Keepers: The Missing Intro

A few years back, I was asked to write the introduction as the final work came together for the author and artist who crafted “Keepers of the Tradition.”

The intro was granted 1400 words initially, and lives below; the final printing space allowed only 800 at a very late date, so what you read in the beautiful coffee-table hardcopy leaves out much of this. I just happened upon it in the dusty archives of digital keystrokes, and thought I’d share, or at least have it saved here for my own revisiting.

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“Call me Granny. Everybody does” she said. And I learned about her growing up, her wide travels as far as Lynchburg once upon a time. She told me about her family and it turned out, not surprisingly in the small pond world of Floyd that I knew a couple of them.

As a physical therapist visiting this patient in her own home, I was able to learn who Granny was beyond her diagnosis and symptoms—to know what made her a unique person unlike any other I had ever treated. I learned about her love for quilting, for making apple butter, for caring for the sick elderly among her close neighbors in a way long abandoned in larger, faster-moving urban places. In time I’d come to understand her role as matriarch of a Floyd County community of kin that for a century or more had called this place home—this place I had only discovered in 1997, and would never leave.

“Here. Take you home some apples I canned to your wife. And God bless you, I’ll see you when you come next week. I’ll do what you told me to do. I got to get back with it.”

I remember suggesting that it would be helpful, next visit, if she would be wearing a pair of slacks for the sake of modesty, to make the hip exercises more convenient as we worked on the bed, or more often on the ancient sofa a few feet from a over-toasty wood stove. “Why honey, I never owned a pair of pants in my life” I heard more than once from the many “grannies” I visited over the years. And I would leave that settled place the beneficiary of the care of patient for therapist, and not just the mason jar of apples.

I learned over the years that, when you settle at ease in the unique personal habitat of even the most unlovely and unlikely individual, their “who-ness” emerges in ways not possible in a conversation with a patient at hospital bedside, or while chatting with a new acquiantance over lunch at Applebees.

Michael and Leslie, the principals of this work, have done just that—sat at table, walked in pastures, tarried in the workshops in unhurried conversation with each of their twelve “subjects” in just such a way—listening and observing, taking in more than giving out. The inner person of each portrait emerges. I’ll warn you, however, that you’ll learn just enough to want to know more of the story, because each account is just the tiniest part of a much richer whole. Scratch the surface and each of us bleeds a story if there are ears to listen. In this case, there was also an artist to paint that story for us.

Perhaps this authentic at-home expression of the person within goes deepest when they are encouraged, as these twelve were, to share their genuine motives, hopes and passions for their calling, a life purpose so much more and far beyond a mere job. Not many of these “keepers” are for-profit. More often than not, they give away more than they sell, ambassadors and not merchants.

In fact, you’ll find something of a pattern here from which the wandering among you might take encouragement. Several of these folks you’ll meet in this book have only come to embrace their true passion later in life after their “working life” had come to a natural end. Late-won freedom from vocation, they will tell you, allowed them to indulge in a true avocation–that thing they’ve always or suddenly out-of-the-blue become called to do when the space opened up to it. It was a call they could not hear when the regular paycheck insisted so loudly.

Still others of these dozen were diverted in mid-career from what they thought they’d do forever, pulled by something new and unexpected—a whiskey distillery or a remade non-traditional country church or the making of hand-crafted musical instruments. Those lives took a surprising turn to follow a fully-novel path on fresh terrain on their life map. Make note of this fact, those of you who feel certain you are destined for other not-yet-visible ports than the one your ship seems to sail towards just now. It can most certainly happen! I know a thing or two about this myself!

With regards to your expectations as you turn to the opening pages of this lovely book: the language of these interviews is not heavily “Photoshopped” or reworked to make them less than authentic. The final edits are not the product of a strong guiding hand in the shaping of their ultimate last-draft form. There is a real-ness—more like an overhead conversation with a good friend and not that of a sudden snapshot followed by structured conversation with a stranger with a microphone in his or her face.

