Gravy and Biscuits and the Garden of Eden

When I was a little boy, after church my mother and I would visit the farm where she had spent her entire childhood to visit her family. That farm is an eighty-eight acre tract of land that lies on the mountain between Woodway and Stickleyville down in Lee County, Virginia. My mother lives there now, much as my grandmother did when I was a boy. To this day, whenever I visit it, I am filled with an intense array of emotions, most notably longing. This place, with its muddy creeks rushing down the mountain and its barnyard smell of cow manure and its lush trees which canopy the whole area around the house, is not only a part of my identity as an Appalachian, it is a part of the daily context in which I live my life as a human being, as a person. When I think of the home I want to return to, I think of my mother, and I think of this beautiful stretch of land.

When my parents divorced, my mother and I moved onto the farm. I would spend my weekend with my father and my father’s relatives, but through the week, the farm was my home. My uncles, who had never left there, were farmers: tobacco, cattle, corn, apples, cherries. Mostly tobacco. And cattle. The old farmhouse was heated by a wood burning stove in the Basement. Family photographs covered so much of the walls that you couldn’t see the bare plywood underneath. Most of the photos were black and white, or had once been in color but had aged into that sepia technicolor hue that we associate with the 1970s. The parts of the walls that weren’t lined with photographs were lined with bookshelves and books. Some people might suspect that a pair of bearded mountain farmers would be unread men, and they would be quite wrong, blinded by stereotypes and prejudice. My grandmother, who wasn’t afraid to use a curse word or four when the occasion called for it, which was apparently often, would sit in her rocking chair and listen to the sounds of bluegrass gospel. The Christianaires and the Good Shepherd Quartet are two of the ones that spring immediately to mind.

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My grandmother refused to cook on anything but a wood burning stove, and so there was a second wood burning stove in the kitchen. One for heat. One for meat. My mother and her sisters had offered to buy her an electric stove. She always refused. And so every morning, at 5 AM, I would be brought from sleep, still groggy, by the sound of the morning fire being lit. Keep in mind, I am only twenty-eight as of this writing. It sounds very well as if I am speaking of a time long ago, but in truth, this was the mid-1990s, the age of the dawn of the internet, which, of course, we didn’t have. In fact, we didn’t have cable, either. We could pick up two stations on the television in the living room, which was the only one in the house. Channel eleven, out of Johnson City, channel five, though I’m not sure where it was out of, and a PBS station that you had to click the dial to the UHF setting to get to.

Soon after the fire was lit, I would begin to hear the crackle of bacon, its smell drifting into the bedroom where I slept. The air would still be cold on the winter mornings and the blankets would nestle me like a loving embrace. My grandmother cooked gravy and biscuits every morning on a wood burning stove, and that’s what I woke up to most days. Slowly, I would come around and wake up. I would get out of bed and feel the cool, linoleum floor beneath my feet. I would get ready for school and eat gravy and biscuits and rush off to the bus stop way down at the end of the driveway.

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I didn’t know it then, but that was a sort of paradise in and of itself, living in the slow paced way of life of my childhood. These days, my first instinct in the morning is to check my emails, then drink coffee, then check Facebook, then make sure that I haven’t neglected to reply to anyone. The great irony of humanity’s technological advancements is that even as we have grown more digitally connected, this digital connectedness has in many ways isolated us from some of life’s simpler pleasures, and from parts of ourselves: the smell of bacon cooking slowly on a wood burning stove, the unhurried rising of the sun through the homemade curtains, accompanied by the rooster’s crow out in the barnyard. These are things that were a part of my daily existence in childhood, and I confess that I often wish they were a part of my existence now. I’m sure I’m not the only one, young, old, or in-between, raised in the hills of Appalachia, who feels the same way. It seems at times as if the world has moved on, but in our hearts, we have not.

There are still some of us who remember what the Garden of Eden was like.

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A Couple of Passages that Have Struck Me Today from the Hindu Scriptures

Those closest to me (and many of those who aren’t so close to me, thanks to the wonderful advent of social media) know that I am deeply interested in philosophy, religion, theology, and the like.  For most of my life up to this point, that has meant exploring the Christian tradition I was raised in despite the fact that I have believed for years now that all religions contain divine truth.  Now, however, as I approach my twenty-ninth year, I have reached a point where I am no longer trying to hold on to my faith.  What I mean to say is that I have grappled with questions surrounding my own Christian identity throughout most of my twenties and have discovered that faith that must be constantly grasped and clung to isn’t really faith.

