Announcing the Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction — Longridge Review

In 2010, a little idea for sharing essays on childhood got a big boost when Anne Clinard Barnhill submitted “Winter Solstice” to an unknown fellow West Virginian. I wanted to pursue the idea there is a lot to say about how our early experiences shape the world. Anne later sent “Melungeons and Mystery,” as well as […]

via Announcing the Barnhill Prize for Creative Nonfiction — Longridge Review

Essays on Childhood: “Staying” | by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill grew up in West Virginia and graduated from Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi.  Her debut novel, At the Mercy of the Queen, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2012. Her second novel, Queen Elizabeth’s Daughter, is forthcoming in 2014. She is working on a third and as-yet-untitled novel, set in West Virginia.

She is also author of At Home in the Land of Oz: Autism, My Sister and Me, a memoir about growing up in West Virginia in a time before anyone had heard the word ’autism.’ What You Long For is a short story collection published in 2009 that also contains stories set in the mountains.  Books are available from Amazon, www.jkp.comwww.mainstreetrag.com or, if you’d like a signed copy, from the author directly at acbarnhill@yahoo.com. Her first chapbook of poetry, Coal, Babyis available from Finishing Line Press.

Read Anne’s 2011 essay, “Winter Solstice,” and her 2012 essay, “Melungeons and Mystery.”

Anne’s essay is inspired by her early experiences camping in West Virginia. Editor’s note: Anne allowed me to title this essay. My choice reflects my favorite element of this piece, the patient but firm and final voice of a loving father.

Staying | by Anne Clinard Barnhill

When I was seven years old, my father took the family camping for the first time. We had no equipment that I can recall. There’s a snapshot of my mother, my sister and me all looking groggy as we stretch from sleep in the back of a 1960 station wagon. The wagon had been Dad’s idea. Since the back seat folded down, he figured my mother and he could sleep back there, I could sleep at their feet and my two-year-old sister, Becky, could sprawl out on the front seat.

His plan didn’t work quite the way he’d hoped. It took about two minutes for my little sister to crawl back with the rest of us; then, I wormed my way between my parents soon after.  No wonder my mother looks exhausted in the photo — her black hair is all messy and my sister looks like a wild child. I’m not exactly the picture of perfection either.

In spite of that inauspicious start, however, our whole family fell in love with camping. Over time we acquired a camp stove, a lantern, sleeping bags and one of those tents that attached to the back of the open station wagon. That covered area became the ‘bathroom’ for my sister who was in the process of potty training.  It was also my ‘dressing room’, providing more space than the crowded tent.

We bought camping dishes and silverware, pots and pans, a coffee pot (the kind you had to brew over an open fire) and many other outdoor accessories.  My dad built an enormous black box with drawers and shelves in which to store said items. This behemoth, which could have housed my sister and me, rode on top of the station wagon.  My father, standing at 5 feet 6 inches, somehow heaved the black monstrosity onto the car and secured it in its place. He must have been incredibly strong to be able to lift that box.  We never had any problems with it moving or falling off. The black box stayed with us, useful as ever, for at least a decade. It retired to ‘Pop’s Place’, a camp my dad bought at the Middle Fork River where he later put a trailer. The black box took its place on the deck, holding all the supplies needed for a picnic.

I often felt sorry for my dad, the lone male among us three girls. He had to do the hard work mostly by himself. Such things as setting up the tent, hoisting the black box, starting and tending the campfire — these were his chores. He also had to put up with our feminine desires about where to set up camp. Since we usually camped in West Virginia state parks or national forests, there were campgrounds set up with bath houses, playgrounds, picnic tables and sometimes, even a pool. My mother invariably wanted to locate nearest the bathroom.  I, on the other hand, wanted a woodsy view with atmosphere; my sister always desired a place close to the pool.  Around and around the campground we’d drive, looking at each available spot, sometimes lamenting that someone else had beaten us to the absolute best area.  Poor Dad would circle and circle until finally, we came up with a place to please everyone.

