Tag Archives: KY

Retreat To The Woods

I spent the weekend in the woods, or almost in the woods, and perhaps more accurately on the edge of the woods that cover the hill which seemed like a mountain that rose behind the cottage where I stayed at Hindman Settlement School.  

I know of those who spent the weekend lallygagging poolside in Florida,  but I had on my calendar a writing retreat at the settlement school, one I signed up for in the sweltering heat of July. I signed up because I was hot and November seemed refreshing. I signed up because several of my friends had signed up, too.  It was a bit like junior high.  

Our pal, Silas, was facilitating the workshop, and he sent a text telling us the spaces would go quick and we eagerly enrolled, like adolescents going on a field trip.  It was better than any field trip, with all those writers, and with the author, Ashley Blooms there, too, running her own sessions.  I came home with some new people to call friends, and I suspect, so did most of us. 

I liked my new pals immediately.  For one thing, writers, at least my favorite ones,  are just funny,  They tell the best stories.  So, we sat around the first night laughing our heads off, as we rearranged the furniture a piece at a time to accommodate newcomers to the circle. I suspect, we also gathered in a bit because our hearts were slowly warming to each other. 

The thing I like best about a good story told by a writer is the clever turns of phrase they use…so we laugh, but we also repeat the phrase quietly to ourselves, catch the eye of someone doing the same thing, and we laugh all over again.  It’s like chili or soup that is better the next day. 

We had to show vaccination cards upon arrival and we socially distanced during craft workshops, each of us with a big table to ourselves.  But the rest of the weekend was … just normal.  Taking our mugs to Marianne’s room for her good coffee each morning.  Lunch and supper in the great hall, where Vivian fed us well and with the best and kindest of humor, retrieving her polenta recipe so I could take a picture of it.  

Until Hindman, I have been dismissive of polenta, remembering only my grandmother’s cornmeal mush, which she served when she’d get on a kick.  Out came Vivian with an Ina Garden recipe and her own notations written in the margins, and I was the hero of our table, because we had all rhapsodized about that polenta throughout the meal. 

Some in the group stayed mostly in their rooms, writing.  Some of us stayed mostly outside our rooms, making too much noise.  It was a weekend designed for whatever we wanted.  Silas did several craft seminars, and we could attend them or not. If we wanted to work on our writing in solitude, we could do that.  If we wanted to just relax and rejuvenate, show up for meals, we could do that.  If we wanted to do any combination of activities, go right ahead. 

One group, hardy souls that they are, walked the steep hill behind the school.  I am told the view from the ridge is wonderful.  And I am sure it was Saturday afternoon, too.  The late November light was slanting golden and warm, the trees almost bare after laying down a carpet of russet and ruby leaves for the hikers.  The pictures they posted were stunning.  All of them smiling, backlit and shiny, leaning in toward each other like comfortable old lawn chairs. 

I couldn’t make that hike the first time I tried it, the trail shoots straight up in a lung-busting trajectory. I wasn’t tempted even a little bit to join them Saturday afternoon.  But I waited for them to return, all rosy-cheeked and bringing the crisp fall air in with them, the woods trapped in their jackets and wool caps. We toasted them as they toasted each other, and it was perfect, as perfect as a moment can be.  Simple, warm, loving.

We created a little community as best we could in this time of almost past Covid.  I noticed the way we instinctively spaced ourselves in the dinner line and when chatting around tables after meals were over, or before sessions began.  That three foot spacing for public life. But then we went home to our little cottage in the woods, and friends from other cottages stopped by. And there were hugs, and heads bent together for gossip, and a glimpse of normal, and it felt good.

Saying Goodbye

Last week I said goodbye to an old, dear, friend…the first friend in my circle to leave us, and as it is with all such loss, it happened too soon.

Otis L. Griffin, of McLean County, was a civic leader, a large-scale farmer, the husband of my high school pal, Donna. He was a man who gave ballast to our social group and he was my friend.

From the scores of people who came to his visitation, it’s clear he cast a wide net in the friendship department. The line for those waiting to pay their respects snaked out into the hall of Muster Funeral Home. So many came, so many shared stories. So many needed, by their presence, to say how Otis had touched their lives.

I first met Otis in my late twenties—I think it was my twenties—when I and my contemporaries were easing into adulthood. We had jobs and car payments and thought ourselves quite something. Otis was a little bit older, a full-fledged adult compared to our apprenticeship status and he helped show us what grown-ups looked like.

