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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.

 

 

cover

 

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.

Birth and Death

I can conceive of no imaginable purpose for the meaning of man’s seemingly brief existence apart from community.

My, my, my, what mighty big words you have, Rance Garrison.  But I really can’t.  It is for this reason that I have trouble with traditional notions of both religion and irreligion or secularism.  So much of our modern religion, or stance against it, in the United States today comes from a long tradition of individualism.  I am not a believer in individualism to a great extent.  It is through a community, a Communion, to use “Christian” language, I suppose, that man achieves his greatest heights.  Without the community lifting him, challenging him, even at times, fighting against him, man is nothing.  It has been said that no man is an island.  Forget the island, no man is apart from the web of life.  And those who seek to go it completely alone for long never it make it very far.

These thoughts poured into my mind earlier tonight while I reached an almost transcendental state while making love to my (soon to be) wife.  It is ironic that we live in a society that teaches a man to fear the two things that are most readily at his disposal to achieve the ever elusive immortality he so desperately seeks, birth and death.  As younger men, many of us, or at least in my own case, view the approach of fatherhood with an almost dreadful apprehension.  On the one hand, we long for the opportunity to pass on our knowledge, our philosophies, however half baked, and, at a more subconscious animal. level, our genes, onto our offspring.  On the other hand, though, we long to live in a state of perpetual boyhood like billions of grown-up Peter Pans, desiring a life of adventure, swashbuckling, skirt chasing ahead of us on into eternity.  What we fail to realize is that time stands still for no one, and if we pursue that life of constant adventure, danger, non-commitment, and individualistic “freedom” we will find ourselves not as Peter Pans, but more likely, as the sad old man protagonist of the 1977 Pink Floyd song, “Dogs,” in that we will be “just another sad old man, all alone and dying of cancer.”  How strange it is that the number one regret of dying men is that they wished that they hadn’t worked so hard and that they had spent more time with their wives and families.  For as we men age, our work becomes our play, and the pursuit of money, fame, the respect of our fellow men and more importantly, the sexual adoration of many women, the ultimate set of prizes in the cracker jack box. To many men, the thought of being domesticated into the family life might as well be the same thing as being neutered.

As for death, here I must divert from earthly matters and expand a bit upon my (quite often misunderstood) religious views.  See, I call myself a Christian because it is the religious path that I am most comfortable and familiar with and because I feel especially close to the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  When I pray, it is Jesus that I imagine on the other end of the line if you will.  At the same time, I understand that this very personal theistic conception of God is a symbol, not God-in-entirety.  This conception of God which lives in my mind is no closer to being the true “God beyond God” than a single cell in my pinky fingernail is to being me.  But the only way that I can even begin to be in relationship with that which is Infinite is by constructing within my finite mind a finite symbol which can serve as a doorway into the Infinite God.  And while I personally have my reasons for believing that there is some historical basis for the Christ as viewed in much of traditional Christianity, even if it was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, that wouldn’t shatter my faith because I understand that the Infinite God could never be completely bound in anyone symbol or person or book.

And so, believing therefore, as I do, in a God that is Infinite beyond my own comprehension, I also dare to believe that this same Infinite God is Infinitely Loving beyond all comprehension, and that this existence, created as it was through Love, will not perish.  That God truly will call all things unto Godself in due time.   I unapologetically say that in my heart of hearts, I feel that all sentient beings are in the process of growing into a complete union with God.  To be said again, I believe that each of us, as individuals and also as a fully integrated cosmic body of stars, planets, people, cats, spiders, sponges, jellyfish, pine trees, microbes, and atoms, are part of a process that is the universe not only becoming aware of itself but aware of its Source and transcending mere consciousness into a form of superconsciousness, that from our perspective, would indeed be God-like, if not God.  And on the day that this state of perfect love and perfect infinity is reached, the union of God and cosmos will make all things as One.

