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.

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.

What I’ve Learned from the Sun

I have always loved a sunset, but since moving to the Midwest I have fallen in love with the movements of the sky. I have try to watch as many sunsets and sunrises as possible; in four years I have seen hundreds. I make a special effort to watch them on certain days ­– my birthday, the new year, or when I need a reminder of just what a little speck that I am in this universe or how I am part of a large, unknowable plan.

The first thing I did on the first day of this year was get in my car and drive to my spot, a church parking lot at the edge of my subdivision, to watch the sun come up. In the silence I watched the light glow above the horizon and tree line. Then the sun slowly inched across the sky. As I did I made a list of the things I want to do and do better this year (no resolutions, just observations and promises to myself).

New Years Sunrise

When my list was long enough I stopped and put my phone down. I thought about how long I’ve been walking or driving to this spot to observe the sun. What have I learned from it? Is there anything to be taken from watching the two most physically beautiful parts of the day? It did not take long to realize the lessons and reminders that I can take from observing the sun.

The earth, the divine, speaks lessons and reminders, if we will listen. As I sat in the car, window down and seat heater on, a list of these lessons and reminders came quickly to mind.

Always look behind you.

RainbowsThe sun rises in the east and it does amazing things. But, that is not where all the action is. Look west. There is often something just as beautiful behind me. During a sunrise it is a pale pink glow on a clear day, other times the reflection of the sun’s glow on clouds, and if I am lucky, it’s a rainbow inspired by the morning dew. At sunset it’s the ombre of blue to purple to black layered from west to east. In the morning and night I look to the north and south and see more of that pink glow, carbon trails drawing pictures in sky reflecting the light in different ways, or long flat clouds that seem to go on forever.

I spend so much time looking in one direction – what I want, need, or where I am going down the road. If I’m not careful my laser focus causes me to miss things just as lovely, and important, that are happening in and around me. It is never just about what is in front of me. Situations look different depending on the point of view; sometimes I have to change my perspective to get to where I’m going.

Be patient.

Stalking sunsets and sunrises takes effort. It also takes practice. I can’t just show up at the exact time the weather channel says that the sun will set. I’ll miss it. This is especially true of ocean sunsets, if I look away for a second or stop watching for a moment to mess with my camera I’ll miss it. I have to find my spot and get there early. This might mean getting up early or staying late. It makes me work for it.

Pacific

Don’t all things worth having, seeing, or keeping take a little (or a lot) of work? The sun might be free, but it isn’t easy.

Embrace silence.

I like to talk. Frankly, I need to talk (my poor mother used to pray for 5 minutes of silence when I was a child).  If I am not talking I am playing music or running the television in the background. The sun, though, does all its work silently. Most of the year it does its work when the world is quiet – no traffic, little work, and before or after most people have gone inside.

The sun in some ways demands silence. I have watched sunsets with people and 100% of the time everyone becomes quiet as we watch. No one says, be quiet or shhhh. Your spirit just knows to quiet itself – to embrace the peace of it, to stand in awe and reverence of the divine.

It is a lovely time – a new day or the end of one – to think, pray, reflect, or whatever I need to do. A time to be quiet and still. A time to listen to that still small voice.

Summer Sunset

I can’t always see what is next, but I trust it will be good.

Recently a friend died unexpectedly. I found out on a Friday. As it goes with these things, I spent much of the day trying to understand and thinking about my life and its fragility. Understanding did not come, nor did I expect it. That understanding will only come, as Dolly would sing, “farther along.” But the lack of understanding hung there reminding me that I am not in control and I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

LorinThe next morning I woke up, threw on my slippers and a jacket over my night-clothes. I drove to my spot to watch the sunrise. It was late fall and the sun had shifted behind a cluster of trees. I would not be able to see the sun itself until it was up and clear of the woods, a quarter of the way up. I waited and watched the light start to glow through and then above the trees. I knew what was coming but I couldn’t see it yet. As I waited I was reminded that just because I can’t see what’s next doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be wonderful. It is so easy to feel like things are not moving fast enough or going where I want them to go. But no matter how I feel, I believe there is something good ahead, just beyond what I can see. I believe it because I’ve seen it before.

Sometimes a memory is all I get to take with me.

My sister is great fun. Once when I was a teenager and she was living at home we had a particularly fun weekend. The following week I told her that I’d like to do it again. She told me it was fun but “those times are like bubbles, they last for a little while and then they pop. You can’t repeat them.” She was right.

