Tag Archives: Sonja Livingston

A New Kind of Hindman

 All this week I will be attending the Appalachian Writers Workshop in Hindman, while sitting at my dining room table. I wouldn’t have planned to attend this year, except Sonja Livingston, an essayist and memoirist whose work I greatly admire, is on faculty and teaching in my genre, Creative Nonfiction.  

So, here I am. 

Or rather, here I sit, while she sits in her home in Western New York, and my classmates are sitting in theirs, or at the beach, or wherever they are spending this week in late summer.  There is no trudging up and down hills for meals and class, no  gatherings and in person evening readings.

There is no dinner bell that echoes around the mountainsides when it calls us to come eat or to attend a session in the May Stone building.  There is air conditioning here, in my house, a constant 72 degrees, except in the afternoon when I get hot and crank it up, or is it down, to 68.  Hindman is air conditioned, too, but it seems spottier, somehow, with all that walking and all the damp that hangs around windows and drips from the kudzu. 

Books are important at gatherings such as this, and we have a bookstore at our disposal.  The Red Spotted Newt, in Hazard, has a pop-up shop on campus, and we have the website to order all the books our virtual carts can hold.  The owner, Mandi Sheffel, is on campus for the few participants who are staying there, but she is sticking around for the rest of us, too, just like at a regular writers workshop, only we see her at a distance in a tiny Zoom window.  We can’t walk up and chat like we normally would.  But we also do not  thumb every book she has brought, picking them up, putting them down, flipping through them again, so maybe she is happy, at least, to have more pristine stock to offer customers.

It’s weird seeing old friends and complete strangers in their tiny Zoom rooms, these people who have bared themselves on the page, the ones we are to give feedback to, receive feedback from, the angst and the tenuous trust of that. But, somehow in Sonja’s hands, it works.  The group, too, does its part, jumping in and braving the process, and my only let down was this. 

At Hindman, after the first session  we walk back to the May Stone building for lunch.  This takes a while, as we meander alongside a wide meadow and then over the small foot bridge, and it is one of my favorite parts of the day.  Up ahead are little clutches of classmates, their heads together, still discussing the workshop we have just left.  Someone behind me has told a funny story and now I hear nothing but laughing, and I am sad I missed it.  

My pals and I walk slowly, reveling in another first day at the forks of Troublesome Creek, with a general sense of love and well-being and a mild wondering of what is for lunch.  The heat may be bothersome, but in a minute we will be snaking our way down the lunch line, searching for and finding old friends from other years,  with squeals and hugs and much shushing because someone we can’t see has just started grace. 

Hindman is different this year.  Was different last year, too, with serious discussions about if, and how, to carry on in light of the pandemic.  This year, there was no discussion of if to have it.  The work it seems to me, was directed toward how to have it well, and the week is off to a great start. 

It has been a few years since I have attended, but the draw of working with a writer I admire was too important to forego.  So here I am, new notebook, my good writing pens.  But I’ll miss some things, too.

I’ll miss the after hours conversations, the socializing, the landmarks that let me know I am almost there: Yoders, the Amish store on the outskirts of town where we buy bread and cookies, the Midee-Mart, on the edge of campus, the new concrete bridge over Troublesome that replaces the old one that created a deadman’s curve. 

And then the settlement school, nestled in the crook of the creek.  Whenever writers gather, there are words upon words upon words.   And they are the point, those words, and here we all are, together, sharing them.

Bicycles, Lost and Found

My bicycle, my beautiful English bike, was stolen a few years ago, lifted from my garage in the night, just as summer was arriving.  The policeman who took the report explained it.  It was the time of year when bikes went missing, kids or professional thieves casing neighborhoods, striking while we slept. 

I blame myself, in part, for the loss.   I had workmen in to shore up the listing walls of the garage, and I gave a fleeting thought to moving my bicycle inside, away from falling objects and the eyes of people I don’t know.   And the back gate by the alley didn’t latch properly at the time and some mornings I would wake to its wide-mouthed gaping, blown open in the night.  These may have been factors. 

But mostly, I felt wretched about the loss and mean-hearted toward humanity, whichever particular members were involved in nicking my bike.  It was distinctive and easy to spot and I never saw it again, although I prowled the streets and stopped by the police station once a week. 

I decided I didn’t deserve nice things.

I had fallen in love with the British “sit up and beg” bicycles while staying in Oxford, but who doesn’t fall in love with bikes there?  They are everywhere, chained to gates with signs saying  DO NOT LOCK BIKES ON GATE, they sit shoulder to shoulder in bike racks throughout the city, in front of every college, library and quad.  At the train station a sea of bicycles, shiny bikes, rusty ones, leather saddles here, saddles wrapped in plastic Tesco bags there. 

I wanted one. 

A shiny black one. 

An old-fashioned one.

So, I bought one. 

But I bought it in the States and at the time there was only one place to get such a thing and only in one size.   If I am honest, it never fit me quite right.  It was too big, but I convinced myself it was perfect.

Now, I think I want another bicycle.  But I don’t know. 

If my own friends are any indication, the statistics aren’t good.  Most of my pals who ride have had accidents.  And this is the worst part, the part that depresses me.  Most of the falls have occurred as they were getting on or off.  

Basically, standing still, which seems too cruel to contemplate.

Even so, I see myself plunking along quiet side streets or cruising the greenbelt, maybe, helmeted and slow moving, taking the air.  Never mind that my balance isn’t quite what it once was, that my reaction time now is leisurely and vague.  I am searching the English and Dutch websites for big, beautiful bicycles that weigh a ton but just roll, and roll, and roll. 

But then.  

Then. 

In my garage, leaning against the ladder and rakes, is my old Schwinn Suburban, the bike I’ve had since college.  I held it upright, and even accounting for the deflated tires, it fit.  The way the seat hit me just so at the hip, the perfect height for momentum and stability. Holding the handlebars I could feel, even now, the curve of every turn, the arc of the front wheel lifting as I jumped a break in pavement or took a curb. The geometry of this bicycle the mirror image of my own geometry.

In her memoir, “Ghostbread,” author Sonja Livingston describes her sister, Steph, as kind and strong, and the reader experiences her this way, too.  Heroic, even.  But what I love best about her, Steph, is the way she commandeered the cobwebby basement, spruced it up in order to set up shop building bicycles from old and broken parts she and a neighbor kid scavenged.  Rusted and bent pieces found in empty lots and alleys, perhaps, and then—how on earth — they crafted rideable, like-new shiny bikes.

I’m thinking of Steph as I balance my old bike against my hip, inspecting the rims and wondering  how long have they have sat there, flattening on the concrete floor. Could I restore her to something serviceable?  What would it take besides new tires, a better seat and replacing the ossified gear shifts?  Surely, this wouldn’t be beyond me.  

What I can’t fix myself,  I can hire out.  Which, even as I channel Stephanie, I know is likely to be most of it.  I even like the way the paint is worn and dull, scratched up, a place rubbed raw on the front fender where the basket used to sit. This good old girl, left too long and unloved in the dark.