The April 8th opener for Saturday Night Live, “Donald Trump Goes to Kentucky,” is the latest example of what many Appalachian academics, activists, and advocates feel is outsiders taking liberties with extreme representations of our people and culture. In the skit, four Kentuckians from Boone County (not in Appalachia or the coalfields) express concerns to President Trump who is there to relish in undying support. They express their concerns. Trump replies in his vague and ridiculous manner. Each of them sit down a little shell shocked, but still wanting to believe the president they elected has their best interest at heart. Almost immediately after the skit aired, my Facebook newsfeed was ablaze with offended eastern Kentuckians admonishing the writers of the skit for stereotyping and making us out as idiots. A little later, came more blogging about liberal elitism and how the Democrats are to blame for our communities’ Trump votes.
I have felt the need to add the qualifier, I am a coal miner's daughter, to add credence to my writing or a thought I was hoping to express since the "Trump Digs Coal" slogan and his election, I've done it countless times. As far as I have been able to gather, my family ended up in this far armpit of eastern Kentucky to mine coal on all sides. We've been pioneers of the Appalachian mountains since we came over the big water, and my Cherokee family, well... this land is theirs.
The top picture is my great great grandparents on the Hansel side and where my name is descended from - Zachariah Taylor Hansel and Elizabeth Evans Hansel. The little dark headed fellow standing next to his dad is my great grandfather John Thomas Hansel Sr. The Hansels moved to Harlan from the Mount Sterling area of Kentucky to mine coal and that is where the very direct experience I have with coal miners begins.
The bottom picture is William Stephens and Amanda Sue Clay Stephens from Olive Hill, Kentucky in Carter County. They moved to Letcher County during the building of Jenkins, Kentucky which was built by Consolidation Coal Company beginning with the purchase of the land in 1911. My great grandmother who was my babysitter all of my young years was their daughter - Golda Ruth Stephens Johnson. She was born in 1912 as the first of eight children. It seems the family came around 1914 to Letcher County for coal mining. My Mamaw Johnson always told me her daddy was a Blackfoot Indian which seems kind of strange to me considering he or his family would have had to travel a long way in order get to Olive Hill, Kentucky from Montana or Canada even. Who knows though? He's definitely from somewhere.
Golda Ruth (Goldie) married Luther Johnson. Papaw Johnson was my best friend when I was small and the way we spent our days together was directly influenced by his time as a coal miner. Luther is the tall man in the second row with the pipe hanging from his lips. He was a union miner as most were in those days. Yet, he realized really fast that being in the mines wasn't going to pay him off in the long run and could potentially take him from his family and this old world. Papaw Johnson had the wit, grit, and wherewithal to find a way to get himself out of the mines and into the business of being his own boss. Weekends at the Isom Stock Sale turned into the Cowshed Trading Post, and there I "helped" him keep shop nearly every day of my childhood. The Cowshed was a kid paradise.
That brings us back to the Hansel men. Pictured below is John Thomas Hansel Sr. and Junior, both coal miners. Great Papaw Hansel lost his larynx to throat cancer, and as a kid I used to be fascinated that the piece of gauze that flapped over the open hole in his neck was the only thing that kept the outside world from seeping in to his body where it could not be rightfully contained. I will never forget the hushed sucking and choke sound that he used to create his voice with family. He didn't like the mechanical voice box to use all the time. Inconvenience, I suppose.
Papaw Hansel became an electrician in the mines and eventually took that skill and became a teacher at the vocational school in Letcher County. So, he too found a way out of the mines, but not the economy dependent upon it. When I was 8, he moved his family to South Carolina where he applied his mining skills working on machinery and such things at a fabric printing plant. He passed away of bone cancer in South Carolina just a few years ago.
So, here I am. This proud coal miner's daughter working for a place that has the commonly associated tag of "anti-coal" by some in the community. My dad supports my work and always will because he's confident in how he raised me. Here's the thing... Appalshop is not "anti-coal", we are an arts, culture, and media organization who documents and preserves life and tradition in Central Appalachia. However, you will find some related people who in their personal lives and opinions are not believers that coal mining is good for the region and especially strip mining. Yet, as with any organization, company, or workplace you will find a wide range of beliefs none of which in and of themselves represent the principles of the organization.
My dad experienced some of this directly when he worked for Enterprise Coal which was located in the building next to Appalshop at one point in time. A member of a visiting group called Mountain Justice Summer who were in Whitesburg to organize and demonstrate against mountaintop removal coal mining vandalized my dad's work truck by urinating in the truck bed and marking the paint. They were caught in the act and when my dad tried to confront them, he was spat upon. Now, someone not understanding that various organizations sometimes have to interact would leave that situation with a very strong opinion about "liberal" minded people who protest mining and because they were visiting Appalshop, direct that opinion onto Appalshop.
Fortunately, my dad knew better. He knew that many of the founding members of Appalshop were his neighbors and classmates in school. He played basketball for Whitesburg High School with one and lived down the street from another for awhile. He knew a large number of Appalshop employees were locals. Of course, he held some really strong feelings about the association and the kind of education or encouragement that would lead young people to violate the respect of their elders and personal property. I think he has mostly let that go these days. I haven't, and I won't. It's been said about us "hillbillies" that we have tribal loyalty to a fault. Maybe we do, but I plan to set this action right for the good of my community as best as I can. I want to redeem the dignity of my dad and the men and women who stay, work, and worship here.
The recent election has brought new attention of the coalfields and it seems we've become the poster children for "Trump Country" as before we were and always seem to be the poster children for American poverty. It's really laughable, but at the same time I've seen a lot of troubling behavior stem from this renewed attention. Every week, I produce a 5 minute radio news roundup of the coal industry and its place in the bigger picture of the energy profile of the United States. It's unbelievable how many ways the same thing can be rehashed with different words and published to lock in the attention of new readers. I doubt there was ever a planned "War on Coal" fueled by legislation aimed to cripple the industry. I do believe some of the legislation did not help an already failing industry.
