Appalachia Natives: The Mountains Do Not Limit Us, We Do

I recently met with a former coal and gas executive from the Midwest. He used to travel to Central Appalachia – Eastern Kentucky – to supervise mining operations. This is same section of Central Appalachia where I was raised; in fact the mines he visited were within an hour or so from my childhood home.

He shared a couple of great Central Appalachia tales with me – gun-wielding grannies and copper thieves. But the most interesting description he gave was about how he felt in the mountains. He had never been in mountains so steep or been in a place where the sun comes up before you can see it and it disappears behind a mountain before it gets dark.

He said, “I felt claustrophobic.”

This made me think about how those mountains make me feel. To me those mountains are like a warm blanket surrounding, nurturing, and protecting all who walk under them. Keeping the good in and the bad out.

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Then I thought about how the landscape of the Midwest, where I live now, made me feel when I first arrived. The word that immediately came to mind was exposed. I felt exposed by the size of the sky, the distance of vision, and the constant wind. I have never been exposed to this much sky for this length of time (thus my fixation with sunrises and sunsets). In the mountains of Central Appalachia the sky is always framed with the jagged edges of tree limbs and mountaintops like a giant living, real-time painting.

This discussion reminded me of a quote from a book I read in college – Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington. Mr. Covington writes about his drive from Alabama to and through these very mountains and my hometown of Grundy, Virginia.

All along the highways through Tennessee and southwest Virginia, the signs were everywhere: Crazy Joe’s Fireworks, Jack Daniel’s whiskey, drag racing, turkey shoots, and barbecue. The South they suggested was straight out of the movies – idiosyncratic, lazy, restless, and self-absorbed. And that was what Jim and Melissa and I talked about on the drive, the discrepancy between the South of the popular imagination and the one we lived and worked in every day. But once the road narrowed and entered the mountains, the signs disappeared, replaced by mine tipples, mantrips, and long lines of train cars filled with coal that steamed in the rain. The last motels and hospital were at Grundy, Virginia, a mining town on the lip of a winding river between mountains so steep and irrational, they must have blocked most of the sun most of the day. It is difficult to imagine how children can grow up in such a place without carrying narrowed horizons into the rest of their lives.

But Grundy was an oasis compared with the country between it and Jolo.

He, like my friend, saw the mountains as hard – hard to adjust to, hard to live in, and hard to understand. They immediately saw the limitations of the mountains.

As a child of those mountains it never occurred to me that the mountains were limiting, restrictive, or negative. It never occurred to me that the mountains were preventing me from seeing something more. When I lived in the mountains I never missed the orange and pink glow of the sun as it came up and went down along the horizon. Rather, I enjoyed the light as it slowly lowered down the hillside in the morning and as it retreated up the hillside in the evening. Neither one is limiting, only different.

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The mountains were a vast playground of trees, moss, creeks, and rocks – where the only rule was to be back before dark. All of those hills, rocks, crevices, streams, and hollers were a big classroom for learning life skills. These are a few of my favorite lessons :

  • In order to walk down the side of a hill without falling adjust your stance, turn your feet horizontally and descend slowly.
  • If you want to create an extra source of water for yard work then you dam up a section of the creek, gravity feed the water down the holler, then pump it up the hillside.
  • Always make sure your walking stick is sturdy.
  • Never kill a black snake, because it eats the rodents.
  • Be careful what you do at the head of the holler because it will show up at the mouth – it all runs downhill.
  • Respect everyone and things that are bigger, stronger, and/or more powerful than you – the mountain, weather, a loaded coal truck, bears, and water.
  • Never kill a mama bear or a deer that isn’t big enough and throw the fish back. If you kill it, then you eat it. No waste.
  • Don’t be a wimp. Play when you are hurt, work when you are tired.
  • Never forget where you came from or deny your family.

All those lessons live on and color the life we make in and out of the mountains. Just like the mountains, those lessons are timeless. And what we learned from and in the mountains can carry us far beyond and right back to where we started, if we choose to wander.

The mountains don’t narrow our horizons, only we do that.

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A Christmas Wish: To Love Our Differences

I promised myself that I would not spend my holiday on my phone. But, I allowed myself one round of Facebook on Christmas Eve morning. I scrolled through the standard holiday wishes, complaints and celebrations about the unseasonably warm weather, political rhetoric of all sorts, and pictures of parties and food. But there was one post that caught my attention. I stopped and thought about the post. It made me feel both happy and sad.

