The essence of Life and Spirit is found in this eclectic land of stone and heat, thorn and spiral. Stories are contained in the watercolors of bone-dry canyons and dusty horizons... These words are a love letter for the vastness of wild land, the mercurial nature of desert creatures and the holy presence of Life transcending constraint.
Dirt-Sense, Animal-Speak and Origin
“The only magic we have is what we make in ourselves, the muscles we build up on the inside, the sense of belief we create from nothing.”
― Dorothy Allison
“Note to self: remember
What Emerson said
That he loved the low
And crickets, suckers
Songs of the carnal,
Songs of what we are.”
― Greg Orr, River Inside the River
I grew up surrounded by magic. As a little girl, I spent hours outside under big oaks, pretending the soft green moss was a bed for my dolls. I caught frogs in mud puddles and marveled at the filmy texture of their skin, the orbital shape and position of their eyes. I never held them long… only long enough to witness them witnessing me, this equally foreign creature. In the fields behind our farmhouse, there was a dilapidated corn crib where I’d make corn dollies and watch swallows build their nests. I’d spend hours conversing with trees, an old mare, feral cats, birds, spiders and the moon that took me in like a lullaby, like a poem I could believe. It never occurred to me that there was something strange about wishing over weeds, speaking to the setting sun. As a child of field and wildflower, I loved the freedom of communicating in ways that stretched the impulse and ideal of communication, of the human alphabet. I believed in possibility and transcendence. I still do.
My people are a mix of displaced miners and farmers, originating from the fertile Alsace-Lorraine region of France and throughout Wales and Ireland. Many of these early arrivers immigrated to the States in the mid- to late-1800’s, with the Welsh/Scottish farmers arriving in Arkansas and the French and Irish in the coal mines of West Virginia, Kentucky and Southern Indiana. They were outlaws, poor and often on the verge of society. They were also story-tellers, music makers and revivalists. I look at their photos, those dirty faces and scarred clans of wanderers. I hold their seeking spirit close to my own. It matters little what their lives looked like on the surface, what matters is the smolder of adventure that burned between lineage and geography.
Being from such a motley array of characters has its charms. I remember reunions in the hills of Southern Indiana and Northern Kentucky where story and music enveloped us, holding our attention as tales were spun, some true, some peppered with fiction for effect. Everyone played an instrument or two. We sang Carter Family. We wrote our own songs. Weather and politics were predicted with string, crows and tea leaves. You could always tell if a baby would be born breach, cow or human. To this day, I remember hymns sung to a giant man in the sky, on hard benches, in old clapboard buildings - and the songs we would sing in secret about love and land, what we truly believed when the doors of the church closed and the lights were turned off. My people loved and lived in desperation. Maybe that’s why I consider everything with such seriousness. Love could and did kill us.
The dramas of the poor are different from those of the rich or middle class. Family members lose limbs, eyes. Men are locked up for public displays of drunkenness or simply out of the brash bravado of being vocal and in town. Women are “deflowered” under unusual and suspect circumstances. Ponds hold leaches. Homes sigh under the weight of too many children. Everything is baked or fried in flour and sugar, lard and butter. Clothes hold stains from sweat. And fingernails, to be sure, are never clean.
I used to think being poor, not having the right clothes or home, or to be mired on the same red dirt where I was born, was a death sentence. In some cases it was… I won’t glorify or romanticize rural poverty. There is nothing righteous or cool about not seeing the dentist when you have a toothache or going to bed hungry. Fortunately, living on a farm afforded us vegetables and other supplemental food items. But growing up poor does make one thick-skinned. I consider my family to be full of some of the damned funniest people I know. Hearing a rat chew on your homework, carefully tucked under your bed, well, now that makes for some humor.
My great-grandma Josie named me. Josie lived in a 1 bedroom farmhouse where she raised her 12 children. She never had an indoor bathroom – even at 100+ years of age and in the 1980’s. I stayed with her on weekends when I was quite young – perhaps a toddler. She would read stories to me at night, in her rocking chair. It was there I earned the scars I still wear on my forehead after attempting to hold a barn cat. Josie was a tough woman – not only because she raised 12 kids with very little, and during the Depression, but also because she mostly did it without any assistance. The women of my family have a knack for marrying the “wrong men”, the men that would cause sympathetic aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, to shake their heads and walk away. My great-grandfather Mel was a kind man, to be sure, but he was a drunk and a bookworm, and never quite suited for the farm life. He was a smart, literary man trapped in a pauper’s life. When I look at images of him now, I see this handsome brilliance gleaming in his eyes. He wanted something more, yet the gravity of reality caught him… he loved a farm woman, a woman of earth and meadow. He loved her to his grave, but I can say he never truly understood her, nor she him.
My great-grandmother was a tornado, a kitchen witch, a healer. When my maternal grandmother suffered depression, Josie was often the one to provide some wisdom that made her open and soften to her experience. Josie was known to be an animal-speaker. She could coax a feral cat into her arms. I owe my own gift for taming wild animals to her. Both of my brothers work with horses. And all of her great-grandchildren hold both interest and gift in the healing arts. My great-grandmother, as it was told to me, could simply tell a hog that it was his time to go and he would calmly walk to the slaughter. When I made my own mistake of picking up the feral cat too soon, and amid my mother’s panic over my bloody face, Josie simply shook her head. I knew it then as I know it intuitively now: you can’t force intimacy before its time.
As I get older, I know magic existed precisely because of my childhood circumstances and my eclectic and eccentric family of misfits and deranged hill people. I knew my place in the world was distinctly connected to the living world. I benefited from the magic of place, even when the outside world of violence at the hands of strangers and loved ones, the gruesome displays of pornography hidden in sewer pipes and hushed cries, and pressures of money and lack thereof kept us captive – took us away from what we could have been. I still knew my place on earth. This is a gift I believe was afforded to me by the dirt-simple world that didn’t indulge but prompted questions about life and community.
There is much fascination with the rural poor. My own family would delight Steinbeck. I could tell you stories of fat preachers whose sweaty hands held bibles – who spit out propaganda about girls who didn’t keep their legs closed. I could tell you about a pedophile bus driver who – when the town found out about his many victims – simply disappeared one day. I can tell you of my young grandfather – a mere 7 years old – watching his father kill a man while working as a night watchman. I wouldn’t even know where to start with the women… women always endure so much and yet never seem to speak of it. Always, there is violence, yet this isn’t what I want to say.
You see; poverty doesn’t produce violence. Lack of story produces violence. Lack of connection. It’s easy to kill when you don’t care, when you have no story of your own to carry you. You’re dead weighted to the world with no wings, no eyes to see gentleness and peace. We are ruled by a social order that is rife with nullified ideology, stumped on their quest for something else, and confused by this quest. They still think it can be taken from something, someone or some place. I feel sorry for those who believe this. They are truly the ones who stand outside, looking in.
As a poet, I could bring you metaphor and symbolism. I could wax rhapsodic about the myriad ways my people illuminated the best of home, experience and place, but sometimes the story is most precious when it leaves gaps and questions. The simple song is the one that sings.
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