"A poetry reading? Sounds great! When? Next weekend? Sure, what night? All WEEKEND? Well, I'll have to switch shifts at the bar, but that should be OK. All right, it sounds cool, thanks!"
Therein beginneth my first and only Rye Hill Poetry Reading weekend, which I will herewith attempt to summarize. Its effect on me was profound, and not at all what I expected.
Rye Hill is indeed on a hill. There is a cabin there, in which one slightly rumpled young woman lives. Her hair looks a little dusty, she has rough and grubby hands, and her smile is wide and welcoming. She doesn't have electricity or indoor plumbing, and that suits her just fine. There are 2 floors in her neat wee cabin - the upstairs is a bare-floored room she calls the "sleeping loft" and is accessed by a ladder through a hole in the smack-dab middle of the floor; downstairs is one big room with comfy chairs, a long table, a woodstove, and gas lamps that hang from the ceiling. She has an enormous pot of vegetarian chili bubbling on the woodstove, and a huge vat of hot cider ready to warm the chill from our bones.
While it's still light she also shows us how to "work" the latrine. It's important to throw a shovelful of ashes from the throne-side bucket down the hole after you've done your thing. The lye leaches from the ashes and helps to compost the "depositions," and also keeps the room smelling fresh. The inside of the outhouse is wallpapered with catalog pages. One could spend a lot of time there and never get bored. Impressive.
There is an enormous fire circle down the hill from her cabin, around which all we campers are staying. There are a lot of us; we've come from all over western and southern Virginia (and perhaps beyond) to participate in the readings or to listen to poetry being read by its creators. There's a good deal of facial hair on the men and long hair on both men and women. I recognize some people from the readings we would have on Friday nights at my boyfriend's restaurant and am comforted somewhat by their presence. Everyone but me seems to know everyone else; they get along in an accepting congeniality that is intriguingly attractive to me. A bonfire blazes once night falls, and guitars and alcohol and song and stories are passed around like it's Christmas, or as though we're on a ship in a vast ocean of trees and silence. The stars rain light down on us, the wind brings the scent of pine and woodsmoke, and the firelight flickers our long shadows onto the trees and tents. Music and laughter ring clearly through the chill night, a joyful noise. I'm well out of my comfort zone, yet feel completely at home.
In the afternoon of the next day we make our way up the hill past the wee cabin and through a deep woods. The city girl in me wonders where we're going; the burgeoning hippie me decides that it doesn't really matter, that the moment is what matters and the moment is pretty darned good. Long pine needles underfoot give way to grass and light. We've arrived at a ridge-top meadow that's stroked with clean breeze from the valley and brushed with dappled light from the play of sun and growing clouds.
Most of the gathered form a circle in the middle of the field, holding hands and bowing their heads as if to pray. We novices look at one another uncomfortably from outside the circle, wondering if we've gotten caught in some fundamentalist religious experience, and start to make some nervous jokes and wonder how we'll ever get off this mountain. But no, the circle is not about religion, it's about spirituality and thanking the day for bringing us all together in this place to share and grow and enjoy being here.
I feel something break open in my chest, tears form and spill from my eyes. Epiphanies hurt a little, it seems.
A woman in a long coat covered in tribal applique steps to the center of the circle, her waist-length brown hair flowing in the breeze, her soft moccasins barely trampling the grass. She begins to sing a song I've not heard before about black stallions and white mares and dappled ponies and the joys of brotherhood when love was lord of all in a voice soaked in a long time of knowing. The gathered band of merry-makers are silent, letting the ringing of her true voice set us into a place of wonderment and awe. She's getting us ready to listen to one another, preparing us to open our hearts and minds by giving us her gift.
Works for me.
The long afternoon passes quickly, with poets and singers and actors strutting and fretting their hour in the meadow there on the hilltop, heard by their fellows and the valley far below them. I'm relatively certain I hear the trees chuckle from time to time. We laugh and wonder and applaud and listen to the hearts of these people who need to share this thing inside of them until the lowering sky and our growling bellies tell us it's time to release the charm and tend to more basic needs.
Leaving the grass of the hilltop meadow I pause to look back. From the vantage and protection of the woods it doesn't really look like a place to firm up a life philosophy. Maybe the magic only worked while all who were gathered made it work. Once the time was over, we could only take our piece of it with us to wait until we had a chance to gather and make magic again.
I was careful to take my piece home with me, and from time to time I take it out to polish it up and peer into it to remind myself of what I found up there on the hill so very many years ago.