A friend and colleague of mine posted a holiday wish that was different than the others. It was a sincere Christmas wish and blessing, for sure, but there was no decorated tree, nativity scene, Biblical quote about the birth of Jesus, or reminder about the “reason for the season.” All that was missing because my friend is a devout Muslim.

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This message is something very different from what I see in my social media feed, on the news, and in the world. It was lovely to see my friend support and respect his many Christian friends who don’t share his beliefs. He didn’t have to; he could have ignored Christmas like many Christians ignore or are unaware of the holidays he celebrates with his family. He clearly values his community and his friends, but even more I believe that he honors his own beliefs by honoring others. Even those who are not like him.

Ahmed’s thoughtful and loving message is a reminder that we don’t have to hate people who are different. Someone else’s beliefs are not by their mere existence an attack on my beliefs because they are different. We can love, serve, befriend, and care about those who are different from us without compromising our own values and beliefs.

My Christmas and New Year’s wish is that I and many others will make the choice to learn about and from our differences. Or at the very minimum learn to respect the different lives and beliefs of others – whether that difference is religious, political, socio-economic, a preference for Star Wars over Star Trek, or just a different accent.

That is love. And isn’t Christmas all about love? I believe it is.

 

Mountaineers Are Always Free: My Introduction to Roger May

When I travel I always endeavor to find something interesting to do other than the usual tourist attraction. This is especially true in places I’ve visited before.

Sometimes this involves music, like the time I happened upon a Billy Joe Shaver concert at an art opening in Houston. It was such a small event we were able to have a good long visit with Billy Joe (a national treasure). Other times it’s a museum exhibit. That is how I got to see the history of dresses (or something like that) at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

This week I was reminded of one of these experiences I had in Durham, North Carolina.

I was in Chapel Hill to see a friend and in a Google search prior to the trip I found an exhibit at a letterpress, graphic design, and print shop called Horse & Buggy Press. I had never heard of Horse & Buggy, and had no reason to, but was immediately drawn in by the name of the exhibit. It was called Testify: A Visual Love Letter to Appalachia by Roger May.

My childhood friend and I arrived at the print shop thinking this was as much an art gallery as a print shop. Not so much, but what we found was beautiful. While the majority of the first floor was a print shop there was a small lobby near the door that served as the gallery. Horse & Buggy printed Mr. May’s Testify, a limited edition, two-volume set of books featuring 50 photographs of Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. Some of the photographs from the books were displayed in frames on the shop’s walls near the front entrance.

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Mr. May’s photographs were stunning and moving. Many of his photographs in Testify were taken less than an hour away from my childhood home. He captured with great care scenes from Central Appalachia as it is and has been for most of my life. I immediately bought the books and currently display them on my living room coffee table. I see them every day.

I recently showed the books to my father, a life-long resident of Central Appalachia, who was a bit flippant about looking at them. I imagine he was thinking that I was forcing him to appreciate some silly art or weird music (he knows his child). That changed when he realized what he was looking at and then he slowed down, his face softened and he looked with interest and more care. He saw something he knew. He said “I drove by this last month.” It is an amazing thing to see the things and places that you love captured in beautiful and respectful ways. That is what Mr. May did in Testify and does in his work. He displays the truth and beauty of Central Appalachia, including its idiosyncrasies and flaws, in a caring and respectful way.

Mr. May’s description of Testify and its meaning is as lovely as the photographs –

This is my testimony of how I came to see the importance of home and my connection to place. After moving away as a teenager, I’ve struggled to return, to latch on to something from my memory. These images are a vignette into my working through the problem of the construction of memory versus reality. My work embraces the raw beauty of the mountains while keeping at arms length the stereotypical images that have tried to define Appalachia for decades.

Mr. May’s first run of Testify went on to sell out. Currently, there are not plans for a second edition (although I bet if Horse & Buggy gets enough requests they might just do one).