James Higdon wrote the best article concisely explaining what I believe to actually be happening for Politico and it was published last week - The Obama Idea to Save Coal Country. He begins with the "War on Coal" and takes us through Kentucky Republican Representative Hal Rogers's RECLAIM Act which was shot down by Republican law men from the western coalfields states which is the most recent government effort to provide assistance to the barely breathing economy of the Appalachian coalfields.
I think of the information in Higdon's piece, my dad's experience with social justice activists, the media coverage of my home during the election, and the disgusting opinions of people wishing death upon Trump supporters and coal miners reflected in the Facebook comments of a radio story my colleague Benny Becker produced with Howard Berkes when it was shared by National Public Radio (NPR), and I'm embarrassed to be thought of in terms of political leanings or someone who could sit by and do nothing in response to the comments of the very people who claim to have a heart for the poor and troubled. Here are some examples from that comment thread.
"One candidate ran on improving job training and education opportunities as the means for navigating the 21st Century job market. The other candidate promised to bring back coal mining jobs. Millions of Appalachians considered those proposals and said, "I want black lung disease, too!" ~Jeff Fulmer
"West Virgina, PA, and Ohio...all solid Trump territory. They loved that the fool actually said he would bring coal back, and that he would dismantle ACA (Obamacare). For many years, people like me (considered the coastal liberal elite) fought to bring politicians into power to bring jobs and health care to these regions---services that we personally don't need in regions that we don't live in--because it was the right thing to do. But apparently, a bigoted, misogynist snake oil salesmen promising them a version of the US that looks like Berlin in 1939 was more appealing. So, this liberal American is done with the Rust and Bible Belts, and focusing on California and California only." ~Michelle Whiting
There's so much wrong with these comments and the disgusting political divide that they represent that I would have to write my own book, or create a collection of the articles already written in counter to such opinions. It boils down to the fact that a mono economy was purposefully created in the coalfields by the coal companies that wished to take the money to the bank. They wanted to make this money on the backs of people they considered as little more than property. This labor created the "coastal liberal elite" cities that Ms. Whiting referenced through the industrialization of America. When these men died under needlessly dangerous conditions and did not receive fair wages, sometimes being paid in script instead of money which could only be used in company owned stores, they fought battles against their employers and the United States government to earn Americans the fair labor laws we have today. Because coal mining was seen as a service to the nation and a vital support of the entire American economy, these men and women found their worth in mining coal and providing an honest living for their families. Americans have demanded coal to power this country for the last 100 years and now the region of America that was populated for the sole purpose of mining coal has been forgotten and looked upon with nothing less than disgusted disregard by people who would claim to be interested in the pursuit of social justice and opportunity for all. The people making these comments have no idea what our families fought for and that now, coal mining done right and well is not without risk, but fairly safe and pays really well in the $70,000 a year range with no college debt for those that go in right out of high school. Add to that, full benefits, and aside from the fact that coal has been in steady decline and these jobs have become fewer and fewer, who wouldn't mine coal? It isn't coal mining in and of itself that has caused the problems we see in coal mining. It is however, crooked politics and money that has.
Then, there was this article by the founder of Daily Kos, the left leaning group blog for those involved with "netroots activism" to further the socially progressive policies and candidates in politics - Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They're getting exactly what they voted for.
That article solidified my questioning of being involved at all in journalism or anything that can be labeled left or right. I've never desired to be a career social activist, and I don't now. I mostly see it as hot air blowing. I'm more interested in the tangibles. My community is more interested in the tangibles. As my ancestors chose to make a life here, and stayed here to do a job they were told was important for the well being of the nation, we work in the hard rock of reality. We always have.
Last week, Daily Kos tried to redeem itself with An Open Letter to America's Coal Miners and America by former coal miner and company man, Mark Sumner. I wish Sumner had taken his letter to another outlet, or maybe he wrote the appeal as a prompting from Daily Kos as a redemptive action. However, the letter is quite good. As Higdon's article summarizes the realities of the down-turned coal industry well, Sumner encapsulates the feelings of a miner and his family in a pill that's hard to swallow. Voting for Trump was a hail Mary for the coalfields. No one representing the power in this country or the liberal or conservative elite has fought hard enough for the future of a people that in no small part helped build this country.
Some would argue that with the same vote for Trump that we expect to save some jobs, we screwed ourselves out of the best healthcare access we've ever had. Increased access to healthcare only does so much. Yes, it provides more healthcare industry jobs. Yes, it brings federal dollars into our economy. Yes, it brings some people who desperately need doctors into the clinics to receive care. What we know well is that as always, federal programs are subject to change and political whim whereas a good job is a Godsend. One statistic someone might share with me is how many of the people who are insured for free under the Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid actually made it to the polls to vote. And, because our access to news is somewhat limited by poverty and lack of wide availability of broadband internet, a jaded media brought confusion by renaming the Affordable Care Act to the point of essentially doing away with the original title - ObamaCare. And then, memes like this were created.
You know what's real hillbilly of me. I wanna fist fight you people. What I want to do is scream at you and make your nose bleed. It would be wonderfully gratifying. In your social activist and liberal and segregated city bubbles, you are part of the system that have always seen my ancestors as collateral and expendable. You want people to believe that we are all lower class white people, which in my layout of my family history was disproved. If this is widely believed, you feel you have permission to publicly belittle us and make fun of us and still call yourselves politically correct. I wouldn't care if we all were the color of hospital bed sheets bleached to stiffened, you still have no right. We are human beings, and you in doing so are a hypocrite and I don't trust you to have my well being in mind or anyone else's that you see as against your social values.
When Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination and then said, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." the Democratic party lost coal country. I understand that taken in context Mrs. Clinton's comment can be understood in a totality that adjusts the impact slightly, but not enough. Our region's economy is hurting so bad that such an insensitive comment could not be redeemed. Many of us became willing that very moment to see in tunnel vision as many working poor must, to where our next meal will come from and if our kids will have equal or more opportunity than we do, and take a gamble on the nutcase of a Republican candidate and businessman - Donald Trump. In case you want to know what those of us in the eastern Kentucky coalfields think about opportunities for our children, in the Spotlight on Eastern Kentucky the 2012 Kentucky Health Issues Poll, 65% of us said the next generation will be worse off than the current generation of working adults. To not expect us to fight for anything we can to fill those gaps, would be akin to us consuming our own children.
