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Appalachian Autumn

A view from Cheat Mountain by photographer Troy Lilly

Cheat Mountain is not just one big hill in West Virginia, but a high ridge that snakes more than 50 miles from the southernmost tip at Thorny Flats in Pocahontas County, where Snowshoe Mountain Resort takes advantage of the range’s highest elevations, to a northern point near Parsons, in Tucker County.  Alpine and Nordic skiers know Cheat Mountain as Snowshoe, Elk River,  Timberline, Canaan Valley, and White Grass ski areas.

The region was once the  home of the largest red spruce forest south of Maine.  The area pictured here was still an unbroken wilderness until just before the Civil War.  It is still hardly populated, except for a few small towns and hamlets lining ancient Indian paths that are now two-lane roads.

West Virginia photographer Troy Lilly took this picture. Many thousands of people apparently know his work. I’ve just recently discovered him  via friends on Facebook.  I look forward to sharing more of his photos, as they come close to creating the feeling you get when you actually experience an Appalachian autumn evening.

View from the Top

Photographer Troy Lilly's view from Spruce Knob, West Virginia

According to his website, www.forestwander.com, photographer Troy Lilly hikes the mountains of West Virginia with his young son, Rusty, taking photos that he then offers free of charge to webmasters and publishers.  This one turned up on the Facebook page of writer Jim Shaver.  I thought he had taken the photo since there was no photo credit, so apologies to both Troy Lilly and Jim Shaver, and a big thank you to Jim for straightening me out.

Spruce Knob is in the extreme southwest corner of Pendleton County and is the highest point in West Virginia.  What you see is the Spruce Knob National Recreation Area in the Monongahela National Forest, a favorite destination for hikers, mountain bikers, and seekers of solitude.  There’s plenty of it here.

Saturday afternoon at the movies, in Sutton, West Virginia.

The 12th Annual West Virginia Filmmakers Festival wound up today
in Sutton, after screening 30 new films, eight of them for the first public
showing ever.

Actually, most of the work was done on digital video cameras, putting the art and craft of making movies within reach of anybody with the desire, equipment as humble as a flip camera, and a computer editing program. Some of the work was, indeed, shot on flip cameras, and some of it on very sophisticated equipment that, in the hands of experienced videographers, yielded luscious images.

All the movies I saw were ambitious, from 15-year-old Jacob Schedl’s first
person short of how it feels to be 15 (Memory Trail), to three full length narrative features taking on the subjects of the struggle to maintain integrity in a foreign culture (Ai Means Love, set in Martinsburg), the ambiguities a race element can add when a relationship goes very wrong (The Deposition, set in New Martinsville area)  and the horrors of being cooped up for a weekend with three very unpleasant hare-brained women, three dopey guys, and one ingénue. Enter the wild-eyed guy with an ax (Year of the Donkey, location unknown). Sorry, I couldn’t stick around for the denouement of that one. It was after midnight, and I had been sitting in the Elk Theater since 1 p.m. Friday with nothing but a box of popcorn between me and starvation. (Note to next year’s schedulers: Leave a block of time, maybe 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., for folks to grab some dinner.)

Hundreds, no—thousands—of people missed the world premiere of Romeo Must Hang, a documentary about Harry Powers, the mild-mannered, bespectacled merchant of Quiet Dell, West Virginia, who turned out to be a serial killer. Festival planners no doubt meant well when they slotted it on Thursday night, but a cold rain drove away all but the most determined festival goers, who weren’t yet many on that first
night. The movie explores the social milieu of the late 1920s when the man born in The Netherlands as Herman Drenth set up shop in the Harrison County farm community and began corresponding under several aliases with ladies who responded to ads in lonely hearts club magazines.

Documentarian Bob Wilkinson did a good job of recreating the story visually, but it was difficult to hear well in the reverberating old church sanctuary that is the Landmark Studio for the Arts. I had the same difficulty with The Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton’s chilling classic based on West  Virginia novelist Davis Grubb’s book that followed Wilkinson’s piece. I would like to have seen both in the Elk Theater, just down the street, where the sound for movies was excellent. The two were great companion pieces, as Grubb named his terrifying villain Harry Powers, and used his memories of actual mob scenes related to trying the case in Clarksburg to develop his fiction.

