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Dear Fear: A Letter 

After reading Elizabeth Gilbert's book, Big Magic, I was inspired to write this letter to fear. I wrote it at a moment in my life where I was on the cusp of being brave enough to finally REALLY embrace the life I wanted to live, after decades of gearing up for it and taking baby steps. I think writing this letter was a wonderful exercise in taking a big step forward in my life, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking to make changes.

Dear fear, 

I am writing to you because recently, I decided that I was going to allow myself to experience vulnerability in a way that  I never have before. I decided that I was going to embrace my inner Aphrodite and not just my inner Athena. I decided that instead of reaching out for love yet always holding something back (just to be safe) I was going to love wide-open and full-throttle like the soul who came to this planet a few decades ago, before she learned to survive by putting up walls and fortresses against the arrows others didn't even know they were launching, before she learned to hide her light under a bushel so as not to make others uncomfortable with the intensity of her flame, before she learned to minimize her opinions and her dreams due to the mistakenly-learned belief that she probably didn't deserve them, anyway. 

Anyway, fear, my point is that since I made the decision to be vulnerable, I have noticed that you are showing up in my life A WHOLE LOT MORE. And I do have to say, I think some of your tactics are ridiculous. Remember when I was in my bathroom and I noticed how messy it was, and how my rugs needed washing, and you whispered, "What a sad person you are. You don't even care about your home. Why would anyone love someone who doesn't even have their shit together enough to make sure their bathroom rugs are washed"? The funny thing is, just for a minute, I believed you, before I stopped to analyze the absurdity of what you were saying.

And remember when you showed up again a while later, causing me to hyper-analyze the way I communicate with the people I'm close to? When you advised me against being so enthusiastic and expressive and told me that I would come across as needy and weak if I loved so openly or spoke so freely of my true feelings? Yeah, that almost worked, too. I've spent a good portion of the past month wrestling with that one.  And let's not even go into the ways you always bring up my past mistakes, and tell me what a screw-up I am for the choices I've made, and how nobody could love someone so ridiculous and confused. 

The thing is, fear, you know me really well. You know all of my weak spots, and you know just what to say, just how to take a tiny kernel of truth and tweak it so that it seems like you're offering a plausible and rational critique. You've been pretty good at "helping" me to keep amazing people at arm's length, "helping" me to believe that I'm just not quite good enough to go for what I really want and that I should therefore settle for whatever I can get, "helping" me to "be realistic" and not "disappoint myself" by going for the life I envision because it is out of my reach.

Oh, I know you mean well. I know you're just trying to save me from the horrible disasters you imagine at every turn, the tigers outside the cave, or the cliff that's a few steps from my feet. But what I have noticed, fear, is that….how should I put this? Your judgement is, frankly, inaccurate. WILDLY inaccurate. And I just want you to know that even though I appreciate the ways that you (and your twin brother, anger) sometimes protect me (like helping me see when a boundary has been crossed, or when I'm dealing with a person whom I should avoid, or when I need to put some attention toward a tricky situation) I do feel that I need to put you on notice that I'm not going to be allowing you any say in what I choose to do with my life. I know you're going to be around. I'm not even going to try and kick you out, because when I do, you just show back up with a disguise (and I have to say, you're a master of disguise.) No, I'm cool with you being here. Just don't expect to get a vote when it comes time for me to decide where to go, what to do,  whom to love, or HOW to love. Don't expect me to let your little whispers dictate how I feel about myself anymore. 

Don't expect me to let you cause me to keep silent when I know I really need to speak up for myself or another because you tell me I should "be more compassionate." 

Don't expect me to let you talk me into being with a romantic partner who doesn't suit because you tell me that the one I really want could not possibly ever want me back. 

Don't expect me to let you make me feel ashamed of the way god made me, strong and bold and passionate and wild and free and open. 

No, fear, I just want to put you on notice that our relationship is changing. You've been in my life a long time--forever, in fact. We've been through a lot together. And believe it or not, I'm glad you've been around. You have your place. 

It's just a much smaller place than you've had before. 


PS Do you know something else, fear? This is a truth that is diametrically opposed to what you have always tried to convince me of: IT IS NOT DANGEROUS TO LOVE! Not even a little bit! If I'm standing in my power, and I love someone wholly and completely, and they don't love me back in EXACTLY the same way (and how could they, really, because they're not the same person as I am and no two people could ever love in exactly the same way) then NO HARM IS DONE AND NOTHING IS LOST. Love only yields gain. But don't feel bad. Lots of people get confused about this matter, and about what love actually is. And you and love don't really share space much, so it's not surprising that you don't really understand her. Just sayin’

