Jan DeGaetani and Water Valley, Mississippi

We have a lot of catching up to do, Friends.

I’ve done it. I’ve moved myself, my books and art and bicycle to the South. And I’m happy. I’ve been in this rambling old house for a little over a week, and I’m happy. I adore the way folks down here do window treatments: the curtain only across the bottom half. I lie down at night and watch the moon rise out the windows at my bed. The glow literally bathes me as my lids drop. IMG_5166

I don’t think I’ve relayed the whole story as to how this all happened. It’s a good one. And I’m gonna tell it because just a day ago, I jumped on the back of a group of riders cycling from Alabama into Mississippi for cancer research and found myself chatting with a lovely middle-aged woman, like myself, about how I arrived here from the Northeast.


I had a ticket to come down here and help my dad with some medical tests during the last week of March. As I’ve written before, I was bound to Nova Scotia and Wolfeboro, NH for two months of solitude and writing. And after that, 6 weeks  of teaching writing at St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH. Dad had his tests. I stayed four more weeks. Cancer. But this story right now, although woven with sadness and fear, is all happy endings. Dad’s surgery went beautifully; 7 weeks out, and he hasn’t felt this good in 2 years. The prognosis so good, no chemo follow-up. He’s 87 years old, and his docs told him he’s got 20 more in him. What I thought in early April might be a decision to come here and be a caretaker hasn’t been the case at all. Now, we’re neighbors, 16 miles apart down one state road. A straight shot.

It started with our trip to Water Valley, this tiny town about 15 miles outside Oxford (college town, Ole Miss), to run errands a week before his scheduled surgery. As soon as we drove onto Main Street, I saw something had changed, happened here. Downtown buildings revived, painted, brick revealed and restored. “Yeah,” Dad said, “This has been happening for awhile now.”

I remembered bringing Sam, age 9, maybe, to this town to see the Casey Jones train museum which Dad and I passed as we drove down Main. Water Valley was not a destination to me then; most anywhere near my parents’ cabin here in North Mississippi was not a destination: it was a necessity. If I wanted to see them, I had to come.

But here were bright colors, fresh paint on storefronts. Here were two art galleries. Here was the BTC organic grocery and cafe. What is going on?

“Drive me around the streets,”  I said to him, already forming the idea I wouldn’t act on for another two weeks. Maybe I’ll buy a house in Water Valley and live down here for awhile.

Dad took me all around the winding and hilly streets off Main where lovely old homes boasted fresh paint, flower pots, new siding, roofs. In the spring light and already deep green of summer promised, I was seeing this little town anew. Possibilities.

I didn’t say a word to Dad. We drove, he dropped me off at the cafe while he did some errands. I went inside, got the scoop, sat with my laptop and searched for articles about Water Valley. That’s when I found the NY Times feature from 2012. Here were photos of the cafe, the mural painted on a building just up the street. The story of how these four young women and their partners restored their homes and many of the town’s storefronts and buildings, bringing art, music, whole food to its center.

I read the article aloud to Dad as we drove back to the cabin. And then, what with surgery looming and all the emotional turmoil I found myself in–how to navigate Dad’s needs, my impending divorce, letting go of my precious plans for the summer–I kinda forgot about Water Valley.

As Dad lay in surgery, I sat in the hospital waiting room and remembered to look on Craigslist for housing in Water Valley. Up popped the blue house (the owners call it The Blue House) and within the hour, I had an appointment to see it. I clicked on the photo link and there it was, the NY Times link. This house was one of the those featured in the 2012 article.

A few days later, the owner met me on the road below the front of the house. IMG_5106

Kagan Coughlin, businessman, community leader and entrepreneur and partner to Alexe who owns and runs the BTC  (Be The Change you want to see in the world) cafe and grocery, meets me at the mailbox. I look up at him (he’s ridiculously tall) and say, “Who are you and what is going on here???” He smiles and gives me a quick trip through his journey here. I am inspired by his fledgling Coding Academy housed above Alexe’s cafe in a gorgeous brick building on Main one block from where we stand. His inaugural class of 11 graduating high school seniors will all have jobs upon graduation in a few weeks. Kagan looks down at me and says, “I’ve read your blog. Now, I haven’t seen much, but from what I know, we want you in Water Valley.”

I ask him a few days later when he offers me the house if I can have a week to decide. This is a Monday morning. I’ve told Dad I’ve begun applying for work and I’ve found a house, that I am staying. That night, I search online for teaching jobs in North Mississippi and find that Oxford High School needs English teachers.