When we’d graduated from tent to trailer, this search for the perfect spot finally drove my dad to lose his patience. Dad had planned the trip of a lifetime — two weeks at the Outer Banks in North Carolina, then up to DC where we would see all our nation’s capital had to offer. After that, we’d head to New York City for a couple of days. The pinnacle of the trip would be onward to Montreal, Canada, to the World’s Fair where we would spend a whole week. He’d planned this six-week trip with great precision and care.

Somewhere in Canada, we found a rustic campground. As was our custom, we drove all around to find our little niche. We finally located a good site but there was one small problem. Dad had to back the trailer between two large trees to arrive at the designated trailer position. He did so with extreme caution. Once things were settled, Mother and I got out of the car and roamed around. We decided we didn’t like this spot. We told Dad we’d have to move. He mentioned that it had been hard to get in, but we were convinced this would not be a good space. So, he very reluctantly and carefully pulled back out and around the camp we went again. We tried another area but didn’t like it as well as the first.  Dad took the wheel yet again and we returned to our original lot. Those two trees were still there and Dad gingerly maneuvered the trailer back into place. Mother and I were still not satisfied.  We complained and begged and were convinced there was a better location.  After much pleading from the three of us, Dad once again agreed to drive between those trees in search of the perfect lodging. He twisted in his seat to look back, put the car in reverse and gently stepped on the gas.

A terrible crunching sound.  Dad hopped out of the driver’s seat and ran to the trailer.  The doorknob was on the ground.  He didn’t say a word, but backed the trailer into its original space.  He began to repair the door as the other three of us got out of the car.

“We are staying right here,” he said in a low voice.

And we did.

Meet the Writers | Essays on Childhood 2013

It is with great pleasure that I introduce the first class of all-repeat writers for EOC! Each has written an essay for the project before; Anne Barnhill has the unique status of writing for her third year.

Thank you for reading, and for helping to promote these fine writers. If you appreciate what we are doing, I hope you’ll share the project with your network. We plan to publish a book next year. Just discovering EOC? Catch up with the project by listening to Elizabeth Gaucher’s interview with Beth Vorhees last year for WV Public Radio.

Brent Aikman

Brent Aikman

Brent Aikman

Brent Aikman was born, raised, and now resides in Charleston, West Virginia; he lives happily with his wife and 2 dogs.  He attended Marietta College in Ohio and received a bachelor’s degree in English and then went on to complete his Masters in Business Administration at the University of Phoenix in Scottsdale, Arizona.  He enjoys all things outdoors, especially camping with his wife and riding his motorcycle.

Brent’s essay will examine his love of motorcycles — how he fell in love with them when he was young, and how they have facilitated adventure in his life.

Read Brent’s 2012 essay, “Outside.”

Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill grew up in West Virginia and graduated from Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi.  Her debut novel, At the Mercy of the Queen, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2012. Her second novel, Queen Elizabeth’s Daughter, is forthcoming in 2014. She is working on a third and as-yet-untitled novel, set in West Virginia.

She is also author of At Home in the Land of Oz: Autism, My Sister and Me, a memoir about growing up in West Virginia in a time before anyone had heard the word ’autism.’ What You Long For is a short story collection published in 2009 that also contains stories set in the mountains.  Books are available from Amazon, www.jkp.comwww.mainstreetrag.com or, if you’d like a signed copy, from the author directly at acbarnhill@yahoo.com. Her first chapbook of poetry, Coal, Babyis available from Finishing Line Press.

Anne’s essay, tentatively titled “Under the Stars,” is inspired by her early experiences camping in West Virginia.

Read Anne’s 2011 essay, “Winter Solstice,” and her 2012 essay, “Melungeons and Mystery.”

Elizabeth Gaucher

Elizabeth Gaucher

Elizabeth Gaucher

Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher was born and raised in Charleston, West Virginia; she now makes her home in Middlebury, Vermont. She graduated with honors in History from Davidson College and is a degree candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Elizabeth serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Childhood and Religion, a peer-reviewed online journal.  Her essay, “Rebranding a Life: Spirituality and Chronic Illness,” was accepted for a collection,  A Spiritual Life:  Perspectives from Poets, Prophets, & Preachers (2011).  Her collaborative writing project Essays on Childhoodwas featured on West Virginia Public Radio.