I had never heard of Mr. May until I stumbled upon Horse & Buggy. He describes himself as an Appalachian American photographer and is most recently well-known for his work on the Looking at Appalachia project. You can read about it in National Geographic and the New York Times blog. He has a fun Instagram feed (@walkyourcamera) and a giant tattoo on his chest that reads Montani Semper Liberi – Mountaineers are always free, the West Virginia state motto. He is serious about Appalachian and I love that.

This week on Instagram Mr. May announced that he is selling his personal copies of Testify on a first come first serve basis. That post reminded me of what a treasure I found in an unlikely place on a random afternoon in Durham.

I am grateful for Mr. May and his work and love for Appalachia. I am also grateful for adventures that lead me to wonderful new people and things.

App-uh-latch-uh

Appalachia is more than a place. The Appalachian Mountains are rich with customs, food and dialect that is not found anywhere else. Those mountains are at the core of the people who were raised there or have adopted it as home. The mountains become part of who we are, why we are, and how we go about what we do.

Great Smokey MountainsOne of the things that many Appalachia natives are particular about is how we say our name. This is also something that many people from elsewhere do not understand. In Central Appalachia, where I am from, it is app-uh-LATCH-uh, not app-uh-LAY-sha. I am told that there are people in Appalachia who were taught to use the latter pronunciation. Fair enough, I obviously get regional dialect. Please understand, when you say App-uh-LAY-sha in much of Appalachia people, in addition to knowing immediately that you are not a local, may think you are trying to be fancy or worse. How you say the word Appalachia matters.

As you can tell, I and many others feel strongly about this word. So, when stumbling around on the internet I found a company called Pronunciation Tees I was super excited. What do these people do? Well, they get me and my people. Pronunciation Tees produces t-shirts that proudly display the proper pronunciation of Appalachia – [app-uh-latch-uh].

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The moment I saw this shirt I had to have it. Oh, and it gets better, the mission statement of the company is to

Help raise awareness about the infection known as [app-a-lay-sha].

I encourage everyone to support these brave and creative folks. It’s cool, it’s fun, and it’s just plain right.

The Definition of Home

My Daddy says that home is wherever I am. Is it? Is home just about me?

Since I moved to the Midwest I find that trips home are bittersweet. Each visit usually ends in tears. I cry until I reach the Virginia/Kentucky state line, about twenty minutes. The difficulty leaving is directly proportional with the length of the stay. My last visit was especially rough. I cried all the way to Ferrell’s (pronounced Fur-ells) Creek, Kentucky, that is at least forty minutes. At a red light during this part of the drive I posted the following on Facebook: “I hate to leave.” And I do.

The Facebook post prompted some unexpected responses. I received a phone call from an old and beloved friend from my hometown. She thought I might be sad and she called to cheer me up, so sweet. She felt the same way when she had to leave her family in our little town. As she put it “it sucks to like your family.” Yes, it would be so much easier if I did not like my family. If I only tolerated them, as many do. Next I received a message from another dear friend who grew up two towns away from my hometown. He told a similar story – he struggled with leaving home after visits too. He described the difficulty in explaining to his parents that “it is harder on the person leaving than it is on those who stay behind.” It is. I agree. My family gets to stay there in the known, while I have to go back to a place and a thing that I haven’t completely figured out or found comfortable.

Mommy & Daddy's HouseI, like these two friends, have an intense connection to home, the place and its mountains. I feel that where I am from is very much a part of my identity. You can hear the mountains when I talk. The culture of the mountains is apparent in the music I love, the food I eat, my behavior and the choices that I make. It is more than just a place.

Sunset on the HollerI also have a remarkable relationship with my family (Mommy, Daddy, Sister, Brother-in-law, The Princess and the Benevolent Dictator). We aren’t perfect. But we do like each other, genuinely. I call it remarkable because I have had friends who are surprised that I talk with my family almost daily, we vacation together and, as one ex-boyfriend put it, “you all know a lot about each other.” And we do. We enjoy one another’s company whether it is at home watching 12 hours of nonstop college football coverage, walking around a Disney park like it’s a job or driving through California in a minivan. We have fun. We are also a fiercely loyal bunch. No matter what there are at least 6 people who will always be on my side. Where else do you find that?

Of course, I am sad to leave them. I am sad to leave a place that I know so well. A place where nearly every mile contains another story, another memory. So, when I leave I cry.