It was a two party and polarized political system that failed us by creating an environment where such a thing could occur. Both parties see the coalfields Appalachians as expendable or little more than pawns in a game of dollars. See as proof of this an article from the Heritage Foundation explaining away a government bailout for UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) backed pensions. The same government that created a situation where homeless veterans beg for money and food in Washington D.C. and 20 veterans commit suicide every day after they sacrificed themselves in service to the country is well on its way to allowing former, elderly coal miners to lose the healthcare and benefits they earned by retiring coal miners. This same government allowed an industry to push out the unions without requiring that they do anything in good faith to the miners who made their money. Here's one fine example of how coal miners are being thrown out with the sludge and coal ash in order to give company executives big bonuses in hopes they'll stick around even though their job won't last even with the down sizing of debt and assets. Alpha Natural Resources is just one of many. Corporate greed and government complacency.
I could go on and on and on trying to explain to you why so many of the people I know, respect and love voted for Donald Trump, but I think so many of you would continue to think of us as merely ignorant or stupid and will label us with your social justice buzz words like - misogynistic, anti-Islamic, homophobic, and white supremacists. That's an easy way for you not to claim your responsibility in the creation of this situation we're finding ourselves in, and your democracy's willingness to overlook a group of people hidden away in the mountains of Central Appalachia as a means to keep progress moving forward without facing the issues that progress was making.
I won't fight your ugly words with more ugly words. I won't hunt down the brainwashed kid who thought he was protesting "corporate greed-heads" by spitting on my dad and kick his teeth in. I won't even laugh out loud as I see those who identify with us either celebrating or debating the very simplistic and unthought provoking memoir of J.D. Vance just one more time. I mean dag gone ya'll, give it a rest. Instead, I'm going to listen to you when you speak. I'm going to take your concerns deep within, and I'm going to ask the hard questions of my community that need to be asked. I'm going to try to encourage people who are working with the concrete things that can offer some relief in our dying coal towns every day. Those who are offering things we can touch. Things we can eat. Words that give hope instead of tear apart. I'm going to keep talking about opioid addiction for the very fact that it's damn unpleasant and it is another way the people here have been exploited for the sake of a dollar. I'm going to give prescription drug misuse a human story because I've lost a stepmother and numerous friends to it. I don't care what anyone thinks about focusing on solutions rather than problems. Our problems haven't been faced in any real way yet, and until we do that, we won't see solutions, we'll see bandages.
I am going to love on people as best as I can with the gifts I have. I will share the story of my people with those in these city bubbles who do give a hoot and want to listen because I know there are more reasonable folks than there are hypocrites. The thing that keeps me going in radio journalism is the thought that someone is listening who cares or who is willing to change their mind when presented new facts. The God's honest truth is that I don't know that journalism is where I can best serve my community. I'm giving it everything in me I have to give, but I question the tangibles. I am going to share yoga with my community to help heal the deep generational trauma we have experienced. I'm going to share spiritual insights that have helped me. I am going to try my best to be a mediator between you folks and my community. I'm going to try to heal broken relationships related to this ugly rhetoric. Relationships that on both sides we should have fought harder to maintain. I'm going to write ranting blogs like this one, fiction, and poetry. I'm going to love people instead of ideas. I'm going to consciously choose the middle road.
Will living here rightly prepare my daughters for being in the world?
How do I ensure that my children see the bigger picture of culture and a more accurate representation of the variety of people in the world while living in a largely homogenized location?
Will they be able to raise a family here, or make a living for themselves if they desire to remain in the mountains?
Could they develop resentment and contempt for being here if they are aware of what is outside of these hills?
I can ask these questions with a type of hindsight, as I was young in the mountains once. While I had a deep love for the landscape and culture, I longed to experience more of the world. I was endlessly curious about other cultures/peoples. I often didn't feel like I fit in well in my community, and because of that, a place where I could be more anonymous appealed to me. As soon as the opportunity arose to leave the mountains, I took it. It was also something I had been prepared for by the adults in my life. As they noticed my interests and the way the economy was turning, they encouraged me to find a place outside of the region if it was made available. They wanted more for me than what they thought I could find here. It was made clear to me that at the time I was considered the youth, it wasn't good to be young in the mountains. In fact, I was taught by several of the elders in my life that it is best to keep where I am from hushed when outside of the mountains so I won't be judged and have opportunities taken from me based on the stereotypes promoted about our home.
The conference was well attended with youth and those supporting them from throughout and outside of the region. The vibe was very upbeat and the conversations seemed energetic. I attended a workshop on applying for grants through the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and I sat in on a panel discussing whether or not it is worth it to pursue higher education if you plan to remain in the mountains. It seemed that even though we are all still very unsure about where the future in the mountains leads, we are hopeful. As a parent, I'm more hopeful than I have ever been about the increasing opportunities for my daughters to broaden their outlook and express themselves to the world while being right here at home. There was a time when we were considered an isolated and backward people, but that is quickly changing. Our young people are making themselves known in a larger sphere.
What I saw at IG2BYITM was dedicated youth. The Ghandi quote that we always see in memes and even cheesy home decor - "Be the change you want to see in the world." - sums up what they are embodying. If our youth want opportunities, they must create them. With the support of those of us who came before, they will clear a path through this dense underbrush placed in their way by previous generations who latched on to mass culture and the perpetuation of misconceptions through the rest of the country. Will we take on the mantle of the stereotypes and allow them to stand outside of the context with which they were bred, or will we use our uniqueness to bring about a time when mountain youth will be proud about their heritage and hopeful about their future here?
