Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The (Im)Perfect Word

Writers are always looking for the perfect word, the perfect sentence. Put a bunch of writers together for a little while and you’ll most likely hear one of them declare “I love that word” in response to something someone has uttered.

We are not normal (and don’t want to be); we actually discuss our favorite words. Mine is “gloaming”. A friend of mine prefers the word “Sabbath”. Another favors “diaphanous”. Writers are people who love words, plain and simple; that’s our craft, our job.

Of course it is the sound that draws us in first. How can a person not appreciate a word like “diaphanous” if they say it aloud? So yes, we pronounce these words audibly, savoring them like fine chocolates on our tongues. We roll them around in our mouths, feel them taking flight from our lips. Yet it is more than that. We even love the way words look. Take another perfect word for an example: Appalachia. Not only is it interesting to say (mostly because the way a person says it can tip you off to whether they are a native of the place or not—a true Central Appalachian says “App-uh-latch-uh” while non-natives or people from other parts of the mountain range usually say “App-uh-lay-chuh”) but it is also beautiful to see spelled out, and made even more beautiful because the shape of the word so perfectly captures what it is describing. Look at the steep mountainsides of those four As, the rolling hills atop those ps and the c and the h. Notice the straight-trunked trees of the l, the h, and the i, the perfectly-round dot of sun floating over the landscape (the dot on the i). The word looks like what it’s talking about. A word doesn’t get much more perfect than when it’s beautiful to say (whichever way you say it), interesting to look at, and exact in what it is explaining.

So, among a writer’s many, many responsibilities (illuminating an essential truth, entertaining and informing, preserving, telling a good story, capturing sense of place, etc.) there is that greatest responsibility: choosing the perfect words with which to tell your story and using these words to form perfect sentences that will lead to perfect paragraphs and scenes and eventually a perfect book. Of course there are very, very few perfect books, but as writers that is what we must strive for and I believe that some writers have achieved that (My Antonia by Willa Cather, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Home by Marilynne Robinson…I could name a few more). And it is definitely possible to create the perfect sentence and to choose the perfect word.

But what happens when the perfect word is one that you do not want to use?

This has happened to me a few times, but only in my latest book did it become particularly troubling to me. Thus, this missive.

In the past, it has only been the necessary, ugly words that have been bothersome: it, and, of, but, that, so…words that we absolutely must use, but don’t find particularly attractive. A few times I have been confronted with my own prudishness, too. I admit it: I have consciously tried to keep the f-bomb out of my novels, mostly because I believe that I shouldn’t write anything in my books that I wouldn’t say in front of my children, or my mother, or a total stranger.

I must go out on a limb here and confide that I do like the f-word, as words go. Sometimes it’s the absolute perfect word. But it’s also incredibly overused, to the point of having lost its power. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it’s a very vulgar word. It’s mostly that –ck at the end that makes it so simultaneously perfect and offensive. And while I might totally appreciate this word privately it’s not something I would ever say in front of just anyone; frankly I think it’s the height of tackiness to say this loudly in a public place, as so many people are want to do, or even quietly in front of someone I’ve just met. So, to make a long essay short, my point is that I’ve only used it in print once, and that was when I knew that I could not possibly be true to the character in the short story I was writing without using it. There was no getting past the fact that she would use that word. No way. The character was very drunk, very high on cocaine, she was very frustrated, and she insisted on saying that word in print. In other scenarios in my writing I had always suggested that the characters might be saying it off-screen or, more likely, I was dealing with characters that would have never uttered the word to begin with. So I had been able to very naturally avoid it while remaining true to my writing. But in this one story the woman had to say it. So I let her, and because I knew that it was absolutely right and true for that character, I wasn’t ashamed.

But now I have chosen a perfect word for a character of mine to utter, and I can’t seem to let go of the guilt. As I do whenever I can’t do anything else, whenever I am completely powerless and confused and don’t know what else to do, I have to write to try to make sense of the situation.

In my new novel, Eli the Good, which was published in September 2009, one of my characters, Edie, a tough, twelve year-old girl in 1976, addresses her 11 year-old male best friend, Eli, as a “retard” (the pronunciation is important (rë-tard) mainly because those two short syllables make it sound meaner). Eli has come out of his house early in the morning and is getting ready to jump on his bicycle when Edie, who is sitting in her adjoining back yard, hollers for him to come over. Eli, who is somewhat mesmerized by the beauty of the morning, pauses before responding, and stares at her. She asks him if he is coming or if he is going to just stand there and stare at her “like a retard.”

