Fall in the Midwest Remembers Spring at the Four Seasons in Nevis

Last week while driving through rural Indiana I caught a glimpse of a soybean field at that special moment when it is green, yellow, and brown at the same time. I immediately stopped in the middle of the road. This is one of those moments, like the turning of the leaves, that change daily. You can’t wait until tomorrow to capture that view, because by tomorrow it will have changed.

It is pretty.

But, it is also a sign. A sign that fall is upon us and that winter is coming. The combines have started to churn up dust on the horizon. At night you can see the eerie glow of the combine lights as they work. Fresh apples are everywhere and the leaves will changes colors soon. This is all part of the opening act for the Midwestern winter – first comes harvest, then the leaves disappear, the wind quickly becomes unbearable, and then the snow. Maybe it will be an easy winter, maybe it will be another harsh one – it is impossible to predict. No one knows.

I looked at those soybean fields and my mind took me right back to my 5 days on the island of Nevis, West Indies in May. It is shocking how quickly a thought of winter will prompt my amygdala to paint scenes of sandy beaches and ocean sunsets in my mind.

I realized earlier this year that I was going to need a real break. I would need a vacation that was more than a stay-cation but less than an over-scheduled-experience-everything-possible vacation. A cousin and a dear friend both recommended Nevis after taking trips there (separately – they don’t know each other). So I signed up, with much less research than I normally do before committing to a trip.

I was a bit nervous about going alone. Traveling alone on a trip with a lot of activities is easy and I do that all the time, but I wondered if I would be happy being alone with nothing much to do for 5 days. But, I went anyway.

I am glad I did.

I spent five peaceful, refreshing, and fabulous days at the Four Seasons Resort on Nevis. It was so lovely that I did not leave the resort. Why would you – there are walking trails, 4 restaurants, 3 pools, watersports, and plenty of perfect beach right there.

It was the best solo trip I have ever taken – walks, reading, laying by the ocean, and making new friends. Dinners were amazing – the two fine dining restaurants Mango and the Coral Grill, were able to create celiac-friendly meals and legitimately seemed to enjoy doing it. The staff members were lovely. They learned my name and preferences quickly and made me feel right at home – so much so that I got goodbye hugs on my last night at Mango. It was an easy place to be.

I returned like new – calm, focused, and ready to get back to life until the next break. So, this winter when I am wondering when it is going to stop snowing I am going to remember Nevis to remind me that winter isn’t all that long. That should hold me over until Hawaii in January.

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.

Testify

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.

My Appalachian Accent: You Aren’t From Here Are You?

This week I met a woman who seemed surprised that I still have an accent after living in Northeast Indiana for nearly five years.

Her surprise made me think about the regular conversations I have about my accent and dialect. The following is an example of a typical exchange that occurs multiple times a week, still, with new colleagues, business people, clerks, tellers, and others I talk to as I go about my life (I talk a lot).

Me: Hi, how’re you?

Midwesterner: Fine. You aren’t from here are you? You sound Southern. (It really comes this quickly.)

Me: No

Midwesterner: Where are you from? (Sometimes they guess and when they do it is most often Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, or Kentucky in that order. The people who guess the last two know accents. The first two are way off).

Me: I am from Virginia.

Midwesterner: Really? What part? (As it turns out, many people do not consider Virginia Southern or Appalachian and are shocked that my accent could come from Virginia.)

Me: Southwestern Virginia in the mountains near Kentucky.

Midwesterner: Oh, yeah, West Virginia.

Me: No, but West Virginia is only about 15 minutes from my Mommy’s house.

Midwesterner (usually looking confused): When did you move?

Me: Four and a half years ago.

Midwesterner: Oh. Really? You’ve been here a while. (Looking shocked).

People assume that after five years I would talk differently, less like me and more like them. Sometimes they say it directly and others just offer a surprised “oh.”

This is the problem when you have a pronounced accent and dialect and you don’t do a lot of code switching. Code switching is defined by dictionary.com as the alternate use of two or more languages or varieties of language, especially within the same discourse. Code switching as it relates to Appalachian dialects and accents is discussed in a delightful post on The Revivalist.

