Appalachian Thursday – Mountain Monsters

flatwoodsNorth America has Bigfoot. Nepal has the Abominable Snowman. Ireland their Banshees. Everywhere you go, there are monster stories.

Well, West Virginia is not one to be left out. My home state has several mythical monsters of its own. Our uniquely Appalachian monsters include . . .

The Mothman – This is the legend that inspired a 2002 movie starring Richard Gere which may be why it’s our best known monster. The mothman is a ten-foot tall figure with massive wings and red glowing eyes. He allegedly appears before tragedies like the 1967 Silver Bridge collapse at Point Pleasant, WV, that resulted in 47 deaths. Some folks say it’s just a blue heron.

The Flatwoods Monster – This is the one closest to where I grew up. When I drive to the farm I pass through Flatwoods where a colorful cutout of the monster stands near the road. This was a one-time siting in 1952 when a group of kids saw a UFO crash and went to investigate. They say they saw a green figure that appeared to be floating and emitting a sulfurous smell. When others went to the same spot in the light of day, there were “skid marks” that might have been the tracks of vehicles investigating the kids’ claims.

The Grafton Monster – This one lurks near where my mom lives. It may be kin to bigfoot–a tall, ape-like figure with a smooth skin like a seal. It’s rumored to whistle as it stalks it’s prey. Hmmmm. Sounds like something teenage boys out to scare their girlfriends might come up with.

The Philippi Mummies – This pair of do-it-yourself mummies are less elusive monsters. The Barbour County Historical Museum keeps the mummies in glass-topped coffins in the bathroom. The weird twist is that a farmer acquired the bodies from the WV Hospital for the Insane in 1888 and tried out his own embalming solution on them. It worked and the pair toured with P.T. Barnum before being returned home. I hear you can still see them for just $1.

Finding Inspiration – Smith, Rash & Cash

App writersThe Appalachian Studies Association held their annual conference in Asheville this past weekend. Can you believe it? An entire association dedicated to the study of Appalachia.

While I didn’t have a chance to go to the full conference, I was able to attend the keynote event. It featured Appalachian author Wiley Cash interviewing fellow authors Lee Smith and Ron Rash. I mean, how could I NOT attend? If you aren’t familiar with these storytellers, check out Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home, Rash’s Serena, and Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies. Or anything else any of them have written.

The event was a delight and there was much worth repeating, but here’s my top takeaway–if you want to write well, hang out with the old folks.

A common theme among these wonderful authors talking about how they became writers and where they find their inspiration was spending time with their elders. I think this is common among those of us who have grown (are growing) up in Appalachia.

When I was a kid there wasn’t a youth group. There weren’t any community activities or programs for the youth. Oh, sure, when we had community events (the bean supper at Lucille’s, swimming at Aunt Bess’, or Toad’s wiener roast) the kids would run off and get into trouble together, but we always ended up back in the company of adults.

One of my most precious memories is curling up in Dad’s lap where he sat cross-legged in a room full of men talking, smoking, and playing music. The sweat would dry on my skin as the rumble of voices and laughter lulled me to sleep. I don’t remember what they talked about (oh, how I wish I did), but I think I absorbed those stories, those tall tales through my very pores.

On Sundays we went visiting. We’d sit in family members’ living rooms wearied by the drone of adults talking about weather and people and politics and even religion. And while there was many a Sunday when I would have given the last slice of chocolate cake to be set free, now I recognize how precious that time was.

When I write these days, it’s almost as if my fingers on the keyboard are tracing out voices imprinted deep in my memory. I don’t write stories so much as I find them again. As if I were sitting, once more, among the old folks.

Only this time I’m listening . . . and writing it all down.

Appalachian Thursday – Onion Sets & Sweet Peas

farm market

It’s officially the time of year when seed catalogs become irresistible. I pore over gaudy pictures of corn with luxurious silks, scandalously red tomatoes, strawberries glinting like jewels, and squash that make me wonder why I don’t eat vegetables ALL the time.

And I begin to dream of gardening.

Of course, the dream is nothing like reality. There’s no thought of the tractor breaking down while disking the garden. I forget the bazillion rocks we “harvested” from the freshly plowed rows on the farm each spring. And weeds? Come on . . . as long as we don’t let them get ahead of us . . .

But my husband is the voice of reason. And he reminds me that I’m not even very good at gardening. Last summer I estimate that I got at least $15 worth of cherry tomatoes from the $14 plant I kept in a pot out front. (We won’t talk about the cost of potting soil.) And my herbs are certainly a savings over buying those plastic packs at the grocery store. As long as I remember to use them. Last summer’s potatoes were certainly a savings since I just planted some old, store-bought spuds that had sprouted in the pantry. I at least broke even on that one.

And yet . . .

