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Press Release

8 Jan

NEWS RELEASE
January 8, 2016

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Frances Figart
ffigart@gmail.com

francesfigart.com
859.351.9939

Editor of The Laurel of Asheville Publishes  Collection of Autobiographical Essays

ASHEVILLE, NC (January 8, 2016) —Frances Figart, editor of The Laurel of Asheville, has published a collection of essays that is now available through Amazon and select booksellers. The 92-page illustrated paperback, titled Seasons of Letting Go: Most of what I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die, chronicles a powerful time of crisis, transition and resilience.

In 2010, Figart (pronounced Fié-gert) was running kayak ecotours in Costa Rica and Canada’s Bay of Fundy, swept up in an international travel adventure. Back in the States, her mother was becoming weakened by the combination of a leaky heart valve and a chest wall damaged years before by a mastectomy and cobalt radiation.

“I made the decision to return and care for my mom in my old hometown of Winchester, Kentucky,” says Figart. “So I wouldn’t lose touch with my writing, I started a blog about my experience as a caregiver.”

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Beginning just before her mother died and stretching over the last four years, the essays follow Figart’s transition to Asheville and share wisdom gained through caregiving and embracing grief in a healthy way. “Last year, I realized I had written my best essays during this time. It hit me: Why not publish them as a book to honor my mother’s life and help others dealing with loss?”

With inspirational quotes, song lyrics and literary references sprinkled throughout, the book is not only a personal account of loss and grief, but also a universal meditation on hope, spirituality and self-actualization. The essays are accompanied by stunning nature photography, colorful illustrations and graphic design elements that take the reader on an introspective journey of healing.

“If you or someone you know has experienced a loss or change, this book will touch your heart,” says reviewer Leslie Donovan on Amazon. “The beautiful photography and illustrations add to the story of adventure, loss, change and renewal. As a Hospice nurse, I will recommend this book to my patients and families.”

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UPCOMING BOOK SIGNINGS

Friday, January 27, at Metro Wines, Asheville, NC, 5–6:30 p.m.

Saturday, February 25, at Gingko Tree Gallery, Black Mountain, NC, 3:30–5:30 p.m.

Part of the proceeds from sales at these events will be donated to a Gatlinburg family who lost their home and pets in the November fires.

Thursday, May 25, at Bentley and Murray, Winchester, KY, 5–7 p.m.

Seasons of Letting Go: Most of what I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die, autobiographical essays, 2016, softcover, $19.95, amazon.com, by Frances Figart. Learn more at francesfigart.com.

 

I’ve written a book!

26 Nov

“When are you going to write a book?” has been an oft-asked question throughout my life. An English major who always focused on language, won awards for papers in college and worked consistently in communications, ironically I never really gave the question much thought. My flip answers ranged from “probably never” to “when the time is right.” But privately I considered the prospect highly unlikely. I believed I would only author a book if it somehow occurred “organically” due to some (as yet unforeseen) passion for a topic that would naturally and effortlessly lead to composing an entire epistle.

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

A little over a year ago, I was visiting a friend who lost her brother not long after I lost my mom. We were reflecting on the various ways one brings creativity to bear on processing grief. Sarah showed me a series of photographs she had taken over the course of an entire year, exploring the ups and downs of journeying through life while learning to accept loss. I shared that when I returned to Kentucky in 2010 to live with my mother, I started a blog so that I would not lose touch with my writing. What began as simply being around to lend a hand morphed into the role of caregiver—and the blog became an outlet for stress and, eventually, a way to come to terms with the death of a loved one.

While speaking with my friend and seeing her wonderful work, a realization rose up majestically from my subconscious like a giant sea turtle I once encountered while kayaking that had been lying invisible, yet grand, just below the ocean’s surface. I knew I had written my best essays as blog entries during the year of my mother’s death. Why not publish them as a book to honor her life and help others dealing with loss?

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S.K. Schuetz, 2014

I asked Sarah if she would read the four essays I had in mind and, over the next several weeks, we communicated about the ideas. Sarah noticed that the dates I wrote the essays created a seasonal pattern: June 2, 2012; August 9, 2012; October 4, 2012; January 9, 2013—Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter! This pattern provided me with my title: Seasons of Letting Go. Like Sarah’s yearlong photography project (some images shown here), I had a year of essays.

Upon further reflection, I found on my blog site eight other essays that would fit in well following the first four about caregiving and grief. So the concept became a collection of 12 essays, presented in three parts, each containing four chapters. I had already written a book without even knowing it!

That is when the fun began. I set the goal of “doing” the book during the entire year of 2016. Though my 12 essays were already written, I had to edit them—but that was really no big deal. The intention now was to make this a creative experience by involving friends and colleagues who would bring their artistic abilities to the project during an entire year—and I would project manage. I told everyone involved: “There are no hard-and-fast deadlines or production schedules: Just have fun!”

And, you know what? We pulled it off! The book is now at the printer and, when it is available, you will be the first to know. I’ll write another blog about the creative souls who worked on the project. So please, stay tuned, and if you don’t already follow this blog, please sign up in the upper right hand corner so you will get updates about Seasons of Letting Go: Everything I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die.

Post Script added Dec. 10: The book is now available on Amazon.com.

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Graphic design and layout by Trish Griffin Noe | Cover image by Joye Ardyn Durham

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

S.K. Schuetz, 2014

Sarah and me.

Sarah and me.

Hike #5 Mountain Springs Road

13 Apr

DSC06454“Look, Daddy, it’s a natural tree tunnel,” shrieked the six-year-old girl in delight.

From behind the wheel of the sky blue Valiant Station Wagon, Ross Figart clapped his strong, olive-colored hands together once and smiled his biggest, sweetest smile. This signified his approval of the moniker his daughter had coined for sections of curving mountain roads where the trees were so old and their branches so outstretched that they literally joined each other over the roadway, forming a canopy.