This is not to say that I have abandoned Christianity in any sense, but that I feel (notice I did not say “believe”) that whatever those of us who use such language mean when we speak of God or of the Divine cannot be contained within the confines of any one religion or book or, God-help-us, dogma.  Instead, for my part, I have decided that I will let the Spirit blow my intellectual and spiritual curiosity wherever it will.  I now float in my faith rather than grasp at it, to paraphrase the philosopher Alan Watts.

There is a book entitled “The Bible of the World” that has been sitting rather neglected on one of my bookshelves for quite sometime.  It is a considerably old book, at least from my perspective.   It was published in 1939 under the editorial guidance of Robert O. Ballou and contains English translations of many of the world’s major religious texts.  I am currently making my way, albeit more slowly than I’d like, through the section containing a selection of Hindu texts.  While my study of Christian theology and first-hand Christian experience has taught me that a religion is much more than its own revered books, reading through the Hindu scriptures has, over the past few days, filled me with incredible peace.

I’ve found the two following selections particularly beautiful.

“Even in bondage thou shalt live with the virtuous, the erudite, and the truthful; but not for a kingdom shalt thou stay with the wicked and malicious.  The vile are ever prone to detect the faults of others, though they be as small as mustard seeds, and persistently shut their eyes against their own, though they be as large as Vilva fruits.”  This was taken from the Garuda Purana. Obviously, I can’t help but notice the similarity to the words of Jesus in the Book of Matthew when he asked, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3).  It makes me wonder to what extent Christ and the biblical writers were exposed to the predating Eastern philosophy of the Indian people.  It also begs the question of why is it that if these themes are so well-entrenched into all of the world’s religious traditions that we have such a hard time applying them in our daily lives?   I can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt as I know that the capacity to judge others is definitely within me, even as I often give myself a pass on my own faults, much to my own detriment.
I was also especially struck by this passage in the Vishnu Purana:

It should therefore be the assiduous endeavor of wise men to attain unto God.  He dwelleth eternally in all beings and all things dwell in him; and thence the lord Vasudeva is the creator and preserver of the world.  He, though identical with all beings, is beyond and separate from material nature, from its products, from properties and from imperfections; he is beyond all investing substance; he is universal soul; all the interstices of the universe are filled up by him; he is one with all good qualities; and all created beings are endowed with but a small portion of his individuality.  Assuming various shapes, he bestows benefits on the whole world, which was his work.  Glory, might, dominion, wisdom, energy, power and other attributes are collected in him.  Supreme of the supreme, in whom no imperfections abide, lord over finite and infinite, god in individuals and universals, visible and invisible, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, almighty.  The wisdom, perfect, pure, supreme, undefiled and one only by which he is conceived, contemplated and known:  That is wisdom.  All else is ignorance.”

A final note on this blog update.  I’m in no way claiming to be an expert on comparative religion or anything of the sort.  I am very much a student of these things and have much to learn.  If anyone who considers themselves a member of the Hindu tradition should read this, know that if I have incorrectly made any assumptions, misstatements, or have presented any un-truths about that faith that such things were done out of my own ignorance, not out of any sort of willful maliciousness.  I only wanted to share with my own small readership that which I had learned today.

The Bible of the World, published by Viking Press.

The Bible of the World, published by Viking Press.

Home

I was approached by Roxy Todd of West Virginia Public Radio about writing a personal essay for Valentine’s Day that focused on my love, complicated though it may be, for Appalachia.  Of course, I can’t separate my love for a place from my love for my wife and large extended family, which is what really makes southwest Virginia home.

The audio essay was included as a part of West Virginia Public Radio’s Inside Appalachia programming.  You can hear my essay, along with the rest of these beautiful love songs to Appalachia, by using the Soundcloud player embedded in this post.  The transcript of my essay follows.

Home.

For better or for worse, through sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. Committing to a place and a community is a lot like committing to a marriage. It takes work. It takes willpower. It takes dedication. But above all, it takes love. As a relatively newly-and-happily married man , I can tell you first hand that love is the not-so-secret ingredient in any relationship. The struggles of day-to-day life, the bouts with sickness, the financial stress that most newlyweds face, it can all be conquered by love and love is ultimately what has kept my wife and I going strong for six years now as a couple and for eight months as a married couple.

I’m reluctant to compare living in Appalachia, or anywhere else for that matter, to something as sacred as marriage; however, when I really break it down and examine marriage as the beginning point of many families including my own; when I trace my own family line back through over a century of people who lived, and died, in these ruggedly beautiful mountains; a line that includes farmers and prison guards and automobile mechanics and coal miners and storekeepers and mothers and fathers and husbands and wives, I can see where you definitely draw the similarities.