When I see the sign at Southern States advertising onion sets. And picture sweet peas flowering on a trellis made from baling twine . . . well. Thank goodness for nostalgia. I think it’s mostly what sells my books.

Show Don’t Tell (a new take)

DeskIt’s a common refrain among writers. Don’t tell readers what’s happening–show them. Imagine the difference between watching a movie and having someone tell you about it. The telling can get tedious fast, but watching it . . .

And so, when writing a story, the trick is to pull readers into the action so that they’re seeing it unfold in their imaginations.

I try to keep that in mind as I’m writing my stories. But what about when I’m living my life?

Last week I read I Peter 2:11-12 – Dear friends, I urge you . . . to abstain from sinful desires . . . Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

And it occurred to me that this is the biblical version of “show, don’t tell.” Sure, it’s important to share the gospel. To tell people the good news. But it’s even more important to live it in such a way that people SEE the gospel.

I can tell people all day long what God says about love, but how much more will they understand it if I, in fact, reflect his love through my treatment of them?

We live in a world where people are eager to tell each other how to live. Everyone has an opinion and altogether too many platforms for sharing it. Wouldn’t it be nice if we stopped telling it each other what to do and simply lived out our beliefs?

Showing instead of telling.

How to Celebrate the Lenten Season

Easter gardenOkay, so not many folks think of Lent, which starts this Wednesday, as a celebration. This is, after all, a serious time when we’re meant to reflect, repent, and ponder Christ’s sacrifice for us.

But I love Lent and, for me, it’s a somber celebration. I relish the notion of having a time set aside to actively anticipate and prepare for the best worst thing that ever happened. It’s the ultimate looking forward to.

So, how to celebrate Lent?

First, I like to consider whether to give up/sacrifice something or add something. I’ve given up specific foods (French fries!), credit cards, shopping, checking reviews of my books, and one year I even gave up fear. That one was tough! I think I’ve only added something once–it was the fruits of the Spirit. Now that was a good year!

If you’re giving something up, it should be a challenge. If it’s not hard, what’s the point? One year I gave up candy. Where I work there’s a candy dish in every office. It was tough not even snagging a mint! On the flip side, this probably isn’t the time to stop smoking if you’ve been a pack-a-day smoker for years. I’ve toyed with giving up sugar, but recognize that would be setting myself up for failure.

If you’re adding something, make sure it’s something you can stick to as well. Pray as you drive to work each morning. Read one of the Psalms before bed each night. A friend told me she’s setting aside an item to donate to charity each day of Lent (and not just stuff she doesn’t want!).

Next, each time you crave the thing you gave up, or participate in the thing you added, let that moment turn your focus toward God. Consider the ways you’ve turned away from Him and refocus your heart and mind. It’s not about beating yourself up, but gently redirecting your attention towards grace.

Next, if you slip up, don’t quit. If you just can’t resist that slice of cake or forget to say that prayer–don’t let it ruin Lent for you. Use it as yet another opportunity to turn your heart toward God again. And again. And again. Lent is 40 days for a reason. God knows how slow, obstinate, and hard-headed we are. (Or is that just me??)

Finally, when Easter arrives (the BEST celebration ever!!), consider indulging in the thing you sacrificed. If you gave up chocolate, get a Lindt bunny. If you haven’t looked at Facebook in six weeks, check in to see what your friends are up to. Of course, it might be that you gave up something you now realize you can do without. I still don’t have a credit card. If you did gave up cigarettes, maybe it’s time to say goodbye to them forever. If so, celebrate that.

And if you added something? Consider the fruit you’ve harvested. Has your prayer life improved? Do you know scripture better? Have you made a difference in someone else’s life? If so, celebrate that.

How about you? Have you given up or added something for Lent? Do you plan to this year? Let’s cheer one another on!

Appalachian Thursday – Family Stories

family treeThere’s no shortage of great story ideas in the hills and hollers of Appalachia. But my favorite place to mine for stories is my own family.

A few years ago, I used Ancestry.com to research Dad’s side of the family. We knew our farm had come down through the Phillips line, but I hadn’t realized just how STRONG that line is. While we were surprised to find some Dutch and German ancestry, we also learned that we’re pretty solidly English on my great-grandfather’s side. And as much a Phillips as you can be.

Why? Because if I go back seven greats, two Phillips brothers (John and Joshua) married two Drake sisters (Elizabeth and Amy) making my eighth-great grandparents the SAME on both sides of the family. THEN, those two couples’ grandchildren, Phillip Phillips and Mercy Phillips got married (I know, I know!) and had David Phillips who left Massachusetts to settle on the property we now own.

Scandalous!

Or maybe not. It does cut down on ancestors.

And while I may not decide to go all the way back to the 1670s to write a family saga about brothers marrying sisters whose grandchildren then marry (oh, the possibilities for how that might happen!!), it is an intriguing story that could be plopped into another century . . .

Yup, no shortage of great ideas!