The diminutive child arched her back, lifted her pointed little chin, pushed her unruly camel-colored hair behind her elfin ears and breathlessly took in the overwhelming vision of deep green hues rushing by and encasing them in wonder.

“It’s like a dream world,” she cooed, peering out the window and into the shady branches as they careened past, hoping to glimpse at least one fairy.

DSC04799The year was 1970 and the roads took us through the forested hills of Eastern Kentucky, where my father made his living as a Southern Baptist minister. He preached not hell and brimstone, but compassion and forgiveness. People adored him wherever he went, whether it was to Hyden or Hazard, Pikeville or Prestonsburg. And he adored the mountain people and their culture, a love he also instilled in me – along with his love of nature and of trees. The greatest gift he and my mother would give me was an idyllic childhood that could rival that of Wordsworth in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, on the wooded premises of a summer camp that was part of their ministry.

After I grew up and left Kentucky, whenever we would connect on the phone, I could hear Dad smiling as he’d say, “You’d like where I went today.” He would have just returned home from a trip to some remote community like Whitesburg, Grayson, Pippa Passes, or Booger Branch (yes, this is an actual place). “There were lots of natural tree tunnels.”

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Thirty years later in 2000, eight years after my dad had passed on, I finally got an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream: I went on a quest to find some forested property to purchase in Eastern Kentucky. I will never forget the first time I ever drove down Mountain Springs Road in Estill County, in search of a remote cabin that was listed for sale in an area called Furnace.

DSC06151My sidekick that day was my spiky-purple-haired New Yorker friend Cindi, who had implanted herself in Estill County a few years prior, and quite staunchly I might add. Even streetwise Cindi, who is rarely caught off guard, was taken somewhat aback when I began to shriek like a child at the amazing trees, whose branches bent and met as if in prayer over the winding gravel road. “These are the natural tree tunnels!” I screamed at her over the din of the Rav4’s tires on the thick gravel.

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The cabin itself was situated on a knoll that crowned six acres, two miles in at the head of this heavenly mountain “holler.” The greater forest of which this small plot of land was part teemed with wildlife! To a wood spirit like me, the place was perfect. Tree-covered, rustic, comfortable, private (the nearest communities were all 30 minutes away) yet accessible (I could get to my office in Lexington in an hour) – and with a few improvements and embellishments, it became utterly and completely home. My plan, very simply, was to live out my life on Furnace Mountain.

But fate had other ideas. In a few short years, everything would change. And it all started because I loved – and lost – the trees.

DSC06115About five years into my stay, much of the land around the cabin was unsustainably and mercilessly logged, the beautiful forest habitat ravaged by the largest and most ruthless equipment used in the state. Catalyzed by this catastrophe, which I worked for a year to try to prevent, changes would lead me to let go of the one thing I thought I’d always keep: I sold the cabin.

DSC04808But letting go of what we can’t imagine letting go of always leads to new adventures – to realities that before could have only seemed like dream worlds from a childhood fantasy. Before long, I would be riding through natural tree tunnels in the lush forests of Costa Rica. And from that land of diversity, I’d eventually return to Kentucky to help my mother die, two decades after losing my father.

As I write this, I’m getting ready to spend my last day as a Kentucky resident. Tomorrow I’ll head south and try to make a new life for myself in Asheville, North Carolina. I’ll be living at 3,000 feet elevation overlooking the city and surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, with abundant bird life, resident white squirrels, black bears passing by and natural tree tunnels surrounding me once more.

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Last week, I returned to Mountain Springs Road for a hike with my dear friend Jane, who now has a small cabin not far from my erstwhile home, which is well cared for by its new owners. Every bend in the two-mile road brought memories flooding back. We hiked on Forest Service Road 2057, which I used to walk with my dogs almost every day for the six years I lived there; I was walking on that road when the planes hit the towers. We visited the special rock sanctuary there, a sacred formation known only to a handful of locals. And I said my goodbyes.

I love Eastern Kentucky. And, although I’m not sure what is coming next, I cannot deny that I also love change – probably as much as I love mountains, mountain people, and trees. North Carolina, ready or not, here I come.

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Hike #3 Fighting Creek Trail (a.k.a. The Frog Blog)

29 Jan

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was my hiking destination yesterday. Leaving Asheville at 9 a.m., I traveled to Gatlinburg for a meeting with Todd Witcher, executive director for Discover Life in America, a non-profit organization that manages a thorough scientific inventory of all the park’s species that has been going on for the past 15 years.

After talking with Todd about the project and viewing the park’s LEED Certified Twin Creeks Science and Education Center with its vast collections room, I was excited to get out into the woods and see if I could spot some live specimens. I didn’t have a great deal of time, and so chose a short, easy trail that begins behind the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center. It was 64 degrees and about 1 p.m. when I started out on the Fighting Creek Nature Trail.

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I hadn’t been hiking long when I heard quite a ruckus of high-pitched vocalizations just a “tad” off the trail. Following what I at first mistook for bird chatter, I spied a small green pond, tucked behind a grove of trees. Immediately upon seeing the water, I realized the source of the raucous sounds.

IMG_8844Upon my arrival at the tiny pond’s bank, all was quiet; only the final plops of retreat echoed across the surface, now muddy from what was sure to be dozens of diving frogs!

How long does one have to sit beside a pond before the frogs will start peeping again? I decided to attempt to find out. I sat very still in the soft leaves, watching and listening. Finally, after some 20 minutes, I began to see slow movement in the water, and tiny heads with great bulging eyes began to emerge one by one all over the pond. Before long I realized I could see at least 15 pairs of eyes, all fixed on me!