Her short stories, “They Hold Down the Dead” and “Acts” are forthcoming in publications edited by Eric Douglas and Michael Knost, respectively. (She will probably pester you to read them.)

Her essay, “Small Things in My Hand,” is about rabbits. Maybe. It might be about something else, but it has rabbits in it.

Read her 2010 essay, “STOMP! go the doors.”

Margaret Ward McClain

Margaret Ward McClain

Margaret Ward McClain

Margaret was born in the miasmal swamp of Charleston, South Carolina.  She spent her childhood dividing time between the Holy City and Greenville, SC, the red dirt capital of the Upcountry, where she was raised and attended school.  She earned a B.A. in English from Davidson College and a J.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Law.  She says, “I’ve always been torn between wanting to save the world and wanting to write about it.”  Today she is a recovering lawyer residing in Chapel Hill with her wonderful husband and family.  She is mom to a 16-year-old son, two grown stepdaughters and three very spoiled dogs.

The working title of Margaret’s essay is “The Alligator.”

Read her 2011 essay, “The Simons House.”

Susan Byrum Rountree

Susan Byrum Rountree

Susan Byrum Rountree

Susan Byrum Rountree highjacked the storyteller’s stool in kindergarten and has been telling stories ever since. Words have always held a sense of magic for her, and she has spent more than 35 years bending them this way and that to see what stories she can squeeze out. She is the author of Nags Headers, a regional history set on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and In Mother Words, a collection of essays about family life. Born and raised in Scotland Neck, N.C., a tiny town in the Tar Heel State’s northeastern corner, she studied journalism at UNC Chapel Hill and has written for a number of national and regional newspapers and magazines. She is now Director of Communications for St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, in Raleigh, N.C. The mother of two grown children who have found themselves writing in their careers though they swore to her they would never become writers themselves, Susan these days bends words this way and that on her blog, Write Much.

Her essay will reflect on millions of birds that roosted in her town in the early 1970s. They were just birds. Or were they?

Read her 2012 essay, “Pick a Little Talk a Little.”

Melungeons & Mystery by Anne Clinard Barnhill

Esse Diem is pleased to welcome returning essayist Anne Clinard Barnhill!  This is Anne’s second essay for the Essays on Childhood project.  I am tremendously grateful to Anne for her willingness to share her perspective and writing talent with this initiative.

Anne’s first essay, Winter Solstice, appeared in January 2011.  In Melungeons & Mystery, Anne explores her earliest comprehension of racial prejudice in her community, as well as how she responded to it at the time and since then.  Her writing considers a little-known ethnic group in Appalachia, the Melungeons.

For more than a century, the Melungeons have been the focus of anthropologists, social scientists, and (especially) feature writers for newspapers and magazines. The most common adjective used to describe the Melungeons is “mysterious;” no one seems to know where the Melungeons originated. More significantly, the Melungeons did not fit into any of the racial categories which define an individual or group within American society, they were considered by their neighbors neither white, black, nor Indian.

 — Wayne Winkler, A Brief Overview of the Melungeons

A Google search for images associated with the word “Melungeon” generates some unusually striking human features, and includes such famous faces as Abraham Lincoln and Elvis Presley.

Anne has been writ­ing or dream­ing of writ­ing for most of her life. For the past twenty years, she has pub­lished arti­cles, book and the­ater reviews, poetry, and short sto­ries. Her debut novel, AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN, will be released from St. Martin’s Press January, 3, 2012.  She has a wonderful recently launched Facebook page, Anne Clinard Barnhill (Writer), where she networks with fans and other writers.