My accent and dialect are pretty standard Central Appalachian. I do not have the thickest accent compared some other people from the mountains of Southwest Virginia, Southern West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee, and Western North Carolina. My accent and dialect have not changed much since leaving home in 1997. Although I have noticed that occasionally instead of saying r-eye-ght I will say right in a more neutral accent and ain’t slips out far less than it used to. My brother-in-law recently called me out for saying “soda” instead of “coke” or “pop.” Otherwise, my accent is pretty static.

When I moved to the Midwest I assumed that people would take note of my accent as it happens quite often in other places, even in some parts of Central and Northern Virginia. I dealt with this in college at the University of Virginia, as I have traveled through the United States and the world, and most recently and intensely in my time in the Midwest.

Most people are nice about it, even though they sometimes point out my accent as though they are pointing out a pimple or a gray hair. They say that they think it is cute or charming. Sometimes this goes too far when I am asked to “talk some more” as though I am a performer. While others, not realizing how personally I take the way I talk, might crack a joke about my family tree or being a hillbilly or redneck, but they are not the worst. There is a small group that I encounter from time to time who judge me immediately as ignorant, racist, or wrong.

My accent immediately gives people information about me and it is always filtered through the listener’s opinions of Southerners, and more specifically Appalachians. Recently, I’ve heard “maybe if you stay here long enough you’ll learn how to talk.” This Midwesterner was teasing when she said it, but I believe, as it has often been said, that there is an ounce of truth in all teasing. Then there was “it’s because you sound so different,” offered as a reason for the people not being welcoming. Right or wrong, it is clear that people have a hard time ignoring or accepting a different accent without question or comment.

When I moved to the Midwest I realized that I could hear my own accent. Everyone else sounds different and it makes my accent audible to me, which was a first. At home I don’t notice, because everyone sounds similar. So, I know what my accent sounds like and I am okay with it. In fact, I love it. I love it because I hear the mountains in my voice. I hear words and sayings that my parents use and things my grandmother said. There is history, heritage, and culture in my accent and dialect. I think it is interesting and special. As the writer in The Revivalist post noted “Appalachian accents are like no other.”

But I have noticed that I am a bit weary of explaining the way I talk. There is a kind of lonely in living in a place where no one talks the way I do. It certainly draws people in and creates conversation, but not always in a comfortable way. And there is a fear that those that ask about it and some who don’t are assuming the worst about me.

Over the years I have heard friends from home say that they hate our accent. Many of those friends moved away and made a conscious effort to change the way they talk. While I will never consciously change my accent or dialect, I understand better now why others do. I will work hard to keep my accent, but my experience in the last five years makes me empathetic for my Appalachian friends and family who made those changes. I get why they did it.

It can be tough living in a place where no one sounds like you.

Reminder: Most People Are Good (Save Watkins the Dog)

Most people are good.

I was reminded of this by my friend Lisa. I met Lisa when we were tweens, I think. She came on the family beach trip (the one most of us fondly remember as “the beach trip from hell”) with my cousin and she has been around the family ever since. I believe she has even made a couple of trips to family events in Grundy, Virginia. Now she lives in Boston, far from Grundy.

Several weeks ago I got a Facebook message from her asking about a horrifying report that was on local news in Grundy and was spreading around the Internet about a dog that had been abused. I told Lisa that people I knew back home seemed to be on the case. I responded like most people, probably, I thought it was sad but moved on quickly. Not Lisa. She was clearly moved by this dog’s plight. So, she did something about it, from Boston.

Eighteen days ago she started a GoFundMe page for this dog, his name is Watkins, within 2-3 days she raised $10,000 for him. The total today is at $26,862.

Lisa is busy. She has a job, family, friends, and a life (in a super cool city). But she stopped what she was doing and made time to help this critically ill dog. This dog that can’t do a thing for her. A dog she has never seen in person.

What a lovely example of passionate service.

Thank you, Lisa for being a fabulous example of love and kindness and to the kind volunteers and veterinarians who are caring for this dog.

If you are an animal lover I encourage you to check out the GoFundMe site or the Buchanan County Humane Society Facebook page to learn more about Watkins.

The Gift of Unexpected Kindness

Her name is Maryanne. She was so sweet on the phone. I was having trouble coordinating schedules to ensure that I would have a driver to take me to and from my regularly screening colonoscopy. She patiently took my third call attempting to schedule the procedure.