When Donna and Otis started dating he slipped easily into our group, this big guy with quiet ways, one who wore suits on evenings out. Dapper, yes; stuffy, never. I can recall almost nothing of those early days except that we laughed all the time. We had “coming out” parties when someone brought home a potential mate, and I am not sure that it wasn’t Otis who orchestrated an Olympic-style number rating the evening Margaret brought home her future husband to meet us all.

She and Woody were late getting to the party and, as idle hands are the devil’s workshop, we improvised rating cards to hold up when they walked through the door.
Or maybe that little caper was my idea. I know it was Otis who told Woody, “I gave you a 9.5 but then you started talking and I had to drop it to a 6.”

Woody is a funny guy, too, and they were friends from that day forward.

Otis told me once he was in the habit of going to funerals, made it a point to do so. He made a special effort if it was some forgotten soul with no one to be sorry he was gone. We always figured he liked funerals.

No, he told Donna. He didn’t like funerals, but it was the right thing to do. To bear witness. To show respect.

And that is who he was. A stand-up guy, Donna would call him. A traditional fellow, one who honored the earth, served on the school board. A father and grandfather. A protector.

When his two youngest children were little, Donna and I packed them up to drive to Hattiesburg, to see Margaret and Woody and their little one. Otis was staying behind, farming, and as we were loading the car, he was uncharacteristically cranky.
I asked him what was wrong.

“I don’t like it. You are taking away my babies.”

Their mother, I must point out, was in the front seat. It was just that he wouldn’t be there, and me in the driver’s seat was no substitute.

Funerals are sad, but they are homecomings, too. I so enjoyed reconnecting with Otis’s children, Lance and Jennifer and their spouses, and seeing their sweet babies, all grown or almost so. And Caitlin and Sage, the toddlers from that long-ago trip, who are stepping out and into their own bright futures. The Griffin children, all of them lovely and lovable adults. And the next generation of Griffins well on their way.

They have lost a sturdy pillar of their family, but they have not lost their compass. Otis had a way of imparting wisdom and giving guidance without you even knowing it. I learned from him every time we were together. His lessons were quiet, but deep. Otis himself, embodied True North.

The funeral procession meandered along Hwy. 136 amid the redbud and dogwood blooms. Cars pulled over as we passed by the farmland Otis worked, loved. A procession so long the first cars often disappeared around a distant bend as the last cars worked to keep up, like a game of crack the whip. The little country cemetery couldn’t hold us all.

It was, as the Rev. Jim Midkiff reminded us, as far as we could go with him now.

So, Otis, we love ya and we will miss you. But don’t you worry. We will keep loving this family and each other. It’s easy for us. We have some advantage. You have shown us how it’s done.

Bon Voyage, Y’all

On what was the most frigid day of the year to date, I bundled up my car and my pal, Alice, and headed for Louisville, to meet up with friends, one of whom is leaving for France in a couple of weeks.  Beth and her husband will be in Bordeaux for three years, for his work, and we feel so sorry for them.

Oh, the boring  vineyards, and the fruits they bear. The sea, the fabulous foods,  all of old Europe on their doorstep, these two will suffer, I tell ya.  Even so, it’s a big thing to pull up stakes and move away, so far away, for three years, even if you have the sea and croissants for comfort.

So, Alice and I came from the west, and three other pals traveled from the east, so that we might get as much of Beth as we could before she leaves us. The plan was simple, but elegant.  We would meet mid-afternoon, visit—jaw, as my Appalachian friends put it.  We would stretch our legs between eating and drinking establishments and jaw some more.

We started at  The Eagle, on Bardstown Road for drinks, and little nibblies, including the Eagle’s signature pickle platter.

Apparently this is a thing.  Has been for a while.  Pickle platters.  This one  was artistic and charmingly curated, with three kinds of pickled carrots, pickled green beans, and a compote of just pickles, all lovingly brined back there in the kitchen and served on a little rustic board.

After an hour or so with pickles, and the sharing of grilled cheese and southern greens and artichoke dip, we pulled on our scarves, our hats and gloves and moseyed over to Carmichael’s Books, just across the street. Writers can be counted on for this, if for nothing else.  We will flat do our part to keep a great bookstore going. 