Festival planners were shocked at the turnout on Friday evening for Elaine McMillion’s documentary, Lincoln County Massacre. The theater swarmed with burly, bearded Brothers of the Wheel and their consorts, who came from West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky to see the story retold on screen of the time in spring, 1980 when a surprise 4 a.m. visit from the state police turned what the Brothers say was a simple family campout into a melee. McMillion, a journalist who has the advantage of being from Logan County, knows that people aren’t always what they seem. She gets beneath the surface that so often trips up outsiders to produce a thoughtful exploration of culture, image and prejudice.

Saturday afternoon, childhood’s golden hours for watching movies on a cold, rainy day, proved golden once more. Give Up the Fuzz was a blast of funkadelic fun that had everybody rocking out for a few minutes with Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins, the McDowell County boy who moved to New Jersey and national fame with George Clinton, The Parliaments and Parliament Funkadelic. Filmmaker Steve Schmidt pulled a few miracles out of the air to put the piece together, directed a group of friends to re-enact Fuzzy’s early days in West Virginia and on the road with the band, and deftly worked in TV footage, movie clips, still photos and old posters to pop everyone squarely in the eye and heart.

We hadn’t quite recovered from The Fuzz when we were abruptly transported to places in Morocco where westerners are rarely welcomed. Robert Peak of Berkeley Springs used the universal language of music to work his way into the confidence of fellow musicians in a coastal walled city, a village of cave dwellers, and a town in the Atlas Mountains. It was somewhere close to astonishing in Musicians of Morocco
to see players cast the same spell with an assortment of stringed instruments that you sometimes encounter in a place like Clifftop, during the Appalachian String Band Festival. Peak frames their beautiful faces and enchanting music with expert skill.

Then we were off to northern California with writer/director Laura Holliday, who told us the story of a 16-year-old boy who yearns to be famous. Rockstars: The Pete Weaver Experience has funny, perfect pitch dialogue and a plot that is only implausible when a real rock star makes Pete’s dreams come true, but the piece is otherwise so well written, directed and acted I was willing to forgive.  I expect we’ll see much more from Holliday, who, we were told, was 17 at the time she created this piece. I didn’t catch her connection to West  Virginia, and it may only be that a festival juror saw the piece at another festival and liked it. I was happy to see it, too.

There was an entertaining piece of claymation, a funny little film ballet of a pair  of OCD hands shaking pills in a plastic bottle, a few heartfelt and informative docs, a couple of scary pieces, one goofy feature, and several pieces that I didn’t see, as my time was up in Sutton.

The newly crowned West Virginia Filmmaker of 2011 and winners of $2,000 in prizes are announced on the WVFilmmakers’ Festival site.

Which is why you should get out your check book—that’s right—no PayPal, no credit card form—and write the Aurora Project a check for (at least) five dollars. (I’ll give you the mailing address in a minute. Hey, you’ll be giving those lonely, underworked mail carriers something to do, too. It’s all good, this idea.)

Poet/writer/artist/designer Colleen Anderson and folk artist Laurie Gundersen created this quilt with the idea of raising funds for the Aurora Project, West Virginia’s first full-time multidisciplinary artists’ residency and education center, high up in what one neighbor calls West Virginia’s Himalayas.

This is no run-of-the-mill quilt. Colleen, whose great eye for balance and color has won her many a graphic design award, made the top from vintage wool skirts. The batting is a cotton flannel sheet, and Colleen describes the back as “a nice, polyester flannel suiting, very soft and cozy.” The quilt measures 54″ x 72″, fit for a full double bed or a dramatic wall hanging.

Laurie, who has been marketing her extraordinary handcrafted textile creations for many years under the label of Appalachian Piecework, expertly directed her in pulling it all together. “She helped me sandwich the layers together on her dining room table, and showed me how to baste it in preparation for tying and binding,” Colleen says. “Since I hadn’t done this before, Laurie taught me a lot. She also did about half of the basting. Working together, we did that part in about two hours. Then I did the tying and binding on my own.”

Your $5 check buys you a chance to own the quilt. $25 buys six chances, so feel free to lavishly increase your odds. Trusty Aurora board members will receive the checks, which must be in by Wednesday, October  12, and will draw the winner’s name on Thursday, October 13. The winner will be notified by phone or email no later than October 15.