I really, really struggled with using that word. I went back and forth on it many times. I wanted Edie to address him some other way. I tried to get her to call him a dummy, or even a dumb-ass, or a dork. Not because these words mean the same thing as “retard” but because in her mind they do. But I knew Edie. I had lived with that character for years, in my head, and I knew that that is what she would call him. That’s just who she was. So after struggling with this one small little short word for months and months, I relented, let the character win, and I turned in the final manuscript with that word included.

I have regretted it ever since.

I know that people are going to write angry letters to me, accusing me of political correctness and self-censorship and such. But this is my struggle, and I believe it’s a struggle we should all have.

Words have power. Words mean something. Words live and breathe.

I regret it, however, because “retard” is one of the words I have absolutely forbidden my children to say. I also hate it when someone refers to something they consider bad or boring as being “gay” or when someone pronounces someone as being “trash.” I was raised in a trailer until I was almost nine years old, and nothing ever cut as deep as the time I overheard someone called “trailer trash.” Since their definition of trailer trash was anyone who lived or had lived in a trailer, then that was me, too. And my parents. And lots of people I know, respect, and love. Not trash. Human beings.

It is the carelessness with which these words are used that bothers me so profoundly. We must always think of the meaning and connotations of words before we spout them. Also, when someone uses a word like “retard” or “gay” or “trash” in this way, it changes the meaning of the word. It distorts the meaning into something cruel.

Take the word “retard”: its entire intention as a word—in Edie’s usage, and in the way most people use it nowadays, at least—is to insult, to negate, to imply superiority, to hurt.

That whole thing about sticks and stones breaking your bones but words never hurting you is wrong. I would argue that I’ve been far more hurt by words than by sticks and stones. And the main thing, of course, is that negative words usually lead to the sticks and stones. All wars are rooted in words to begin with, in arguments, in the careless dispensing of insults. I’d say it’s pretty rare that a fistfight is mute, or that a killing is preceded by silence. Yet words have the power to heal, too. Words make prayers and terms of endearment and declarations of love and peace.

As a writer, I realize the power of words. That’s part of my job. But it is also part of my job to listen to my characters, to know them so well that I know what they eat for breakfast every morning, that I know the contents of their purses and billfolds, that I know what words fit correctly in their mouths or not. Sometimes these characters do things I don’t want them to. In The Coal Tattoo, for example, I tried every way in the world to convince Anneth to not leave Matthew. I loved Matthew. But she didn’t. And they say things I don’t want them to.

Which brings me back to what Edie says in Eli the Good. The main reason it bothers me is because this book is being marketed as a young adult novel (which means it’s for everybody) and I certainly don’t want kids to think I’m condoning the use of that word. Usually I just take it for granted that readers know that the characters are the ones speaking; not me. But in this case, I can’t help thinking of some middle schooler thinking because a word is in print that makes it okay. It doesn’t. As much as I love words, I do not agree with all of them. I suppose it would be foolish of me to wish that some of them didn’t even exist, but secretly, I do wish that. Because then some sticks and stones might have been avoided.

Ultimately, however, a writer’s responsibility is to report the truth. Even in fiction. Especially in fiction. And as much as it pains me for that word to be in print, to know that that word is being used to damage and hurt people (and to stereotype an entire group of people), I still believe in words. All of them, even if I don’t agree with them all.

Monday, September 14, 2009

On Excuses, Excuses (and Sexton's Creek)

Well, I fell a little bit short of my original challenge to discover something new everyday posts because I didn't make it the whole month.  In fact, I only made just over half a month.  I won't list the reasons why here, but let's just say life intervened, as it sometimes does.  And here's a discovery I made (which I already knew, but had to be reinforced for me):  sometimes life must take the driver's seat, even over your writing.  The thing is, though, life doesn't know this, but no matter what is happening, the writing is still in high gear.  Because even though I wasn't able to write those discovery posts everyday, the real-life problems I was having that was keeping me from posting were, in fact, teaching me more and more discoveries every single day.  So I'm thankful for that.  And if I learned one thing during my little exercise in trying to discover something new everyday (and posting it online) it is...well, it's two things:  1.  You can discover something perfectly well without posting it online and 2.  the discovery is all that matters.  It's like that line in one of my favorite books of all time, Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith:  "It was the writing that signified," the narrator, Ivy Rowe says, after she burns a bundle of letters she has written over the past century.  Well, this time the discoveries signified.  