Her work has won var­i­ous awards and grants. Anne holds an M.F.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina at Wilm­ing­ton. Besides writ­ing, Anne also enjoys teach­ing, con­duct­ing writ­ing work­shops, and facil­i­tat­ing sem­i­nars to enhance cre­ativ­ity. She loves spend­ing time with her three grown sons and their fam­i­lies. For fun, she and her hus­band of thirty years, Frank, take long walks and play bridge. In rare moments, they dance.

Anne’s awards include:

  • Blumenthal Writer/Reader Series, 1996, 2001
  • Emerging Artist Grant
  • Regional Artist Grant
  • First Place, Porter Fleming Award, Georgia Arts

Melungeons & Mystery

When I was twelve years old, my family moved from Huntington, West Virginia, to a very small town in the north central part of the state where the wild hills seemed a wonderland of color: the early, pale greens of spring giving way to the deeper shades of summer leaves and grasses; the slow turn to yellow, then brown, with sudden red maples dotting the hills like spots of blood.  There was a deep purple weed that seemed to have come from the wand of a dark fairy.  As the leaves fell, they left the trees bare against that bright blue November sky, etchings made by a larger hand than any I knew.  Then, finally, the world made clean again with the white, blinding snows of winter.  In our gray house on the top of college hill, I felt safe and at home in a way I have never been able to recapture.

Though the surroundings were lovely, there was an underside to all that beauty.  That year, as I started eighth grade, I learned about prejudice and the strange contours it can cast over a small community.  I also learned that no matter how lovely the seasons of the earth, humanity could smear such beauty with its ugly handprint, a ragged blur that could keep a person from seeing clearly.

I was the ‘new’ kid and eager to make friends.  I was also budding into womanhood, interested in boys but too shy to show that interest.  In one of my classes, a handsome boy with a blond crew cut and piercing blue eyes stared at me every day.  I would look at him, then turn away.  Each time I returned to see if he was still staring, I met those haunting eyes.  Finally, while looking at me directly, he said, “Kiss me, slobberlips — I can swim.”

I had no idea why he would say such a strange thing to me.  Did my mouth look too wet?  Did I look like I didn’t know how to kiss properly?  Granted, I’d never been kissed, but I had hoped such innocence was not legible from a look at my face.  I was secretly thrilled that he had thought of kissing me and deeply disturbed that he had called me such an unattractive name.  I didn’t know much about boys, coming from a small family: mother, father, two girls.  So, in order to figure out what he meant by the ogling and that strange comment, I asked a girl with whom I had become friendly.

We were in the grungy junior high bathroom, fixing our hair, teasing it into high piles atop our heads.  She was shorter than I was, and very popular.  I decided she would know what to do in my situation.

     “Do you know that boy, Ronnie?” I asked, my voice soft.

     “Ronnie who?” she said.

     “I don’t know his last name — he’s in my history class.  He has real blond hair and blue eyes.  He’s skinny and his clothes are sometimes muddy,” I said.

     “Oh, I know who you mean…why do you want to know about him?” she said.

     “I think, well, I think I might like him — you know, for a boyfriend,” I whispered.

     She turned to face me.

     “You CAN’T like him — don’t you know?  He’s a guinea!” she said.  Her face showed such outrage you’d have thought I said I was in love with Satan himself.

     “What’s a guinea?” I said, shocked at the sudden change in her behavior to me.  She seemed to shrink away from me right there at the mirror, as if I had the famous middle-school ‘cooties.’

      “Don’t you know anything?  He’s from up on the ridge.  That’s where they all live.  White people don’t mix with them,” she said.

This statement had me thoroughly confused — white people??  He was blue-eyed and blonde and looked as white as anyone I’d ever seen.  She made no sense to me.

     “But he is white.  I don’t understand,” I said.

     “He may look white but he’s not.  Just don’t hang around with them or you’ll never be popular here,” she said, her eyes shooting me a warning.

