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The Folk School Experience

It's sometimes hard to differentiate between what's wise and what's rash. It felt like a rash decision to apply for the work study at John C. Campbell at the end of last summer. I dreaded being accepted and felt sick as I left Montana to begin a five-month road trip. 

I felt sick because I was doing something very hard, I was forcing myself to vomit illusions, and I was force feeding my dreams back into my heart, a shrunken scared dry thing for a beating box of visions.

I was letting go of something I loved to pursue what I wanted: happiness and satisfaction. I let go of the soft hands of confusion and jumped into the wells of living waters, where many unknown, open arms awaited.

Of course, I felt sick. 
And of course, I healed.
I'd been on the road two months before I received my acceptance email. I sat outside a bar on top of a picnic table, barefoot and playing my guitar when I happened to glance at my phone and saw the acceptance email.
 I'd dreaded this... And yet when I saw I'd been accepted, I grinned, and I grew excited. Ah. So, this hadn't been rash... God was in this, I just needed to keep trusting. 

Two more months passed, I came to the last stop of my five months journey: the folk school in North Carolina. I'd let go of so much, and processed so many things, and yet my heart was still unsure.

I arrived and I hated the place. I didn't want to be on the five-month trip, and this afternoon part, this ending would take so long to pass. I didn't want to be at this folk school, the lone conservative Christian. But neither did I want to look back.

I let myself hate the place, hate the people, hate my dorm and room, hate everything about it. I let myself grieve.

And then the people talked to me. They had names, and fingers that made things, and they wanted hugs and songs and all the other things I was ready to love and enjoy.

I forgot that I didn't want to be here, and I fell into a wondrous experience. I grew alive as the people saw me and loved me. And in turn I saw them and loved them. 

God knew I needed to leave, to let go. I obeyed, although I felt sick and bitter. 

I obeyed and this last step of my five-month journey was the final marrow of the bone I'd started. 

The John C. Campbell Folk School teaches traditional arts and skills. Their motto is singing behind the plow. Not because they have any plows about: generally speaking, they find the idea of plowing the land harmful to the soil. 

The spirit of the campus is taking joy in everyday work and tasks, of making joy an everyday occurrence through dance and music and creativity. 

There are over fifty buildings on campus. Most of them are studies for various classes such as blacksmithing, wood carving, quilting, broom making, pottery, metal working, painting, and music. 

I arrived at a dorm with one long hall and five rooms, a kitchen, and a community room with one long hall. My room felt drab and uncharacteristically cold, and so I filled a ledge with books and put a bright quilt on my bed. 

There were nine of us work studies. My roommate was a dear woman from Alaska. She and I both wore nightgowns and spent many of evenings talking to friends and family or reading.
The work-study life is a seasonal life. We were assigned to garden duty, and during January that means a lot of mulching beds and paths. The gardener made sure we had many other interesting things to do, though, so that we couldn't help but love the working portion of this program a little bit more than the studies. We became a community of bees, happy and cliquish and busy. 

For a couple days we spent time in the ceramics studio making signs for the garden!! One of my housemates made a bunch of adorable mushroom pins, too!

There are two eccentric and potentially grumpy men they say the work studies should meet. 
The first, Tim Ryan, makes sure to come see the work studies shortly after their arrival. He came bearing gifts of hats, chapstick, notebooks and pens, lotion, water bottles, and a message. 

He told us how we were the spirit of the folk school kept alive; that the work study program was the true John C. Campbell experience. Then he invited us to his home every Sunday morning for brunch and opened his home up to us whenever we needed another place to go, or if a friend needed a place. 

He showed us the key to his place and said, "What I'm doing for you doesn't require that I'm here, if it did it wouldn't be real." 

Brunch at his place was a beautiful experience. He remembered allergies and food restrictions, he let us tour his cave of books, and before we ate, he had us gather in a circle to hold hands and to thank us for coming, saying he had no rituals but to thank us. 

My thank you was showing up for brunch as often as I could, and
knitting him a hat before I left. 

I also discovered an open mic in a nearby town inside a post office/ sometimes cafe called Keep It Posted. The mayor bartended while a bunch of old folks told amusing stories. I got up and gave a comedy spiel interwoven with melancholic poetry.

The other cool place was Kelischek's Music store about a mile up the road. George loved to tell stories, and to give you many answers, and to show off all his instruments. He wasn't a fan of most questions, and it was nearly unmannerly to ask prices since things were so expensive and if we were buyers we could just purchase online. We were here to hear his stories. And they were good stories. I'd love to go back with a notepad. 

The folk school experience became a happy bubble that some of us never left. 
I went away for dances occasionally, and to visit a friend in Asheville.

Some friend accidentally put a makeup container on the top of my car and oddly it managed to stay there through a four-hour drive! 