Now I know I can at least post a new blog every month, and before this exercise I couldn't even do that.  Thanks for listening.  

During this post I did want to share a little piece of writing of mine.  Here's a video of the song "Sexton's Creek," to which I wrote the lyrics and my boon companions Kate Larken and Jason Howard wrote the music.  It's my favorite song that I've written or co-written because, like a good short story, I think it works on lots of different levels. The video was filmed by another boon companion, Denton Loving, at the Highlander Research and Education Center's 77th Anniversary Celebration. It was such an honor to speak there, where people like Rosa Parks learned to do civil disobedience and people like Myles Horton and Don West helped to light the fire of revolution and pride in Appalachia. Oh, and if you've never been to Sexton's Creek, in Clay County, Kentucky, then you've missed a little foretaste of glory.  I hope you like it...

Friday, August 28, 2009

On Dogs (Discovery for 8.29.09)

Good dogs are everything that humans hope to be, but never have quite achieved yet.  

When I think back on all my good dogs I had when I was a boy, I can't help getting a little bit sad. There was Arky, a little obese weiner dog my aunt in Arkansas gave me.  He thought he was a big, ferocious dog, and would bare his teeth to anyone who threatened me.  He sat right beside me when I propped my back against a tree to read a summer afternoon away.  There was Fala, a white spitz I named after FDR and Eleanor's trusty dog.  Every day Fala trotted out to Hoskins' Grocery where my bus let me off. Everyone on the school bus crowded to one side so they could see him sitting there patiently awaiting my arrival.  When the bus screeched to a halt there he'd wag his tail--three thumps on the ground behind him--then jump up to walk home with me.  

Those were the two I had the longest, although there were others along the way.  I miss them every single one.  

And now I have other dogs, but my favorite of all is old Rufus, who is ten years old now, and showing his age in the way he's not running quite as fast anymore, in the slow way he arises in the mornings when I first step outside, in his wise brown eyes.  He's the best of dogs because he always knows when you need him, and when you do, he'll sit right there and not move a muscle until he knows that you're done with being still.  Then he will arise and even though he's old and tired he'll dance around a little to get you smiling.  And once he knows he has done his job he'll zoom back off into the woods to rush rabbits out of the underbrush or mess with a groundhog.  Sometimes he emerges from the woods completely covered in mud from rolling around in the shoals of God's Creek.  Or covered in burrs from an overgrown pasture he's travelled through.  Once he came back home with his butt full of buckshot.  But he always comes when I whistle for him.  

That's the main thing we can ask of those we depend on the most:  to simply be there when we call.  That's what Rufus always does.  That's what the really good dogs always do.  The thing is, dogs are so much more dependable that way.  They're who we want to be.  

Thursday, August 27, 2009

On Opportunity to Start Anew (Discovery for 8/27/09)

Every morning the whole world gives us the opportunity to start our lives anew. 

That's what I kept thinking as I drove the winding roads of Eastern Kentucky yesterday as the land came
awake.  A thin mist breathed out over on the hills and hollers.  A white rind of moon in the struggling
shadows of first daylight.  The sky burned purple and gray on the horizon.  I passed through Big Hill, Morrill, Clover Bottom, Sand Gap, Gray Hawk, Mummie, Elias, Traveller's Rest, Levi, and other little communities.  In each of these, the houses along the road were coming awake, too.  Yellow rectangles of light in the windows.  An occasional square of blue where a television flickered the morning news.  

Best of all, the people stirred outside.  

A woman sweeping her porch, her mind on something far, far away.

Two women sitting on a bench outside the Little Angels Daycare Center, smoking and laughing. One of them threw her head back to cackle out; the other slapped her knee.

A man stretching beside his truck before he climbed into it to head off to work.

Children, sleepy-eyed, disgusted, waiting for the bus. 

A group of men standing around a truck at the quarry entrance, passing around a packet of powdered donuts.  Their shoulders were heavy with the prospect of their labor that lay ahead of them, their hands big and square-fingered.

Several good dogs:  a yellow one trotting down the shoulder of the road as if on a determined path; a white spitz marking his territory; a beagle yawning on the concrete porch steps of her home; a long-legged black dog coming out of the kudzu-covered woods from a long night of carousing. 

