Category Archives: small town USA

These Boots were made for Writing?

26943464_1870425129635209_1410684589_nAbout this time last year, my friend Cami Ostman and I were tucked up four days near Naples, Florida. We’ve been friends since we were about 18, and writing buddies about ten years.

When I sold my writing cabin in Tennessee, we lamented that our usual retreat couldn’t happen, holed up with pre-made casseroles and wine, knocking out our latest narratives and reading them to each other to smooth the rough edges. Cami and I both find that drafting a book’s bones is best done in an intense huddle of anti-social time hoarding. To everything there is a season, and when writing time gets smooshed between all the other pulls of normal life, it gravitates toward the back burner. Better to start the year with a dedicated blast, upping the stakes to keep going.

Cami wondered it it were a plot for a horror novel when I sent her this message: “I’m sure there’s some nice person out there who’s read one of your books or mine, who’s got a she-shed or a rental property we could borrow for a week. Lemme ask.” But the response from Cynthia Piwowarczyk and her husband Jim sounded like heaven. She was a voice-over actor, he director of a non-profit. Two spare bedrooms, a pool in the backyard, a few blocks from a running trail around a lake, and don’t bring any wine or snacks because her husband’s job meant he had about a hundred gift basket items left over from Christmas, and they didn’t drink.

Cami messaged me: either this is set-up for the scariest movie ever, or we just hit the jackpot. Indeed we had. The worst moment of that time with the sweetest, smartest couple in the world was trying to spell their last name on the thank-you card.

We followed our usual pattern: three days of intense writing, emerging evenings to socialize (read: drink wine) and chat with the couple. And then a day of gleeful reward: Cynthia took us to the beach for the morning, and arranged to meet us in the afternoon for girl time. We got frozen ice juices, we ate crepes, we went shopping.

Cynthia and I shared a penchant for thrift stores, so left Cami in a cafe with her laptop to careen through a few big places, chatting and impulse buying and talking each other into and out of silly things.

Mindful that I’d flown with hand luggage, when I first saw the boots, I passed. But Cynthia had a good eye. The second time she saw me glancing back, she asked, “What? Those plaid waders?”

My guilty secret came out: I’d always wanted a pair of decorative gum boots, Scottie dogs or polka dots or some such. Cyndi studied the red and yellow lines of the pattern. “I don’t think it gets any more decorative than this, dear.”

So I flew home from Florida with second-hand knee-high rubber boots stuffed into my bag, dirty knickers stuffed into the boots. Security waved me through after one disgusted look. The officer changed her gloves.

And for a year, those boots sat in the back of my closet, because winter was mild and summer was dry in Southwest Virginia. They survived several closet purges and a Maria Kondo phase, because they brought me joy. Even if I never wore them, now I had a pair of cool hipster knee-highs.

Fast forward to the invitation to be writer in residence in Fayette, West Virginia from January-March of this year. As David, a long-time friend said, “You want to go where, WHEN?!”

I arrived when the weather had reached -4 just from temperature, windchill dropping it another few degrees. People were warned about freezing times of exposed flesh. No one was driving–except Amy and Shawn, owners of the flat that sponsored the residency. They took me on a scenic tour of the New River Gorge in their jeep. Nobody out there but us and one lone runner we encountered at the bottom. He stared at us like we were crazy.

And for the next three weeks, any time I stepped outside the apartment, I needed the boots. At last. I packed them more as a memento of the previous year’s week of glorious productivity, but also they were the only weather-proof shoes I owned. I tend to be a minimalist footwear girl.

So I guess these boots are now a connective theme. Next year, if I get the residency I’ve applied for in Yellowknife (yes, in the cold part of Canada) they’ll get use again. Meanwhile, they’ll sit in the back of my closet, a reminder that, to everything there is a season.