Once when I lifted my binoculars to get a better view, the gleaming amphibians darted down in retreat once again. But this time, it didn’t take long for them to come back up. They seemed as interested in studying me as I was in watching them.

I adapted to making much slower movements, and they adapted to my presence. Finally, after nearly an hour, they relaxed and stopped staring at me, drifting lazily with out-splayed legs in what I suppose is their usual fashion when unmonitored. Then, with them facing away from me, I was able to get a few zoomed photographs without causing a stir. But, alas, their peeping never did resume during my surveillance.

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What I did was not unlike the way that scientists involved with Discover Life in America’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory work to identify and record the locations of various species throughout the park. The people who combine efforts on this project are not just scientists with university degrees but also everyday armchair naturalist types who are, like me, just really interested in nature. They are what DLIA proudly calls “citizen scientists” – and without them the ATBI would not have exceeded all expectations and discovered more than 900 species in the park that are new to science!

IMG_8843The nature trail loop was pleasurable and felt fairly “out there” for being so close to the visitor’s center and a major park thoroughfare, although I’m sure during warmer months there is little solitude here. There was plenty of picturesque intersection with the beautiful creek and signage pointed out a few tree species’ names that were new to me, including Hop-Hornbeam, used by the Cherokee as a painkiller. I was happy to encounter a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos – to balance the taxonomic specimens I had seen earlier. For those interested in historic structures, the restored 1860s John Ownby Cabin stands at about the half-way point. Had I not practiced patience at the peeper pond, I’d have completed the entire hike in under an hour.

After capping off my solo adventure with a quick jaunt up to Cataract Falls (off the nature trail), I rejoined the Fighting Creek loop that led me back near the frogs’ habitat. I could hear their cacophonous chorus loud and clear, and was tempted to return to their secluded domicile for more amphibious fun.

But the sun was getting low in the sky and I had several hours’ drive ahead. It was time to set a course for my own old Kentucky home, where late last night I learned from Wikipedia that in Cherokee lore, the Sugarlands was part of the area known as “Walasi’yi,” or “Frog place.”IMG_8849

Learn more about Discover Life in America and the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory.

Distance traveled: 1.6 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Birds spotted: Dark-eyed Junko, Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse

Flora of note: Hop-hornbeam, Box Elder, Sycamore, Yellow Poplar, Paw Paw, Sweet Gum, Sassafras, Moosewood

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Hike #2: Rice Pinnacle at Bent Creek

13 Jan

Today I returned to the Bent Creek area near West Asheville; it was 72 degrees when I started out on a solo adventure around 1 p.m.

IMG_8819Parking at the Rice Pinnacle Trail Head, I first explored the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station’s Bent Creek Centennial Interpretive Trail. This easy loop offers great signage (although each placard was extremely muddy) about the species and work being done in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, which comprises some 6,000 acres and houses the North Carolina State Arboretum.

IMG_8814While on this trail, I decided to practice my intuitive navigational skills. When I came to a sign with an arrow indicating I should stay on the trail by going right, I instead deviated from the marked trail and took an unmarked but decent trail to the left. This took me about a mile into the woods, during which time I made at least seven departures onto different trails, ending up at a pump station and a private property sign. Retracing my steps was fun and challenging – and I only saw a couple of other hikers over in this unmarked area.

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Back on the interpretive trail, I came upon a disturbing sight; a grove of pine trees with huge numbers painted on their trunks! I learned from the muddy placard that “canopy density is related to basal area, which is the total area of trunk cross sections. It determines the amount of light allowed to reach growing seedlings. Studies conducted here compare basal area and canopy density to light penetration. Results help foresters make management decisions and predict future tree species.”

IMG_8797Wondering what it means to predict a species, I returned to the parking area, from which I set off on the Rice Pinnacle Trail, which crosses many of the bends in Bent Creek and eventually links up with the Bent Creek trail loops and Lake Powatan. Because this cluster of trails is convenient to town, it attracts a diversity of outdoor enthusiasts, including mountain bikers, joggers or runners, couples or groups sharing time together as they walk, people walking dogs, and solitary hikers like me.

IMG_8833As I passed these various demographic examples, I thought about the fact that people get out into the woods for different reasons. I go for the exercise of hiking and peace that comes from immersing my senses in the smells, colors and quiet of nature, the only welcome sounds being those of wildlife.

But nature is also a backdrop for social activities, and for adventures that bring people closer together, which usually means sharing the trails with those who enjoy being a lot louder in nature than I would ever choose to be. That being said, everyone I encountered today was polite, especially the mountain bikers, who made a point to slow down when passing me and to tell me how many more of their cyclist friends were coming along behind them.

Even with the flurry of activity around me, I was able to find moments of the peace I was seeking. I got just the right amount of cardiovascular exercise as well. And, my favorite part of the trip was hearing pileated woodpeckers at work just off the beaten track. Leaving the trail, I crossed the creek and sneaked up on them close enough to see the pair distinctly (though lighting was not good for a photo) and got to hear their shrill warning calls for a good five minutes before they unceremoniously departed.

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Distance Traveled: 3.75 to 4 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Birds spotted: Black-capped Chickadee, American Crow, Pileated Woodpecker

Flora of note: Yellow Poplar, Black Cherry, White Pine, Mountain Laurel, Club Moss

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Songs of a new order

4 Oct

My mother gave me many gifts, one of the most treasured being the sensibility to appreciate the artistic marriage of music and words. Those who were able to attend her funeral heard an array of classical, traditional and contemporary compositions that were chosen and put in order by her – not recently, but years before she passed. She included on her program (which she helped to design and approved just before her death) some special lyrics from a hymn she loved, Lead, Kindly Light.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now, lead Thou me on;
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; Remember not past years.