Along the way there were all kinds of little businesses and churches:  The Frostyette Dairy Stand, The Lord Jesus Christ Bapticostal Church of God, Mack's Used Cars, the Bobcat Diner.  

And along the way there were a million trees, blue in that space before full daylight.  And wildflowers, still not completely awake, standing tall, bright in their purpleness and whiteness and yellowness.  In all the dew-laden grasses there clicked the night bugs that didn't quite understand that day had arrived, their songs slowing, quieting.  

Silver Creek, the South Fork of the Kentucky River, Spruce Fork, Brushy Creek.  Water creeping along, and rushing along.  Clear and wild, slow and coffee-with-cream-colored. 
All of this, and so much more, stretching, awakening, opening eyes, hoping, hoping, hoping.

Every morning we get the chance to start our lives anew, and the world offers that to us like a prayer, every single day.  That's why it's a comforting thing to drive the winding roads of Eastern Kentucky on an August morning when the night has been cool but the day promises to be hot, because it's so easy to discover all of that.  


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Roadside Discoveries (Discoveries for 8/25/09 and 8.26.09)

A homeplace, left to be devoured by the ironweed.  Once, someone lived there.   A family, maybe.  They had lives and loves and sorrows and most of all, they had their own stories.  In the cool of the day they'd sit on the porch and tell big tales and flies buzzed in the kitchen and the children ran down to the creek to play and a woman with weary eyes broke beans on the porch, so used to this work that her hands didn't even think about what they were doing.  One of the children--the last one--left when he was eighteen and looked back at the little house and remembered all the good and the bad and everything in between.  He had no idea that he'd never be back there, that he'd go off and forget who he was.  He had no idea that someday nobody would remember any of them and the house would sink down and down and down until it had been completely overtaken by the wildflowers, the weeds.  He had no idea that the only thing that kept the roof from taking flight was the gathered mass of their stories, an entity which survived, a poltergeist, hiding in the corners, warmed by the heat of tin on an misty August morning.  
2.  The book of Habakkuk is part of the Old 
Testament and is only three chapters and
has three clear parts:   A discussion
between God and the prophet,
an oracle of woe, and a psalm.  
They call Habakkuk a minor prophet, but
Paul the Apostle admired his writing, and
used it, and spread the Word of it.  Some 
prophet in Irvine, Kentucky took it upon
him or herself (let's say it was a man, just for
the sake of brevity) to work hard on this sign.
I'd love to know what the builder thought while 
he worked, while he latched those black letters to the
board.  I'd like to know why he used a U instead
of YOU.  I'd like to know what happened to 
him that caused him to feel to strongly about
drinking.  Maybe he had a good, thick testimony
when he stood up in church and curled his calloused
fingers over the rounded part on the back of the ash-wood
pews.  Maybe one of the hands rose up into the air
as his voice grew in strength, telling how he used to be
an old drunk but then a stranger stopped and helped him
and made him see the Light and ever since then he had been
living that good old way and then the whole church might
have exploded in praise, the Sermon the Mount fans stopped 
from their waving momentarily while the people cried out
their approval.  The next day, I bet he went back to 
work on the sign and felt that his hands were being 
directed by God.  And for all we knew, they were.   

Monday, August 24, 2009

On Headaches (Discovery for 8/24/09)

An especially terrible headache is as big and endless and dark as the ocean, stretched tight across the globe, middled by black white-capping waves that chop at the horizon, a largeness and darkness like death.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Eli the Good Reading

The discovery blogs are temporarily on hold while Silas is briefly out of the country.  In the meantime, a reading from ELI THE GOOD...(double click to watch full-screen)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On Dancing (Discovery for 8/19/09)

Once you stop dancing, you die a little.

            I used to dance all the time.  In my early twenties, we were out at honkytonks every Saturday night.  I ran around with all of my cousins back then.  We never went anywhere without each other.  Even when we weren’t at a bar or a club, we’d find a way to dance. If we were in a restaurant that had a jukebox loaded down with good songs, we’d get up and dance.  Didn’t matter if there wasn’t a dance-floor.  We’d lean our heads back, close our eyes, and listen only to the music.  We danced on the lake bank, in our living rooms, on the wide front porches of our youth. 