Somehow Michael and Leslie have managed to capture what is real from these genuine characters, in words and in pigment. And you even get to hear a dozen voices. I highly recommend you do listen to the provided clips of voices, which like the eyes, give you a deeper connection to the soul inside.

The unifying theme herein is of passionate relationships—to tools, to folkways, to places, to skills and crafts—a compilation of connections to objects that are not mere things: an old leather harness, a slightly out-of-tune piano, a shelf of dried medicinal herbs, a millstone maker’s chisel. It is a gathered tale of people using their hands and hearts in unique ways in the present to embed the ways of the past in the WHERE of their lives. Underneath it all, this is a book that paints a picture of deep roots in place.

Wallace Stegner once said that “Space is not place until it has found its poet.” And to that, I would add “its farmer and gospel singer, herbalist and horse logger, its miner and music-maker, wood-worker, quilter, its moonshiner and its preacher. These people, as each of them will tell you, grow deeply planted in the ground they inhabit by choice. While they sustain and are sustained by their varied traditions, they are also valued place-makers—from Rugby and McCoy, Copper Hill and Meadows of Dan, Prices Fork, Pilot and Floyd. Wendell Berry would suggest that these people know WHO they are because they have a strong sense of WHERE they are. Now their stories are the stories of these hills and hollers forever.

Tradition is the thread of story, know-how, wisdom, skill or creative genius that binds the future to the past, for the good. Appalachian traditions say “this is who we were because of where we are; this is how we lived our lives, how we created a place worth living from whatever we had at hand—a block of buhrstone and a falling creek, patches of old blankets, a stand of ginseng, block of maple or oak planks from our own woods. This is how we made our way in this world and got along.” Tradition is legacy of riches that cannot be written into the language of a will.

I know that we may think of them as quaint and anachronistic, but I wonder: Will traditions (especially the trades and skills of the old ways) come back into the lights of center stage as communities of the chaotic future retool and relocalize? Will they then be able to get up and do what needs to be done with resources at hand and in the caring and skilled hands of neighbors who have kept the traditions alive? Time will tell. It just might be that in this telling of tradition keepers present, we seed the future.

Voices, language, faces, personalities and passions: it is the richness of character and story that keeps us turning the pages of any book we come to admire and read more than once. And this attraction draws us in all the more so when those faces and voices belong to our neighbors. You just may come face to face in the grocery store with one or more of these twelve folks now that you know them. They will not be vague strangers but friends. And it just might be that you will see the unexplored potential in those eyes of true strangers you meet by chance, to know for certain that there is a story behind the eyes of that unmet little old lady. You can call her Granny.

BlueWater Dream of the Great Below

I awoke with a start. I had fallen asleep slumped against my favorite leaning poplar a ten-minute walk from the house. I was most certainly not exactly there now. I had nodded off on a warm summer afternoon, but now I was immersed in a cool but pleasant darkness, and more floating than lying against anything at all.

The half-familiar smell of being in a cave — or the dank, moist, earthy and energizing smell of a rainstorm — was intense; it came from every side of me, though I truly could not have told you — or cared at that moment — which way was up. My eyes waited for a glimmer. Maybe I’d slept into darkness under a passing shower. I was just groggy. Right?

I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but I confess some discomfort in not knowing: if I was dead; or in a coma maybe; or had I been transported across a divide into a place so utterly unfamiliar that I might never regain my bearings? Maybe I had gone mad.

I tried to stand, and somehow in the pitch-darkness had the sense that I became vertical, but I recall the odd sense of nothing under my feet — no pressure against my soles, no feeling of gravity whatsoever on my joints. Where ever I was, I was buoyant, weightless, a feather floating in… in what, I could not tell.

Read more of this at medium.com

Urban Legend Anonymous Patron of the Arts

copy and use rights granted

Not surprisingly, I came to discover that there is no one by that name with a PO box in that small Blue Ridge mountain town whose name and zipcode appeared on the envelope.

The namesake of the purported sender was never seen again, nor the cool million he left the plane with, though some reports say some of it was found in an eroded riverbank decades later.