Music became a part of my grieving and my mourning even during the long night spent clearing and cleaning immediately after Mother’s body had been taken from our house. For several days I could only find solace in the offerings of Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian singer songwriter I’ve always loved for his ability to write about spiritual matters from a Christian foundation moderated by a cultural perspective that does not diminish others of the world’s religions. I chose to place some of his lyrics from the song The Rose Above the Sky on the back of Mother’s program:

Something jeweled slips away
Round the next bend with a splash
Laughing at the hands I hold out
Only air within their grasp
All you can do is praise the razor
For the fineness of the slash

Some weeks ago, I was able to get out the tiny tape recorder that I kept near the piano for the times when Mom could sit there and allow some of her favorite pieces to fly from her weakened fingers. I listened one whole afternoon to the scattered recordings I’d made, remembering the joy that overwhelmed me each time I heard her play once again when I had begun to doubt she would make it back to the bench. On some of those occasions, she would play My God and I, which was sung by a friend at her service according to her plan.

My God and I go in the field together;
We walk and talk as good friends should and do;
We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.

A few weeks (maybe even a few days) before Mother passed away, she had just finished playing the piano when she asked me a painful question: “Do you think there is any way that I can possibly get better?” As I was trying to formulate my response, I thought immediately of Cindy Bullens and her CD Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth.

I don’t remember how I learned of Bullens and the 1999 album of 10 songs she recorded as a tribute to her 11-year-old daughter who died of cancer – but the work has long been an inspiration. The genre is light progressive rock, influenced by the likes of Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Heart and the Indigo Girls. Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt make small contributions to a couple of the songs. But it’s the introspective lyrics in combination with the poignant melodies that give this work its ability to help anyone who is mourning. Bullens unabashedly carries the listener through the various stages of grief, with tangible examples like a trip to Paris seeming dull in comparison to memories of her daughter and the impossible hope that a scientific discovery like finding water on the moon can somehow mean young Jessie will find her way back to earth.

With Bullens and her acute loss in mind, my answer to my mother took the form of another question: “What if there was an 11-year-old child here, whom we loved, and who had cancer – and we knew she was going to die? What if she asked us this question? How could we answer her?” I then told my mom that it was time for her to practice what she preached, and to talk to God, in her own way, so that she could prepare for where she was going. I told her, in effect, to let go of the things of this world, and to begin to look forward to the next.

And now it is me who is left here trying to let go – of her. It’s hard when your mom was cool, was someone you hung out with, loved the things you loved, understood human nature in all its flawed nuances and exercised her sharp language skills and dry sense of humor up until a few hours before she took her last breath. It’s hard when you’re a relentless perfectionist constantly plagued with feelings that you could have done more, should have done better as a caregiver. It’s hard living right where it all went down, the set and setting for our last two years together. And it’s hard when a relatively non-material girl has an accumulation of 81 years of sentimentally charged high-caliber material possessions to sort through, deciding what to keep, and doling out the rest as best she can to those who will appreciate them as much as Ruthe did.

But one of the lessons I have learned from my grief is that if I can do some good now for others around me, then Mother lives on… because in some way I become her as I move forward.

And move forward I have decided to do. I have the beautiful house we shared in Winchester, Kentucky up for sale, and whether it sells in two weeks or two years, I am soon headed to the mountains of Western North Carolina to seek work and a new beginning. When my father was working at Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center outside of Asheville the summer he was courting my mom, he took her on several memorable hikes; she even made it up the strenuous trail to Catawba Falls, which is no small feat. They loved the mountain forests there – and so do I.

Another lesson I have learned from my grief is this: When someone dies, there is a shifting and a shuffling that happens in preparation for the “new order” left behind. To use a baseball analogy (and I did go to a Reds game last month in honor of Mom), when one player is out of the game, the lineup changes. Since losing Mom, I have gotten closer to some folks I’d never really known before, including some of her close friends and members of our extended family who’ve come forward to lend support. Even among my own close friends, the shifting and shuffling is apparent; new bonds are formed as everyone rallies to take a position that will not only offer me strength, but also allow for growth that somehow just wouldn’t have been possible before.

True, like the protagonist in Gillian Welch’s traditional-sounding song Orphan Girl, “I have no mother, no father, no sister, no brother” – but I feel more whole and connected each day, nonetheless. Some lyrics from Cindy Bullens express it best:

There’s a curious freedom rising up from the dark
Some kind of strength I’ve never had
Though I’d trade it in a second just to have you back
I gotta try to make some good out of the bad

So I laugh louder
Cry harder
I take less time to make up my mind and I
Think smarter
Go slower
I know what I want and what I don’t
And I’ll be better than I’ve ever been
Better than I’ve ever been

Find Cindy Bullens “Between Heaven and Earth” on Amazon

Listen to Orphan Girl by Gillian Welch

Listen to Bruce Cockburn’s The Rose Above the Sky

Let’s roll: A tribute to Ruthe

9 Aug

My mother did not want it said that she died peacefully. True, she was in her home, surrounded by the people and things she loved. But despite the fact that she had no fear of making the transition out of her earthly, physical form, she fought willfully for more time here, mainly to be with me, her only child.

In life, however, she was a peacemaker, helping dissenting parties to focus on common ground long enough to realize the folly of their conflict. She was a teacher, a student, a leader, a speaker, a writer, a decorator, an accountant, a musician, a nature enthusiast, an animal lover, a baseball fan, a fashion maven (she could tell you exactly what she wore at every important event of her life) – and a spirited woman who wholeheartedly supported her family and partners, while paradoxically remaining staunchly independent.

The third of four daughters born to a farming couple in Clark County in 1931, Mom gleaned her sense of fashion from her father, who wanted his girls stylishly clad, even during the Depression. If growing up with few possessions created in the sisters a penchant for the finer things, they were nonetheless well aware that spirituality trumped materialism every time.