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch, writing

The Train that I Ride – –

Jack is jumping in here so Wendy can write something else –

I had the great pleasure of visiting with Wendy up in Fayetteville WV a few days ago and found it to be a charming place, about the same size as Big Stone Gap. The biggest difference was the group of writers and artists I met who are re-inventing the place and promoting it as a welcoming haven for such folk (but that’s for another blog post).

On Thursday we drove out into the surrounding area and explored out of the way places. We stumbled on the most amazing thing. We had heard there was an old abandoned coal-town that you could wander round called Thurmond. My goodness!

We traveled along a narrow winding road and came to what might have been the place, but there wasn’t much to see. So we carried on just out of curiosity to see where we’d end up. A few miles further on we came to a scary narrow bridge and essayed across gingerly and found ourselves at an abandoned railroad station with a sign saying Thurmond. The depot had been restored as a visitor center by the National Park Service and there was a street of empty impressive looking buildings. The buildings had big posters mounted inside explaining their history and that of the town.

thurmond 3

As we wandered round we stumbled across a very modern Amtrack signboard and discovered to our amazement that the station was on the main line from New York to Chicago and a train stopped once a day in each direction.

thurmond 4

It turned out that the nearby New River Gorge area is a big tourist destination in Summer, so we suppose that people come there by train then, although how they get any further can only be on foot as I doubt there’s any bus or taxi service.

 

That said, it is a destination worth getting to, especially for outdoorsy types into hiking, biking, and kayaking. Wendy and I can watch people like that for hours.

While we were there, a train came through, hauling empty coal cars. The L&M may not stop there anymore, but at least in the summer, people do.

 

 

 

thurmond 5

thurmond 1

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What You Wish For – – –

Jack is off the hook this week as Chelsie Dubay takes on the guest post –

I decided when I was eight years old that I was going to be a chemist. I asked for a chemistry set for Christmas that year. I hung a massive copy of the periodic table of elements on the back of my bedroom door, right next to the posters I’d ripped out of the latest Tiger Beat magazine. After about a week of trying to sift through that chemistry set I realized that sodium bi-whatever-it-was did not inspire me like I thought it would. So, I boxed up the test tubes, experiment manual, and mortar and pestle and stuffed it in the back of my closet along with all of the other hobbies I’d abandoned over the years. Then, in high school, I accepted my fate and resolved that I was destined to be a mathematician. I really don’t know why I felt so certain about that career path but I knew how to solve for X and use a graphing calculator so I accepted that math would then be my destiny.

I’m notorious for that – building unfounded dreams in the sky and then letting them sink down to the ground.

It’s taken me almost thirty-five years to discover my passion. I can remember the first day I realized what it was that I truly loved. I was an undergraduate student at UVa-Wise. College was the first time I’d ever really been around people who weren’t from my tiny town in Lee County, Virginia. We were given a writing prompt in one of my classes. We were told to write about something that we had experienced during our first few days as college students. Most people wrote about how terrible the cafeteria food was or how far away student parking was from the dorms and classroom buildings. I wrote about how surprised and fascinated I was with how students from other parts of Virginia didn’t talk like I talked and how different our worldviews were. Needless to say, my essay was a bit heavier than some of the other submissions the instructor received in class.

From that day forward I charged myself with being an advocate for the region I called home. I was flooded with emotions – mostly regret. I had taken years of amazing memories, stories, and people for granted. I wanted to rewind time so that I could go back and appreciate the days I spent at my Mamaw and Papaw’s old general store in Hubbard Springs. Instead of complaining about Mamaw and Papaw not having MTV, I should have been relishing in all of the things that made my childhood and this area great. I needed to bottle the quirky way my Mamaw refers to herself in the third person, “Lord, Chels. Don’t look at Mamaw. Mamaw’s been weedeatin’.” I wanted to record the way my Papaw, with an eighth grade education, worked out complex math problems aloud, ending each solution with, “why, hell, Chels. At’s simple math!”