            Once I settled down and had children, the only dancing I ever did was with a baby on my hip.  Some of my favorite memories are of dancing with my daughters.  I’d slow-dance them to sleep, drawing in that scent that can only be found at the nape of your daughter’s neck.  When they got older, I fast-danced with them.  We used to dance every single night, the music turned up as loud as it would go.  I taught them how to clog.  I taught them that the best dancing song in the entire world is “Hurts So Good” by Mellencamp.  I taught them to not care what anyone thinks when they are dancing, to just listen to the music. 

            My girls are getting bigger now, so we don’t dance as much as we used to, and nowadays it’s more that they demand that I dance for them and they sit and hold their stomachs laughing as they make me dance to songs they think I probably won’t like.  Tonight was like that.  They made me dance to “Diva” by Beyonce, which is a song I would most likely never dance to unless someone was making me.  But I did, for them.  I closed my eyes, leaned my head back, tried my best to listen to the music.  There wasn’t the same attachment to the music that I might have gotten from Mellencamp, but I found the beat, and went with it, much to the girls’ delight.  They laughed until tears streamed.  But I didn’t care.

            The only real dancing I ever do these days is at the square dances that pop up occasionally around home, or more often, at writing workshops where I teach.  Less than a month ago I was cutting a rug up at the Hindman Settlement School at a big square dance.  Some of my best friends were there, so that made it even better.  Square dancing is the most communal kind of dancing.  You are forced to touch others, to speak to them, to learn the way they move and move with them.  Square dancing makes you realize that you are all dancing together, working together, helping one another.

            In some strange way, I remember every single person I ever danced with, whether it was at the Moose Lodge, the Maverick Club, the Cumberland Falls Square Dance, the Dixie Café, or any other.  Most of them don’t remember me, but I recall them sometimes, all those strangers and lovers, all those people I spent four or five minutes of my life with during a great song.  It’s a connecting thing, dancing. 

            I’m in my late 30s now, so some people might say that’s too old to be out dancing.  But I don’t intend to stop anytime soon.  In fact, I intend to do it even more.  I’ll just close my eyes, listen to the music, not care what anyone thinks, and be a little more alive in the process.  


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On Books (Discovery for 8/18/09)

I love books.  I love reading them, but there is even more than that.

            Touch. I love how cool the pages are when you first open them in the mornings.  Or how warm the pages are if you’ve left it out in the car for awhile in the summer, like something baked the exact right length of time.  The endpapers and the spine and the little letters that are sometimes imbedded in the cloth, a kind of Braille for book-lovers. 

            Smell.  The new ones: people talk about a new-car scent all the time, but what I love even more is a new-book scent.  They should make little deodorizers of that aroma to go under one’s car seats.  And the old ones:  they smell like history, and rain, and the skin of all the people who loved them before, and every room wherein they lived. 

            See.   Yes, of course we see them when we read them, but I love seeing them on the bookshelves, too.  Or lying about, covering every available surface, stacked on the stairs, on the nightstand, on the kitchen table, on the kitchen counter, on my desk, a haphazard pile beside my desk.  I once had a guest room whose walls were completely lined with bookshelves full of my favorite books.  My guests all said that they had the best sleep there, and inquired about the mattress.  I told them it was the books.  Now my dining room table is surrounded on three sides by bookshelves.  They make any meal better by their very presence.  They are the best décor, and multi-purpose at that.

            Hear.  Taste.  I could go on with the other two senses, but that’s a whole different ballgame (because if you’re a true reader you can hear the stories even long after you’ve finished the book; and sometimes you can taste the tang of the ink, even if you don’t try), and besides, the touching, smelling, and seeing are enough.  Books are enough to sustain us, period.   

On Holiness (And Turtles) [Discovery for 8/17/09]

Holiness shows itself when you are not watching for it.

Sunday, the Sabbath, the holiest day of seven holy days, I was in a car with several of my closest friends and my two daughters. Members of my given and chosen family. We had been to the top of the mountain to look out at three states. There, there, and there, we said. “Look at Kentucky, it’s the prettiest,” one of us said, laughing. “No, Virginia is,” said another. “On a clear day you can see North Carolina,” somebody else said, “and none of them can beat it.” Each state was completely the same from up there. Each state was completely different from up there. Each endless and green and lush with more mountains, rolling on and on and on, for ages. We spent a long while up at the pinnacle, talking, climbing rocks, studying trees. There were long bouts of silence. Family—especially the chosen kind—allows that between one another.