I’m ashamed to say that I did not look at Ronnie again.  And he never spoke another word to me.  But my girlfriend’s information continued to confuse me.  I’d seen the racial tension occurring across the nation — it was the early 1960’s after all.  Dr. King was on TV frequently and I loved the ideas he expressed.  My father, a college professor, reiterated how right Dr. King was and how all people should be treated with respect and dignity.  Though I did not believe in being prejudiced, at least the black/white question made a sort of sense to me — the groups looked different and it was easy to tell who was who.  But the crazy prejudice at my school made no sense whatsoever.  Everyone looked the same — there were no black people that I could see.  Yet, the guineas, labeled such by the natives, suffered terrible abuse and bullying.  Because there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the bigotry in that little town, I learned there was no rhyme or reason to bigotry anywhere.  Harboring prejudice simply made no sense.

As I grew older, I learned that many students from nearby West Virginia University had studied this tri-racial group, and the Appalachian Mountains housed thousands of what the books called Melungeons.  I became fascinated with their history and story, and ended up writing an early novel about a Melungeon woman.  The book is still in progress and I have hopes it will someday be published.  Now, if you look on the Internet, you can find all kinds of information about this people and their mysterious past.  Some think they are descended from Portuguese sailors who intermarried with Native Americans.  Others believe that when the Virginia colony made being a freed slave illegal, many of the African-American men and women who had earned their freedom as indentured servants headed to the hills for safety.  There, they intermingled with Native Americans.  Another theory suggests the Melungeons are descended from Turkish explorers.  No one seems to know for certain.  What we do know is that as whites expanded west, they did whatever was necessary to secure the best lands for themselves.  They made it illegal for non-whites to own land, and the lumped everyone — African-American, Native American, Arabian — into the non-white category and forced them to register their race.  That way, the white settlers could purchase the flat lands in the valleys, forcing the other people onto the ridges.

Such treatment is part and parcel of our American heritage, regrettably.  The idealistic rights written by Jefferson did not play out fairly; there was the ugliness of reality beneath the beauty of the language of justice for all, just as the majesty of the mountains was marred by those willing to spread prejudice and inequality the way they spread molasses on their biscuits.

These days, I find myself attracted to the mystery of the Melungeon people and am happy to see so many of them taking pride in their heritage.  We are lucky in America.  We have lots of fascinating groups of people — different in culture, religion and outlook–yet, we can celebrate the many cultures just as we celebrate the various flowers of a garden, each petal beautiful in its own way, contributing to the bouquets we treasure.

Essays on Childhood: The 2011 Writers, Part One

We know something is going right when we have too many outstanding essayists to announce all at once!  The Essays on Childhood project is pleased to introduce you to the first 6 of 11 writers for 2011.

The entire collective is multi-talented, courageous, and impressive.  We hope you will spend some time “getting to know” these fine people and anticipating the pleasure of reading their essays.  As editor, I have read some early drafts and can promise you an experience with these stories and reflections that will open your eyes and stir your heart with new ways of thinking about childhood experience.

Anne Clinard Barnhill

Anne Clinard Barnhill grew up in West Virginia and graduated from Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi.  Her debut novel, AT THE MERCY OF THE QUEEN, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in 2012.  She is also author of AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ: Autism, My Sister and Me, a memoir about growing up in West Virginia in a time before anyone had heard the word ‘autism’.  WHAT YOU LONG FOR is a short story collection published in 2009 that also contains stories set in the mountains.  Books are available from Amazon, www.jkp.comwww.mainstreetrag.com or, if you’d like a signed copy, from the author directly at acbarnhill@yahoo.com.  Anne’s essay will examine issues of racial and ethnic prejudice towards the Melungeon population; Melungeons represent a “tri-racial isolate group” mainly in the Cumberland Gap area of Central Appalachia.