When the former Kentucky poet laureate and Perry County native, Gurney Norman, wrote his novel Divine Right's Trip, our country was in the midst of many wars. We were fighting an uncertain war in Vietnam. A cultural war was happening within our own country between those who felt the establishment was driving us to collapse and the status quo. The Civil Rights Movement was underway and gaining ground. In our very own Kentucky mountains, the War on Poverty had begun as men and women fought for their right to work for a fair wage and in the safest environments possible. It was a transitional time, much like our home is experiencing now. While we have had good times and bad times since that era, what I am realizing is that the mountain people have never transitioned completely from this upheaval that truly began long before the 60s-70s. This transition was a forced one, much like a woman's contractions in labor can be began, sped up, or slowed down on a whim through outside means, the people in mountain coal country were coerced into an economic and lifestyle model that was unsustainable. It was utterly dangerous, and if we aren't diligent and willing to "go to war", it will happen again and again.
“Yeah,” said Virgil. “It’s mighty hard times around here these days. If it wasn’t for food stamps and the Happy Pappys some folks would starve plum to death, that ain’t no lie. A lot of ‘em are hungry like it is. Of course I’ve seen it when it was worse, and a man’s got to count his blessings I reckon. My daddy mined coal in this country in the nineteen twenties, no union or nothing in here then, and you talk about mean times, them times was mean. Of course they’s not enough union left worth speaking about, but what I mean is, now, you take this Happy Pappy program. Take all this welfare stuff. It ain’t nothing but a sop to keep the people from acting up. That’s all in the world it is, and yet everybody wants to make so much out of it. Everybody give the President so much credit for coming in here and setting it up. All the President was doing was laying out a sop to try to keep the lid on things. And I mean to tell you, buddy, the lid was about to pop around here a year or two ago. It was like a time of war nearly. People were hungry, out of work, losing their hospital cards, getting their pensions cut, little old younguns going around with worms in their bellies, some of ‘em half naked in the wintertime. I mean they wasn’t nothing else to do but go to war. Big gangs of men roving up and down the highways, stopping cars, shooting, getting shot at. They was a tipple burnt ever day for two straight weeks up in your county, two or three railroad bridges went up, people’s cars and house dynamited.” -Gurney Norman, Divine Right’s Trip, 1971
If we consider the history of how these mountains were settled, we recognize the caliber of individual that chose to make them their home. It was of course the adventure filled pioneer, but it was also those considered criminals. It was the person with a fierce desire for independence. Those who wished to hide. It was the down trodden and the beaten up who sought asylum in these hills. The Kentucky mountains as much of Central Appalachia, was inhabited by a people willing to stick with their tribe in order to be fully able to "go it" on their own.
I have to agree with Virgil as he spoke in the quote above. It is hard to see that the War on Poverty has helped our region in any tangible ways. While we might not see many children running naked in the wintertime any longer, we must factor in that times have changed and how poverty looks has changed. Poverty can be hidden these days, and hidden well. This region of Kentucky is experiencing yet another mass exodus of people and minds in search of reasonable, fulfilling work as we have so many times in the past. What worries me most about this transition time is the possibility that as a people we'll let a huge opportunity once again pass us by. This is the opportunity to reclaim our land and economy to manage as our own. It is the opportunity to get back to the willpower and guts that brought our ancestors here in the first place. Independence.
Generations of men, women, and children in my homeland have been worrying and pondering as Virgil does each time this book is read anew. This type of worry began when outside influences came to tell us of our poverty and backward ways. Ideas were planted and weaknesses manipulated. We were fed pipe dreams for the purposes of a dollar. I can't help but feel that our collective unconscious was made a slave in those days and we remain so today. What new industry will come in a make the promises of coal? Natural gas? The prison industry? Will we buy into it only to be used up and left to struggle again when the industry collapses or our government sees fit to move toward another favored industry? Will we continue to accept the welfare system as our means to a livelihood, teaching our children to get the most out of it - not because we are mooches, but because we have to in order to survive? Will we continue to accept servitude over the legacy given us by our very first mountain ancestors?
"We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves." -Thomas Merton
As I have written here before, I believe the answer to our current dilemma is diversification. We begin by working with what we have. That's where we have always began. The answer isn't more government programs. The answer is in our hands. We need to reach out and grab it!
I see so many positive people in our communities working hard toward seeing this opportunity into our new reality. Families and individuals have reclaimed small scale farming as a supplemental or replacement income and are making it viable. Some brave souls are becoming entrepreneurs and sacrificing so much of their time to dedication to their business and community. Ingenious folks are working toward promoting area artists and craftspeople. Others are working toward adventure tourism. Right now, these efforts don't seem to amount to much on the large scale, but it is providing an example of the things that are possible for us. There are more ideas for all of us where those came from.
My Dad has said to me before, "What do these people think we all want to do, sit around the campfire in the dark and sing Kum-Ba-Ya all night with nothing to eat? I hope they know how to build a campfire." Those fighting in this War on Coal haven't presented reasonable solutions to the common mountain folks. As our people have become accustomed to a certain lifestyle, fortified by mining jobs, without a need for college, this transition will be difficult. It is a time in which we'll have to reclaim our story as told by us. This is the time to dredge up the past, our mysterious and inspiring past, in order to give us all the umph needed to fight this war. There's nothing else to do but go to war. We have to fight for ourselves. This is a war of the heart and mind. It isn't a need of being saved. This is the reality of sink or swim.
One of my new goals in all this self searching I have been doing is to move toward financial independence. I currently depend upon my husband to provide all of our family's financial needs while I remain at home house-wiving, homeschooling, doing all I can do alone on our homestead, and working on side projects. It is hard for me at times to have to think about the fact that I am spending another person's hard earned money when I want to buy a gift for my girls, or something I don't particularly need, but want. We also have to make a lot of personal sacrifices in order to make sure bills are paid and we are all fed well and kept healthy. For example, I currently have two pairs of pants that fit me the way they should and don't completely fall from my body if I take my belt off. I'm rarely out of the house, so I make do.