Losing her mother at age 16 must have contributed to Ruthe’s early individualism and maturity. Georgetown College student Ross Figart was the visiting youth minister at Carlisle Baptist Church the summer of 1948 and he couldn’t help but become fascinated with the most beautiful and interesting girl in the choir. Some of her favorite memories are of staying in the original Rucker Hall at Georgetown during their courtship. They were married in 1950.

My parents had been pastoring the county seat church in Vanceburg, Kentucky, for seven years when I arrived in 1964; Mom nearly died having me and doctors cautioned, “Don’t try this again.” Not one to gravitate toward anyone else’s children, she loved her only child fiercely and spared no energy in teaching me her spiritual values, her thirst for great literature and music, and her love of all creation, especially birds and cats. My earliest memories are of her scrubbing coal dust off of me and off our black and white tomcat in Hazard, Kentucky, where she would emerge from our tiny mountain parsonage ready for church looking like a combination of Donna Reed and Jackie Onassis.

Throughout my life, I’ve been told by Kentuckians of all ages how much my parents influenced their spiritual development. During my dad’s 13 years as director of missions for Boone’s Creek Association, and his 11 years as director of missions for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, I watched my mom live her roles of “preacher’s wife” and “missionary’s wife” to their fullest – from the slate-rock hills of Eastern Kentucky to the jagged coastline of Brazil, South America. She had a gift for helping others to reach their potential, whatever the field of interest.

Growing up in the idyllic setting of Boone’s Creek Camp, I tagged along as Mom led campers on nature hikes and bird walks through the wooded hillsides. I watched her transform the tiny timid Corinth Church choir into a forceful ensemble that could deliver a cantata to rival those she’d been a part of during music weeks at Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. Sometimes we’d arrive at a church where Dad was slated to interim preach, and when no one came forth to play the piano, Mom would matter-of-factly assume the bench, unrehearsed and unruffled.

Any time I heard her speak publically – from small circle gatherings to state WMU conventions – she always made herself vulnerable to her audience by sharing a moving anecdote or reciting a powerful verse that would inevitably bring my highly emotional “Mom Bit” to tears. But this caused others to respond on a far deeper level than would have been possible if she had refrained from crying.

After my dad died in 1992, Mom finally had her own college experience when she majored in English at the University of Kentucky in her mid 60s. She won awards for her writing, as her daughter had done decades earlier – not surprising since my communications talents were obviously inherited from her. She won an entire piano once for writing in 100 words, “Why I love my Baldwin.” Never forgetting her Georgetown connection, she supported the school whenever possible as a way of honoring my dad.

When Mom fell in love with Bill Sphar in 1999, she cycled back to the farm life she had left behind in childhood. After five years of traveling and enjoying Spring Hill together, he became ill and she managed his daily care for two years. In the stressful throes of caregiving, she accidently ran over her own dear cat, Louisa, and a part of her soul never recovered from this trauma. Her strength and determination made Bill’s final transition a comfortable one. When she left the farm, she took with her his faithful hound, Bebe, and gave her a life of luxury until her death this past January.

When Mom could no longer continue teaching her beloved adult Sunday School class at FBC, she turned her creative energies to writing a memoir of her bucolic childhood, “A Feast for Charlie,” which was published earlier this year. About the same time, God sent Paula Underwood Rhodus – who was born and raised in Vanceburg a decade after we left – to help me care for my mother. Every day Paula came, Ruthe taught her something new – about birds, about flowers, about language, about music, and about life. Paula gave Mom a new connection to one of her favorite communities and provided an opportunity for her to continue to teach at home.

Ruthe never lost her sharp mind, offbeat sense of humor or “the-show-must-go-on” poise. Whenever she became bored with crossword puzzles and Neiman Marcus catalogs, Mom would gaze resolutely at me or Paula and say, “Let’s roll.” We’d get her into the small transport chair and she would pedal along as we rolled around the house–first to the screened-in back porch to see her squirrels, rabbits, finches, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, cardinals, wrens and blue jays; her roses, crape myrtles, hydrangeas, herbs and tomatoes on the vine. Next she’d visit favorite books in the library, gleefully wake the cats from their naps, watch fervently from the front door as we went to retrieve her abundant mail, and sometimes she would play hymns on her piano, as she always had, by ear.

On the night of July 23, Mom watched with satisfaction as the Reds trampled the Astros. As the game ended and we got ready to go to sleep, she looked at me on the couch beside her bed and said earnestly, “I love you too much.” I responded, “And I you.” After that, she closed those piercing eyes that remained ever clear and bright, and I imagine she must have said to her Lord something along the lines of, “Let’s roll.”

~ff

The Georgetown College flag was lowered to half-staff for two days after Ruthe’s passing to honor her inimitable spirit. Her ashes will be scattered in Vanceburg’s Kinniconick Creek. We will all miss her grace, humor, insight and unconditional love.

Scrabble in the dark with Annie

2 Jun

Last September, I started a new job. I didn’t expect to get it; I didn’t even apply. It’s not 9-5; I’m on the clock for all three shifts, every day, 24/7. It’s hard, but it’s rewarding. And, thankfully, there are a lot of perks.

I’m caring for my mom, at home, by myself. She has congestive heart failure. Without going into medical details, what I am doing on the physical level is kind of like the first year with a newborn – meals every couple of hours, up several times during the night – except that in this case, what everyone is “looking forward to” is not growing up, but transitioning out of this life.