I don't think any of us work studies particularly cared about holidays, and yet Valentines Day was sweet. 
Little gifts, trinkets, notes were passed around. Compliments, sincere and poignant, followed suit. And one of the girls went around serenading all of us with song! The laughter made it all the more sacred and real somehow.

I've had a lot of luck in my short life. I've persisted at doing the things of life and doing them my way, and the waters have catered to my path. COVID restrictions lifted the session I became a work study, luckily, or I would have dropped out of the program. That had been my one condition, and I almost thought I might just get to go home. 
Instead, I showed up and was confronted with everything working out. 

I knew I'd be in the minority, but it was startling to realize from the get-go that I was the only conservative and that a lot of the folks there probably hadn't had many positive experiences with Christians, conservatives, or anti-maskers/ vacciners. And of course, there were moments when this became an issue, where I thought we might actually end up hating each other because of these differences. But we all extended grace. They wore their masks; I borrowed and shared no sermons. I said little save that I would not shout "unclean" to the leper, rather hug the sick and offer them soup. As a woman: I heal, I do not run away, and I put shame to those that fear.

Unfortunately, this is still a prevalent part of life, especially among the folk arts communities right now, and it's unfair to not address our perspectives. 

But that being said, there is also much grace due to a greater desire: the desire for community. And through that grace we can see past our own perspectives to the hearts that mean well and believe sincerely. 

And this grace allows us to look past our differences and find a common ground to work, to sing, to live together and love on another. 

These are duck eggs from inside a freshly butchered duck. One of the girls told me, "If you eat one, so will I." 
So I did. 
So she did. 

Below are its wings, spread and salted.

Conflict faded along with first impressions, and we became a tight group. Time became unnecessary. We were here always . . . we would all come back again, anyway, so we have agreed.

I took a memoir writing course in my first study week.
I worked on my book The Girl Who Doesn't Exist, wrote a few character sketches, and spit out a couple pages about the school. I enjoyed my classmates and hearing all their stories. Looking forward to the day when we might all exchange published books. 

I wood turned for my second study week. 
It was terrifying, loud, and itchy. 
I didn't realize what I'd signed up for. I'd never heard of a lathe, never seen the sharp tools we used. I thought I'd signed up for wood carving under some poetic guise. But I remained because I knew I had something to learn. 

In the midst of the noise, in the frustration of sound and unaccustomed force, I relearned the truth all excellent hands know: to have control is to be gentle. 

I found a silence in the rhythm, and I let myself make mistakes. 

(I also helped the instructor with his demo!!)

Had to wash my clothes thoroughly after... isn't that a clever way to hang a vest when there are no clothes pins? Just zip it up. 
My third study week was also the last week of my program. I did a book arts class and made journals. 

We drew and raised our drawings to make stamps for embossing into leather, and then we painted our embossed leather with special, messy watercolor paints that stained my fingers. When asked what happened I said, "I tried painting my nails in the dark." 

This week was the final week of my five-month journey. I was excited for the end, and yet I soaked up that last week by zoning out and focusing in on the very fibers of each second and sound. For the first time in a long time, I forgot people and saw only my what was in my hands. I saw what was mine. And I let the rest be. I took a long walk in the woods for hours and I was happy, because all I had that was mine was good. I grieved what slipped through, but I rejoiced at the color that remained. And through that joy the final tears washed away the residue and filled me up at last with all I needed. I was well, I am the well of living water, the healer who awakes happy, who knows not what it means to cower or distrust or choose the sickly passions. 

There was an embarrassing side effect. At the end of the week, I saw a woman who looked quite familiar. I asked her, "Were you in the doll-making class?"

"No, I was in your class." 

Quite proud of my skin color. 

The middle two journals are made from deerskin that a roommate tanned from roadkill. 
Love the process. 

Together we work studies hosted our own fun. 
We went hiking, had picnics, sang around the campfire. There was a possum skinning and a nalbinding demonstration. I taught darning one lazy afternoon. We danced and participated in a mockumentary about ourselves. We formed a band and performed. Some evenings we'd wood carve or walk to the Crown to the Old-Time jam (I often brought a wooden recorder). There was always something happening, from shape not singing to demonstrations in the other studios to last minute parties.

I left this place in love, ready to return if ever the opportunity arrives, but satisfied all the same. 
There is something about being with a group of people and choosing to admire one another, and of doing so whole heartedly. It slaps out any nonsense you might have been thinking about the world and yourself. It reminds you to get back to those dreams, because they are important. 

Like anything, it is what you make it. But how wonderful to have those rare moments when each soul has decided, "I will make the most of this, I will give it my all, my very best. Let the gospel live in my eyes, in my hands, in my words." 

Should you go to John C. Campbell? 


Either way, don't think about it much. Apply, be rash, let what may happen be. 


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