I can’t go back so I choose to go forward and to be thankful for the opportunity to reflect on those memories and relive those moments I’m afforded through the cannon that is Appalachian literature.

This semester I have the distinct pleasure and honor of teaching my all-time favorite class, Appalachian Literature, for the local community college, Mountain Empire Community College. The chain of events that landed me here is as poetic as the literature my students will enjoy over the course of the semester. Together, we’ll laugh and we’ll cry but most of all, we’ll reflect. I hope to expose each of my students to the beauty of the things they, like me, may have ignored or underappreciated. My hope is that, at the end of the semester, each student will walk away inspired to go out and capture the beauty that surrounds them – through oral history collection, through participant-observation, but most of all, through just being present in the things that make this area, these people, and this body of literature great.

Won’t you join us?

This course will be a great way to expose yourself to works of and about our region, as well as to build a solid foundation in some of the significant historical movements that have impacted and continue to impact this body of work.

During this course we will read works (both fiction and non-fiction) set in or about the Appalachian region. The works will range from ballads to novels and hit almost everything in between.

This course is not exhaustive; it’s a sampling. Also sprinkled throughout the 15 weeks we’ll talk a little about history, culture, religion, and the land itself. This course is discussion heavy, which means that your participation in the discussion board, contributing to our conversation, is crucial for the course’s success.

In addition to weekly discussions, the class will require 2 major projects and 2 short essays. Remember, too, that senior residents of Virginia may be eligible to audit the class for free!

Apply here: http://www.mecc.edu/step1/

Questions? Contact Chelsie Dubay, cdubay@mecc.edu

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, folklore and ethnography, Life reflections, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA

Christmas Cheer – –

Jack’s Wednesday guest post finally makes it – –

Wendy and I spent Christmas with her parents in Knoxville as we usually try to do. They have always been gracious and welcoming to me and for that I am always thankful.

When they came over to Scotland almost twenty years ago for our wedding (the first time they had ever been out of the US), they were enchanted by my country and still keep up with folks over there through the internet.

One thing that Wendy’s mom sampled there was ‘chicken tikka masala’ and she always hankered to have that bright red delicacy again. So this Christmas I decided to make her some and prepared by purchasing the necessary sauce from Trader Joe’s and then googled to find out how to get the red color into the chicken. To my horror it turned out to be red food dye!

She was disappointed but agreed to try my pale orange chicken concoction instead. Despite me being the only person in the company who actually likes curry, she gamely tucked into the non-red delicacy. There was quite a lot left, which I look forward to finishing in due time! Pat reminds me very much of her own Mom, Wendy’s Nanny, who once prepared for me three different kinds of porridge for breakfast to show me I was accepted into the family.

Wendy’s dad, however has much more conservative tastes in food (and other things) and has, I think, always used me as a kind of barometer for measuring how ‘the rest of the world’ thinks. I actually don’t mind that too much as we are in many ways mirror images of each other in our political and societal views. Our sources of news are diametrically opposed and we usually see current events in very different ways. I’m often surprised by how much we agree on, however, and I’m grateful to him for being much more open with his views than I’ve been prepared to be with mine (although I’m sure he has me pegged).

They must both have had severe misgivings when Wendy announced our engagement – to marry a foreigner and one so many years older than her!

The last time we were all together was to observe the total eclipse of the sun – but yet, here we are all still – – – and the sun has not fallen from the sky!

 

 

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, Scotland, small town USA, Uncategorized, Wendy Welch

Packing for Residency

quote-the-first-thing-a-writer-should-be-is-excited-he-should-be-a-thing-of-fevers-and-enthusiasms-ray-bradbury-82-52-80In just over a week, I will be installed as resident writer in Lafayette Flats, a luxury apartment by the New River Gorge National Park in WV. It is a writing rather than a teaching residency, three months all expenses paid (sans food) in the top floor by myself, writing. Just writing.

I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to this time.