“So much of our anguish is created when we are in resistance. So much relief, release, and change are possible when we accept, simply accept.”
~ Melody Beattie

Every caregiving situation is different, with a myriad of complex nuances and ups and downs specific to the patient and the family; in our case, I am the only child, so all of the responsibility to meet my mom’s needs and communicate them to others rests with me. “The family caregiver is the backbone of our broken health-care system,” writes Gail Sheehy in her book “Passages in Caregiving.” We do it out of love, we do it because our parents did it for us, but make no mistake, it is work and it is a job.

Social acquaintances see me these days and say, “Wow, you look so tired. Don’t you have Hospice? And didn’t you hire someone to help you?” As if these make everything peachy keen.

Having Hospice is great; it allows me to keep Mom at home where she wants to be and make quick decisions about managing her care. A nurse visits once a week; someone can come if we have a crisis; most of Mom’s meds and other equipment like oxygen are provided. But Hospice does not physically help someone like me take care of an elderly person at home on a day-to-day basis. If I want help – with cleaning, with cooking, with everything! – that part is up to me to figure out.

Mom and I did hire a wonderful caregiving assistant a few months ago, and that does allow me to take some vital worry-free breaks. (Without the respite I have gotten thanks to Paula, I wouldn’t even be able to write this blog entry!) But even families who are well off are hard put to have people working round-the-clock in their homes; we have our caregiver between 12 and 24 hours a week, which is only a fraction of the time I’m on duty. So ultimately, I still have the three-shift job that has been compared to that of a combat soldier in terms of the amount of cortisol produced by the adrenal gland to cope with the stress of a typical day.

I do get to take naps whenever I can squeeze them in. They are usually cut much shorter than I would want – when I hear my mom stirring on the baby monitor – but they are a lifesaver. On Pauladays, I may get to take a walk before grocery shopping. About once a month, I try to get away for a weekend, which requires coordinating several sitters; and all such plans are subject to change if Mom is feeling especially bad. Sometimes by the time I get a break, I’m way too tired to enjoy a long hike or a concert; I just need rest.

HYDRANGEAS, GROSBEAKS AND BASEBALL

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.” ~ Albert Einstein

Before taking on this role, I was an “adventurer.” I lived to travel and have new experiences in exotic natural settings. Now, I am learning to see the adventures, even the miracles, unfolding before me right where I am. Like the amazing hydrangeas in our garden this year. I have given away at least a dozen arrangements of them, and every time I cut one, three more grow back in its place. Or the amazing two-week visitation to our yard of a group of migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks earlier this spring. What a gift it was for my mother to be able to sit on our screened-in back porch and enjoy these special birds. These are glorious adventures for me!

In the few years leading up to this acute stage of Mom’s illness, I was always subjected when visiting her to the incessant Cincinnati Red’s baseball games blaring at me over her radio. I resisted learning about the game and tolerated the noise without paying much attention to Mom’s commentary about her favorite sport. I took her to a game once a few years back, and I admit it was slightly more interesting to see the action live. When Mom got really sick last fall, I decided she needed to be able to see all the Reds games this year on television. We bought a package of some 200 cable channels just to get the ONE: Fox Sports Ohio. And now, guess who’s watching and cheering on the team every night right along with Ruthe, even though she can’t stay up for a whole game these days. I like to think it’s no accident they are ranked first in their division this year.

A STEP BEYOND WORDS
Back about November, a friend turned me on to Words With Friends, an online version of Scrabble I can play on my iPhone with Facebook friends. This became a wonderful stress reliever, especially while sitting up with mom during difficulties in the night. I soon found myself playing lots of games with Annie, a friend from high school that I never got to know very well. We made a good match, enjoying some very close games. When we started chatting, I learned that she, too, was caregiving for her mother, who had the same disease as mine. Like me, Annie found the game a great diversion. We had lunch, caught up and shared our caregiver woes, some similar and some very different. Every night, when things would finally settle down at home, I’d look forward to making my plays in my four or so games with Annie, either in the dark of my mom’s room as I watched over her, or in my own bed just before falling asleep.

A few weeks ago, I was super busy with watering the gardens, friends visiting, getting out for a rare hike in the gorge… and in the back of my mind I kept thinking that I hadn’t seen Annie make a play for several days. When things calmed down, I checked her Facebook page and found that what I feared was true. Annie’s mom had died.

Immediately I began to cry really hard… for Annie, and for me, too. It was one of those rare times, during the hectic day-to-day business of this caregiving job, that I realized fully what is coming, and how completely unready for it I will always be.

I fled to the garden, unable to really see through the tears, and cut all my favorite hydrangeas for Annie; this was the most important step I could take at that moment. I called her later and heard some of her story, feeling new pain because I knew that many of the symptoms her mom had to endure, my mom has also. The next day, I left the flowers on her porch. She wrote and told me that the hardest time is waking up in the morning, and so she has the hydrangeas by her bed so she will see them first thing, and remember that life goes on. A few days later, when I checked my Scrabble games, there was Annie, constant as the northern star.

“Your entire life journey ultimately consists of the step you are taking at this moment. There is always only this one step, and so you give it your fullest attention. This doesn’t mean you don’t know where you are going; it just means this step is primary, the destination secondary. And what you encounter at your destination once you get there depends on the quality of this one step.”
~ Eckhart Tolle

Virtual Meditation Retreat December 26 to January 6

26 Dec

I have been yearning of late to renew my meditation practice. Simultaneously, I noticed that several friends were taking a hiatus from Facebook to focus on family and other interests during the holidays. When I put these two thoughts together, the idea that most readily presented itself was to take time off from Facebook and use that time rather to cultivate my practice.

Further reflection brought to mind the fact that even when I have done meditation regularly at home, I always feel more encouraged and inspired in a retreat setting. But, given the constraints of my current caretaking role, participating in a retreat at some physical place like Furnace Mountain Zen Retreat Center is not feasible. Then I recalled that once I participated in a “virtual retreat” that was really successful and helpful.

