sided smiles. It will be used to ease suffering and it will be used wisely. It will buy cabbages, potatoes. At least a little something.

 

 

Common Read Homecoming

Silas House Head ShotTen years ago  Owensboro Community and Technical College began the Common Reading Program.  The idea was to choose one book semester that could be used in as many classes as possible across the curriculum, in a effort to promote the value of  literature and to introduce the first-time college student to the works of writers across genres and themes. 

Which is college-speak for this.  Let’s find some wonderful books, all sorts of wonderful books, and have our students read them. Let’s find books that students will just “get,” books that they might not even know are out there, and let’s see is some of our teachers can use these books in creative ways in their classrooms.  Let’s pick one book a semester and have as many students as possible read it.

And let’s not just use them in  English classes, they said.  Let’s pick aCommonReading logo variety of books so that over the course of a few semesters  just about every class might find something of interest.   And you know what would be really cool?  What if we could get the author to come and speak to our students about the book they just read?  OK, let’s do it.

Now, that is how the Common Reading came about, and these conversations took place in cramped faculty offices and around lunch tables.  The humanities teachers who came up with this idea did it on their own, without a grant, without being named to a committee.  They just dreamed it up, and then went about making it real for all of us.

In the beginning the books centered around Kentucky authors.  Silas House was the first writer whose book was chosen, A Parchment of Leaves.  Between classes you could see students stealing a few minutes with their paperbacks, polishing off another chapter.

During the Silas House semester I happened to be standing at the desk of an office assistant in another building, and I had to wait to get my business done while she and one of our students finished their discussion of A Parchment of Leaves.  Apparently the student was troubled by one of the turns in the book, and he needed some literary hand-holding while he came to terms with the new plot twist.

Silas was our first speaker, filling the lecture hall with students and community guests, and every semester following, students have had the rare opportunity of meeting the person whose words they have read.   The  Common Read was off and running.

The committee works to feature a Kentucky writer at least once a year, and we have enjoyed the poetry of Davis McCombs and George Ella Lyon, and the prose of Wendell Berry and Bobbie Ann Mason.  Each semester the committee finds books that explore a theme that will be relevant and fresh for our students, and so they read  “The Most They Ever Had” by Rick Bragg, a book that explores the lives of hard-working men and women in a mill town, “Buffalo Dance:  The Journey of York” by Frank X. Walker, and books set on reservations, or in Mexico, or India.

I tell you all of that to tell you this.Frank X. Walker pic b&w

The OCTC Common Reading is celebrating its ten years of success with a huge event next week, beginning on Wednesday, with Frank X. Walker reading at 11:00 a.m. in the Blandford Lecture Hall.  He is the first of our friends to read for the homecoming, and later in the day, Davis McCombs will read with Joe Survant.  George Ella is bringing her children’s books and will read, so bring the family in the afternoon.

And just like a family reunion, there will be a reception for the authors in the evening.  This is a fundraising event to support to help keep this program going,  and tickets may still be available.  You can call the college to find out.  But if you go, I bet you could get a couple of selfies with your favorite wordsmith.

The celebration will go on until Friday, with readings that are free and open to the the public.  The authors’ books will be available for purchase and after their readings I know they will be happy to sign them for you.

Silas House will conduct a writing workshop on Friday, and this, too, is a ticketed event, but worth looking into if you want to hone your craft.  Or get a craft in the first place.

Please check out all the events by going to the OCTC website, at www.octc.kctcs.edu/academics.  From there just click on Common Reading and all the events of next week will be there for you.  Come to the reunion.  Your reading family is waiting for you.

Long, Long Live the Queen!

King George ImageHe had been hunting,  in the morning and in the afternoon, and by some accounts he bagged nine rabbits and a pigeon.  He gave his new battery-heated jacket a try-out and announced to a friend hunting with him, “I’ve had a thoroughly enjoyable day.”

He has recently had surgery to remove part of a lung, but was making what appeared to be a good recovery, and his wife and two daughters must have felt relief.  He was much loved and not so old, only fifty-six.

That night, after a day outdoors with his mates, George died in his sleep, most likely from thrombosis.QEII

His eldest daughter was out of the country, touring Africa with her husband, when she heard the news—heard the news after some delay, as it was imperative that the delivery of such news be absolutely correct.

It is reported that she broke down in sobs, this woman we have come to think of as stoic and unemotional before the cameras.  But then, there were no cameras there in Kenya as the  young mother moved from the grieving daughter, Lilabet, to Elizabeth II, Queen of the Realm, a role for which she was just beginning to prepare.

While her father saw her off on her three-month tour, it was Winston Churchill who waited on the tarmac to meet her plane when she and Prince Philip returned home.

In addition to her private grieving she had duties of state to attend to, a meeting with the Privy Council, and her father’s funeral to plan.  A king’s funeral.

She was 25.