Sunset and sunrises are beautiful, sometimes so much so that I can’t capture them in a picture. Even when I try the picture is so disappointing that I just delete it. There is a level of pretty that just doesn’t translate (at least not with an iPhone camera).

There are some things that so are beautiful that I can’t capture with anything but my mind, my memories. I get frustrated with the limits of my equipment and ability to share what I have seen, but that reminds me that some things, people, and experiences are meant just for me, not to be shared. The things that I keep for myself are the most precious.

Pink

I try to find something beautiful in every day. On days when I can’t accept beauty in myself, in others, or in the events of the day, I can find it in the sky. Even on a cloudy day. So, as the sun demands, I will stop and listen to what it has to say in its beautiful silence.

Summer Sunsets

I can’t deny it any longer.

Last week I turned off the air conditioning and haven’t turned on the heat. I do my very best to delay turning on the heat. I am not yet sure whether that is stubbornness, denial or both. But today there is a chill in the air inside the house.

Suddenly, every Saturday morning I regret my choice to not have cable. It is that one time a year when I miss ESPN, or maybe it’s just Kirk Herbstreit.

My white shoes, linen blazer and seersucker suits are dry cleaned and packed away, sadly, for months.

As I type, it is 42 degrees in Fort Wayne. Today’s high is 46 degrees.

It is fall.

In an effort to further my stubbornness and/or denial, I want so share my best of the summer sunsets.

There is not much better than a warm/hot/sweltering walk in the glow of the setting sun in bare legs and short sleeves. I am afraid that there won’t be any more of those until spring.

Indiana Sunsets:

Alaska, Arizona and Washington Sunsets:

Indiana Winter: Cold, Flat, & Windy, Part II

It seems that I’ve been fooled. My first winter in Indiana, 2011-2012, was incredibly mild. Not only was there not one single large snowfall there was not much snow at all. Additionally, the temperature, while cold, was not consistently and continuously bitter. Oh, and I lived in an apartment with a garage. So, I never had to encounter snow directly: no shoveling, no sweeping, no cleaning off the car. All I had to do outside was walk the dog.

The Eel River frozen up to the falls.

The Eel River frozen up to the falls.

Everyone I’ve talked with about the weather (which is nearly everyone) told me not “get used to it.” I am afraid I did.

This winter is different. There have not been any giant snows, but we have had more snow and the temperatures have been way (at least it seems to me) colder. Days and days of temperatures under 20 degrees. Wind. Constant, cold wind with wind chills repeatedly below -10. Oh, and I now have a driveway to shovel, a walk to sweep, and neighborhood streets to try to navigate safely.

I have prided myself on the fact that I can handle cold weather and drive in the snow. I was raised in the mountains! It does snow in the mountains and it does get cold. However, it doesn’t stay this cold for this long, the snow doesn’t hang around for weeks from one storm, and it doesn’t snow this often. And, there is no wind there, at least not constant, extremely cold, and sustained winds.

This has been much more of an adjustment than I am comfortable admitting. It is not in my nature (or raising) to concede weakness or discomfort. Every time I walk out into the piercing cold wind I cringe. I long for some mountain cover. The question – why do I live here crosses my mind. Regularly. If I missed home when it was warm here, I miss home 1000x more now.

Luckily, I had the chance to escape the Midwest winter briefly. I spent part of the last week in Puerto Rico, where it was sunny, warm, and, like Fort Wayne, windy; there the wind blows warm. It was a much needed break even though I worked most of the trip. But that trip taught me a very important lesson. I now know the key to surviving a Midwestern winter. Take a break.

I learned how to use the panorama feature on my phone in PR.

Seasons change and I have access to airplanes. So, my new vacation window is going to be January to March, just in time for a nice break from the Midwestern winter.

Gold and Green Fields

The summer has started to wind down here in Northern Indiana.  While the trees are not yet showing their fall colors, the soybeans and corn have started to fade to yellow, gold and brown.

I spend a fair amount of time driving through the Northeast Indiana countryside and have noticed that yellow and gold are really prominent colors in nature around here.  Until now, I never really knew that yellow or gold was a color that should be associated with a farming landscape.  Turns out, it should.  By the end of the corn season the tops of the corn stalks are waving and sparkling gold.  LIkewise, just before the soybean harvest when the leaves drop off the bushes, these little guys turn the loveliest shade of yellow.  I love green, it is beautiful.  However, as fall comes on here in the Midwest green has a rival; and gold can hold its own.  As you might guess, I think it is pretty.