The premise behind the virtual retreat is that participants in various locations agree to meditate for certain amounts of time each day for a period of days or weeks. To bring solidarity and morale to the practice together, there is a host who facilitates the virtual communication about the retreat (this was done via e-mail in the one I did years ago), and with whom participants check in daily to report the times of their participation.

So I asked my partner, Nate, who lives two states away, if he would like to participate with me in a virtual retreat for the next 12 days. He embraced the opportunity to support each other in our practice, and agreed. We joked that I should make it a Facebook event, which was funny given that the initial thought was to replace social media time with meditation time.

But upon greater consideration, I do see a great deal of merit in using Facebook as a hosting tool to open this retreat to anyone, anywhere, who would like to be involved. I suspect that the encouragement of a virtual community of others committed to a 12-day renewal of practice could be helpful to many.

If you would like to join us, simply go to my Facebook page and sign up by commenting on the link to this blog or posting on my wall. Then, starting today, you pick your own time and place for sitting. When you sit is totally flexible and up to you. The amount of time you are committing to per day is very small, and increases incrementally every three days, according to this schedule:

Dec. 26, 27, 28 – 15 minutes

Dec. 29, 30, 31 – 20 minutes

Jan. 1, 2, 3 – 25 minutes

Jan. 4, 5, 6 – 30 minutes

Each morning on my Facebook page, I will put up a wall post that reads “Virtual Meditation Retreat Sitting Time Check-in.” After you do your daily sit, any time in the 24-hour period, just comment under that day’s post what your time period was (i.e. 8:45-9 a.m.) as a way of showing your participation and encouraging the rest of the group in their practice. You may also write a short comment if you like.

I will also create a discussion group for anyone participating who would like to talk about meditation, and decide together on intentions we may wish to focus on as a group in our daily practice. Involvement in the discussion group is optional.

If you miss the first day of the retreat, today, please join in whenever you like. If you miss a day along the way, do not worry and feel free to stay with the group when you can. If you have to drop off before the ending date, that is fine too.

Nate and I are going to coordinate our sitting to be simultaneous. If you would like to do this with us or with a close friend, that would be great. If you already have a daily practice, and would like to show support for this group by joining, please do! It will help us all.

Howe Gelb on Vic Chesnutt and other musical collaborations

23 Dec

THIS INTERVIEW ALSO APPEARS ON THE NO DEPRESSION WEB SITE

“i like the way my sentences flow before you wrangled them.”

This is the most memorable sentence Howe Gelb wrote to me during the process of interviewing him via e-mail in September 2011. And no, the lower case “i” in his proclamation is not a mistake…

Out in the Sonoran Desert, where ancient rocks are strewn like giant grains of sand, there still exists a zealous bastion of linguistic obstinacy – in the spirit of cummings, Chomsky, Wolf and Dickinson – who eschews being edited (even slightly) and highly prioritizes a very personal orthographic preference.

Howe Gelb is both poet and innovator, and as such requires that the language used to represent him be rendered precisely in his own chosen cadence, tempo, beat and pause. He explains it thusly: “i always thought the more stripped down a writing is, the more like a rough mix it appears. and i adore rough mixes, often favoring them over final mixes.”

Howe typed the answers you read here exactly the way he wanted them to appear and requested that they be provided sans capital letters. I have thus refrained from any wrangling and am honored to abide by his requests.

Frances: In The Guardian, Giant Sand is described “as a loose, uncompetitive, mutually supportive musical collective, a place for friends to hang out and play” and you are quoted as saying, “i just liked the idea of having this kind of removed world, this brotherhood—the idea of a band being something more than a front person or dealing with the throes of fame.” How do you maintain that sense of brotherhood, quell the egos involved, keep that supportive workshop feeling and not let a famous personality or leader mentality take over so you can create an egalitarian atmosphere in which to make music?

Howe: the side effect of popularity or relative fame and fortune has never been very appealing… its outcome looks annoying… a more ‘blue collar’ approach to sonic existence seems more comfortable and i reckon that’s what we ultimately ever shoot for, that standard of comfort in this life to get the job done and enjoy the doing along the way, taking in the end of the day with an exhaustion that merits.

this template allows for an enormous amount of output as well as permits the actuality of raising a family instead of sacrificing one for the other. just enough ‘ego’ needs to be implemented to be able to enjoy the stage as a work space and not let it crush your skull or stomp your heart by its imposing loom.

members in the band will feel like minded. those that eventually don’t will be able to use the premise to spring board into their own mesh of how ambition and sonic deployment can be then tailored to suit their own needs once they leave the fold.

that said, there is a compiling strain from years on the road that instigates needed perks along the way in order to facilitate longevity. things like upgrades in air travel and better hotel rooms. a lack of stanky rock clubs in lieu of more sensible venues to dispense more properly in theater like confines. this can get tricky when the music has remained unknown enough and not easily categorized. it takes some creative promotion as the years spin by to continue delivering anything vital outside of mass appeal.

but that is the music i have always been drawn to. the rhetoric of a rehearsed set of music by bands determined to get to the next level actually makes me a little sea sick. probably an allergic reaction to honing the craft in a way so as to never allow the gamble of a unique night of music to come into play. i tend to avoid bands that work the crowd instead of expanding their sound nightly through immediate evolution where risk is a flavor and the outcome is worth it.

Frances: As alluded to in the song “Fields of Green,” you mentored and spawned many bands around the Tucson area. You “lift up” others in your performances regularly. I was in the Old Pueblo when I first heard you play live and got turned on to the wonderful music of the late Rainer Ptacek. How would you describe your collaboration with Rainer as well as your philosophy as a musical mentor?