Carmichael’s is an independent bookstore, with two locations in Louisville, neither one large or sprawling.  They are small, in fact.  Which makes their impact more impressive.  They don’t carry everything, but you don’t even notice, because, on every shelf, and everywhere you look, you see something you want to pick up and buy. 

My friend, Jason, an Anglophile, led me to the tiny history section, and pulled out at least five books I might consider to further my education on the British monarchy.  We lost ourselves completely, each one gravitating to a corner, soon to have our necks bent over the pages of a book, and when we weren’t standing stock still reading, we were seeking each other out to share what we had found.

Books and magazines bought, we wondered in and out of a couple of unique speciality stores, dropping money like breadcrumbs on this cool thing and that.

But now, really, it was time to eat again.  So we headed to Douglas Loop to Migo, which specializes in small plates and tacos, and pitchers of grand drinks.  We ordered one of those pitchers and continued our conversation, a quiet chat to the left, a group chat to the right, a story for the whole table.

There is something sweet about old friends that don’t see each other often but are never far from each other’s minds. I noticed the slow and calm way the day unfolded, with an ebbing and flowing as we changed seats to have a quiet word with each other, small conversations that settled in among larger ones, the nesting dolls of intimacy and affection.

We weren’t quite ready to bring the day to a close, so we toddled across the street to Heine Bros. for coffee, using the excuse of needing the caffeine for the drives home.  Now we sat in companionable silence, much like we do in the mornings of our writing retreats, a little family, happy in ourselves.

Finally, though, we had to move.  Kris and Beth were off to Chicago the next morning to get visas from the French consulate.  A thousand tasks for such a move, and we were fortunate to find this one Saturday to see Beth before they leave.

And, really, no goodbyes. We love Beth and Kris, and three years is a long time, but I don’t think we were sad.  There is such joy in this opportunity for them.   Jason will see Beth in June.  I plan a September visit.  They will get home at least once a year.

The hugs and kisses flowed, and flowed again.

And so, they will go, and they will take our hearts with them.  And I hope they know we will wait patiently for their return.   That we aren’t going anywhere, haven’t gone anywhere.  That we are all here.  Right here.

A Day at Flat Lick Falls

Never the most flexible person, at least I had a great sense of balance, thanks to my low center of gravity.  I was sorely tested — tested and found wanting — last weekend when I found myself crammed in a car for a little jaunt up the road to hike to a waterfall tucked away somewhere out of Berea. 

Of course I was up for it, especially after my buddy assured us that the waterfall was really just a short walk from the road, really about “from here to about there.” he said, pointing out to the curb. It’s never just “from here to there,” is it?

After driving along winding roads for half an hour, and after a great lunch at Opal’s, off the square at McKee, we arrived at Flat Lick Falls, in Jackson County.  We parked in a small meadow with ten other cars. We followed the little path disappearing into the woods, and soon we encountered a rocky and root-infested obstacle course.

To give five you an idea, here is the description taken from the website, “American Byways”:

“Flat Lick Falls is quite scenic, nestled within a narrow valley and accessible by a wild trail that involves walking across streams and down steep embankments. At the base of the 30-foot Flat Lick Falls is a small swimming hole.”

Ah, yes, the wild trail.  He forgot to mention that.

flat lick fallsBut the trail was nothing compared to the boulders and rocks we scurried down to reach the stream and waterfall. We arrived to the sounds of rushing water, kids laughing and the image of young men and women taking flying leaps off the ledge of a 30 foot cliff and disappearing from sight. Each jumper made a splash, a big one or a little one, and a cheer went up from the swimmers in the pool below. 

The waterfall rushed and sent an imperceptible mist up to cool the hot day.  We weren’t jumping of course, but there was a rocky path leading down to the swimming hole, and we took off for that.

I went  about 10 feet until it narrowed to barely a foot-width, dropping off to a craggy and certain death.  I had stumbled already a few times just getting to the falls and I spooked myself looking at that tiny ledge, and was aware that I lack the agility to catch myself if I make a misstep and I didn’t fancy spending the rest the next two hours dangling from a basket dropped by a rescue helicopter while my friends photographed it and posted it on Facebook.

My pals picked their way down the rocky path and spent a delightful hour playing in the water, walking under the falls and exploring the creek bed.  I stayed topside and flat lick falls jumperschatted with some men who have been coming to the falls since they were kids.  Older now, they weren’t tempted to jump off the cliff, although they said they did that plenty as boys. 