In preparation to which, I have begun to pack:

1 case wine (one bottle per week, including two good bottles for sharing if WV writers want to get together, the rest cheap-and-cheerful for a glass with dinner most weeknights)

2 cases fizzy water (club soda and seltzer with flavors, the stuff of daily consumption, because burping helps ideas rise)

1 large box Trader Joe’s boil-in-bag or heat-n-serve vegetarian fare – cooking up ideas, not food

8 pair pajama bottoms, sweats, or scrubs with assorted non-t-shirts and five fuzzy cardigans – I ain’t going out except daily walks. Heck, I may not even pack a hairbrush. 3 MONTHS OF WRITING TIME!!!!!

1 box work papers, because even though they gave me a leave of absence, there is one project I have to keep an eye on. That’s okay – they gave me a leave of absence!

9 books to read, all Appalachian Studies Association’s Weatherford Award nominees

6 pair fuzzy ballerina slippers; if we’re playing truth or consequences, some days I’ll cop to not exiting pjs

1 CD of funny cat songs and 1 cat coloring book with markers, to lighten up once in awhile

All the underwear I own – because doing laundry is a time sink and it will sour in the washer anyway if the ideas are going well, and get meticulously folded should things go badly; don’t give that kind of avoidance space

My new Himalayan salt lamp I got from Beth and Brandon for Christmas – because I’ve always wanted one and it will glow in the dark during quiet nights

The card Jack gave me the day we got married, because Jack won’t be there but once a month.

My underheated mattress pad, because Jack won’t be there but once a month….

The lacy red cup stolen from a summer arts camp I taught in years ago, which I intend to leave in the flat as karmic retribution. (Actually, I did pay for the mug. Just after the swiping. It’s okay; that director knows. And I’m not stealing anything from Lafayette Flats, Amy and Shawn, I swear! Tell you the mug story sometime.)

1 nice outfit, which I will wear repeatedly to church until they assume it’s the only clothing I own, and will wear to any writing events and the reception for when I get there and such.

My harp, for when writing isn’t going well

My 8-pack of crochet hooks and a basket of yarn, for when writing isn’t going well

My plaid Wellington winter snow boots, for when writing isn’t going well

1 bottle port, for when writing is going well

My computer and back-up zip drive, because writing is going to go well

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Filed under Big Stone Gap, humor, Life reflections, Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, publishing, reading, small town USA, Uncategorized, VA, Wendy Welch, writing

Up, Up, and Away – – –

Jack scrapes in once again – –

Regular readers will know of my fascination with all things aeronautical, so, when Wendy posted a message a couple days ago on FaceBook asking (on behalf of a friend!), about insurance for a 75 year old man bent on going up in a glider – – –

While I’ve made many, many trips all over the world in airliners, there really just two flight experiences that really stick in my mind.

glider

When I was about 19 years old I went on a week long gliding vacation in Yorkshire. It was held at Sutton Bank which is a very high straight cliff near Thirsk and a beautiful area. We were a small group and all stayed in a lovely old pub/inn at the foot of the cliff. Every morning an ancient ex-army land-rover would ferry us up to the airfield up on top of the cliff. Then the excitement started!

Our instructor was a Polish ex fighter pilot who’d flown Spitfires in the Battle of Britain and he was a real character. Each morning he would address us in the clubhouse where he told us nothing about gliders and everything about flying Spitfires during WW2! Then we’d go out with him in turns, get hooked up to the winch and rocket up to five hundred feet or so. That put us over the edge of the cliff where our height suddenly became over a thousand feet and with an up-draft that pushed us up even further.

But my strongest memory is the complete tranquility of sitting silently in the sky with no sense of motion and no engine – like being in an armchair!