Then, coming down the mountain, there was a box turtle in the road. We had all been laughing and carrying on, but then, a silence stretched out in the car before we all said, in unison, as if amazed: “A turtle!”

I was struck by how mesmerized we all seemed by the turtle. It’s a common enough sight in Appalachia, to see them making slow but steady progress across the highway. But always so beautiful, so patient, that no matter how many times you see them, they seem like a holy thing. There he was with his yellow stripes, his blunt head that seemed to sniff at the air, his careful steps. Determined, small, tough.  There was something about his curmudgeonly gait that made us all assume he was male.

And there was another, similar kind of holiness when someone said, “He’s almost across,” and another chimed in, “Yeah, he’ll make it,” and my daughter leaned forward, making sure. Because all of us knew that sometimes you have to pull over onto the side of the road and help a turtle across, to make sure it doesn’t get crushed, to make sure that a blessed thing stays alive in the world awhile longer. We had all done it at some point, had seen others do it. There are little acts of service and kindness that happen every day.

Not long ago I was on the Daniel Boone Parkway, where coal trucks quake by every five seconds, decorating the road with hard little bits of coal as they sizzle past. Yet a woman had stopped on the narrow shoulder to help a turtle across. A little girl, strapped into a car seat in the back, was crying and throwing her hands into the air. The woman was still wearing her uniform from working—probably a grimy, ten-hour shift—at the Huddle House restaurant over in Manchester. But despite all of this she had taken the time to stop and help the turtle across the road.  She bent, picked him up with a cupped hand across his domed shell, scurried to the side of the road as another coal truck--load uncovered, mud flaps swinging--barreled toward her.  The wind from the coal truck lifted her hair, caused her to shut her eyes against the grit that came in its wake.  But then she put the turtle down--as gently as if she were placing an egg in its nest--and hurried back to her car.

I think acts like this are a kind of holiness.  And in that moment with my people, I thought it a kind of holiness that we would all have the same thought, to take care of the turtle. And another kind of holiness that we didn’t have to explain that to one another. And another kind of holiness to live in a world made up of people who are mostly good, mostly trying to do the best they can, mostly trying to just move through this life without hurting others, mostly trying to help others.

A turtle is that way, too, I like to think. Maybe that's why so many of us have a deep attachment to them that we don't quite understand.  And who knows what secret little acts of service he (or she) performs out there on the mountain when hidden among all the clandestine cover of the summer woods? Of this one thing I am certain: more holy things happen when we are not noticing than when we are. And that’s a great comfort.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

On Sabbaths (Discovery 8/16/09)

Sometimes all the church a person needs on the sabbath is to watch his daughters sleep.

On Bicycles (Discovery 8/15/09)

(During the weekends the "discoveries" may often be much shorter because school is back in session and I don't want to spend too much of my time on the computer...instead I want to be with my daughters every chance I get, or be on the lake, or be sitting under a tree working on my new book.  So, with that in mind, the blogs for this weekend are shorter, with promises of the weekday ones being longer.  Also, don't forget to scroll down so you can follow my blog and receive notices each time there is a new post.)

On Bicycles (Discovery 8/15/09)

A bicycle is the only completely perfect vehicle, the only vehicle that allows us to be still and to be in motion at the same time.

Friday, August 14, 2009

On Beauty (Discovering 8/14/09)




            Beauty survives, no matter what.

            My grandmother has Alzheimer’s.  This evening, she didn’t recognize anyone but me, and then, five minutes after she knew me completely and totally, she was looking at me as if I were a stranger.  She was studying me and she wouldn’t admit it, but she had forgotten who I was, too.  She didn’t remember anything.  

           At one point she asked her age.  My aunt, Sis, told her she was eighty-two. 

           “What month was I born?” 

            “March, honey,” Sis said. 

            “Yeah, I was.  It was March,”  Mamaw laughed.  She closed her eyes and laughed like music, like a tinking piano.  “They used to call me Windy Wanda, because I was born in March and I never hushed talking.”

            “Yeah, they did,” Sis said.  “I had plumb forgot that.” 

            Mamaw was lying in bed with the covers pulled up to her neck even though the pulsating heat of a late evening in August breathed against the windows. (Not long ago she would have been hoeing her garden this time of evening, even before the cool settled over the valley.)  Her hair—so white it begs to be touched—was spread out all around her head.  She looked like a queen. 