Helen Adelia Slaughter Basham

Helen was born in Dunbar, West Virginia, on April 26, 1928.  She laughs at newspaperman Jim Dent’s description of “a fate worse than Dunbar.”  Her elementary through high school education all took place in a single block and only three blocks away from her home.  After Helen worked a year in an office in Charleston, “hating every minute,”  her youngest brother came out of the Navy with an engineering degree and  helped send Helen  to West Virginia University, where she majored in social work. From 1950 until 1966, Helen worked in several states (sometimes part-time during child rearing years) as a social worker or as an administrator of programs for children and families.  She describes her five children as the most important people in her life — sustaining, inspiring, and sheltering her with their love.  After retirement, Helen returned to live in a little house decorated with sage siding and purple shutters and doors, just down the street from the big box of a house where she was born.  Unbeknownst to her at the time, Helen’s 50 year old son died the day before she wrote her essay which “just poured out” of her.  Her essay describes her experiences as a fairy maker artist and her journey into creative thinking and doing after retirement.

Julian Martin

Julian is the eighth generation of his family born on Big Coal River.  He is a graduate of St. Albans High School where he was an all-conference football player. He has a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU) and worked two years in the chemical industry. After one month training to make sidewinder missiles he joined the Peace Corps as West Virginia’s first volunteer and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, he has also worked in urban outreach, organic farming, environmental education, and conservation.  He loves his wife and several children, step-children, grandchildren and step grandchildren and two great grandchildren.  Julian’s essay is tentatively titled, “Homeplace,” and is a colorful reflection on his growing up experiences on his grandparents’ farm.  He admits though, “I called it Grandma’s house and farm ever since Grandpa threw a rake at me.”

Melanie Foster Taylor

Melanie claims she is “not a real writer’s writer, except for trying it now.”   She is a classical pianist, and piano teacher who has been inspired to write her childhood story by her former piano student, Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher. Forced into really early retirement by the economic crash in 2008-9, this former college music professor now has plenty of time to reflect and write. Oh what a blessing. Melanie is presently trapped in South Carolina, but visits the family in Charleston, West Virginia two or three times a year. She breathes anew whenever she sees the mountains again.  Her essay, “Going to the Farm,” recounts memories of trips to the jointly-held family vacation farm in Monroe County, West Virginia, from Charleston. Model-T’s, grand pianos, and wildlife ensue.

Jean Hanna Davis

Jean is an accomplished singer, guitar player, and sometime songwriter.  She has been performing since the age of 12, in all settings, ranging from concert halls to bars to churches to festivals.  Her family relocated to Charleston, West Virginia from New Jersey when she was 7, and as many times as she has tried to leave, something keeps pulling her back.  Jean and her family live in Princeton, West Virginia.  Her essay will explore her experience moving to West Virginia from New Jersey during her early years, and some of the places she began to find herself accepted in a strange new land.

Devin McGrew

Devin was born in Charleston, West Virginia. She was raised in a farm house in a little town called Liberty. At the age of 11, she moved to Sarasota, Florida, with her mother and stepfather. She lived in Florida for 10 years before returning to her hometown in West Virginia. Devin is attending college at American Public University working towards a Bachelor’s Degree in Legal Studies. She currently works in the oil and gas industry as a paralegal. She is a single mother to a beautiful daughter named Lauren. They live in a small town in rural West Virginia with their two dogs, Foxy and Molly.  In her essay, Devin plans to explore how her life in Liberty influenced her lifelong passion for shooting guns.

Winter Solstice by Anne Clinard Barnhill

It seems so perfect that today, in the midst of our winter wonderland among the West Virginia hills, that I am able to share reflections from Anne Clinard Barnhill on her snowy childhood memories here.   Winter Solstice is Anne’s much-anticipated submission to the Essays on a West Virginia Childhood project.  This project is a direct result of A Better West Virginia’s annual initiative to strengthen the mountain state.

If you were lucky enough to have a West Virginia childhood, you may know instantly what Anne means when she speaks of long winter walks connecting her, even in her tender years, with what “belonged to the infinite.”  Thank you, Anne, for sharing your memories!