One guy was solid and sure when his buddies asked him if he were going to jump.

“Of course not,” he said, folding his arms like Buddha.  This didn’t keep him from egging on the others, though, especially the one fellow who spent a half hour mustering the courage to go over the side.  He over-thought it, walking to the edge, shaking his arms, walking back.  He finally threw his t-shirt into the drink so now there was nothing to do but go after it.

Which he did.

When my pals returned they told me that, really, I would have been just fine had I joined them, that even if I had fallen off that little ledge, I would only have dropped about five feet, not all the way down.  They are reassuring that way.

I wanted to have joined them, but more than that I wanted to feel like I might have been able to join them, to feel steady on my feet, strong, agile enough for such an adventure.

Because, as adventures go, it was a small one. I was happy enough on my own, a stream to wade and birdsong, but for the first time I got a glimpse of not being able to do, and I didn’t like it.  Didn’t like it at all. Perhaps I’ll take up yoga, or tai chi.  Something.  I don’t want to be sitting on a safe rock or bench while my friends are about their adventures.

Mr. Davis Has Elephant Ears

With spring comes a freshness, a green that won’t appear again until this time next year.  It arrives on the edge of thunder and hail, and even as you are righting all the lawn chairs, flipping the lids back onto the toters, there is that certain whiff in the air.  It is the scent of renewal, hope, forgiveness, even.  It is the scent of spring.

And it smells like mulch. Image

Mulch is the Epcot Center of gardening.  You know what I mean.  At Epcot you can visit the Moroccan and China Pavilions and believe you have traveled to those exotic places. But it’s better.  Everything is just so clean.  And neat. And effortless.

And the best part, you won’t be plagued with those pesky intestinal bugs that the poor slobs who actually go to China and Morocco find so inconvenient and vulgar.

Mulch is like that.  It is nothing more than yard waste, shredded trees and twigs, some dirt and some composted something.  But bag it and stack it on pallets, or store it loose in a giant bin like prized free-range dirt, and it becomes something more than itself, something bigger, something better and we dream of it.  Covet it.  Think we deserve it, because look how hard we have worked, or think about how hard we would work, if only we had some lovely mulch to inspire us.

As strange as this weather has been, you would think we would be bracing for natural disaster, or organizing our bug-out bags, or getting our affairs in order.  But no.

We are not doing any of these things.

We are mowing our yards.Twice a week.

We are out buying plants. Mulch.

We are showing up at work on Monday with sunburned faces and arms, already, here, in mid-March.

Me, I’m buying elephant ears.

Mr. Davis lived next door to my grandmother for as long as Il could remember.  He had a lush green lawn when no one had a lush green lawn.  At a time when yards were mostly clover and Bermuda grass, his was dark and tall and looked like it could hide Easter eggs right past Halloween.

Across the front of his house was a herd of elephant ears.  Gigantic elephant ears.  Ears that he had been nurturing and tending for years.

They are a tropical plant, which  make sense when you think about where elephants live.  The bulbs won’t survive our winters, so every fall Mr. Davis chopped off the foliage and dug up the bulbs.  They must have been immense because the holes they left were impressive.  He dried them, stored them in his basement and in the spring he planted them anew.

What fascinated and sort of disturbed me was the fact that he would plant them, dig them up, plant them, dig them up, year after year.  I had no reference for this kind of care and attention to gardening.   Landscaping at my house consisted of mowing the grass right up to the house, half-heartedly trimming around the sidewalks, and scattering grass seed a few times a year over the spots we rubbed bare with our bicycles and baseball games.

I had gone out to get zinnia seeds because anyone can grow them.   But right there, by my feet in a cardboard bin, were mesh bags of elephant ears.

I must tell you, I have never seen such a thing these. They were easily the size of cantaloupes and I simply had to have them.

I could see the cool dark corner of my yard where I would plant them, could see the small children dressed in  organza playing amongst them as they trip around my garden sanctuary on a dragonfly afternoon.  Could almost hear the crack of the croquet ball, the clinking of ice in the lemonade pitcher, could see the sloping lawn of my estate in the sun gently sets.

All this from a pack of zinnias and three oddly shaped cantaloupes.  That’s right, and so what? I have smelled the mulch.