We confirmed the new date. I told her, frustrated, that “I would figure out how to get to and from the procedure.” She responded by kindly suggesting that I take advantage of a service that drives people to and from the doctor in just these circumstances. She had not gotten the suggestion out of her mouth before I burst into tears.

The kind of crying that makes it almost impossible to talk. I was embarrassed to be so upset with a stranger over something so minor, on the surface. I was sad that I was in the position to have someone suggest that I pay someone to take me to the doctor.* She sat silently while I pulled myself together, which was only a few seconds, but to me felt like forever.

She was gentle with me as we ended the call and I moved on with my day. I figured, I will never meet Maryanne and surely she has heard or seen worse.

Two days later I received my instructions from the doctor on the prep and instructions for the procedure. I sat down on the porch with a cup of tea, it had been a long day, and opened the envelope. I read the doctor’s order, the prep instructions, and the forms I need to complete – all standard stuff. I noticed the last sheet of paper had handwriting on it, which seemed strange. I pulled out that sheet and found a note from Maryanne.

In a neat cursive, she had taken the time to share her story with me. She moved to town when she was in her twenties and had felt very alone. In a teary moment, probably similar to mine, she had called her mother for comfort. Her mother sent her a poem. To the right of Maryanne’s handwriting was a copy of the poem, First Lesson by Philip Booth. Now, years later, she was passing along the poem her mother had given her, to me – a lovely gift.

I read the poem as I sat in the quiet of the porch, the Indiana wind blowing through the screens, and sipped my tea. It was helpful. But more than the poem, knowing that there are people, like Maryanne, in the world who are willing to respond to my flood of unintentionally expressed (and uncomfortable) feelings and raw vulnerability with something so kind and comforting. She did not have to. I am grateful she did, grateful that a stranger took the time to say – me too – I’ve been there too.

This reminds me that empathy and kindness are never wrong.

So, I give the text of Maryanne’s poem and hope that someone reads this and finds something helpful and kind here too.

First Lesson

Lie back daughter, let your head

be tipped back in the cup of my hand.

Gently, and I will hold you. Spread

your arms wide, lie out on the stream

and look high at the gulls. A dead-

man’s float is face down. You will dive

and swim soon enough where this tidewater

ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe

me, when you tire on the long thrash

to your island, lie up, and survive.

As you float now, where I held you

and let go, remember when fear

cramps your heart what I told you:

lie gently and wide to the light-year

stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

Philip Booth

*I have a non-hired driver for my appointment and at least one back-up in place, just in case.

Fort Wayne Music: The B-Side

Have you ever wanted to hear your favorite band play in your living room? Just an evening with your closest friends and some live music.

You probably can’t make that happen, but seeing a show at One Lucky Guitar’s (OLG) B-Side is your next best option.

IMG_1769The B-Side space is located within the OLG design and marketing boutique. It is self-described as super intimate and urban, seating around 60 people. The mirrored fireplace and generous windows balance the exposed brick and open ceiling to give you the effect of being at home or in the coolest venue in the city.

My first B-Side experience was the most recent show – Rayland Baxter. The show was electric and the acoustics were great. The space, which is lovely, is set up to allow the artist to be as casual and comfortable as possible. There is no stage so the artist is amongst the crowd, which allows for an unusual visual perspective. This and the small size let’s the artist interact with the audience in personal and unusual ways – like a living room gathering of your closest friends.

The B-Side is a unique space featuring high quality acts, including Lloyd Cole later this month. Can you imagine, Lloyd Cole in your living room?

If you are a music lover in Northeast Indiana you should make seeing a show at the B-Side a priority.

The “Sickest Town In America” Short on Facts, Large on Stereotypes

“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” Sir John Lubbock

On January 22, 2015, The Atlantic published a feature by Olga Khazan – Life in the Sickest Town in America. Ms. Khazan, who lives in Washington, D.C., subtitles her piece with this sentence: “I drove from one of the healthiest counties in the country to the least healthy, both in the same state.” The town she bills as the sickest town in the country is my hometown – Grundy, Virginia.

When I am asked the question: Where are you from? I give the same answer every time. I am from Grundy, Virginia. Although I now live out-of-state, when I think of my hometown I think of the most beautiful, kind, and loyal place. And when I return to Grundy, as I do frequently, I find exactly that. When we go to Grundy, Ms. Khazan and I, we look for different things, and we both find what we are looking for. I find a place to be proud of and she finds a backward, sad, desperate community that time forgot.