Sunrise near the state lineI never cry when I leave Fort Wayne. It is a nice place. I love my job and my little house here, but that isn’t enough to induce tears. It is not home. Home, for me, isn’t about where I am. Home is the people and place that you cannot wait to get to and cannot bear to leave.

Home isn’t something that follows me. It is something that I return to, again and again.

Why Being Single During the Holidays is a Good Thing

Holiday parties, church services, gift exchanges, mistletoe, endless romantic comedies set during Christmas and New Year’s Eve and family events are all things that can make the holidays painful for single people.

It is a time when the volume of coupled people seems exaggerated due to all the festivities. Family events will inevitably present the well-meaning cousin who goes on and on about why you aren’t married. Of course, this happens just before the single family member is placed at the kid’s table for dinner or asked to run errands. Then there are the work parties where you are the only one at the table without a plus one. And it all winds up with the New Year’s Eve party where the single finds his or herself standing alone or keeping the wait staff company when everyone else is kissing in the new year.

All this can make single folks feel even more single and alone.

Needless to say, it is easy to focus on the negatives of being single at the holidays. But the truth is that it isn’t all bad. In fact, I believe there is a strong argument that it is better, or at least more fun, to be single during the holidays. I have talked to a number of married and single friends and from those discussions have compiled the following list of common responses to the question: What is the best thing about being single at the holidays?

It is all your own family or nothing: No in-laws.

Every major holiday, every year, I hear friends, colleagues and others complain about eating multiple Thanksgiving dinners and visiting several houses for Christmas celebrations. The thought of spending Thanksgiving or Christmas Day on a progressive celebration from house to house and town to town sounds exhausting and not very merry to me. As a single person I only have to participate in my family’s holiday festivities. I don’t have to see anyone but my family. Thanksgiving this year I arrived home on Wednesday afternoon and did not go outside the house again until I left Sunday morning to return to Indiana. I know my family, I like all of them and as a single going home for celebrations is one stop. This makes me happy.

I understand some people do not like their own family and for those people, being single is best because…

You can make all your own plans — no compromising.

When you are single it is much easier to skip or opt out of the holidays if you wish. Doing this will only make one family angry, your own. A friend recently reported that his colleague was trying to decide whether to go to Bali or Taiwan during Christmas. She is single.

You only buy half the gifts (or even less) than you would if you were coupled.

You only have to buy for, again, your own family and friends. No worrying about what to get your spouse’s step-mother that you see twice a year, eclectic sister or golf buddy.

No relationship gift drama.

A good friend recently starting dating someone. They like each other and are a good match, but a new relationship around the holidays can be tricky. What do you get someone for Christmas when you’ve only been dating a couple months? You don’t want to send the wrong message. If you spend too much then are you setting a precedent? If you buy something personal it might mean you are more serious than you are at this point? But, if you buy an impersonal gift, like a gift card, does that say the relationship isn’t important and that you might be just friends? Will your gifts be equal in meaning, cost and relationship implications? It is complicated stuff. Complicated stuff that singles can skip.

People expect less of you.

This is one of the societal expectations about marriage that works in favor of the singles. A single person might get parked at the kids’ table for Christmas dinner or asked to sleep on the floor, but they won’t be expected to do all the decorating, party hosting and card sending. Also, if you are living on one income people often expect less expensive gifts from you. All good things.

You still have the option to meet people at all those holiday parties.

Or as my friend Matty put it, you still have the chance to meet that “one person” while doing your last-minute shopping on Christmas Eve. Either way, whether you are shopping or working the room at a holiday party, it is a hopeful time. It is a time when there are many people out and about who are usually happy and having fun. What better environment to make new friends?

If you are single this Christmas and New Year’s then I challenge you to embrace it. Enjoy the freedom to make your own plans, be with only the people who you love, avoid all the drama and be open to whatever or whoever might cross your path.

Cheers!

101 Reasons Why I am Thankful

I am a big fan of gratitude. I make lists of things I am thankful for and I drop notes of thankfulness into my gratitude jar regularly. Without gratitude I miss the opportunity to celebrate what I have – to experience the joy of a blessed life, and to see the greatness in everyday, ordinary moments.

Great everyday, ordinary moments are all around. In fact, when I put the list you are about to read together I originally did it without numbering and before I stopped I was up to 135. I could have gone on and on. There is so much to be thankful for – so much that is so easily taken for granted.