The second experience was much more recently –

low wing

During the 1990s I organized a student exchange between my college in Scotland and one in Herning, Denmark. My opposite number there was the head of the engineering dept. and he owned a light plane (and a half share in another one). I went over for a week to set things up and he took me up in his plane (a low wing monoplane with a side by side open cockpit). We visited some of his flying buddies who lived out in the country with their own grass landing strips.

morgan

At that time I was the owner of a Morgan sports car and I remember thinking as we took off for the first time that this felt like my Morgan had just sprouted wings! We had a number of magical flights and never more than a few hundred feet up, navigating around pylons and factory chimneys and with no maps.

Coincidentally both our colleges had a link to one in Wilhelmshaven in Germany and he wanted to fly us down there. The ‘high-ups’ didn’t approve as it would involve traversing part of the north sea, so we ended up driving. When we crossed into Germany the autobahn had no speed limit so we drove at over 100 MPH!

I’m sure it was much safer – – –

 

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The Plates of Breakage

Sometimes ya just want a little retail therapy. Even amidst the voices about “live simply, that others may simply live,” even after you’ve read “AFFLUENZA” and admitted to excesses, even taking Marie Kondo to heart, there are days when you just wanna go shopping.

Especially when your sister you rarely get to see is in town, and the two of you take Mom on a thrift store ramble. Off we went, three girls on a mission to visit all the thrift stores we could before Mom conked out. (Four.)

At the second one, SCORE. I found a brand-new duvet (those huge down comforters one rarely sees outside high end department stores) for $5. Those things are like $120 retail!

Standing in line to pay for this fluffy find, my eye fell on a stack of eight glass plates taped together. I picked them up. Old glass. Heavy glass. GOOD glass. Unusual design.

IMG_2480“I don’t need plates.” Feeling virtuous, I set them back on the counter.

My sister leaned over. “$1.25.”

“Each?” Mom asked, looking interested.

Tracy shook her head. “All together.”

Don’t judge me. They fit nicely packed inside the duvet. And I liked them, and I make my own money, and gosh darn it if I want to spend $1.25 on something silly, I can.

Home we went, where I opened the car door to unload the duvet – and all eight plates crashed to the ground. Sigh…..

Two were shattered, one lightly chipped. I did a quick attitude adjustment: now I only had to store six plates, and they’d just gone from 15 cents each to 20. Big whoop. I adjusted the dinner guest list: four friends over instead of six.

Back home that night I showed Jack my finds.

“We didn’t need plates,” said my Scotsman husband.

“Need didn’t have a thing to do with it,” I huffed, setting them on the table.

A few hours later, we heard a loud crash. Upstairs, where they were not meant to be, a kitten had gotten past security and hooked her claws into the tablecloth. Down one new plate, but the rest had simply tipped off the table onto the duvet I was going to put away later. One slight chip not mentioned, five usable plates remained. 25 cents each wasn’t really the point. Should I have bought something I didn’t need?IMG_2419

I called our friends Beth and Brandon. “Y’all need to come and eat before I break all the new plates I got for us to eat off of.”

Beth being the family vet and Brandon my chiropractor, as well as family friends, they’re used to idiosyncratic sudden phone calls.

“OK” was all Beth said.

Four plates to eat from, one to serve on… you know what’s coming, right? With an artistic cheese platter arranged elegantly amidst olives and strawberries (I repeat, don’t judge me; they made a nice color combo) on plate five, I tripped. Over thin air. Or maybe the kittens set up a yarn trap; they thought the resultant cheese spill was the Best. Thing. Ever.

We ate leftover pizza from the four plates of breakage. The plan now is to use them until Christmas is over, then throw however many are left into a fireplace. It’s not like 31 cents per plate prohibits this for fun. At this point, perhaps they owe me money.

Nor will they be wasted, these extravagant items purchased for no other reason than glass lust. I have a friend, Susan Powers, who Makes Things. She recycles broken materials, and inherited plate six the day after it fell. When we shatter the remaining Plates of Breakage, she will assist the phoenix that rises from their crystal splinter ashes.

Reduce, reuse, recycle–retail? I dunno, but those plates have bought us more fun than $1.25 ever should.

 

 

 

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