Colleen assures all potential quilt owners that their email and mailing addresses will not be used for any purpose other than notification.  Who can you trust, if not a poet?

The Aurora Project is worthy of your attention and your financial support. Artists and philosophers have been drawn to the location since the late 18th century, when white European settlers first put down roots there. A colony of writers, painters, and photographers settled there in the late 1920s, and when the Great Depression hit, several of them rode out the storm there in their hand-built houses. The vibes are great there, the  conversation is engaging, but best of all, Aurora offers as much solitude and support as an artist needs to get his or her work done.

To buy your raffle tickets, send your check, payable to The Aurora Project, with your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address to

The Aurora Project, 25208
George Washington Highway, Aurora, WV 26705

Free shipping to the winner, of course. If you win it, send me a photo showing how you use it.

Knapps Creek in Pocahontas County. Much obliged for the photo, from Google Images. I'll be happy to attribute it if someone knows who took it.

I could scarcely contain my joy and amazement when I read on the front page of the Sunday, September 25 Charleston Gazette-Mail  that the Pocahontas County Commission has “raised major questions about the potential impact of Marcellus Shale drilling”  in that rural, remote county famous for some of the best downhill and cross-country skiing in the mid-Atlantic region, nationally ranked mountain bike terrain, clean air, and as the headwaters of no less than eight rivers, including the Gauley, world-famous for its whitewater.

Staff writer Paul Nyden quotes a letter from the county commissioners to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, stating their grave concern about the impacts to their pristine environmental and rural culture from the impending possibility of hydrofracture drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

“As a governing body, we do not want our local rights on this very local issue usurped or diminished by state governemnt,” Nyden quotes the letter as saying. “The  commission views the present proposed rules as grossly inadequate and failing to speak to our county’s unique needs.”  Martin V. Saffer, a lawyer and county commissioner, said the county’s environment benefits its people and all West Virginians, and that the county’s pure water, recreation, flourishing tourism industry, farms and timber will sustain its people for many, many future generations.

Pocahontas County residents Cyla Allison and Beth Little have helped to organize a grass-roots group called the Eight Rivers Council, according to Nyden’s article.  They and other members of the group are worried about the impact of fracking on their farm water.   “This is the way of life I chose,” says Allison.  “Many other people have lived here all their lives.

“The gas companies talk about all the jobs they are supposed to bring in. But when they set up wells, they bring in their own people from outside,” Allison says in the article.

No drilling permits have been issued in Pocahontas County, but Saffer says a “blizzard” of leases were obtained by gas companies in the fall of 2007 and winter of 2008, accounting for approximately 40,000 acres, a substantial percentage of privately held land in a county dominated by national and state parks.  Landowners will be faced with important decisions in 2012 and 2013.

It’s not often that elected officials in this most Appalachian of all American states take a stand to protect private citizens’ land, or express a mentality in favor of long-term sustainability over short-term greed.

Hooray for Saffer, David Fleming, and Jamie Walker, the county commissioners who took the time to travel to Wetzel County, West Virginia to see for themselves how the drilling business affects land and landowners.  Now let’s hope brains and guts not only prevail in Pocahontas County, but set an example for others.

The stark world of Camino, where nothing is easy. Photograph by Paula Ries

I saw a powerful new play on the evening of Friday, September 16, at the Dance Alloy Theatre in Pittsburgh. It was opening night, and tonight  is closing night.

The show has had a seven-performance run, and when it’s over, fewer than 700 people will have seen it.

The Hiawatha Project crew turned a dance rehearsal studio at 5530 Penn Avenue into a black box, built a set that folds up and fits into a closet, lined up about 75 chairs for the  audience, and, with a 12-member ensemble, proceeded to mount a show as good as any I’ve seen. Anywhere.

Contemporary theatre fans are accustomed to the risk one takes with a new play. The promotional materials may look great, the advertising blurb may be fetching, but the product always runs the risk of failing to satisfy. I was delighted that Camino exceeded my expectations in every way.