In looking at my options for work alongside my hopes and dreams, then factoring in what I'm actually capable of doing with little to no childcare, I can't help but think of how things have changed since my childhood. My parents had readily available free childcare from my grandparents, great grandparents, and aunts and uncles. We really were raised in a village it seems and if I am honest, I don't know what would have came of us if we hadn't been. I have very little time that is not consumed by raising my children. I'm their primary caregiver, as it should be, but there is little time to be with friends, adult conversations with a real person, or to hold a job outside of the home because my daughters' grandparents aren't able to provide daily childcare (as most of them are still working full time jobs passed retirement age) and we cannot afford a paid sitter.
Another thing I noticed as a child was how completely absorbed the adults around me were in financial concerns. Did we have enough money? While I'm concerned with our family's finances and I have a clear picture of what I'd like for us in terms of lifestyle and how effectively our money is spent, I let go of most of the worry around the amount we have available. Yet, recently, I began to see the need for me to have earnings of my own more than I ever have. While it should not be the case that money brings power to a voice, I have come to realize that it does, even within many family structures. Traditional roles of womanhood and motherhood are truly outdated if we desire to be seen as peers with our male counterparts. Tradition is not always a good thing as many are informed by outdated ways of thinking and viewing the world. I feel a movement away from these traditions and to a more balanced way of being is in order.
Southeastern Kentucky, where I reside, is once again in the midst of an outward migration of people. I see quite a bit on Facebook that friends and family are planning moves outside of the region to Tennessee and Ohio most often. Our family's choice to remain in the mountains is a big one. It is in many ways a sacrifice of opportunities for ourselves and our children. However, as we currently see things, there is much to be gained by staying and trying to create our own way of life in the region. This will always be home to us who were born and raised here. It is as integral to who we are as our heart or mind. The truth is, those who stay here will have to depend on themselves and their community to develop a sustainable life post coal in the mountains.
I don't know if my current plan will result in financial independence for me, but I will have a little pocket change I hope. My plan is to make myself available as an editor to anyone requiring those services. I'm working with one client in California at the moment. I'm teaching yoga one evening a week, and I am offering my services as a writer/blogger to interested parties. It blends my passions with what I am capable of doing while still very much within a traditional role in my family as a full time mother. My success will depend a lot on my ability to market myself within the region, but also outside of it.
My dilemma is not unlike the one that residents of southeastern Kentucky are facing now and for the future. As more coal jobs are lost and our populations decline, we are searching for ways to make life here a possibility. The most common suggestions I've seen touted are tourism, farming, and manufacturing. A recent article from The Daily Yonder written by Tim Marema reported that populations of rural counties in all states who relied on these economic replacements have all lost population since the Great Recession. The only counties seeing growth were recreation counties and those only grew by 1.4%. For counties like the one I live in and those directly around us, any of these replacements would be difficult because of a lack of infrastructure and our location away from most major interstates.
As I have diversified my possibilities of earning for myself and my daughters without a typical hired position, I believe the region will only survive from a diversified approach that utilizes the internet and technology to reach populations outside of the region. We will have to put our unique stamp on what we do to attract people in and make a visit worth the effort to get here. We will also have to accept that our lifestyles may look very different from the ones we see away from here because it has to and living here is a choice.
I may have bitten off more than I can chew with my hopes of financial independence while still choosing full time mothering and homeschooling. I have no way of knowing without trying. Trying is the only thing to do. I want to show my daughters a world of possibilities in a reality of limited options. I can't help but see that it parallels the consciousness we are striving to get to in our region. Moving past the realization that what is currently taking place is unacceptable and in spite of our realities there is a world of possibilities. We have to do the work and imagine them. We have to really try.
No, I'm talking my basic personhood. I've taken detours and received certifications, a Master's Degree, and pursued side interests in hopes of making money that would allow my husband to not have to work so hard and free him to be with us more, but nothing that I felt spoke to the real me or allowed me to be fully myself in this world. When the girls were born, I took their education upon my shoulders because I felt there was no other good option here at home. To provide them with what I felt they deserved and to fulfill my responsibility to them in bringing them into the world, I gladly took on the traditional role of wife, mother, and homeschooler. While my husband took on the pressure of providing for us solely on his income, he was still free to pursue his goals in art and music.
Is being an adult claiming responsibility? As a kid, I had always been told this. Adulthood is about sacrifice and responsibility. I don't know though. It may just be my family's makeup, but I can't remember many adults around me that would have said they were leading a life that made them happy or that made them feel fulfilled. I saw sorrow, depression, heartache, and anger written on the faces of many of the adults who loved me so very much. It covered my world. Am I selfish in thinking it doesn't have to be that way?
My main goal is to show my daughters that the world is wide open for us. There is no role we can't accept or value we have to feel pressured to espouse. It is about following our heart and going forward from a place of love and respect for others. All else is a coin toss, and the odds of us winning are perfect as we are infinitely supported by the very stardust we were created from.
An independent, strong minded woman makes people nervous. A woman that seeks her own fulfillment so that her light can shine as brightly as possible in this world, can expect to be seen as scandalous. She may not fit in any box set out by society. She may take risks others see as unnecessary. It may be hard for those who feel the need to fit her into a category to be with her as she steps into this empowered place. The fact is, she isn't going to care. What she knows is that if you love her and want her, you will walk by her through all of it. If you cannot, it is okay. Both you and she will be okay.
It isn't about living in the shadows of another. In this mountain culture I've grown up in, the matriarchy is a hidden power. There isn't a person on this planet any stronger than an Appalachian woman. They've held families together for generations of rises and falls. Through all of this, she quietly worried that her best wasn't enough and it would all fall through her fingers. While all of her family knew it was really her that bound them all together, her effort wasn't pronounced except maybe at her funeral.
I pray that my daughters don't take a lifetime to learn that they can speak up about what they need and not feel guilty for needing it. I want them to know that if their current situation is not making their heart sing that patience, a fearless heart, hard work, and their empowered voice will change that. They aren't obligated to anyone but those who they choose to be obligated to and those who call them mother. I want them to be brave. I want them to know they are worthy of the type of love that wants the essence of them so hard, their every breath is like a song, and that when they give that kind of love, they should expect it returned to them.
