Category Archives: Big Stone Gap

The Monday Bo0k: 29 GIFTS by Cami Walker

Walker’s memoir tells her story of being diagnosed with MS about 15 years after she could have been, and what changes it brought to her life. She had a medical emergency that became her diagnosis just a month after getting married.

This book first lays the groundwork for the 29 days: her spiritual advisor suggested she take this giving approach and talked her through some of the dos and don’ts – like giving out of abundance mentally and emotionally, not out of desperation. The groundwork is pretty interesting.

Then she goes day by day through the gifts, from a quarter for a parking meter to flowers for strangers on the street to seashells on the seashore. The gifts don’t tend to be large, but her analysis of what they did for her, what’s going on around her that day, etc. fall into something of a pattern.

This makes the book good for bedside reading, or casual dipping in and out. The gifts and the interactions with people around her are charming, and insightful in some cases. Those with MS or dealing with any loved one learning new lifestyle limitations due to illness, will probably see deeper meanings than casual readers.

Those looking for a feel-good gift for someone coping with a new diagnosis, or just a book for your bedside table to satisfy casual evening reading, would find that 29-gifts29 Gifts is a good choice.

 

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Peace, Love, Cat Videos

I’m working on my book about cat rescue, and one of the recurring themes is “Why do people rescue cats?” (Or dogs, but the undercurrent is, why do people “bother” to help animals at all?)15134332_1371938282817232_41046199_n-copy

And I guess there’s a cynical answer, and a real answer – I’m just not sure which is which.

On the one hand, Gandhi said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” For those who reject Eastern wisdom, from the Bible it sounds like “What you do for the least of these my brethren you do for me” except some people will tell you Jesus was only talking about humans. You can also quote Martin Luther King, Jr: “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” In other words, do it because the powerless need defending, and because in defending the powerless we become blessed/empowered/alive/real.

That’s one answer. The other is, when everything around you is sliding out of control, if you only have something small in front of you that you can do to alleviate suffering, you should do it. Whatever it is. I can call DC and register my concerns, but I can’t single-handedly stop anything. Most of any “social justice activism” lifestyle comes down to adding our voices to a larger pot, not being a soloist hero.

When a cat is in front of you, and it’s sick or pregnant or cold, you can pick it up and take it to the vet. (Yeah yeah, nobody has any money; there’s more than one way to pay for a cat.) And it won’t suffer needlessly.

The world is going crazy. Kids have cancer. People hate each other. So I’m rescuing cats while Rome burns. Yeah. Okay. I’ll take it. It’s what’s in front of me, and I know how to do it. It makes a difference to the cat and the cat’s new family; if that’s all the good that comes of this action, fair enough.

That said, petting a cat lowers your blood pressure (assuming you are not allergic, of course) so it’s not all about giving. Watching cats play is better than watching TV. Especially these days.

I’m not an ostrich with my head in the sand; nor am I numb. I’m making those phone calls and keeping up with relevant news. But the biggest small changes I can effect these days are fur-bearing. I’m downy with that.

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Leveling with Friends

Jack’s Wednesday guest post –

There’s a real satisfaction in taking part in a construction project being led by someone who really knows what they are doing. I had that experience last weekend and this is my report.

Wendy’s friend and colleague Beth, and her husband Jon live up in Blacksburg and last Friday Jon left home at 5:30 am to drive down here with a full load of lumber and a magnificent array of tools, ready to completely re-build the front deck of ‘Hazel’s House’ (our new cat rescue center).

house-aff-004

How she was before

Jon reckoned it could be done over three days, so Friday, Saturday and Sunday were set aside and he was down here and started by 9 o’clock on Friday morning. I had volunteered to help and Wendy and Beth came along later that day as well.

Just to set the scene – the house was built in 1917 (so exactly 100 years old) and is single storey, with a porch running the full width of the front. The porch has an overhanging roof with four pillars supporting it (all of them had shims underneath added at some point in the past).