It’s a technically complex production, using video projection on a large screen to help advance the story of a young undocumented Honduran immigrant who gets lost in the U.S. for-profit prison system. Anyone who has ever received a computer-generated letter that seems to be in error from his insurance company and has then tried to navigate the labyrinth of recorded messages with endless instructions to press one or two or three or four has had a tiny foretaste of what it might be like to be friendless in an institutional system that makes more money every day that it detains a prisoner.

The glimpse Camino gives the audience of an illegal alien’s experience in this country is uncomfortably familiar as we watch a young wife fight a faceless bureaucracy to find her husband. She struggles with machines and machine-like people who have
no empathy for the situation she faces. But it wouldn’t be a good play if it were all grim. The drama is heightened—and highly comedic—when a young, fair-skinned, all-American couple gets tangled in the same web, and experiences the same dehumanizing treatment. There are beautiful poetic moments that only theatre can deliver, and hilarious if chilling moments when the irony in the situation is nearly unbearable. The story of a flock of migrating birds that has lost its way is a bit of theatre genius woven into the narrative.

The play is even more compelling when you learn that it’s based on the real experiences of two Pittsburgh residents who met playwright/director Anya Martin several years ago when they were high school students working with her on a play about Pittsburgh’s Latino youth. The real Milton Mejia, 23, is now in Honduras, unsure if he will ever be able rejoin his wife in theUnited States.

In this case, the promotional description of Camino can’t begin to convey the impact of this piece. You have to experience it. And unfortunately, unless you can get to Pittsburgh by tonight, and talk yourself into what is no doubt a sold-out show, you’ll have to wait until it comes to a theatre near you.

Hey, Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Why don’t you give Anya Martin a call?

Landau Murphy, Jr. Appalachia’s Favorite Dude

Hey world beyond the borders of the Transcendent New Nation:   Meet our homie, Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr.  Our guy from Logan, West Virginia, flat-out amazed the American TV world with astonishing vocal skills, topped off with disarming humor and charm.

Who expected a skinny black guy with long braids, sporting old jeans and his shirttail hanging out, still damp from his car wash job, to open his mouth and sing as well as Frank Sinatra?

And the bubble gum gimmick he used on the very first appearance on AGT?  Barbara Streisand did the same thing in her first professional audition.  My bet is that Landau knew that, and it worked for him just as it worked for Streisand. Like her, he knew he had a surprise package.

In case you haven’t heard, Landau took first prize and a million dollars on the 6th season grand finale of the TV show America’s Got Talent.  Now he’s on his way to Las Vegas as a
headliner along with other winners on the show. Stay tuned for what promises to be a great ride.

For the moment, he seems to have his head screwed on straight.  Let’s hope he’s able to keep it that way as the world throws itself at his feet for the next 15 minutes.  Here’s hoping he has great financial and career advisors, and that he keeps that wonderful gracious glow
that made the nation fall in love with him in the first place.

Note:  He’s not the first black Appalachian to get a shot at the big time.  Nina Simone, born in Tryon, North Carolina, fused gospel, pop and classical music for an unforgettable sound, and used her fame to advance the cause of civil rights. Jazz icon John Coltrane, born in Hamlet, North Carolina, came up with the concepts of modal and free jazz.

Here’s Landau’s first performance on America’s Got Talent: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6LOSEzo1QA

Labor Day 2011 and 90 Years Ago

Coal trucks barrel down the highway toward marchers as they make their way toward Blair Mountain in early June.

By this day 90 years ago, 10,000 to 15,000 West Virginia coal miners had collected their wounded and dead and left their battle positions on Blair Mountain  in what felt like a resounding defeat for organized labor.

In late August, 1921, miners under the leadership of Bill Blizzard began to form armed forces at Lens Creek Mountain near Marmet in Kanawha County.  Their purpose was to free union miners and sympathizers who were imprisoned in the Logan County jail, and to empower other miners to join with them in creating a strong union presence in southern West Virginia, where coal operators often valued mules more than men.

Fearing a bloodbath, the legendary Mother Jones urged the miners not to go to Logan County, seat of virulent anti-union forces led by Logan County boss Don Chafin.  Tensions were high, as a group of testy miners had hijacked a Chesapeake and Ohio railroad train near St. Albans to transport them into Boone County where they would join another column of miners in themarch toward Logan.  Blair Mountain, on the Boone/Logan County line, stood between the miners and their goal.