As I approach my twenty-ninth year on this planet, family is becoming more important to me than ever before. Having all ready lost most of my grandparents, I know that I will not have the wisdom of older generations to draw on forever, and there will come a time in the near future when I will have children of my own to guide and to mold to the best of my ability. And there will come a time, hopefully several decades down the line, when my own life will draw to a close and it will be time for me to exit the stage, hopefully with grace and dignity, having left things in my community and in my world at least a little better than they were when I got here and having left something of value for the generations to come.

My family is here, and that is why when I think of Appalachia in general and southwestern Virginia in particular, I can only think of home. This place isn’t perfect. Its economic struggles have been well-documented and its spiritual ones have been as well. But show me a perfect city. Show me a perfect community. Show me a perfect family, or a perfect marriage, or a perfect person. And I will show you a carefully crafted facade. Perfection, at least in this realm, does not exist and never will. 

But Love does.   And home is wherever love is.  

And for better or worse, I’m home. Til death do us part.

Saturday Night. 8 PM

It is Saturday night, 8 PM.  I am sitting in my living room and the house is quite comfortably warm and cozy on this February evening.  The light from the kitchen is giving off a soft glow and there is a faint buzz of electricity about, along with the whimpering of our puppy, currently in time out in her kennel for trying to chase our two cats.  We have to set boundaries.

My father and step-mother came to visit us earlier.  My father and I spent a considerable amount of time talking about our mutual faith, our relatives, our lives.   He has decided to give up drinking beer altogether, and is trying to live a healthier lifestyle.  He is also wearing a nicotine patch and has curbed his smoking of cigarettes considerably.  At fifty-seven years old, these changes are not easy for him, but I am very proud of him for making them nevertheless.  Change is never easy.

My wife has been in an angry mood today.  I have been in angry mood over the past week.  But we have not been angry with each other and we seldom are.  I am thankful for our love.  It has sustained me through the darkest of times and over the past six years has been a source of strength and of joy for both of us.  Both of us have been spending considerable time reflecting on the injustices that so many of our human family are currently facing.  The killer of a transgendered black woman had whose bond was set at a thousand dollars.  A close friend got ripped off.  A former coworker was screwed over by a big bank.  All over the world, we see the evidence of a system and a way of life that for so many people is causing such suffering and such a sense of separation and anxiety.  I myself have felt this separation, this anxiety, this sense of something-being-off many times.  So have many other people. Lord have mercy.  Kyrie eleison.

And yet, though these feelings seem to be common to the human condition, what is also common to the condition of humanity in modern society is that we shouldn’t really talk about these things or dwell on them too deeply.  To admit our own insecurities about those things which trouble our spirits seems to be definitely frowned upon.  The West in general and America in particular wants success stories, feel-good stories, rags-to-riches, American Idol, destruction, delusion, and ignorance.  Even the things which gain considerable attention among the masses are not the Real Thing.

What do I mean by this?  Understand as you read this, if you read this, that this blog post is in no way meant to spark a discussion of policy nor is it meant to solve a problem.  I am writing this in a rather stream-of-conscious matter and I have no intention to go back and make corrections or try to build a coherent argument after the fact.  This is a blog, not a college thesis.  This is a journal-made-public, not a news article.  I am just some guy, not an authority on anything in particular.

But in my role as just-some-guy, an everyman in every sense, I suppose I have a sense of empathy for all the other just-some-guys or just-some-women or just-some persons in the world.  I have faced my own multitude of struggles:  spiritual, existential, financial, physical.  I am far from perfect, though innate perfection is not something I desire.  “Perfection.”  Oh, how we obsess over it, how we desire it.  How it is projected into our lives at every moment, an unattainable ideal in which all the bills are paid, the body is without blemish, the soul is without suffering, the spirit is without doubt, the bank account runneth over, the Caribbean awaits on vacation.  But how many of us live that reality?  Not many.

Most of us work for a living after all.  We have our doubts about how well we are doing our jobs; how well we are engaging in our various relationships, both personal and professional; how well we are making it financially, spiritually, mentally.  We look in the mirrors and we do not see the perfect bodies of a Hollywood royal.  Our houses are not McMansions.  Our energy is not boundless.  We have our human limitations.