The first job was to install temporary supports from the ground to the front of the roof beside each of the pillars to take the weight. Then we separated the pillars from the deck and began removing the old deck slats. Once they were removed we could see the state of the underpinning joists and foundations and that revealed some problems. The biggest one was that the front joist had rotted and split and had to be completely replaced. Jon built a 28 foot long, 12 inch wide and 4 inch thick joist by laminating six boards together and Saturday’s big job was four of us maneuvering that into place! To our utter delight it fitted perfectly, although it chose to rain just as we were committed to the task, so we all got soaked.

The center of the deck had gradually sunk by almost two inches over the years (hence the shims under the pillars), so the next job was to get that part raised back to the correct height again. Once that was done it was time to re-install the deck slats and we decided to fit new ones in the center section then use the old ones as much as possible for the outer areas. Poor Beth got the job of removing all the nails from the old boards! Finally it was time check all the levels, re-fix the pillars to the new deck and remove the temporary supports supporting the roof.

hazel-house-after

And how she is now

As I suggested at the start, what made the whole experience so satisfying was the way Jon had thought through the job very thoroughly beforehand, measured everything carefully ahead of time and brought lots of really useful tools and equipment. He had even thought to bring an additional power driver, knowing we’d both be re-fixing deck boards at the same time. We only had to make one run to Lowes over the whole weekend and that was just because we couldn’t reclaim as much of the old decking as we’d hoped.

Next month Jon will be back, when we will add partitioning to make the porch and deck ‘cat-proof’ so no kitties can make a break for it when we’re transferring newcomers into the house. I’m looking forward to once again being his laborer and apprentice!

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Filed under animal rescue, Big Stone Gap, home improvements, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized

A Turkey Poke or a Pig in a Poke?

Wendy apologizes for the lack of Monday book this week (she’s in DC lobbying on behalf of rural health provision), but at least I got the Wednesday guest post out on time!

Our friend Amy teaches Appalachian Studies up the road at the local campus of UVA, but she has to attend a conference elsewhere today and on Friday. So I will be guest lecturing two different groups of students on the links between the Scots language and the Appalachian dialect.

I usually start with a brief geography lesson as it’s painfully true that the majority of folk over here, even many with a strong pride in their Scottish ancestry, really don’t know where Scotland is. Not only that but there’s a lot of confusion between The UK, Great Britain, England and Scotland (most Americans just say England regardless). Despite that, Scotland has a surprisingly strong ‘brand image’ around the world and most folk will readily come up with lots of examples of things they think of as peculiarly Scottish.

Then when it comes to the movement of the settlers to this area, most people don’t really know what is meant by the ‘Scotch-Irish’. So I cover a bit of history, explaining how lowland Scots were ‘encouraged’ to move to the north of Ireland, how their children (born in Ireland) then moved on to Pennsylvania and eventually to this neck of the woods. They are the ‘Scotch-Irish’ – also known as Ulster-Scots.

They brought with them their culture, including songs, ballads, fiddle tunes, food recipes, a strong suspicion of government power, as well as their language.

Of course I have to explain that Scots isn’t just a dialect of English, but a language in its own right but with obvious similarities; rather like the relationship between, say, Spanish and Portuguese, or Danish, Norwegian and Swedish.

The legacy still to be heard in Appalachia involves vocabulary, sentence structure and pronunciation. However in Scotland, Ulster and Appalachia speaking anything other than standard English was historically frowned on and it’s only relatively recently that appreciation of these languages has been encouraged.

While family names and place names in Appalachia are a strong clue to where the settlers came from, there are many others strewn around and hiding in plain sight!

I find myself being asked more and more to give presentations like this and find it both enjoyable and stimulating. There are usually lots of questions at the end.

Finally – I have to try my best to avoid politics, but the current Scottish political scene is so volatile and fast moving that I find myself continually having to bite my tongue – and language is a political weapon in Scotland, Ireland and Appalachia.

Many tongues, many voices – – –

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Mattie and Peggy

When I was a child, we lived next door to my paternal grandparents. Grandma Mattie was a hard woman. She kept her life small on purpose. Mattie had three beliefs: God was good, people who liked to read were prone to moral turpitude, and the family in the house across the street worked for the CIA and were spying on her.