After a day of skirmishes on August 25, President Warren Harding was threatening to send in federal troops complete with Martin B-1 bombers
against the miners.  A meeting in Madison between the miners’ leaders and state and federal officials resulted in a truce. Through his emissaries, Harding promised to address the coal industry’s appalling oppression of southern West Virginia miners.  The miners were about to go home when reports came in that Sheriff Chafin’s men had opened fire on union sympathizers in Sharples, West Virginia, catching several miners’ families in the crossfire. The battle was on.

Chafin had assembled an army of coal company employees (many of them reportedly coerced), mercenaries imported by the Logan County Coal
Operators’ Association, men deputized for the purpose of fighting the miners, and various state and local police on the high ridges of Blair Mountain.  The miners vastly outnumbered them, but the coal company forces were far better armed, better positioned, and had the backup resources of the United States military at hand.

The fighting was hot and heavy for several days.  The coal operators’ association hired private planes to drop homemade bombs on the miners.
Gas and explosive bombs left over from World War I were dropped on the communities of Jeffery, Sharples and Blair.  Army bombers from Maryland under the command of General Billy Mitchell strafed the miners, a rare example of the U.S. military using force on its own people.

Because records of this event, one of the largest insurrections in United States labor history, have been suppressed and censored, no one knows exactly how many people died and were wounded.  On the miners’ side, the estimate runs from 50 to 100 dead, with far greater numbers wounded.  Chafin’s union busters may have lost as many as 30 men.  By September 3, Blizzard could see that the battle was lost.  He passed the order to cease fire and go home rather than shed more blood.

In the next year, nearly 1,000 miners were indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason.  Some were acquitted, but many served prison time.  Union membership plummeted from 50,000 to 10,000. The heritage of oppression enforced by fear-mongering tactics remained firmly rooted in West Virginia. But all was not lost.

Fourteen years later, in 1935, the passage of the National Labor Relations Act, introduced by New York State Senator Robert F. Wagner,
established the rights of employees to organize, join, or aid labor unions and to participate in collective bargaining through their representatives.  Workers could lawfully strike and take other peaceful action as a way of placing pressure on employers for fair treatment.  Other provisions prohibited employers from engaging in unfair practices that interfere with union rights. Called one of the most dramatic measures of the New Deal Era, the legislation gave unprecedented clout to the labor movement. In years to come, some labor leaders would prove themselves to be as unscrupulous as the nastiest robber barons, but at least there was a law on the federal books that established the principle of a level playing field.

If you’re a West Virginian and you know little or nothing about the Battle of Blair Mountain or the other events that give West Virginia
a prominent place in United States labor history, and you wonder how it is that you don’t know, you may be interested in exploring the record of Homer Adams Holt, governor of the state from 1937 through 1941. Governor Holt personally saw to it that no information about West Virginia’s labor history was included in West Virginia textbooks. If that smacks of the kind of control over information we Americans so roundly decry in governments of other countries, that irony may be worth pondering this Labor Day, especially in view of current issues surrounding Blair Mountain.

Back in the news after all these years.

CNN produced an hour-long special titled “The Battle for Blair Mountain” that ran twice on the national channel in August.  The site of the battle had been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places but was removed from consideration through the efforts of petitioners who worked through a West Virginia state government agency.   Arch Coal, based in St. Louis, controls the mineral rights and wants to blow the top off Blair to get at its carbon reserves.  At least one county official wants coal severance taxes.  Miners want jobs, and will settle for strip mining even though deep mining the site would employ more people.  Blowing up national historic sites looks bad, so the trick is to render the site officially not historic.  Careful vetting of the petition’s names revealed that several signers were dead long before the petition was created.

Judging from the number of people lined up to scream at demonstrators who hiked many miles in June to “Save Blair Mountain,” several miners’
families would prefer to see the site flattened, their water resources irreparably damaged, their air fouled, and their health endangered rather than shift in another direction.  “I’m part of a heritage,” one woman declared.  She and her neighbors say they don’t believe what the scientists say, that the crystalline water that flows from strip mine sites through their backyards is laced with deadly toxins, and they reject reports that their region suffers noticeably higher levels of cancer than non-mining regions.   Bill Raney, a coal miner’s son who grew up to be president of the West Virginia Coal Association, says there’s a mere correlation, not proof of causation.