Thank YouHere are 101 reasons – of an innumerable list – why I am thankful.

  1. A gracious, merciful, and patient God
  2. Physical health
  3. A sound mind
  4. Healthy & loving parents
  5. A Mommy who is fearless and kind
  6. A Daddy who is a feminist and a real man
  7. Supportive & loving sister who says things like “it’s just money, you’ll make more.”
  8. Nieces that I know and love
  9. Secret 8:00 a.m. calls from the Benevolent Dictator to talk about her favorite TV show
  10. Traveling with the Princess
  11. A brother-in-law that isn’t just the guy my sister married, he’s a good dad, a great guy, and the brother I never had
  12. Chosen family – lifelong neighbors, church folks, and friends
  13. The Cosmic Sisters who persevere
  14. My law school friends who have all changed but are delightfully still the same
  15. My oldest friends who are always there and are doing amazing things with their lives despite opposition
  16. New friends who are just as special as the old ones
  17. The great ladies of prayer and faith – you, sweet ladies, hold the rest of us together
  18. Guy friends
  19. Scout – I was once told she was the canine version of me, but I think I’m probably the human version of her
  20. Cousins
  21. Aunts and Uncles
  22. Food on my table – even if it never again includes pizza or beer
  23. A reliable car
  24. A job that regularly exceeds my expectations
  25. Colleagues who care about my life and my future
  26. An employer with values and ethics who isn’t afraid to show it
  27. An education that I probably take for granted – I learned so much more than what the diplomas reflect
  28. Books – they change my life a little bit everyday
  29. Ex-boyfriends
  30. Dancing, anywhere and everywhere you want – why I have a big kitchen
  31. Music, it makes everything a little better
  32. Mountains
  33. Ocean
  34. Grundy, Virginia, for without it I would not be me
  35. Opaque tights
  36. Dresses
  37. Sparkly socks
  38. Buying the perfect gift for someone
  39. Sunsets, anywhere
  40. Getting a surprise card in the mail – I hope the postal service exists forever
  41. My backyard
  42. A fire – in the fireplace, fire pit, or at foot of Mom and Dad’s driveway
  43. Hot tea
  44. Vitamix
  45. The words thank you
  46. Prayers
  47. Waking up without an alarm
  48. Art of all kinds – it is even better when it is hanging on my walls
  49. Photography
  50. Freedom – from tyranny and from having to clear my schedule through anyone else
  51. The separation of church and state
  52. My house
  53. My parents’ house, which will always be home
  54. The words I love you
  55. Hugs, which I cannot live without
  56. A couch good for napping
  57. Ability to help people
  58. Personal and professional mentors
  59. Traveling
  60. A screened in porch in the summer
  61. Apple – my MacBook, my iPhone, my iPad
  62. People who wave when you let them into traffic
  63. Airplanes
  64. The sound of a baby laughing
  65. Crying – happy or sad – it means your alive and you can feel things
  66. Grace, given and received
  67. Unselfish people
  68. Lists
  69. Sharpie markers
  70. Laughing until you can’t breathe
  71. Garage
  72. Physicians who listen
  73. Parents who are still willing and happy to parent 36 years later
  74. Hot water
  75. The Bible
  76. Turtleneck sweaters
  77. Holding hands
  78. Warm breeze
  79. Sunrises
  80. Dog walks
  81. Naps
  82. Making someone you like smile
  83. Netflix
  84. Four seasons – I appreciate this more since it seems that Fort Wayne only has 2.5
  85. Silence
  86. Bravery – including soldiers, sailors, police officers, firemen, and refugees
  87. Text messages
  88. Old people and babies
  89. Faithfulness
  90. The truth – in all situations
  91. Indoor plumbing
  92. Tires
  93. Tradesmen (some of the smartest people I know; electricians can do anything)
  94. Love – all the different kinds of it
  95. Choices – you always have one
  96. Writing
  97. The Internet
  98. Women who know that it’s wrong to hurt other women, personally and professionally
  99. Silliness
  100. Confidence
  101. Mix tapes – yes, I know they are CDs and playlists now, but I refuse to stop saying mix tapes

I hope your holiday weekend is full of loveliness and gratitude.