For Loretta

After a morning spent desperately trying to help freshmen understand the crucial need for unwavering honesty in a personal essay this morning, I heard the news that Loretta Lynn had passed. I shut the door to my office and spent what time passed crying hard at my desk. My colleagues were consoling if confused, and I was too shaken and heartbroken to try to make sense of how deeply saddened I was to my fellow faculty members who took the news with casual reverence to the passing of a celebrity who enjoyed a long life. I was too upset, and the middle of the day between meetings and classes, was no time to try to relate why I fell into such mourning. So, to make explain my grief truthfully as an elegy for Loretta and to live out my own lecture I will try to do so here. But note that words fail, and the term essay derives from the French “essayer” which means to try. This is me trying.

My family originally came from Letcher County Kentucky, where Loretta Lynn was raised at the head of Butcher Holler before we moved to another coal town in Clay County. Eastern Kentucky is synonymous with poverty and ignorance; an embarrassing backward area of the country open to be mocked for a catalog of hillbilly tropes from inbreeding to feuding. It is an area that has been economically ravaged by coal and timber companies who left behind a legacy of black lung, poisonous groundwater, and once-wooded hills blown up and bulldozed into barren mesas. It has been exploited in the national media from Walter Cronkite’s 1964 special “Depressed Area USA,” to HBO’s 1999 America Undercover Special “American Hollow,” to “American Idol Gives Back” in 2008. None of these examples, or any other that come to mind, represented the goodness of where I come from. At best, as in the recent floodings in eastern Kentucky, they highlighted the pitiful circumstances of those most dejected and offered tokens of compassion, that like the focus of disaster relief, fades and forgotten.

This is why Loretta Lynn mattered so much to natives like me, and why I fell to tears. Not because she was a celebrity, but because she was a symbol that stood in direct opposition to the bad humor, privileged judgment, and embarrassment Appalachian Kentuckians face. She wasn’t a joke no matter how open she was about her life in poverty or her sometimes volatile marriage. She was loved by the public without reservations, and in that, in a small way, we felt a part of us was loved and respected as well.

When people ask me where I come from, I say that I was raised halfway between Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. This isn’t just for the sake of brevity. It is an explanation born of pride.

The remnants of Van Lear and dozens of other out-of-state coal companies still mark the state routes passing through towns like Whitesburg, Hazard, Hyden, and my hometown of Manchester. In brick and steel, still bearing the company names, these towering dinosaurs of oil-stained coal tipples, of conveyors rusted to the color of sulfur, and derelict rail lines whose dry-rotted ties now serve as planters for fox sedge, crooked stem asters, and June grass. The few coal mines that remain are in their twilight. The industry has left broken men, opioid addiction, and an ever-increasing population flight. The prospects for any industry replacing coal with jobs offering a living wage in such a geographically challenging area are slim at best.

In the early eighties, when the mines were still a viable option for men with families to support, I was taught in grade school the two types of coal: anthracite and bituminous. My teachers must have believed this was important for boys to know. By the time I studied English at the University of Kentucky my professors stressed that I had to lose my heavy Appalachian accent as it would harm my chances of being both taken seriously and employed. But I am sure in my heart that those same professors loved Loretta and would not dare change a single tone or inflection of her speech.

The mines have been closing all my life. I’ve been made fun of for my accent no matter how reduced it has become through conscious practice. I have seen the land where I come from continue to be exploited and disregarded in a hundred ways, but until today, I still had Loretta praising all that was patronized, denigrated, and ignored.

Loretta Lynn was the embodiment of eastern Kentucky and its people. She glorified the hardship of working the land until its people and hills were inseparable. She honored the lessons of poverty that shaped her. She was fierce and generous, wrapped in faith when there was no clear promise on the horizon, and continued to love fully despite times when good reason would argue for separation. She remained a part of the hills and of all of us. A rare spirit from a hard land who was loved so completely that our people carried a small ember of hope that we mattered as well.

I did not cry at my desk and on my drive home today because Loretta was famous. My heart ached because she was that special person who those from the hills understand without explanation: not family— but kin.