A job is the most important thing, the miners say, even if that job is digging your own grave.

Singing for Hazel

Hazel and John Lilly doing the two-step in Austin, Texas, a few weeks ago. 

Spring winds are tousling the treetops outside my window, and a cold, gray mist is hanging like a shroud on the mountains. We’re in mourning today for Hazel Dickens, whose stark, plaintive voice underscored the truth of her songs. 

I got the news of her passing this morning when I checked into Facebook, something I rarely do these days.  Singer/songwriter John Lilly’s status report broke the news to me, but several other Facebook friends have commented on her death.

I first heard the music of Hazel Dickens when I was in my twenties, struggling to come to terms with who I was and what I wanted to be. I loved music and singing, but never would have dared to sing in public—until I heard Hazel. Hazel, who had that same piercing singing style as my grandmother, born in 1895, inSummers County,West Virginia. Hazel was born in 1935 in neighboringMercerCounty. My grandmother was born into a Primitive Baptist family. Hazel’s father was a Primitive Baptist preacher. Forty-five years separated them generationally, but they were born and bred in the same stoic mountain culture where singing was something you did to entertain yourself, whether you had a pretty voice or not. 

I cringed when I read the Washington Post’sobituary that states, “Ms. Dickens grew up in dire poverty inWest Virginia’s coal country and developed a raw, keening style of singing that was filled with the pain of her hardscrabble youth.”

If you actually listen to Hazel’s songs, you’ll find that they are filled with longing for her West Virginia youth:

In the dead of the night, in the still and the quiet I slip away

like a bird in flight

Back to those hills, the place that I call home.

It’s been years now since I left there

And this city life’s about got the best of me.

I can’t remember why I left so free what I wanted to do,

what I wanted to see,

But I can sure remember where I come from.

West Virginia, oh, my home

West Virginia, where I belong….

Well I paid the price for the leavin’

And this life I have is not one I thought I’d find.

Just let me live, love, let my cry,

but when I go just let me die

Among the friends who’ll remember when I’m gone.

 

Was it dire poverty she grew up in? Well, the whole country was still in the throes of the Great Depression when she was born, and almost everybody—even Washington, D.C. newspaper reporters–was financially insecure. (A lot like these days.) Hazel spoke of a childhood shared with 10 siblings, and a mother who lived in the kitchen, preparing fresh bread for three home-cooked meals a day. Can people who put three meals on the table each day for 13 people without any government assistance be described as poor? As my mom used to say, “We’re not poor. We just don’t have any money.” Then she would add, “Right now.”

Hazel’s daddy was not a miner, but he cut timbers for the mines, and her brothers became miners as those were the most plentiful jobs in most of resource-rich West Virginia until the 1950s, when machines began replacing men.

The Dickens family was resourceful, and young Hazel Jane somehow intuited that it was better to pine for the mountains of southern West Virginia than to be a working-class woman there, so she flew away. It was in Baltimore that she learned what hardscrabble really was. She worked to support herself, learned how to communicate with city people, and learned that her experience, her point of view, was valuable. We’re fortunate that she was a poet. Hazel taught a generation of women, including me, to sing the truth. She looked back at Appalachia and could see very clearly that her people had been and were being used and abused by an industry that chewed people up and spat them out.

She taught at least one person how to deal with death, and she did it through her song, “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me?”

The song first caught the ear of Vic Lukas, charter citizen of the Transcendent New Nation of Appalachia, when he heard it performed by Tim O’Brien’s band, Hot Rize. He later had the privilege of listening to Hazel herself sing it in a late-night jam at Clifftop, accompanied by Alice Gerrard.

“I was very moved by the song,” Vic says. “I quietly added my voice to the chorus in the background. It meant so much to me. It set me on the road to thinking how much I wanted folks to sing for me when I am gone, that I wanted to go with dignity. I’d like people to sing, and I’d like to have my ashes scattered at some place like the Mt. Airy festival grounds, or some other place that is beautiful. I realized then that I had to make all the rest of the plans so folks would know what I want. I’ve now done all that, and discussed it with my family and friends. I don’t want anyone to feel bad, so I’ve taken care of everything in advance. I’m ready, and all because of that song.”