Howe: that’s a loaded question.

when rainer and i met in the mid 70s, i recognized something in him instinctually. something i could never define till years later. when i have stumbled upon bands or band members that i’d chosen to be part of this sonic fabric, it has been in similar fashion, but none so important to me as rainer was, maybe because i was only 19 at the time, but mostly because of the spirit of the man. it’s a blessing and a curse, this sonic life, when the energy is in play, a music occurs and it’s the best of times. you can see it swirl on stage between conjuring implementers. when the energy is not harbored into play, it’s a an impish storm that confuses and sparks the room in chaos.

all rainer and i ever verbally agreed to was to make a music that would not embarrass us 20 years into the future. so we took our cues from strident elements of historical proportions and mixed them up with a state of exploratory endeavors that would serve the future the way we noticed it had gone on long before us. and along the way we collected a vast assortment of young ‘lifers’ stained with the same urgency.

Vic Chesnutt is on the far right of this group of friends at the Barbican 10 years ago.

Frances: You were also friends with the late Vic Chesnutt, whose passing two years ago at Christmas is still mourned by all who knew him. One of my favorite songs is “Classico,” and I love the way you have two versions on “Is All Over the Map” – to me, it sounds like a song Vic would write. How would you characterize his contribution to modern folk/alt music and how did that collaboration come about?

Howe: vic was the greatest american singer songwriter i have ever had the pleasure of knowing. he was the only true definition of the term i have ever witnessed. his songs were monsters, meaning massive wondrous plunks of existence, and his voice was impossibly enormous and soulful beyond measure.

he was the best. and his constant struggle in this life is never to be fully realized by the likes of us. he toured incessantly by his sheer singular will. and he was one of my favorite guitar players, attacking it in a way that was severely refreshing, making each note matter more than any i’ve ever heard, except for rainer. i loved him so. this world is less now without him, but him being here at all was a great gift and a continuous inspiration still.

as for ‘classico,’ i was still trying to write a song for marianne faithfull to sing, since my buddy polly was working on her record at the same time, but instead vic came to town and i know an omen when i see one.

Frances: I think your lyrics, and the way they work with the music, are what fascinate me most about Giant Sand. Some of the lyrics are so comical, and almost silly-seeming, that many song writers might be “afraid” to use them and therefore couldn’t pull them off. (Example: “I poured me cranberry juice there on the floor letting it flow on the mirror under the door” – I recall laughing out loud the first time I heard this song.) How does your sense of humor inform your confidence in songwriting and… yep, the age-old “which came first” question: Do you compose lyrics or music first… or is it a combination?

Howe: that’s the age-old question… but there is never an age-old answer.

songs happen when they care to and however they dare to. there is no way to count on them or formulate the process. i have the ability to utilize my disability. songs are the event once you clear yourself of everything else inside you. they are there waiting to happen.

singing songs that you make up on the spot is a matter of lying to yourself that they have been around forever, and then they sound like they have been.

humor and sex are important elements in song. to be able laugh at life and how it clobbers us is also a great way to make an otherwise difficult point to put across. to rework the essence of how we procreate as a species is the stuff that needs to be addressed more often than not.

anyhow… the song you mention with sliding a mirror under the door and pouring cranberry juice on it was a reflection of lament and dement in my time of languishing the loss of my former rhythm section, who have done well, but sadly still fail to include those two basic elements in their material. but once they read this, that will change too.

Frances: When I want to relax without lyrics, I go to “Spun Some Piano” and “Lull Some Piano” for a change. Although many of your Giant Sand songs are sans piano, you are often described as a piano virtuoso. How did you learn to play and who were your main influences?

Howe: wilkes-barre, pennsylvania is flooding as we speak. the susquehanna river is an eventual monster. 40 years ago it knocked on our door and raised up six feet over our roof. that’s what sent me to arizona where my dad was living. it also smashed the piano to bits i never practiced on. with the flood relocation money i bought me a univox electric piano and drove the apartment complex nuts we were evacuated to. but that’s where it started. i learned how to play “all the way to memphis” by mott the hoople all the while i began discovering piano players in the “cheap” bin at the record store. champion jack dupree, memphis slim, and otis spann got me started. tommy flanigan and ahmad jamal (both whom i had the pleasure of seeing live), mcoy tyner and oscar petersen, kept me following the thread, until i finally hit the payload with thelonious sphere monk.

after the two you mentioned came “ogle some piano” …and now this month comes “snarl some piano” which actually manages to free you up when in a traffic snarl, if played in its entirety. money back guarantee. i think.

Frances: Your vocals lend themselves to duos with a soft, naïve female voice. Examples I enjoy are “No Tellin” and “Love A Loser” from “Blurry Blue Mountain.” What characteristics work best for this type of duo?

Howe: i would have much preferred to have been a player in a band with a great singer, but I didn’t want to wait for that to ever happen, so just handled the chore myself.

lonna beth kelley is the woman you mention in those BBM songs and I find her voice such a fine smolder. we try to bring her on the road to have her open as much as possible. I adore her lip flip, but also the hang time on the road. she’s a comfort zone and a smile waiting to happen. funny as hell too.

Frances: You obviously have a loyal and astute audience who knows your disposition and irreverent approach to fusing elements from most every musical genre. What is your relationship to your audience and how much do you care/not care what they think of your creations?

Howe: it’s scary seeing how every kind of music has such similar thread. any song can be done up in any genre. it’s there in front of us. i just try and get to it as much as possible. because of my tin ear, it all just sounds like me doing up my usual muck-a-luck.

anyhow, i tend to make the same music my audience would make if they allowed themselves the time to work it up themselves. so they pay me to do it instead. like hiring a plumber.

Learn more about Howe Gelb and Giant Sand here.

Please also read my Sept. 11 interview with Howe Gelb here.