Anne has been writ­ing or dream­ing of writ­ing for most of her life. For the past twenty years, she has pub­lished arti­cles, book and the­ater reviews, poetry, and short sto­ries. Her first book, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ, recalls what it was like grow­ing up with an autis­tic sis­ter. Her work has won var­i­ous awards and grants. She holds an M.F.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina at Wilm­ing­ton. Besides writ­ing, Anne also enjoys teach­ing, con­duct­ing writ­ing work­shops, and facil­i­tat­ing sem­i­nars to enhance cre­ativ­ity. She loves spend­ing time with her three grown sons and their fam­i­lies. For fun, she and her hus­band of thirty years, Frank, take long walks and play bridge. In rare moments, they dance.  You can find more about Anne on her website,www.anneclinardbarnhill.com.  If you are in the Winston-Salem, NC, area you will want to visit Barnhill’s Wine Art and Gifts on January 29 at 2:00 p.m..  Anne will be reading, signing, and discussing At Home in the Land of Oz and What You Long For (a collection of short stories).

Winter Solstice

From what I gather listening to other folks, a whole lot of people don’t like winter–they complain about the cold, the snow, the ice, the heating bills–just about every part of the season.  I, on the other hand, adore the quiet months of December, January and February.  This affection for what some describe as a dark and dreary time comes from my growing-up years in West Virginia.

I remember watching the gathering clouds, heavy and gray, stack up and up and up until the whole earth was pewter, the sky thick with pearly puffs.  I would sit on the antique couch in our living room in front of the picture window and watch as the flakes began to fall–big at first, then tapering to tiny, fast flurries.  I knew the small flakes were a good sign the snow would continue and pile up several inches–enough to cancel school the next day.  Secure in that early wisdom, I would skip my homework , saving it for tomorrow, to be done in the luxury of my bedroom, clad in the red-and-white striped flannel pajamas my dad made for me.  Instead of studying, I would stay on the couch in the quiet front room and watch the snow.

Sometimes, my mother would bring me a mug of tea or hot chocolate, though she usually saved the chocolate for when I came in, wet and freezing, from sledding.  My dad would build a roaring fire that sputtered and popped, sending little fireworks up the chimney.  My parents puttered around on those days, leaving me alone with my daydreams.  And daydream I did–me, pirouetting onstage in a pure-white sugarplum costume; singing “the hills are alive with the sound of music” and twirling across a mountain meadow; kissing Errol Flynn in ROBIN HOOD (yes, he was before my time, a hero of my father’s, but I found him irresistibly handsome in those old Saturday morning movies); and reading my poetry to a rapt crowd, bongos beating in the background.

High-faluting dreams for a girl tucked away in the West Virginia hills……while some might have found those hills confining, I found them inspiring.  The path behind my house led to Suicide Rock, an enormous boulder that, according to local legend, was the site of a dismayed Indian maiden who threw herself off the edge in despair over a broken love affair.  Often, I walked down the mountain, following the path strewn with leaves and sticks to that magical spot where the story happened.  Squirrels skittered through the woods and the occasional tapping of a woodpecker gave a rhythm to that world, the song of the forest becoming part of my blood, part of my own beat.  Alone in the woods, stories buzzed around me like gnats.  I climbed Suicide Rock and plopped down on that rough granite, imagining that the Indian maiden heard the very sounds I was hearing, felt the soft wind through the trees and saw the deer in the distance.  I dreamed other stories there on the rock and grew to love my own company and the pleasures of solitude.

That love of being alone found its best expression in midnight walks during winter, the moon casting an eerie glow to the entire world, the snow reflecting the light in loving response, Endymion to Diana in every pale snow pile.  I would head out at what my mother called “the witching hour” and walk down the road until my nose got so cold it began to drip.  The silence was palpable and soothing, the world muffled with a snowy blanket, soft as a baby’s comforter.  I couldn’t have said it at the time, but what I experienced in those long winter walks belonged to the infinite–God, the imagination, time’s longing for itself–and those interludes gave me a hunger for the spiritual, an appetite that is only satisfied when I return to the mountains, those winding roads that lead to moments of mystery, found in the West Virginia hills.

 

West Virginia, January 11, 2011

Image credits: Photo of Ms. Barnhill, http://www.anneclinardbarnhill.com

Photo of snow falling in Kanawha County, WV, E. Gaucher

Like the Corners of My Mind: Writers Announced

It is my great pleasure to announce the writers committed to date to the Essays on a West Virginia Childhood project.  This project is a direct result of A Better West Virginia’s annual initiative to support the mountain state.