Big Mommy: Mountain Matriarch 

This is my Big Mommy. Her name was Emma Wilson Hensley and she was from Oneida, KY. (Her name was pronounced "Emmer", for those of you who didn't grow up speaking mountain!) She was my Granny's second cousin by marriage and one of her closest friends. She was my second grandmother. Like my grandmother, most of her children had moved to Ohio, so as the lucky Kentucky girl I soaked up all the extra grandmother energy from her AND my Granny Ollie. I followed them around like a chick, I asked them a zillion questions, I begged them for stories, and I eagerly turned my hand to every old-timey chore they were doing. Big Mommy made soap in her yard in an iron kettle, sometimes thriftily using out-of-date commodity cheese from Big Creek School instead of taller (tallow). We would cut cabbage for kraut on her old formica table with the metal rim, using cream cans as cutters. We'd make pickled corn cut off the cob, which my mother would eat until she foundered. Sometime we'd pickle spicy red chiles, and just one on a bowl of soup beans added a great kick! I would fight her mean old hen to collect eggs, ride her little pony, Missy (bareback with just a bridle), and sit by her fire and try to make good stitches in the quilt pieces she gave me. We would walk down by the river and she'd show me the yellow root, the cohosh and the wild yam. She had the biggest collection of quilts she had made, and would get them out to show me so I could learn all the pattern names. (Drunkard's Path was my favorite, and she told me drinking would make your path in life crooked like the quilt. I also liked Flower Garden.) I'd help her wash the dishes in the tin dishpan which sat on the dry sink, learning to use as little water as possible since they didn't have running water. She would fry big pans of cushaw sprinkled with brown sugar, and like all good grannies, she was a regular biscuits-and-gravy factory. When I got older, every day at 4 we would stop whatever we were doing to watch Oprah, which she called "Oh-pree". She LOVED her Oh-pree! Her grandson, my cousin Tim Hensley, was one of the best pickers I ever met. He played every instrument. He got a job picking with Patti Loveless, and then Ricky Skaggs. He would come on TV sometimes and she would be so happy. We'd watch him and her face would shine, and she'd say, "There's my baby boy!" Of course, I would play and sing for her all the time. I have precious memories from my whole life on this porch, first with her and Granny Ollie, and later, just with her. I wouldn't take anything in the world for my time with all of the powerful, beautiful mountain women who loved me and shaped me. Especially my two badass Clay County grandmas! I miss you so much, Big Mommy.

Granny & The Bees 

"A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay." 

This is a suburban tree, in a suburban yard, in the suburban neighborhood where my Appalachian family moved after my dad lost his job with the coal company. This is my sweet little granny, who never stopped working her mountain magic even after we moved away from all that we loved. She still dried shuck beans in the back window of our car, still raised tomatoes in the back yard, and still saved corn silk for tea (good for the bladder, she said) and corn shucks to make dolls out of. But today I want to tell you about something she did that seemed so magical to me that if I hadn't been there, I wouldn't believe it had really happened. 
It was early May, and Granny had been outside puttering around doing something. (She didn't believe in idle hands.) But then she came and got me and told me to come into the front yard, next to the tree pictured here. In her hand, she held a big metal spoon and a metal dishpan. All of a sudden, she commenced to hollering and carrying on, beating the dishpan with her spoon and making a tremendous racket. The sound-song she made reminded me faintly of the singing you hear at a Pow-Wow. I wondered, briefly, if she had lost her mind, and I am certain that the neighbors thought so. 
But then I noticed that bees were flying toward us, LOTS of bees. I started to get nervous, and more and more kept coming. Pretty soon, she was standing in the very middle of a swarm of buzzing, humming bodies, her wild song luring them in like she was the queen bee herself. She picked up a stick, then, and began to beat on the tree trunk, a slow, deep, steady beat. She said, "We'll get them to land here." 
Sure enough, drawn to the rhythm, they started landing on the tree branch, until it was covered in a pulsing, seething coating of bees. 
"If we wanted to catch a new swarm for a hive, this is how we'd do it. They'll go anywhere the queen goes", she said as she reached into the middle of all those bees and extracted a queen, holding it gently in her cupped hand. Sure enough, as she walked away from the tree, carrying the queen, the bees started to follow her as if she were the bee pied piper. 
But we didn't have a hive, there in Richmond, so she let the queen go and off they all flew to look elsewhere for a new home. 
My grandmother could see that the world I was living in was different than the one she had known for much of her life, but it was important to her to make sure I had a range of the skills that had kept her and generations of my ancestors before her alive during a time when stores and "brought-on" goods were not readily available. Over the years, she set my young hands to sewing, gardening, canning, caring for livestock, saving seeds, drying, pickling, cooking, and many more useful skills, "just in case". I'm so grateful I got to spend so much time with her, and that she sang all the while, giving me the gift of music on top of it all!

What My Mom Taught Me About Making A CD 

So, my mother didn't know anything about making albums per se, but something she DID teach me helped me get through a recent challenge we encountered while making the latest Zoe Speaks CD. See, we found out a few weeks ago that there had been a hard drive crash involving our project, and that data had been lost. It turned out that not all of it was gone, but we were set back several months in having to re-do a lot of our harmony parts and instrumental solos. I felt SO frustrated and put-upon, but after a while a memory surfaced. My mother was a brilliant seamstress (just like HER mother), and she made sure that I learned how to sew when I was growing up. She started me on easier patterns, and we worked our way up. At some point we graduated to making a dress, which required that I learn how to sew in sleeves. And since it was the eighties, those poofy sleeves were popular and I had to sew in GATHERED sleeves, which are especially fussy. Well, even the most experienced tailor can get flummoxed when sewing in a sleeve--you have to turn the garment AND sleeve inside out, and basically sew inside a small tunnel of fabric. There are several points where things can go wrong, and when I was first learning, they often did. I would diligently sew all evening, get the sleeve all pressed and pinned, sew it in, and......turn the dress right side out for the moment of truth, only to find out that I had screwed it up, with a seam on the outside, or the wrong side of the fabric facing outward. Out would come the seam ripper, along with some tears of frustration, and I'd have to take out every stitch I'd sewn and re-do the whole painstaking process. At some point in my feelings of self-pity over our musical setback, I felt like mom was at my elbow, reminding me that sometimes you just have to get out the seam ripper and do it over again. I don't know why this happened, but I am grateful for the real-world lessons my mom gave me that help me to be strong and resilient in the face of challenges, and, just like with that tacky dress I made back in 1986, I am DETERMINED to finish the project and make it better than it was before. Thanks, mom.