Her church didn’t allow wedding rings, and glasses were for years suspect–until someone somewhere in the hierarchy needed them himself. Grandma Mattie didn’t like to wallow about in the shallows of arguments, either; I actually couldn’t tell you whether she was intelligent behind her lack of education, because her speech was confined to sharp instruction on how young ladies should behave (more sewing, less whistling, if you please) and injunctions to eat more at dinner, we’d hardly touched a bite. (She was an amazing cook.)

Among her barked commands of moral instruction was one to my mother that I ought not be allowed to play with the Catholic children who lived in the Polish-Irish family next door. When Catholics died, their family took them to the basement and put them in the coal chute, near as I could understand Mattie’s pragmatic theology on the subject; this saved time for the bad angels taking them straight to Hell.

I liked Coleen and her kind-hearted mom Peggy, whose curly red hair was as wild as her laugh. The family was always doing weird stuff like holding backyard barbecues and working in soup kitchens. Watching Coleen’s first communion was a real trip for this Evangelical Protestant girl, believe me. Mom decided I could go because it would be a good cultural experience, but I wasn’t to get any ideas about a dress and tiara of my own and DON’T tell Grandma.

When Grandpa got cancer Mattie didn’t waste time with questions about why this was happening, or what she could do about it. She and Grandpa sat in their front room and received family and church visitors for the six months or so it took him to die. About a week after he did, Peggy came to our house all dressed up, Coleen and her two younger siblings scrubbed like shiny new pennies and dressed in Sunday clothes, and asked me to walk her over to Grandma’s because she had a present for her.

This was unprecedented. Grandma wouldn’t even sit on the porch on hot summer nights, for fear the neighbors across the street might take the shot. To my knowledge, Peggy had never seen my grandmother face to face. But I gamely went to Grandma and asked if Peggy could come in.

I don’t know if it was shock or exhaustion or Southern upbringing (Grandma would have fed a wolf if it was hungry, lecturing it on table manners the whole time, most likely) but Mattie gave me a look I’d never seen before, marched past me, and opened the door for Peggy and her three children.

“Come right in, shame on Wendy for keeping you waiting on the porch, please sit down,” said my grandmother who mistrusted everyone and Catholics twice as hard.

Peggy didn’t waste a lot of time. She expressed sympathy and pulled from a bag at her side something between a folder and a photo frame, and showed it to Grandma.sacred-heart

“We paid our priest to say a special mass for your husband. He was a good Christian man, a strong moral person, and we enrolled him in the Sacred Heart Society in our parish. This is the highest honor anyone can give a good person in our church, short of making them a saint. We want you to have this.” She passed the certificate in its pretty little red frame to Mattie.

Grandma sat a moment, looking at the thing in her hands. Behind her in the doorway to the kitchen my aunts Edna and Lelah drew in back-stiffening breaths. No one moved.

Mattie said, “This is the sweetest thing anyone’s ever done for us. Thank you. I’m gonna put it right here next to his chair.” She set the certificate on the bookshelf that held Grandpa’s glasses and Bible, next to his overstuffed recliner.

Peggy stood, kissed Mattie’s cheek, and ushered her three silent children out. Coleen and I exchanged just one look and we never spoke of that day again.

The day nothing happened, when two people of completely opposing views on how to be a Christian acknowledged each others’ goodness and went on with their lives. When Grandma Mattie went to a nursing home years later and we broke up her housekeeping, that certificate was still sitting on Grandpa’s bookshelf, next to his glasses and Bible.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

The Monday Book: WAFFLE STREET by James Adams

True confession: I found this book from the movie. During my recent writing retreat in Florida, I was looking for “mindless entertainment” to fall asleep by. With my trusty laptop propped on my stomach, I surfed Netflix, and found that people who liked The Big Short tended to watch Waffle Street.

Fair enough; I wasn’t looking for much. What I got was way beyond expectations. The heartwarming story of white guys finding redemption in places they wouldn’t normally hang out (a la that Starbucks saved my life book and all) turned out to be something between a financial handbook for dummies and a quirky character sketchlist for small towns. I loved the film and the book.