Our lives matter right now. I've decided for the sake of myself and my daughters not to wait for mine to begin anymore. I'm surrounding myself with the people who feed my spirit and want to know me for me. I'm talking consistently with those who already have shown me that they do. I've went out on a limb and decided to return to the game plan of my youth modified for what I know now. I'm excited. One day, I will be able to type here that I am healthy, happy, and fulfilled most every day. It's coming.
There, at the top of the world, as I took deep breaths crouched over that ageless rock, the coin was tossed. The butterflies in my stomach set free for a time and I felt whole again in the silence. One day, my Ivy will know what she's capable of because her mother did her best to show her. It might not come easy to either of us, but she will know.
Looky here! I'm a hillbilly. The real deal. Bonafide. Born and raised. Generational. Go ahead. Ask me if I grew up wearing shoes, with electricity, and indoor plumbing. I've answered these questions a million times in my life. Yes, I do have all of my own teeth. Yes, it's true, some of us don't. Just like some of you don't. Ask me to pronounce "ice", "Nike", or the name of my hometown "Whitesburg". I'll say it over again a few times before I get pissed off.
Here, I'll go ahead and answer the other questions. I have lived most of my life in a trailer. I've lived in three different trailer parks. Perhaps that makes me trailer trash too. I also am a holler rat. I grew up drinking mostly pop. We couldn't drink the tap water. I know the putrid smell of sulfur water well. Pop was what was available for me. The milk was for the baby. Hmmm... what else? Oh, I have used a chamber pot for an extensive period of time, though it was used indoors. I have used an outhouse with a composting bucket in the Pisgah National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. That counts as an outhouse. Toilet paper was provided. I pick weeds out of my yard and eat them. I've pulled the innards of a hawk killed hen out with my bare hands. I went to two schools that were taken over by the state department of education because of poor performance. I roamed the hills as I pleased. I'm not afraid of wild animals, but I do know how to respect them. I can find my way around outside in the dark. I have accepted handouts and government assistance as needed. I've lived above and below the poverty line. Let's just say regularly hovering all around it. I haven't seen a dentist in about 10 years. No, I'm not addicted to prescription pain pills, but I do need quite a bit of caffeine to function. What else might you want to know about a real hillbilly?
My husband and I have been interviewed countless times in the recent years by students and journalists from outside of these hills. Mostly, the questions are the same. Why did you choose to stay in the mountains? Is the economy really as bad as they say it is? Are your towns dying? Are people really as poor as we've heard? Is the education system really awful? Will the death of coal be the death of your communities? And, on occasion someone will be interested in my hometown of Whitesburg. Somehow the idea that it is culturally advanced and doing things that no other town in the region is trying to do has gotten around. Some good things are happening there, but honestly, I have no idea what will come of any of it. Some days I'm hopeful, other days, not so much.
I just wonder what the wonder is all about. My people are portrayed in the media as impoverished, backwards idiots more times than not. I'll link to the positive press at the bottom of this post. Stereotypes are exploited and exaggerated. At best, they are misunderstood. It is perfectly acceptable to most people to publicly make fun of me or any other hillbilly and it happens way more than I can stand. People do it unconscious of how their words and actions are placing me below them and how I very consciously catch that sense of superiority. I want to know what these fascinated people want from us. What is their research or reporting going to do to change anything here? Is it just glorified gawking? Honestly, I think so. Unbeknownst to the well meaning enlightened.
"Oh, how great!" "You are so cool." "I can't believe you live that way." "You are my hero." Really? Being a hillbilly is a new fad - hillbilly chic. That our every day makes us cool, or a hero is frustrating. If you can navigate New York City or fight rush hour traffic in Spaghetti Junction without killing anyone, you're just as deserving of accolades. It isn't our choice to live here, or the happenstance that we were born here that makes us interesting. I wish people wanted to get to know us. We are a people as complex and deep as any other culture you could choose to study. We are so much more than coal, prescription abuse, poverty, job loss, diabetes/obesity, Mountain Dew mouth, and low educational attainment. Sure, they are some big problems, but they stem from something much bigger, and it is partly the fault of you outsiders.
Other than any privilege that being white brings me, I am not unlike the inner city African American mother who when questioned by the outside has to answer the same thing again and again. Why the violence? Police brutality? Gangs? Welfare? Or the Hispanic person looking for work who gets asked about immigration, deportation, and working for low wages. Or the Middle Eastern person who constantly answers questions about Islam, terrorism, and what it is like being a Muslim American.
As a hillbilly, I'm part of the "other" in this country. With that comes responsibility. It means sometimes being the voice of my people. As much as I want to talk about telling ghost stories with my Mamaw, eating soup beans and cornbread, how inventive my ancestors were, how mesmerizing our traditional music can be, and how dang smart we are, I will answer any and all manner of questions whether it makes my heart sing or not. I won't yell at you for repeating my words back to me in exaggerated, butchered accent while smiling from ear to ear. I won't even be upset at the shock that I am very literate and well read. I'll cater to you in a hope that somehow, I can help you see more of us. I want to change the story being told out there. I want all the truth. No exaggerations. No hope where there isn't any. All the wonderful eccentric bits left in. I want our stories told straight from the horse's mouth. It is time to change the narrative if we want to be seen for who we are and we want to find real solutions for the future that is upon us.
The more positive press:
Imagining a Post-Coal Appalachia (The Atlantic Monthly)
ZipUSA: 41858 (National Geographic)
5 Days in Kentucky: Small Town Conceives of New Life After Mining (Al Jazeera America)
I’d like to share some thoughts on an aspect of our lives that does not get nearly the attention and respect it deserves. As women, we have a unique ability that has been so demeaned by modern culture that we have no idea how to approach it in a positive way. Our menstrual cycle is that ability, that “superpower” that we carry. Think about how powerful it is, considering that without it there would be no humans on earth! Our cycle carries a regenerative, life-giving force, and yet we have been told nothing positive about it. We’re encouraged to suppress it, medicate it, tolerate it, and ideally act as if it is not even happening, as if it were a weakness, and we would be better off without it!