Ms. Khazan attempts to illuminate some important issues that many towns in Appalachia struggle with – health and well-being, health care access, the disability system, and the decline of the coal mining industry. Sadly, though, any positive intent and material she may have had or presented were overwhelmed by her exaggerated, inaccurate, and stereotypical portrayal of Grundy as a poor, sick, and backward Appalachian town.

Ms. Khazan, a staff writer covering health for The Atlantic, isn’t the first reporter who has come to our little town from the big city with her own vision of what is in Appalachia. Perhaps colored by visions from old black and white photographs, it appears these reporters come to town to search for old women in aprons standing by outhouses, long lines of coal miners leaving the mine with picks and shovels over their shoulders, or dirt roads populated by nothing but camp houses and trailers. Some of those things still exist in Appalachia, but those visions and pictures are not the predominant way of life in the region or in Grundy. However, as Ms. Khazan has demonstrated, if you look for it, you will find it. This approach to journalism is a disappointment and a disservice to the people of Grundy and the readers of The Atlantic.

Ms. Khazan, in addition to various statistics on unemployment, receipt of disability checks, and some health statistics, supports her claim that Grundy is the sickest town in America with a visit to the Buchanan County Remote Area Medical (RAM) event. RAM is an annual event where hundreds of people are provided free health care, including general medicine, dental, women’s health, and vision services. The event in Grundy draws people from beyond the local area. You can find people from Eastern Kentucky, Southern West Virginia and other counties in Southwest Virginia at the event. The article does not mention that the patients at the RAM event come from a large area; rather it would have you believe that this event is only for local citizens and the immediate surrounding area. This is a misstatement. But let’s give the benefit of the doubt here and assume that Ms. Khazan simply failed to ask the right questions to elicit this information or to perform a basic Google search on RAM.

But that doesn’t explain the bigger misstatements in her article. Ms. Khazan takes the typical Appalachian stereotype one step further. She states “But if this place has the scenery of the Belgian Ardennes, it has the health statistics of Bangladesh.” With little evidence, she pronounces Grundy to be the equivalent of a third world country. She offers no analysis, only a link to the Buchanan County health statistics. It is a sensational line, but it is a shallow and unfair comparison. Health care access is a universal problem, it is in small towns and big cities and everywhere in between.

The RAM event in Buchanan County is held at a large, modern elementary/middle school that serves around 1000 students from kindergarten to eighth grade. The article describes the building as one of the “few buildings, really” in Grundy. In truth, there are new and old buildings within the town limits, including the three-building Appalachian School of Law campus, a brand new Baptist church, a Masonic temple, two new two-story retail and commercial buildings, a two-story parking garage with a Wal-Mart atop it, a movie theatre, a bank building, a historic courthouse, and numerous other buildings.

In order to reach Riverview Elementary Ms. Khazan had to drive past all these buildings.[1] Additionally, outside the town limits, but within the county and on her route into Grundy, she had to drive past the two-building Appalachian College of Pharmacy campus, a 50,000+ SF Food City grocery store, various restaurants, retail stores, and churches. So, for Ms. Khazan’s article to state that the school is one of the few buildings in town is completely and totally inaccurate. However, it does support her vision of an Appalachia that is a desolate, sad, and empty place.

To Ms. Khazan’s credit, the article fairly addresses some of the economic and social issues in the area related to health and the decline of the coal industry. However, the article completely misses an opportunity to explore local efforts to improve this economic situation. For example, the article never mentions the local government efforts to revitalize the economy through higher education, which has produced both a fully accredited pharmacy school and law school, or other efforts, which are numerous. If Ms. Khazan had approached this article, and Grundy, with an open mind, she may have gotten a better story – one that showcased ideas that are innovative, progressive, and that showed the enterprising spirit of an unexpected area of the country. The truth is, Grundy is a place that is trying to improve, to change, to survive, in spite of the economic and social issues that Ms. Khazan mentions. But that truth doesn’t fit within the Appalachian stereotype of ignorance and helplessness that she was looking for.