            Her eyes:  small, brown.  Her strong little Irish nose.  The Cherokee cheekbones that belonged to her mother.  Her hands: liver-spotted, long-fingered, still strong. All these things beautiful, but the real beauty was all over her, a light. 

            It wasn’t in her eyes or nose or cheekbones or shiny white hair.  Her beauty washed out from her because she had been good to others, had worked like a dog every day of her life, because she had raised not only her own children but had taken in at least three others and treated them as her own, giving them equal amounts of money and adoration.  She had once arisen at daylight, cooked a full breakfast, gathered eggs from her hens, canned thirty-two quarts of kraut in one day, loved and loved and loved.  And she had been beautiful.  She always will be.  

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On Green Eyes (Discovery 8/13/09)

When describing a particularly beautiful green eye we are tempted to come up with some kind of smooth simile, like "green as river water" or "green as a redbud leaf" (both of which I've used in my novels to describe green eyes).  But the fact is that there is nothing to compare to the beauty of a green eye because it is the perfection of green, a kind of green that transcends even the most brilliant things in the world such as rivers and leaves.   

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On Summertime (Discovery 8/12/09)

What makes summertime the most magical and sets it apart the most from the other seasons is that every single day we are somehow aware of its passing.  Every blessed day we have knowledge of the summer slipping away and whether we know it or not our bodies are filled with some strange mix of hope and dread for what lies ahead.  As much as I love all the seasons there's something about summer that moves me to the core.  I think it’s the way the mist slithers over the mountains like breath, as it did this morning.  Or maybe it's having the company of cicadas—I am comforted by them every night as they remind me that someone else, something else, is there.  Or fried green tomatoes.  Or the freedom of swimming.  It's hearing the nostalgic bounce of the basketball where the boys are playing down the road.  The beauty of seeing people tap their fingers on the steering wheel to a loud radio while their arms are propped up on their open car windows.    Perhaps it’s the way the gloaming stretches out longer and noisier in the summertime.  No matter what it is, summer is fleeting, it’s always leaving us, it’s inching closer and closer to fall and winter, those two harbingers of change and death, and all the while the summer is actually the great big reminder of things moving on too quickly, the reminder that nothing gold can stay.  

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Discover Something New Everyday: The Challenge

This is a story I've told many times before:

Writer James Still, the author of classics like River of Earth and The Wolfpen Poems, was in his early 90s when I, a boy in my mid-twenties who didn't know anything about anything, asked him a naive and earnest question:  "How can I become a better writer?"  Mr. Still thought about it for a long time, then looked just past me with his haunting eyes.  "Discover something new everyday," he said.  

I've made a conscious effort to try and do that ever since, and it's an exercise that has changed my life.  

So, with that in mind, I'm going to try my best to post a new discovering here everyday for the next month.  If I'm able to do it, I might try for another month, and another.  I'm not always near a computer so if that's the case then I might miss a day or two.  I'm not going to devote myself to it so much that it kills my own writing day, and I'm not going to let it take over my life a la Julie and Julia.  But I am going to try my best to post a new discovery every day, and I hope that you will join me in doing the same.  Even if you can't post a comment to my blog saying what you've discovered then you can do it for yourself.  In a notebook, a journal, a wipe-off board, in your head.  

The main thing is to discover, so that's what we're setting out to do. 


Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Silas House's blog can now be found at www.silashouse.net/blog .  It will be updated regularly.  Thanks for visiting.  

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The God of Bird's Nests

"If you happen to come upon a bird's nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young."--Deuteronomy 22:6

This verse kept going through my head yesterday when we were at the state capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky, protesting against mountaintop removal, a form of coal mining that is devastating the mountains of America. There were about 800 of us there, united by a common goal: to save the mountains, and our waterways, which are being forever affected by the ravages of this irresponsible form of coal mining.

I don't know where the Bible verse came from...I don't even remember ever being taught this verse. But there it was, and it was a comfort throughout the day. While out there protesting it was empowering to see all those people standing up for what they believed in. Walking up the capitol steps holding that sign of protest (NOT ONE MORE MILE) while chanting with everyone else ("Whose mountains? Our mountains! Whose streams? Our streams! Whose future? Our future!") was a really moving thing.

Even more moving to me were the faces of all the people there who were fighting against Big Business and standing up for what is right.