What if, instead, there were a model for menstruation that was based on positive associations and images? Instead of being a joke, a burden, or an embarrassment, what if your monthly cycle could be a personal rhythm, a meaningful experience, or even a blessing?
It’s hard to imagine, given the fact that modern culture so thoroughly demeans and dismisses this aspect of our lives. Really, though, distancing ourselves from our own experience, and trying to ignore something so central to our lives, is what causes much of our distress. We are literally fighting ourselves each month! When we think about it, it’s obvious that this is not empowering, or healthy. There are a few simple ideas, shared by many cultures throughout the world, that present the menstrual cycle in a very different light, and can help you have a much easier time each month. Believe it or not, you could even begin to look forward to your period!
• You can learn to anticipate your needs and optimize your time, so that you approach different projects when you have the most energy for them.
• You can learn to take loving care of yourself, with “time out” when you need it most!
• You can also learn to interpret your menstrual challenges in a more holistic way - looking for ways to balance your energy and expectations, instead of blaming yourself for not being able to do it all, all the time!
It’s really about getting back to the basics: learning what our cycles were designed to do, and how we can support them so that we can feel our best. This is a rhythm, after all, that operates at the center of our bodies and lives for several decades. Our cycles affect everything we do, so wouldn't it be wonderful to learn how to live in harmony with them? We ourselves, and everyone around us as well, would benefit from that!
I’d like to share, today, how using the seasons or the moon as a model for our own rhythms makes it easy to visualize an entirely different way of approaching the changes that we go through from week to week. In Part 2 (to be published in June), I’ll go into further detail about the premenstrual and menstrual times of the month, which tend to pose the most difficulty for most of us.
I have found that observing the similarities between the menstrual cycle and the rhythms of nature changes everything. The moon and seasons have phases that are easy for us to visualize and relate to. Looking at the rhythm of the moon, or the seasons of the year, we can easily see how the light grows and brightens, expands into fullness, and then decreases and wanes again.
Once you begin to interpret your own experiences similarly, in terms of “seasons” or “phases” that have a natural, predictable rhythm throughout the month, your own month makes much more sense. You’ll have a reliable pattern to follow and will finally be able to work with your cycle instead of against it! You’ll begin to develop a personal practice that takes advantage of your own optimal times for different types of activities. You’ll anticipate your needs and make plans for self care. Your month will become immeasurably easier and you’ll probably end up wondering why you did not learn this long ago!
Let’s take a closer look:
This model shows the 28-day cycle of the moon’s phases, as the moonlight grows brighter until it reaches full moon, and then returns to darkness again before the new cycle begins. The wonderful thing is, you can place any other cycle onto this same model and see the same pattern of expansion and contraction. This is how everything in nature works, from the inhale and exhale of a single breath, to the circling of the largest galaxies. Everything has a pulse or a rhythm of movement.
When we place the four seasons of the year onto this model, we easily see that summer is similar to full moon, while winter, at the opposite end of the cycle, resembles the dark of the moon. Springtime is similar to the growing light after new moon, and Autumn corresponds with the waning light that occurs after full moon, as the light descends toward darkness and the completion of the cycle.
It is a predictable rhythm of expansion and contraction, and it has much to teach us about ourselves, as well! This pattern of growing outward and returning inward offers a balance of energies, and it also allows for different types of expression, and different perspectives. If things stayed the same all the time, nothing new would ever happen! So, when we apply our own menstrual cycle to this model, we can see how it reflects the fact that we go through profound rhythmic changes each month. Remembering how our cycles resemble the wise design of other rhythms of nature can help us appreciate our own different types of expression, and different needs.
It’s easy to see, when looking at the model of the moon and seasons, that full moon is very different than dark moon, and summer is very different than winter. In a similar way, something very different is going on within us, depending on whether we are ovulating or menstruating! Why would we expect ourselves to act or feel the same from week to week, when we are in a completely different personal “season?”
Our menstrual time is like our own winter or dark moon, when we retreat more into ourselves. Our ovulation is like our own personal summer, or full moon, when we are more radiant and social, and our energy is expansive and focused outward. (These are generalizations, I realize, but most women will find that they have a personal rhythm that is somewhat similar to this model. The thing is, when we approach our cycle with curiosity and interest, we can discover what our own rhythms actually are!) For half of our cycle, our energy is building toward ovulation, and most of us will tend to feel more social and capable at this time. These are the qualities that are rewarded in modern culture! But for the other half of the cycle, our outer focus tends to wane as our attention naturally turns back toward ourselves, toward our own feelings and needs. This tends to be a more introspective time, a time to re-balance, to catch up with ourselves, to notice what is not working so well, and to correct anything that needs our attention before it gets worse!
This knowledge of the value of our cycles is a “wisdom teaching” that women have shared with each other in various ways for thousands of years. But as modern culture has divorced itself from nature, these wise traditions have also lost favor and been forgotten. The expectation for women to be agreeable, available and productive at all times, entirely negates our own need for self-care, rest, creativity, and time alone. We need some deep introspective time, from which renewal and inner guidance can emerge, for the good of our entire family and community. We need time for balance and self care. We can’t be focused on others all the time.
I love to think of trees as such a great example of this cycle of self care! Most trees lose their leaves or become dormant in some way in winter. They are not in full bloom all the time! They withdraw underground and descend into their roots. Does this mean that they are lazy, unreliable, or selfish? Of course not! They withdraw into their roots to gather strength from the nourishing soil, so they can emerge fully in the coming season of flower and fruit and have energy for the year to come. Anything else would be a recipe for burnout!
It is easy to see the value of this rhythm in the lifecycle of trees, but can be harder to see in ourselves! But we, too, can take time for ourselves and give ourselves the time to recharge. Our cycles are actually designed to help us do this; to create these healing practices in our own lives.
I look forward to sharing more with you in Part 2 of this guest post to be published next month, about specific tools, perspectives and practices that you can begin to incorporate into your life. Many blessings to you until next time!