The next morning, Dad and I drive to Oxford for his first surgery follow-up appointment. I stand outside the office talking on the phone with a lovely, helpful woman at the state Dept of Education who tells me to “go for it.” She tells me all about the alternate certification programs available. The deadline for admittance is in two weeks. To be eligible, I have to take 4 Praxis tests. The course starts June 5th.

I walk into the room where they’ve taken Dad and tell him, “There’s a job at Oxford High School.” He smiles and says wryly, “We should call Rick.” Rick was my dad’s boss for the ten years Dad sold radio time for the SuperTalk Mississippi station out of Oxford. Rick’s wife is on the school board.  “I’ll call him in a couple days,” I say, and Dad says, “No, we should call right now.” Which he does. Candy calls me soon after telling me in her lilting southern drawl how she’s talked to the Principal, he’s waiting to get my application, he wants to meet me.

I’ve met Rick on several occasions, including my mom’s memorial service, but I’ve never met his wife.

This is small town South, and I have a feeling this is just the way things get done around here.

That evening, I sit in the closed library’s parking lot for internet service (Dad has none in cabin) and fill out the 20-page application.

The next morning, Dad and I are driving again to Oxford for another follow-up appointment. The phone rings. It’s the Assistant Principal saying they’ve read my application and would I come by? After Dad’s appointment, I spend 90 minutes talking with him and the Principal; we are spinning wheels trying to figure out how to get me there without my certification completed.

Phew. Really. This is how it all shakes out. I spend my final 10 days in Mississippi taking tests (two hours away in Starkville), helping Dad, planning. On May 1, as I sit in Charlotte during a layover on my way back to Boston, I get a call. “The job is yours.” They figured it out. I will teach all the Composition classes (dual credit college course with the neighboring community college), and because the college approves me, I don’t need to be certified for this year.


Job. House. Dad. Quiet, Countryside. The moon rising outside my bedroom window.

As I’ve written many times here on this blog this past year, since the day I got in my car and drove out of Raleigh, leaving my 30-year marriage, my home, my pups, a life I’d lived and known for over half my entire life, I have kept my head close to the ground–vibrations there–to my heart, and listened. Allowed. What comes into view comes into a receiving place. A willing place. And in this case of Water Valley, it is the same. There is no denying this.

This is what I tell that lovely cyclist named Cara on Sunday as we rode a few miles together along the bike path into Houlka. “What brings you to Mississippi?” My Dad. A divorce. A launched child. A new moment in my life. Because I can and all this bounty placed itself in my path.

She said, “You know, I love my husband (who was riding in front of us), but I’ve always wondered why I didn’t set my life up to be more independent.” She seemed genuinely happy for me. Genuinely understanding of this moment in my life.

“My marriage was troubled and dysfunctional and really really good,” I said to her. “In part, Fear kept me in it…” She looked over at me.houlka

“… Until it didn’t.”



IMG_5151 (002)

Last week, here in my new home, at this gorgeous table my big sis gifted me, I worked on the section “Shadow” I wrote in Lexington, MA back in March. This quote from Jan’s writings is in this section and comes to mind right now:


There are times in the life of every student and working musician when, without warning and often without a nameable cause, your ability to work and focus on music goes topsy-turvy and you find yourself wandering about in a kind of limbo. The days go by and you complete at least some tasks, but all without any of the sense of joy and exploration you usually bring to your life. This can be a time of the most intense discouragement and can often make you doubt your talent or your fitness for the profession of music. I want to insist a suggestion here from my personal experience and the observations of my students, that such times are very often prelude to a big growth spurt, a sudden and dramatic opening of doors long closed. We must embark on a path of constant growth and change, if we are to be true artists, but such change is often very cruel and hard in the doing; only yielding its gifts after much time and confusion. No one seems ever to be prepared for this version of “work” since much of it appears to be outside our direct control.  (From the writings of Jan DeGaetani, London and Rochester. Jan 2, 1989)

Something about fear and unrest and turmoil and trust.

I have been working very hard. And I have been giving over and giving up and letting some other work on me.

Can you tell? Can you tell the focus, the deeply rooted living I am experiencing? The rightness about staying here in the present, receiving and making and giving? I am so grateful for all of it: health, memories, opportunity to do more good work in all the ways I know how to do.

Stay with me. I promise you, the walk is the thing and I don’t want to do it alone. IMG_5093 (002)









Coming Up! My trip into Nashville, interviews with Conductor David Gilbert and composer Shulamit Ran, and a new Podcast venture I’m beginning with an old friend and neighbor, Joe Hill. Stay tuned!


About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in the hill country of North Central Mississippi where she's writing a book about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani and teaching writing at Oxford High School. Her work has been published in Poets and Writers magazine, Brevity, Zone 3, Literary Mama, and WILLA. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
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