Green

“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” –  The Band “Atlantic City”

In Chinese languages, the meaning of a word or character depends on its context. The same character can mean head, idea, or thought. The same sound can mean sinking or seeking. This isn’t unique to Mandarin or Cantonese.  English has more words like this than can be easily numbered. One is green. It can refer to the color, the feeling of envy, or something young. As this winter marches toward its close in morning frost and slow gray rains that word has been on my mind. Over the last few weeks, I have bought plants and made plans. The first green shoots of spring are still a month away, but I am sowing for the future.

My new novel Dream Kids will be released at the end of this month. I have been busy trying to do what I can to get the word out. Since music plays a large thematic role in the book I made a playlist with the songs featured in the novel on Spotify for fun. You can find it here.

I have also been planning my race season after years away due to the pandemic. My first trail race is this Saturday, and although it will be in the 20s and definitely not green, I am looking forward to running the trails again. I have obstacle races on my calendar for the summer so it’s best to get used to the suffering early.

Other than that the last few months have been quiet. I’m deciding where my teaching journey will lead me next, working on a few projects, training, and learning. Soon we will all be reborn to ourselves like each spring before. The cloud banks are already fraying for the sun. May we all return kinder, fresh new creatures in the weeks ahead.

All the best,

Mike

Pre-order my new book:

Dream Kids

Listen to this:

R.E.M. “I Remember California”

Read this:

Light Chaser Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell

Watch this:If we are connected on Instagram or Twitter you’ve seen the amazing trailers my publisher made for Dream Kids. If you haven’t seen them yet I posted some on Youtube and you can check them out here.

Cindy in the Year of the Tiger

On this past Christmas Day NASA launched the James Webb Space Telescope. This replacement and a massive upgrade in terms of capabilities to the Hubble Space Telescope will allow scientists across the planet to see further than has ever before. It is hoped that it will reveal habitable exoplanets and insight into the oldest and most distant phenomena in the universe. This week it went online, after a period in which many of us were reflecting on our own past selves as the new year approached. Tonight, a million miles away from the Earth in orbit around the sun, it begins to search the incomprehensible vastness of time as we look ahead at a future that is equally unknowable.

I enjoy the concept of rebirth, of resolving to do and be more than I have been in the past. The past two years have been some of the hardest in my life as they have been for most who’ve been forced to sew their seams of being back together and reconsider what comes next. But I am focused on action, not words. After two years down I have reached a point where I have to either do what I am meant to do seriously or give up to avoid time wasted on dreams of doing. I haven’t written any resolutions. But I have started to make each day a link in a chain.

Last year I rucked, rain or snow, for miles every day in January. It was training to do what I didn’t want to do for which there was no reward or recognition. Spirit training. This month I am doing the CrossFit calisthenics workout Cindy each morning for the same reason. This is the year of the Tiger; a year we all need to grow stronger.

I am also spending less aimless time online. I want to be present and intentional with my time rather than using diversions as an escape from living. Carl Jung in The Undiscovered Self writes about our obsessive distraction with “objects outside ourselves,” which subvert our striving toward our true and inherent callings. None of this is new, but what is most present is most often overlooked, taken for granted, or passed by for the fresh and novel. If Howl was written today Ginsberg might have observed that the best minds of his generation were driven to madness by subtweets and friend counts. We are living through two pandemics. The first is viral. The second, as Jung predicted, is a psychic epidemic wherein mental illness is the norm. Today it’s common for a casual acquaintance to mention their mental diagnosis as casually as the town where they grew up, and with the same matter-of-fact resolution that it can’t be changed. Evolution is always an option as is staring at a cell phone for another sleepless hour.

Anything digital can and will be erased; lost to time. Only the analog, the tangible, has a chance of remaining into the future, if in pieces: tattered scrolls sealed in clay pots, eroded carvings on stone pillars, newsprint entombed in landfills. I write in journals and lose myself in the woods. I want a love affair with reality and the present moment, what is ultimately true.