One headline of the time reads, “ Elizabeth Apt to Upset Tradition,” a small article that makes the claim that she is likely to be the “happiest queen” in British tradition.  She certainly came from a calm, close-knit family, one that gave her a good start in life for the role she assumed.  A life of privilege, sure, but also a life as normal as was possible.  She had loving parents, corgis, and a collection of toy horses.  She was a Girl Guide, a good swimmer and a typical big sister.

At her father’s coronation she is said to have worried that her sister, Margaret, was a bit too young for such a serious occasion.  Margaret, even then, must have been a handful.  Under their ancient and heavy ceremonial velvet robes, both young princesses wore bobby socks.

She raised her children as normally as possible, given the abnormal circumstances of their lives.  When her father died, Prince Charles, aged 3, didn’t know that his grandfather was a king or that his mother was Queen.  Neither did he know he was a prince.  His mother forbid members of the household to call him “Prince” Charles, and nor were they to bow.  Imagine having to instruct your babysitter thus.

Elizabeth is reported to have been a serious young woman, organized and orderly,  and she pledged to her people that she would dedicate the rest of her life to her duty as queen. No wonder she does not turn over the royal scepter to Charles.  She has made a solemn oath to her country and she is unlikely to hand him the keys to Buckingham Palace just because he is getting antsy.

Before Princess Diana took her boys to McDonald’s, the queen and her sister were riding the subway with their nanny.  She and Philip love to dance and even though she was a princess, they often slipped out to a night club where they met friends.  Remind you of her grandchildren at all?

If she has upset any  tradition as queen, it has been as a result of her basic common sense and that the times dictated it.  She saw her parents tour the bombed-out rubble of London and she drove cars and fixed carburetors for the war effort.  It isn’t a stretch, then, to believe that she serves herself food from the sideboard when she is alone with just family, or that she watches TV with her feet tucked up under her, like we all do.

Queen Elizabeth II just celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, sixty years on the throne.  She will continue to celebrate throughout 2012.  So will Great Britain.

She has two more years to beat Queen Victoria’s reign.  To which I say, “Long Live The Queen!”

King George Image

I’d Run a Million Miles…

I had an occasion to run to run a few weeks back.  It has it has bothered me ever since.  

I had left for lunch early, or I wouldn’t have been in that exact spot to witness that exact accident.  I heard it before I saw it, and then I took off running toward it, cell phone in one hand, purse swinging wildly, yelling to whoever might hear to “call 911” while I was attempting it, too, on my dying phone. 

The accident was a good one hundred yards or more away.  I was doing that adrenaline thing, but even so, it came to me that I didn’t think I could actually do it.  

Run, I mean.  It seemed I had forgotten how. 

It was as if my entire body had never run before, not my feet, not my legs and certainly not my lungs.  I am pretty sure I looked like a Kabuki dancer, but without the grace and the white make-up.

A few more steps and it began to come back to me, slowly, and I managed to get all my parts moving in the same direction.  I did this for few yards, still dialing, still yelling.  But I just couldn’t keep it up, couldn’t keep running and speak to the dispatcher, couldn’t get there any faster, couldn’t believe how impotent I felt, because I couldn’t run. 

I used to run.  Never enjoyed it, but I could do it, especially if a game was involved, like tennis.  In college I managed to get up to the requisite two miles of jogging, but after I ran two and a half miles, and only once, on the concourse of Diddle Arena, I decided I had conquered that sport and was ready for new horizons and so I hung up my Adidas for good. 

Now I am wondering if I could–safely–get back to running a mile.  That’s all, just  a mile.  Is that possible?  It seems that it would be a good thing to be able to run at least  that far, to respond to trouble, to save yourself. 

Not that I might be required to run a solid mile, but if I  could run a mile, then clicking off a hundred yards to escape a swarm of bees, say, should be a cinch.  I asked a colleague about this, one who runs.  She is younger than I, and I am now sufficiently old that I don’t even mind if she thinks it’s the stupidest question she’s been asked all day. 

She said, yes, of course, I can.  Start slow.  Start smart, but start.  She even recommended the running program called “Couch to 5K”, and all you have to do is google it.  It’s genius, really.  The program, which is geared to take you from..ahem…,the couch to running a 5K race, takes you through a series of walking/running segments.  

It seems so sensible.  Walk for five minutes to warm up, jog for 60 seconds, walk for 90 seconds, and alternate this for a total of 20 minutes.  If you think about it, this is what we would do anyway, when we get all hyper-excited about undoing years of sloth with an unrealistic goal of running a mini-marathon six weeks from now. 

We warm up, take off like a puma, only to stop about a minute later, holding our sides and all doubled up, gasp and spit for a couple of minutes before we try it again.

This program builds that right into the plan, but without the shame. 

I think I can do this.  

I will confess, though, it scares me a little.  I managed to try this scheme only once, and that was at night, because I didn’t want anyone to see me.  So, please don’t mention that I have told you. 

I am thinking on it, though, you all.  I found a picture on Facebook of a friend who runs…she is finishing a race and she just looks so healthy and fit and cool that I wanted to be her.  Okay, a much older version of her, but still. 

I might could do it.  Run a mile. If I ease up on it, after I ease off the couch. 

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