I feel the shadows now upon me

And the angels beckon to me

Before I go, dear sisters and brothers

Won’t you come and sing for me?

Sing those hymns we sang together

In the plain little church with the benches all worn

How dear to my heart, how precious the moments

We stood shaking hands and singing a song.

My burden is heavy, my way has grown weary

I have traveled a road that is long

And it would warm this old heart, my dear brother

If you come and sing me one song.

In my home beyond the dark river

Your sweet faces no more I will see

Until we meet where there’s no more sad parting

Won’t you come and sing for me?

Next Tuesday, somewhere in Mercer County, West Virginia, Hazel’s family and friends will no doubt do just that.

I might be tempted to say that we’re poorer today because of Hazel’s passing, but a trip to YouTube will show that her spirit enriches the repertoire of musicians all over the world.

 

A reader recently asked, ‘Where are you? What happened?” I was wondering if anyone would notice that I haven’t posted anything since November 2.

The answer is I’ve been in the kitchen, at doctors’ offices, at the hospital, and only sometimes at my work desk. It seems that I’ve been in the kitchen, mostly.  I’m facing the realities of what it takes to keep a commitment to organic, mostly raw healing food when we need it most. After a year of battling pneumonia and a general feeling of lethargy, in September, my usually perky and energetic mother was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive type of blood cancer. 

If I were to chronicle the missteps and mishaps, and what some folks would leap to call malpractice, coupled with what some might judge naïveté on the part of my mother and me, this would be a book, not a post. 

My mother will be 84 in April, 2011, but until just recently, could have passed for a healthy and vibrant woman 30 years younger. She introduced me to a raw, vegan lifestyle in late 1997 but I have traveled much further down that road than she. She is a dabbler and a dreamer, and I am far more inclined to actually take things seriously and make them real. While she talks a good game, I’m likely to have set out on the walk, which is what I have done as far as a living foods lifestyle is concerned.

Which brings her and me, and what might be described as warring factions, to an interesting intersection. Not only are there many published books that speak of terminal diseases being cured through various raw food and juice regimens, through my work I have interviewed people all over the country who are free of such horrifying diseases as cancer, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and heart disease which they attribute to following an organic, raw food lifestyle. Mom has been toying with this idea for a long time but was too wedded to convenience and old taste habits to actually make the commitment. “I’ll do it if I ever get sick,” she would say. Before she knew it, she was being suffocated by stage IV lymphoma. At this point the only way to fight it, according to doctors that insurance will pay for, is to do chemotherapy.  We’ve just undergone our first round. 

I say “we” because for us, it is a communal experience. One friend described us as the perfect 15th century family. When Mom is down, we’re missing an important cog in our system. The system includes work, meals, and tending for each other, including the youngest and the old and weak.  Our workplace is the lower level of a big, contemporary building in an office park.  The upper level houses my mother’s mother, who will be 102 in July, my father, who will be 84 in April, my sister who is also my business partner, her two-year-old son, and occasionally her husband, when his business doesn’t require him to be globetrotting. I sometimes shrug and say, “Don’t ask me; I just work here,” but the real creed is that when you see something that needs to be done, you do it.  That means the work is endless, just like the responsibility.

I’m told that it’s different elsewhere in the United States, and maybe it’s different for the folks across the street. Yesterday, we broke down and went shopping for a nursing home for my grandmother, who can no longer rely on my mother as her primary caretaker. We saw three different institutions brimming with old folks in various states of awareness. It’s very possible that my grandmother will soon land in one of those places, followed by my father, and maybe even my mother, who we once thought was invincible—if she lives long enough. And off in the distance, could that be me in a wheelchair, my head lolling to one side, with a coloring book in front of me? 

The prospects make me hungrier for life right now, for getting out and running a couple of miles in the snow, for continuing to chop those organic yams, and doubling up on raw kale and broccoli.  I’m ignoring the reality that the mournfully clever Hank Williams pointed out:  “No matter how I struggle and strive, I’ll never get out of this world alive.”