In The Oracle of the Night: The History and Science of Dreams Sidharta Ribeiro states that we cannot dream without memories which is why we so often dream of ourselves repeating the routines of our life. If this is true then the Shakespearean passage from Act 4 of The Tempest stating “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” suggests that we are our memories; personal catalogs of moments savored or mourned. Therefore as we make our memories we make ourselves.

In this new year may we all tear the suns we’ve swallowed out of our chests and burn bright as William Blake’s tyger in the forests of the night. Each morning is colder than the last now, but every day is longer.   

Pre-order my book:

My new novel Dream Kids will be released in March of this year. I am immensely proud of it and would be humbled if you pre-ordered your copy here. Pre-orders are incredibly important as they in part determine what books are stocked by booksellers. If you follow me on social media you’ve seen the first promotional video for the book. I have a lot more to share in the coming months.

Watch this:

If you want to smile watch what happens when two motorcycle enthusiasts decide to meticulously recreate the dumbest road trip imaginable involving a mini-bike here

Listen to this:
Dream Kids is a punk rock coming-of-age novel that name drops dozens of late 70s and early 80s punk tracks. I will be putting the full novel soundtrack up as a playlist on Spotify in the future. Until then enjoy this song that appears in the book.

Hallucinations and the Vanishing Point

Denmark, Vejle

I am sitting in a park as I write. There is a waterfall at my back. In front of me, the white flowerheads of a Crepe Myrtle sway in the evening breeze. The quiet places are best found outside; outside of structures and one’s own self. I depend on these quiet spots to escape being and write more and more. If I were a better writer then there would be no need to say anything at all. No considerate soul should want to be defined by the sum total of their lines written, promises printed or apologies typed too late. At least I don’t. The idea of being a man sitting alone over his journal musing in a late summer field, barely noticed and quickly forgotten, is a much more attractive memorial.

“Eternity is in love with the creations of time.”- William Blake

The last six months have been timestamped by memorials. In that time I have attended four funerals. Two for aunts. One for an uncle. And one for a member of my jiu-jitsu family who took her life. In art, there is the principle of the vanishing point. As space expands into the distance our perception narrows until the horizon, the future, is a singular dot, almost imperceptible but touching all.

But the future remains the garden from which we reap. An anthology featuring a story I wrote last year was covered by The Times of London and the BBC. After months of serious revisions, I submitted the final draft of my novel Dream Kids which will be released in March next year.

Oliver Sacks in his engrossing book Hallucinations attempts to provide a taxonomy for the same. In his work, he details Charles Bonnet syndrome, considers whether religious revelations such as Joan of Arc’s can be attributed to front lobe epilepsy, mines near-death experience, and psychedelic states. One of the conditions he details is autoscopy in which the afflicted see a copy of themselves, an identical twin. Though most often they realize that this immaterial doppelganger isn’t real, is not them, they frequently continue to interact with it. They pull out chairs for their double. They order it a drink. This is the best metaphor I have found to illustrate what it is like to edit a novel you finished for the first time six years ago. It is you. You can see it vividly. And it is not you.

“…But if a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection but are utterly eclipsed by the performance of the inspired madman.”- Socrates, quoted in Plato’s Phaedrus

Now while the sun sinks I am sowing different seeds. I spent most of the spring and summer working on a new novel, one I am proud of and will finish, but I began to stall. I wasn’t burned out, but more experiencing a diminished sense of wonder. I wanted to play, and surprise myself. That’s the project I’m deeply invested in now.

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young

If you read this I hope you are well, and able to steal away into your own quiet places. I also hope you are taking risks. Even if you fail, cradle your failures and appreciate we are most human when we fall. Everyone looks better with bruises.

Read this:

Oliver Sacks Hallucinations

Listen to this:

Lul Kadhim “Amber Dark and Sickly Sweet” from Lightspeed Magazine

Watch this:

I’m stoked to be training with the Dasiy Fresh crew from Pedigo Submission Fighting in Kentucky next month. If you don’t know their story you can check it out here.