So the crisp, uncirculated 20s in the envelope might have been part of that loot, I thought, as I read the two sides of the interior of the card last week.

No mention was made of books or note cards to purchase–just 10 bills tucked in, with the final explanation that he and his wife also had disagreements about the thermostat–as in Solomon’s Sheets in Slow Road Home:

“Go buy yourself some new sheets.”

So thank you very much, Mr. Cooper, I am not surprised that, with your suitcase full of money you could go anywhere in the world, but you ended up just there, in that peaceful, rural mountain hideout.

That you are a supporter of starving artists I think speaks well for your sensibilities, in spite of your law-breaking, authority-flaunting past.

And let me just offer, lest I am tempted to resort to Google Ads, that anyone else who wants to sustain a wordsmith by underwriting the yearly subscription  for sundry app services and software purchases towards book #3, crisp bills are accepted. Also paypal transfers to my regular email you probably already have. Heck, I’m a new believer in the Good Fairy!

PS: the bills, crisp and never-before-used, were issued in 2009, and so NOT a part of the missing fortune from the 1970s that parachuted into obscurity.

PSS: I truly am awed and speechless by your gift, Mr. Cooper, and will be accountable to use it wisely towards whatever words I left to share that are worth the paper they are printed on. No promises, but I might just have enough brain cells left to get the job done. And those old hybrid sheets have, just now matter of fact, come apart at the seams.

Reprise: Of Memories and Hopes and Golden Dreams

Once upon a time, there was a strange farmer of Erehwon. He gathered his curiosities, his precious things–momentary objects that held his attention and delight–and hoped others might wander down his lonesome road and share his fascination with the ordinary.

Click to enlarge

They came at random, sometimes rather sizable crowds of them, and a few exclaimed and were delighted, and some returned often and regularly. Some where changed by having seen up close the myriad works of nature and light, of clouds, of storms and seasons that the farmer set before them.

He laid these things out expectantly-mere things, some onlookers imagined–but each was a story, and each story was a memory and a meaning to the foolish man.

And so, over the years, when fewer came, and then none, it was not the same of a morning. He still wandered among his amazements but he did not often gather them, and of those, he almost never laid them out for others to see. For there were so few that he felt alone, and his stories and meanings for him only. Life was good, but it was diminished, because he still remembered the gifts he once gave, so appreciated and approved, once upon a time. He thought of the friends he had made, whose names he could barely now remember.

And yet, now and then even today,  some pattern in tree bark or glint off moving waters or bird call or memory of the smell of earth will urge him to lay out his boards again along the creek road. And has done so this morning.

He had come upon a wonderful village of threaded webs, separate but close, isolated but connected by the thinnest of dew-beaded tightropes. In the wet grass, as he so often did, he imagined. He saw in these tattered webs tight aggregates of neurons, each synapsing cluster a concept, a siloed understanding, an aggregate idea or realization. He so often searched for those almost invisible threads that, discovered, would make him shout AHA! in the thrill of creative connection.

It was the possibility of sharing creative connection between disparate things on his roadside bench that woke him up each morning, expectant and hopeful of the alchemy of object and language, searching among his curios to find what he called the “so what” in everyday things like spider webs and blossoms and one more picture of a familiar light-and-shadow turn of his road or creek.

And so life goes on, the buzz of conversation barely audible to him in some distant tavern in an altogether different kind of stopping place for travelers along the loud and hurried webs of surface travel and talk.

Winter is coming. It is the time for the old farmer to draw the curtains on the chaos and confusion beyond Middle Earth and to go back over all his  klediments and commonplace jottings and scraps of wonder, revisiting like old friends the emulsions of light and memory he has stored and saved, stories unspoken.

He lives on. And with what is left of his bones and his wits, he will weave what he might from the webs of wonder his eyes and his ears and his heart have laid out for him, even so, on his slow road. And we shall see what lies around the bend.

Strange Farmer of Erewhon— a blogger’s Allegory from the early years of Fragments (original version 2005.)