My Foundation Class, Welcome Your Rhythm, begins on June 22, for 5 weeks, by phone. If you and a friend wish to enroll together, you may each receive a $30 discount. Please let me know your names and I’ll send you each a discount code to use when you enroll! This is a great way to take the class, since you’ll be able to compare notes about your experiences. www.WelcomeRhythm.eventbrite.com
The first four women to enroll will also receive a complimentary Cycle Comfort Coaching Session with me, which can be used either before or during our 5-week course! You can discuss any aspect of your cycle, or work on creating more healthy habits in general.
Every day by default is Earth Day here at the Confluence, so we didn't do anything out of the ordinary to celebrate. For me, today has been one of those weirdly productive days. Those are few and far between. School went beautifully - even math! I cooked three meals. Dishes are washed and kitchen is swept. I've done a load of laundry and changed the bed linens. I've fed the chickens and goats. I bathed all three little gals and myself. I submitted a manuscript. And... we dug another lasagna bed.
When you are homesteading (sort of) and the partner isn't home long enough to mow grass on most weeks, you become industrious. The goal is to grow most of our vegetables ourselves. Organic produce is hard to come by in these parts, and that is what we desire. I love growing things and always have. So, I came up with a plan to do it myself with the simple garden tools we had on hand. Lasagna beds cost nothing.
Step One - Be ready to work and don't be a whiner. Oh, and grab your tools.
We found this shovel in the hills. I have no clue what type it is, but it makes the work simple and easy on the back.
Step Two - Get down and dirty... remove the sod layer and set it aside to use later. I remove it in rectangles. You'll end up with this.
Step Three - Make a trench. You can make a deep or shallow one. I have beds where I have done both. The deeper ones will require more filling and I save those for when I have cardboard to use. I'm starting to believe all that isn't necessary though, so this one ended up 5 inches deep all around. I make the trench by loosening the dirt with the hoe and shoveling it out. Put the dirt aside. This is your topsoil and you will use it later.
Step Four - Fill your trench with organic debris. I gathered mine from the forest floor. It's sticks and leaves mostly. The girls wanted to put in some goat poop, so I said "have at it." Deladis added a rotting plum too. Whatever. As long as it will contribute to rich, healthy soil. One of the buckets you see next to the bed is composted chicken manure. We will use that in a later step. Yes, sometimes good food requires playing in poop.
Step Five - Top the debris with the sod. Turn the clumps grass side down to kill out the weeds and grass.
Step Six - Mix your manure and topsoil on top of this and spread evenly. Use the hoe to break up clumps. Surround your bed with some kind of barrier to set it apart from the yard. Voila! You're done.
Let the bed rest a day or so and then plant it. I plant veggies much closer together in these beds than a traditional garden and still get good yield. This bed took about two hours to make. We'll see how well it does. The point is that it is doable for a lone mother with littles around all the time. The girls loved helping. Gweneth thought the wind was going to blow her away, but she hung tight. The goats ate the buds off of all my irises too. It's a give and take. Good luck if you give it a try!
"Is where we live a kind of lost place, Mama?" my Ivy Pearl asked.
Without thinking, I answered, "Yes, it is, Ivy."
In the few days since she asked, I've been thinking of all the ways that we do very much live in a kind of lost place. Beginning with our cabin being located through the creek and in the woods. People don't visit often. It is like a world all to ourselves if we want it to be, until the summer comes and more people come to visit our landlord and our hearts race when we see someone walking up the road and are unsure where they came from. We can do yoga on the porch in our jammies. We can run and scream like wild banshees. We can fall asleep in the grass and feel safe. We can hear the birds chirping, the creek running, the frogs singing, and the coyotes dueling it out for the alpha factor. It is easy to feel alone and lonesome.
Southeastern, Kentucky is that kind of place the rest of the country/world only hear about in terms of coal, poverty, drug addiction, or bluegrass music. It is still perfectly acceptable to publicly make fun of the "hillbilly". Tolerance and equality preaching folks have done it to my face on numerous occasions and I'm supposed to laugh as if it is a funny joke. Many times I haven't the energy to explain to them what they have just done to me and mine. It isn't worth the conversation. Other times, I'm too angry to speak. It seems to the rest of the country that we are good for entertainment, slave labor, and self perpetuated stagnation.
Nevermind our beauty, kindness, deeply meaningful art, old and rich culture, and the way we insert complexities into the English language that are older than the country itself. We are a kind of lost place. Only known to ourselves. Visited mostly by ourselves. Praised as home by many and few. The world knows us not.
I read an article not too long ago that talked about a study which found that there is a human gene that induces the need to explore. I sit here in this lost place with my children and ache to explore the world with them. These hills are in my blood, in the dust that made my being, in the air I breathe, and they inform every cell of my body. The Kentucky mountains will always be home. Maybe because of that I long to understand the places that aren't lost. I long to understand the other lost places as well. I want to share this world with my girls. It is thought that those people whose ancestors traveled the farthest to inhabit the world have the largest presence of this wanderlust gene. Our ancestors were the Native Americans, Scots-Irish, and early eastern European paid explorers. They came here to find home. They explored the known world before settling here. We have the wanderlust gene.
This winter was a rough one for most of the families in the mountains. It kept us home for weeks on end and behind closed doors. Spring is the busiest time for my husband's tattoo shop, and it will be awhile before we can travel as a whole family. The girls and I ventured out on our own to visit my grandparents in South Carolina. With our modern day compass plugged in, we set out like a burden had been relieved of us. My Papaw has been diagnosed with bone cancer. It won't be long for him. He made ready awhile ago. Love and the wanderlust gene made this mother brave enough to travel alone with three small children. A drop in the bucket to some, and yet to those who reside in a lost place it can seem the pinnacle of excitement.
I even took the girls to a Cultural and Kite Festival in a city unknown to me. That is something I can't remember ever doing before.
We'll travel and know the world as home. Starting out small for now, as finances allow for small, we will go. The limit is through all space and time. We'll come back to our little lost place when we want to feel grounded again and know what's familiar and as connected as our soul. We will be free.
Kelli B. Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, spiritual explorer, and avid yogini. Haywood is the Public Affairs Director for WMMT-Real People Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Connect with her on Facebook @ Confluence Mama.
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