And so, with the vast and hopeful expanse of eternity ahead of, we understand that death is nothing to fear.  Yes, we may lose a part of our individuality in dying, a statement to which I imagine neither theist nor atheist would disagree, but we gain a greater stake in our community.  Our bodies become food for other creatures and feed the earth with needed nutrients.  And those thoughts, feelings, and experiences that we’ve shared with others live on in their minds and in whatever we’ve managed to leave behind.  If we have children, what we have taught them as well as our biology lives on in them.  As for us, I believe that we begin a process of further spiritual growth in which we grow, like weeds, toward the source of ultimate goal of our lives:  godhood.  But this is a communal thing, because we are all heading there, each and everyone of us, each and every soul, each and every atom, and as long as one single soul is left behind, the journey is not complete.  We will reach the promised land, but when we do, it will be together, growing out of the Ground of all Being, toward an Omega Point. The Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

But if ultimately all are not redeemed and brought home, is there true grace? And that is why I feel in my gut that all will be.

For as long as one individual is allowed to fall, then we have not achieved what I view as the ultimate purpose of man, to live in and through his communion with his fellow sentient beings.

I love my wife.  And no, we’re not having a baby right now.  :-)

 

We Ain’t Dead Yet, Dammit.

Last night, I went to a drag show in Whitesburg, Kentucky at the Summit City Lounge.  There, I encountered a culture as vibrant and thriving as anything I encountered when I was living in Nashville, Tennessee, perhaps even more so, as there was not an ounce of the big city pretense and putting on of airs that you are likely to find among the suburbanites and Vanderbilt college crowd.  Not that I have anything against Nashville.  It’s a beautiful city, and if I was ever going to live in a big city again, Nashville would be my number one choice.

But there is a rawness here in the rural communities of the mountains that is unlike anything you will encounter in even the most “country” of cities.  People are completely themselves, and bare their souls at every moment, warts and all.  This is especially evident among the millennial generation here.  And while you might not expect a bar in small town eastern Kentucky to be the sort of place to host a celebration of LGBT culture, for anyone in Whitesburg, Kentucky last night, it would have been hard to miss the cars lined around the block and the sound of thumping bass coming from inside the Summit City.  Harder still to miss would have been the collection of mostly twenty-somethings inside, dancing the night away as Lilly Conn, Lucy Deville, and Shelita Buffett riled the crowd and entertained with their flamboyant charisma.  (My favorite moment was when, midway through the 11 PM show, Lucy did a dive-bomb off the Summit City stage, nearly knocking my beer out of my hand.  All in good fun.)

Here you would also find the mayor of Vicco, the smallest town in the United States to pass an anti-LGBT discrimination ordinance as well as local punk rock legend Globsters; girls in pseudo-hippie fashions, local artists and musicians coming out to enjoy the fun, even a few middle aged and senior citizens getting down with their bad selves, to borrow a worn out phrase, among the crowd.  This sort of life and vitality, this sort of celebration of a segment of the population that has usually been denied rights and privileges that us straight people take for granted, does not seem to me at all to be the signs of a community, of a region, on its deathbed.

And we’ve got to quit talking about the Appalachian Region as if that is the case.

Whether we’re talking about Whitesburg or Norton or Pennington Gap or any other small Appalachian community, there is a tendency to speak of these towns as if their best days are definitely behind them.  They are in their death throes, and new life is simply not something that is going to come.  And while it is true that these communities face their struggles and uphill battles, (you can read more about my take on that in my blog from two weeks ago here: https://rancegarrison.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/appalachia-the-great-white-ghetto-why-i-am-staying/)  if we want to improve the Appalachian region and take it from being the “Great White Ghetto” as some from New York or wherever would have the rest of the nation believe we are to being a truly thriving and vibrant place again, then we need to start speaking of the region not as a dead or dying place, but as a place that is in a period of transition, both economically and culturally.  Transitions are often difficult periods, and change is almost never easy.  But make no mistake:  change is not the same thing as death.  We’ve got to stop clinging to a celebration of days gone by, and start looking ahead to days and opportunities yet to come.  And perhaps most importantly, we’ve got to empower the region’s youth with opportunities and influence rather than raising them up with the sole purpose of leaving in mind because if this region is to have a future, it lies with the youth.

And if my experience among the bright, talented, and vibrant folks at last night’s show in Whitesburg are any indication, this region’s future is a lot brighter than its detractors and nay-sayers would have you believe.