As many of you have read, our first writer was Lisa Minney, who shared memories of her grandfather in The Fishing Stool.  Joining Lisa as we complete our project will be these fine people:

Photo credit: E. Gaucher

Anne Clinard Barnhill — Anne has been writ­ing or dream­ing of writ­ing for most of her life. For the past twenty years, she has pub­lished arti­cles, book and the­ater reviews, poetry, and short sto­ries. Her first book, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ, recalls what it was like grow­ing up with an autis­tic sis­ter. Her work has won var­i­ous awards and grants. Barn­hill holds an M.F.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina at Wilm­ing­ton. Besides writ­ing, Barn­hill also enjoys teach­ing, con­duct­ing writ­ing work­shops, and facil­i­tat­ing sem­i­nars to enhance cre­ativ­ity. She loves spend­ing time with her three grown sons and their fam­i­lies. For fun, she and her hus­band of thirty years, Frank, take long walks and play bridge. In rare moments, they dance.  You can find more about Anne on her website, www.anneclinardbarnhill.com.

John Warren — John is a long-time friend of mine.  We first met as very young children when our families were in the same Presbyterian Church in Charleston, and we later found each other again in junior high and high school.  He was always incredibly intelligent, compassionate and insanely funny.  One of those people you just know in your heart you will always adore and respect, he took my breath away when he told me he wanted to write about growing up gay in West Virginia.  He sent me an email that said, “It was as if homosexuality was an urban legend.  I was never even sure if it was real, which meant I wasn’t really sure what was going on with me for a long time either.”  I am thrilled and honored to have John’s participation in this project.  I am especially looking forward to what his perusing of old school journals will produce!

Amy Hamric Weintraub — Amy is one of the most intense and effective community leaders I have ever known.  I have seen her go to the mat for reproductive rights, fair housing, jobs, civil rights, religious freedom, and peace.  She is a devoted wife, mother, and friend, as well as an accomplished professional with a long history of executive leadership in key community nonprofit organizations.  Her essay will focus on growing up in a family with a long West Virginia heritage, while playing and learning among “children of hippie farmers and Filipino doctors.”  I not surprised she will give us insight into early experiences with diversity, as those times have clearly helped make her the woman she is today.

Liza Teodoro — Liza describes herself as “not a writer by any stretch of the imagination,” but she is truly enamored of her home state, and is excited to take part in this project. (It’s always the self-deprecating ones who surprise me……) She is married to her best friend Alex and is a stay-at-home mom to 2 wonderful pre-school aged girls.  Liza lives in Chicago with her family, and drags them to as many nature-inspired destinations as possible. The main theme of her essay is “family,” from her parents ending up in West Virginia in 1970, to her own childhood, to where she and her family may end up next, as they have lived in Chicago for over 20 years.

Janis Bland —  Janis describes herself as “a West Virginian, a frustrated artist, a depressive, and a bureaucratic wonk who would rather just live simply and sustainably.”  She was born and raised in Weston, West Virginia. Unlike her siblings, she eschewed WVU in favor for Beloit College, a small liberal arts school in the eponymous city in Wisconsin.  “I went to Beloit College thinking of a career in archaeology, but then realized that to attain that I needed a degree in anthropology. I also realized that I got a vicarious ‘archaeological’ thrill from languages, which resulted in my having a double major Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and Classical Philology (that is, Latin).  What defines me is my trying to develop my creative side that I know is there, buried deep in my being. I am, after all, my father’s daughter, and he was both a fine artist and a deeply spiritual and quietly religious person.”  You can see a little more into Janis’s mind by visiting her blog at www.juanuchisway.com.

Yours truly will write as well; my essay will focus on my summers at (Stonewall) Jackson’s Mill State 4-H Camp during my teen years.  New essayists are always welcome!  Just drop a comment here on the blog anytime.   The general timeline is available here.