Christ Buddha
And it is in these limitations that we most deeply encounter our humanity, and therefore where we most deeply approach something that could be called Divine.  Examine Christ on the cross, bloodied and suffering.  Examine Buddha beneath the tree having put himself through every suffering imaginable and coming across the other side with that famous enlightened grin.  In both we see humanity in terms of its limits, not its boundless possibilities.  In both we encounter a form of divinity that suffers with us and through us on the most basic and primal of levels.  We do not here encounter boundless power or boundless energy or even boundless understanding.  Instead we encounter a set of limitations that speak volumes as to the human capacity for compassion when faced with the suffering and wisdom of others.  For it is in that otherness that we can truly learn, truly expand, truly become more alive to our own possibilities.

Humanity, you are great.  You are strong.  You are good and noble and should be proud.  But yet you, and when I say you, I include myself as part of that you, you walk as if one enslaved with your head bowed down.  You throw yourself over to your fears and your anxieties and you feel as if you are less than those around you, that they are not struggling with the same anxiety of being human.  But this is a complete fallacy and a complete fraud, a completely delusional falsehood perpetrated by your own self-awareness concentrating too much upon its own egoistic fear. . . . and pride.

Humanity, you have a responsibility.  You have a deep responsibility to love and to show and to share that love to those around you to the best of your ability, for the ones you see as other, they are really you in disguise.  From a strictly materialistic and scientific view (which I don’t subscribe to but nevertheless) they are born out of the same process of beautiful evolution.  Their atoms were forged in the same stars, those stars were born out of the same cosmic Bang.  From a Judeo-Christian perspective, they are creations of the same Father.  From a more universally spiritual perspective, they are a part of the same creative energy.

And the key to take away from this, both for myself and for anyone who happens to read it, is that it is perfectly OKAY to acknowledge all three of these things simultaneously.  It is okay to recognize the other as yourself.  It is okay to feel compassion.  It is okay to let your heart run over with love.  It is okay to let music move you to tears or to let out a big belly laugh or to howl at the moon or to do whatever you damn well please as long as you are not hurting another, which is really just hurting yourself, by your actions.

It is okay to let other people know how beautiful you find them.  It is okay to let them bask in your love, and it is okay to bask in their love.    It is okay to be a human being with all of the myriad complications, imperfections, and straining and growing pains that being a completely human, human being entails.

And what’s more, it’s okay to feel angry when you see something that doesn’t sit right with your sense of how other people ought to be treated.  It’s okay to feel deep rage at injustice, wherever we find it.  It’s okay to feel as if injustice offends some moral principle to the universe, or to God, because injustice is just that.

Of course, popular thought would tell you that to talk about love, peace, and nonviolence is just so much “hippie-dippy-shit” and to speak of injustice too much or too loudly is revolutionary or radical or worse.  I have no grand point to make in my final paragraph because to go on any longer would be to ramble too self-indulgently except to say that it is been too long since i have updated this blog and I will be doing so far more often in the near future.  I am writing this, very thankful for my wife and my family and the friendships and faith that have carried me for my past twenty-eight years on this planet.  I hope that if you are reading this, you can find something in your life to be thankful for as well.

Light Up Ahead

This was recorded way back in 2006 in Stone Creek, Virginia at my friend Joe Fultz’s house two days before I went to live away from Lee County for the first time as I moved to Nashville for awhile. It was sort of a bittersweet moment because at the time, I honestly didn’t plan on ever coming back home.

Joe is playing the single snare drum that you hear, and he and Keaton sang backing vocals.

This song originally appeared on Lonesome Highway in 2004, but I actually like this version better. The fact that it was recorded with friends makes it one of my favorite musical memories to this day.

You can download this and other albums at rancegarrison.bandcamp.com.

“Saw you standing on the side of the road

With your hung up eyelids and your heavy load

You were saying “I’m leaving this world.”

I was thinking life’s too unkind to little girls

But the sky is a sea and the moon is a boat

And we ain’t sailing baby we are merely a float

You are just too young to understand

So come here darling, take my hand

There’s a light up ahead and I’m reaching for it

In the end we all end up dead

It’s what you do between to make it feel like it was worth it.

Are you still laughing? Do you ever smile?

I haven’t seen you in quite awhile

Are you still driving your fairy boat to hell

Or were the fires put out? Is it just as well

To go on living like nothing’s wrong,

To go on smiling all the day long?

Sometimes there ain’t no joy left at all

But you won’t ever believe what I just saw

There’s a light up ahead and I’m basking in it

Won’t you follow me to bed?

This exhaustion’s cutting deep, and I just can’t ignore it.

There’s a light up ahead

There’s a light up ahead

There’s a light up ahead

Won’t you follow me to it?”