Ms. Khazan is nothing if not committed to impressing her stereotypical beliefs upon The Atlantic readers, even if that proves a difficult task. Relying on Martin Wegbreit, the director of a legal aid society in Richmond, VA (350 miles away), she states, “there are only a few paved roads in the county.” When I contacted the Buchanan County Highway Engineer he reported that 93% (421 miles out of approximately 450 total miles) of the state maintained primary and secondary roads in the county are paved. Ms. Khazan’s route to Riverview Elementary/Middle School for RAM, and assuming she actually went to the law school and social services to conduct her interviews, would have taken her on Routes 83 and 460. Both roads are state maintained paved roads. I confirmed with the county engineer that there are no dirt roads that intersect with Route 460 or Route 83. It is hard to imagine that Ms. Khazan encountered a dirt road while in Grundy, and if she did it was one that she went looking for because they are very hard to find. Instead of relying upon local sources or her own experience she choose to report as fact the remarks of someone sitting behind a desk 350 miles away.

What’s not hard to find in Grundy? Grocery stores. Ms. Khazan relied again on Martin Wegbreit, when he told her that Grundy did not have a grocery store until recently. This is laughable. The chain of Food City grocery stores, which includes 96 locations through Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, is owned by a family from Grundy who opened their first store in Grundy in 1955. Grundy currently has three large grocery stores, including Wal-Mart. Ms. Khazan drove by all three of these grocery stores during her visit to Grundy. Yet, she reported totally inaccurate information.

I was not present at the interview with Martin Wegbreit so I am not sure what he said but if he indeed said what he is quoted as saying, I will simply state that Martin Wegbreit lives in Richmond, and is not a journalist purporting to report fact.

In this feature, Ms. Khazan picked few named sources, but instead relies upon generalizations like “the majority of the people I talked to were missing some of their teeth.” She picked her subjects at a free clinic that provides dental services. So, I imagine that was true. But she doesn’t explain that; she would rather imply that Grundy is full of people with no teeth. That is the image she wants to sell.

The bottom line is that the picture Ms. Khazan attempted to paint is not true. It is not true that most people do not have teeth. It is not true that most homes are trailers. It is not true that the only restaurants are Dairy Queen, Long John Silvers, and Pizza Hut. It is not true that everyone has an immediate family member injured in the mines. It is not true that all the women are obese. It is not true that the county started in farming; it was logging. It is not true that the county is devoid of highly educated professionals. It not true that all the people are sad, poor, and trapped. So much of what she said and implied is not true.

I have only mentioned a few of the gross inaccuracies reported by Ms. Khazan, but the unmentioned are no less offensive and untrue.

These misrepresentations are hurtful. It hurts her credibility; what little good she may have been trying to do is overcome by her need to prop up the stereotypes of Appalachia. But Ms. Khazan will move on, she will write more and better pieces, and her career will continue to advance. She will be fine. So, the real pain inflicted by this kind of journalism is inflicted, once again, on the good people of Appalachia, the good people from Grundy.

Yes, the area has problems; it struggles in some ways, like many cities and towns in the U.S. But it is a unique, beautiful, and good place filled with good people. It is a place driven by honor (read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, chapter six) and family. It is a place that for many is inescapable, not because they are trapped there, but because the love and connection to place and family is too strong to leave or stay gone. The pain is that we cannot make people look at Appalachia and see beyond the negative image and antiquated stereotypes. We cannot make people see what they refuse to look for to find what we know is there.

[1] Grundy is indeed a small town. Three state roads serve as the primary routes in and out of the county (Routes 460, 80 and 83). Routes 460 and 83 are the primary routes into the town of Grundy. The route Ms. Khazan could have taken to reach her Grundy destination is therefore limited and obvious.

I no longer live in Grundy, VA. However, I lived in Appalachia for 30 years and 25 of those years were in Grundy. While I left most recently in 2011 for a career opportunity in the Midwest I return at least 5 times a year to visit my immediate family. The mountains of Southwest Virginia are part of my identity. The love, loyalty, respect, and hard work that those mountains taught my parents and grandparents lives on in me. In the words of Hazel Dickens “can’t you feel those hills around you, can’t you feel that touch of home, don’t you wish you’d never gone, there are some things memories can’t bring home.” I miss Southwest Virginia everyday. There’s nowhere else like it.

Whitney Caudill