Yes, Ashley Judd was there, and that's been widely publicized. But she was not there as the movie star Ashley Judd. She was there as a concerned citizen, a proud Appalachian, someone who always cares for the bird's nest. People like to criticize celebrities when they speak out. They say they don't want someone famous "telling them what to believe." But Judd was simply there voicing what she believes. And she believes in what she's saying. She gave her time to be there, paid her own way, asked for nothing in return. I introduced her as "a great light," as someone who "loves and loves and loves." She was there because she believes in protecting the environment and she believes in everyone being good to one another. This is a lesson the coal companies and the government and big business would be well-served to learn as well.

There were dozens of children (the youngest was so little she was strapped to her mother's chest), chanting into the bullhorn, holding their signs high above their heads. One teacher, Blossom Brosi, brought over a hundred students from Boyle County High School. That's the kind of teacher who becomes a hero to kids. There were college students, emboldened by the possibility of change. The oldest marcher, Marie Cassidy, is 96 years old.  And I saw so many people who have fought tirelessly and bravely for years and years, now. They are not about to give up. Among them were people like Teri Blanton, Carl Shoupe, Jim Webb, Bev Futtrell, Sue Massek, George Brosi, Connie Brosi, and so many more.

But the person I want to pause to point out particularly is Patty Wallace, a woman from Louisa, Kentucky who has been fighting the coal industry for years. She once told me that she "ran down" a coal truck driver to thank him for driving safely when the companies so often force them to speed to keep up with production. A couple years ago, Patty was interviewed and said: "We may talk funny but our brains work. The coal company says we need more flatland, we need more Wal-Marts ... We're not stupid, but they keep telling us what we need. When they haul the coal out of Black Mountain, it's just like tearing out my heart."

Ironically, Wallace (pictured here, on the right) had a heart stint put in just a few days ago. But she was out there on the march yesterday. According to her friends, Wallace's heart rhythm was struggling. As we came up Capitol Avenue she grew tired, but she refused to stop. Police officers, stationed along the route, offered to drive her on up to the Capitol steps, but she refused. "I can rest while I walk," she said. She was determined to make her voice heard, to stand up for what she believed in, to give of herself to protect the water and the mountains.

Patty Wallace is a protector of bird's nests. And one of my heroes.

But it was a frustrating day, too. It was frustrating to see little children holding jars of polluted well water, polluted by coal companies who claim to be making our land a better place. It was frustrating to see people having to march to save their water, our most precious commodity. It's mind-boggling, like something out of a science fiction novel, that people would actually have to fight for that. It was even more frustrating to know that our governor refused to come out and hear our pleas, even though he did come out to greet coal mining officials on the front steps of the capitol less than a year ago.

What's even more frustrating is that Governor Beshear is a good man who has stood up to the industry in the past. His refusal to come greet us worries me that the industry has gotten through to him, too.

I think what Deut. 22:6 is saying is that we have to be kind to even the smallest creatures. I believe it means that we should be compassionate, and thoughtful, and responsible. And I believe that it means we should not be short-sighted or mean-hearted or greedy. To be good people, the verse says, we must all be protectors of bird's nests.

However, I believe that the Bible is a living thing and that its wisdom is only as good and thick as its readers allow it to be. People have been misconstruing the Bible for ages for their own benefit, and have done a great job of it, using it to hold up slavery, anti-suffrage, and intolerance.

I choose to seek the positive in the Bible. The light. The God I believe in is one of love and compassion, not wrath and jealousy. I believe in a God of Bird's Nests.

The God I believe in is not the one I grew up knowing, though. That was one group of people's God, a group that had molded and shaped the words of the Bible to mean what they wanted them to mean. That's not what I'm trying to do here. But I am turning to the Bible to seek knowledge and wisdom, to help me understand the ways of people and the world. And this is what I have taken from it. To me, finding something of light, something positive, is just as amazing as coming upon a perfect little bird's nest in a low branch. Like my friend and great poet Lisa Parker says of such nests: "It's all in how you carry 'em, brother."

Now that's the truth.

Years and years ago, the coal companies stumbled upon a rich, beautiful bird's nest called Appalachia. But instead of acting with responsibility and taking only what they needed, they took everything: the babies and the mother. The mishandled the nest. They plundered and robbed. They were short-sighted, not looking ahead to the future. Because if you take the mother and the babies, what do you do with the future, when you need more songbirds? You have nothing but an empty nest, tumbling away in the wind.