Trying Something New This Month

Gonna try something new this month. Hopefully it will be successful and will become an ongoing thing.

One of the things I gained from my business degree was an appreciation of an emerging trend called “conscious capitalism” which seeks to integrate doing good deeds and community involvement into the daily practice of a business. I decided that if I were to run a business, I would want to incorporate some of the ethics behind conscious capitalism into my work.

I just realized that I already have a potential business under my watch, which is the music I’ve been making and attempting to market for sometime. Over on my Bandcamp page, there are five full length albums, one EP, and one single available for download. You can also download my cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” through iTunes. In an attempt to raise money to go toward my goal of releasing a vinyl version of my next project and to have something positive come out of my music which has usually come from a rather dark place in my heart, I have decided to donate twenty percent of all sales to charity, with the various causes rotating every month or so.

This month’s charity is going to be St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. For those unfamiliar, they are an excellent organization that has been providing excellent care for children with cancer for decades and they have a pristine reputation.

All albums on my Bandcamp site are available on a pay what you want basis, but remember, if you download and pay, I’ll be giving twenty percent of that to St. Jude’s and the rest will be going to cover my costs and help fund a vinyl project, which has been a long time dream of mine.

So, let’s give this a shot and see where it goes. Come download some music and help support a good cause.

http://rancegarrison.bandcamp.com/

Album Review– Keaton Lawson: Pink Sounds

I should preface this review by saying that I have known Keaton Lawson for over fifteen years.  I should also mention that I am practically related to the man as he is engaged to my cousin, has lived in my house on several occasions, and was the dude who handed me the ring I slipped on my wife’s finger at our wedding.  Did I mention we’ve also made a lot of music together?  Oh yeah, there’s that, too. Needless to say I’ve watched Keaton’s artistic and musical evolution for almost the entire time I’ve known him since it was a mutual love of music and art, especially ‘weird’ music and art that brought us together in the first place.

 

 

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When Keaton told me that his new album only had fourteen songs, I was a little bit taken aback.  This is the same dude who once made two albums with forty songs each, the aptly titled “Music #1″ and “Music #2.”  The same guy who sat up late in my tiny first apartment creating the abstract work of audio art that was “Carpet Hazard.”  This is also the same guy who is beyond a shadow of a doubt one of the best songwriters I’ve ever met but who continues to record abstract audio art by his own admission instead of a collection of “real” songs.  Songs like this, which when combined with the voice of my cousin Kristina Garrison are as hauntingly beautiful in their own way as anything you are likely to hear:

So, I was excited by the idea that Keaton had maybe just set down with an acoustic guitar and recorded fourteen songs.  Of course, as excited as the idea of such an album by my good friend makes me, that isn’t what this is.  Nope, not at all.  This is, in fact, more abstract Appalachian audio folk art from the master of abstract Appalachian audio folk art.  And it’s absolutely wonderful.

Here, Keaton has tightened up his approach and created a thirty minute expedition into the workings of his mind, and though the trip is short, it’s the most interesting thing he has done to date.  Created entirely on an iPhone, the album incorporates loops, samples, acoustic guitar, and spoken word pieces to create a bizarre and wonderful piece of art.  It’s hard to classify this as “good” music, because it isn’t necessarily aiming at being “music” at all in the popular sense.  And although Keaton Lawson is more than capable of creating an album of catchy, folksy pop songs,  he has instead created an album that is a masterpiece in its own right.  Right out of the gate, “Buddha Dance” throws the listener into what is going to be a weird and wild ride.  “Hide My Soul Away” incorporates synth noise and distorted acoustic guitar in a deconstruction of what could be a beautiful song if that were the goal.  “Jeopardy” opens with two lines of lyrics, followed by two minutes of sampled TBN hellfire preaching.  “The Rain Burns” is reminiscent of early Ween.

The best track of the bunch, and undoubtedly the best thing I have ever heard by Keaton Lawson in this vein of his work, is the nearly seven minute “Chester” near the end of the album.  This haunting spoken word piece has its titular character exploring the sort of philosophical issues that Keaton and myself usually talk about when we meet up.  It’s a horror story told through folk poetry that echoes the work of Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews.

This track alone makes the entire album worth downloading.  It’s a work of southern Appalachian beat poetry that’s full of humor and dread.   And while I’m still waiting to hear that collection of “serious” songs rather than an experimental album by Keaton Lawson, this album is a great gateway into his work and is sure to be completely unlike anything you have ever heard or experienced.