A lot of the really good explanations of financial stuff (using chickens and waffles) fell out of the movie, but when you find out that James’ best friend at the restaurant was an ex-con grill cook, you have all the straight man set-up you need for the best lines ever about financial misconduct.

The book is heartwarming, sadly, but it’s also that wee bit unpredictable. Adams’ wife isn’t the sweet supportive pushover the movie makes her out to be. The restaurant owner isn’t a self-made down home boy. Throw in the crazy lady who keeps counting change to buy her favorite waffle, the evil midlevel manager who turns out to be human, and a few other stock characters who don’t quite fulfill their archtypes due to a few surprise moves, and pour syrup over the top – but lite syrup. Neither movie nor book are sticky with sentiment.

I did feel a twinge or two, reading the the book, that Adams was describing without solving. He isn’t saying “fight the system.” He’s saying “wow, look how funny the system is.”

He’s probably right about not wasting energy. Two pancake turners up for Waffle Street. waffle-street

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Passing the Penguins

va-assemblyOne of Jack’s favorite movies is Gregory’s Girl, set in a high school in Britain. A recurring joke in the film is the many unexplained vignettes of school life – the headmaster playing honky tonk on a piano during his break; a teacher flinging chalk and ranting about something unheard behind a classroom door; two people in penguin costumes wandering up and down the halls, clearly lost, and everyone who passes them says, in an annoyed tone, “Room 8, hurry up, you’re late, where have you been?” Etc.

Every year I go to Richmond to advocate for rural economic, educational, and health development, done by for and with rural people. I’ve done this trip perhaps eight years now, and while some things change, some things remain the same.

The sheer number of people up on the hill during the 46 days government is in session stays constant, but their costumes change. You round a corner and nearly careen into somebody wearing a VFW hat. People with white canes tap their way past the crowd of kids labeled (mysteriously) “VPT” and the VPTers shrink against the walls to allow them room.

A host of fifty-somethings wearing identical green suit jackets walk by, laughing. And in a line on front of a senator’s door wait women wearing pink and blue fuzzy scarves below their angry faces.

It’s American democracy in real action. People talking to their representatives, telling them what they think, why they think it, what they like done about it. It’s easy, especially now, to be cynical and withdrawn about those men (almost to a man, white men) in suits, but it’s also easy to talk to them. Even when they haven’t wanted to hear what I have to say, they’ve wanted to hear me say it. And most of them have listened with gentleness. I once had a legislator say to me, “I’ve heard that argument before, and I’m still not in agreement with it, but the sheer number of people who express it is beginning to have an effect.”

I asked him what kind of effect, and he grinned. “Sometimes you do what’s right because you know it’s right. And sometimes you do what you don’t think is right because that many people who actually work in the industry might know what’s right better than you.”

Fair enough. All those red hats and green jackets are having an effect. There are still conversations to be had with the guys in the suits, who are listening more than most of us think they are. Yesterday I told one of them why a piece of legislation had failed to help the people it was designed to, because of a small omission of detail it had overlooked in how the industry worked. He looked at me like I’d handed him a fresh cup of coffee.

“We didn’t know that. That makes perfect sense. Why didn’t anyone tell us that?”

I hear that a lot when I’m talking to legislators. They’re waiting for The People to show up and tell them things. Politicians really want to hear from us, despite the convenient apathy despair so often encourages.

“Why didn’t anyone tell us that” covers nuances that change intent in execution; it covers evil masquerading as good; it covers good that missed an important detail. And sometimes it covers BS. Not all conversations with politicians are honest or meaningful, but I’ll take eight out of ten odds any day. That’s how many usually are.

Plus there’s a new feeling on the hill this year: bewilderment. Almost, perhaps, fear. If the rules of the game have changed as much as it looks like they have, then The People have written a new handbook. Like it or lump it, The People elected this president. The People are to be respected, fuzzy scarves, penguin suits and all. Our voices matter and if we don’t like what the voices did this time, best make sure ours are louder next time. Persuasion is an art form not entirely based on TV exposure or the loudest voice in a room.

Perhaps the future belongs to The People who show up for it.

Go to, People. Wear a scarf.

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