My baby sister stood in a glass box the size of a long gone, street side phone booth. She was seven years old. We were visiting the mall in the city where my grandparents had relocated - Spartanburg, South Carolina. She had been chosen from a crowd of people that had gathered around the booth in curiosity. I don't know if they thought they were being clever choosing a young kid for the show. If they did, they had never encountered a kid like my sister.
She wore a mix of fear and excitement on her face. They closed and sealed the door to the box. As soon as it was secured, they turned on a blower that shot a high force of air up from the bottom of the box. Her hair blew. Then, they released the cash. A combination of bills, mostly ones, blew all around her. The timer began. She had thirty seconds to grab all she could hold and stuff into her clothes. If she was lucky, she'd snag the hundred dollar bill.
She reached and grabbed faster than I had ever seen her little, chunky kid body move. Most of the bills flew out of her reach, but she didn't focus on what she couldn't get. She kept all the effort close. She clutched and snatched the money like all our lives depended on it. I can't remember how much she had when she left the box. I just remember how impressed everyone was with the amount. They said, "She might as well have grabbed that Benjamin!"
Everything that required and effort or attempt from me received 100%. 100% of frantic, desperate, overly zealous, hurried, raging fire me until I burned out. I felt the need to seize every opportunity that I felt confident I could use to achieve. It didn't matter what I was achieving, as long as people would think it was good. I'd give it my best regardless of whether or not it spoke to my heart or fed my soul. I'd do it simply because I could.
Dylan isn't the only teacher offering classes on the app, and soon I was saw another instructor, Melini Jesuadson, who offered specific handstand conditioning and training. She was trained in the Cirque du Soleil tradition, and made it look so doable. I picked up that program a month ago. I train strength and mobility with Dylan and a few others. Proprioception, approach and form is covered in Melini's program. I continue with my regular asana, pranayama, and meditation practice.
In the class of the series Melini calls Handstands with Wall, she talks a lot about fear. What creates it and how to work passed fear. She suggests that a handstand practice can tell you a lot about your personality and your approach to life, especially challenges. Seeing handstanding as unattainable for so long gave me the impression that there wasn't much more that I could learn about myself and my body from its practice that I couldn't learn from doing foundational asanas like Warrior II. From the first time I worked through that class, I decided to use the practice as a tool to help me pin down patterns of behavior, my inner voice, and ways in which I react to challenges that I cannot readily meet. The practice of handstand would be the alchemical process for understanding these aspects of myself and transforming them into something more useful. It's been amazing.
That brings me back to the story about my sister. My quest and self imposed obligation to take on every opportunity to earn money or credentials, like my sister's money grabbing adventure, is indicative of a scarcity experience creating a scarcity mindset. Growing up knowing that there was no and never was going to be a nest egg drew out the drive to grapple for those opportunities. It's common among people where I come from. It's basic sense of survival. Leah and I were taught that our mind was our best asset for providing a good life for ourselves. It was a combination of education and achievement that would secure a comfortable life. Our mother hoped too, that we could make ourselves attractive enough to possibly marry up.
In 2012, according to a health issues poll conducted by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, eastern Kentuckians believed that their children would be worse off financially as adults than they are by a rate of 61%. I know that fear was real for my family growing up in the 80s and 90s. We were always encouraged to do well in school, go to college, and leave the mountains. Based on some comments female adult family members made to me and teasing in school, I decided early on that my looks could get me nowhere. I had to rely on brains. I had to use every available space to prove myself worthy of being chosen. Being from eastern Kentucky, I better never turn down a good opportunity to earn my keep whether or not it would be through a means I was passionate about and felt drawn towards. Another good, or better opportunity may never come. The grass is never greener. Accept the blessings you're given and be content. I've never been content in traditional roles, in the rat race, or selling my soul to the machine.
the outside world who could make it happen for her? After many rejection letters for my short stories, I had to give my time more to making a real living and raising kids.
To land yourself in handstand there are variables that must have your attention. If any one component is off or unrecognized, you find yourself using a lot of energy without ever holding your body upside down. At worst, you'll fall feet over head on your ass. Every time I had randomly attempted handstand, I did so wishing that my brute strength would see me through and something would click. Like training wheels on a bike, I was too ornery to use a wall. I've fallen many times flat on my back, even the side of my face. It was as if in every approach I was setting out to prove myself right. Handstands were not possible for me, therefore I could justify it as not being part of my practice no matter how far I advanced my physical abilities. It was like my dream of being a writer. I was unlikely to score through serendipity. My effort needed to be toward achievable goals.
It turns out that handstanding can be learned through a variety of clear methods. Step by step. Body awareness. Fun daily practice. I'm learning to be an upside down tree. Rooting into the ability to trust and believe in the unseen. Proprioception. Tangibly dreaming that in my middle age, I too will float and fly.
Everything I've done, I've relied on my intellect and a force of effort to see me achieve. Because of that, I have kept goals smaller than the dreams of my heart, focusing on the obstacles and practicalities of life instead of potential for finding my purpose. We're now living in an era where it could be easier than ever before to find yourself making a livable wage as a writer and speaker on topics of personal growth and spiritual awakening. Many times I tried, taking the risk only when I was sure I could recoup from the pain of the fall. Taking the similar more pragmatic offers, always getting me close, but never the cigar. There is a way. A plan. A means to see my dreams alive under my hands and in the sound of my voice speaking to curious hearts.
I stand feet together, hands shoulder width apart on my mat, and wrists in one line. I draw my navel in and up, lift my pelvic floor, and tuck in my lower ribs. I lock out my elbows and lift through my chest. From flat feet, I bend both knees, and spring with control off both feet. I push the ground away with my hand. I tuck up and find my big toes against the wall. I point my toes, press my ankles together, and squeeze my butt. I check core engagement. Arms straight. Eyes focused on the mat between my thumbs. All this I have practiced also laying down. One step at a time. Daily practice until I am practicing in the center of the room.
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.
Two days after I accepted a position teaching on an emergency certificate at Henry County Middle School in northern, central Kentucky, I received a call for a job offer as an editor and reporter for the Flemingsburg newspaper. I had put in my resume with the career center at Morehead State University where I had graduated just a few weeks before with my Bachelor's in English and Creative Writing. Both of these offers came from that. When I turned down the newspaper offer, my heart sank. I had taken the teaching position because I felt like I had to. How could I turn down $25,000 a year? It was more money than we had ever seen. I might not get any other job leads. Working at Big Lots furniture department couldn't last forever. Yet, I had never seen myself as a school teacher. I come from a family that have devoted their life to education. I was confident I could do the work, but I didn't really want to from my heart's standpoint. So, when I told the newspaper I was already employed, I could have cried. Patience and trust in Universe is a hard lesson to learn.
Teaching middle school taught me a lot of important things. I also have a $35,000 Master's Degree in Teaching that I'll be paying for the rest of my life. I won't ever go back to teaching in public education unless it is at the college level. I could have taken the newspaper job, potentially been happier, and in a lot less debt now. Hindsight. It must have not been for me to do right then.
I hadn't planned on being a mother either. I've written about that before. Everyone was shocked when I changed my mind and began trying to get pregnant. When I finally did give birth, I didn't go back to teaching. I had always thought that if I had children at least one parent should stay home to raise them. I had always felt like motherhood was a thing only those who are ready to sacrifice everything to be a deeply devoted nurturer should embark upon. I thought that, for me, it would have to look a very particular way in order to work. I knew me. Why have children if you have to pay someone else to raise them? I've held so many strong ideas as golden. It's a beautiful thing how life teaches us even when we are mule-headed.
That same little girl was always more at peace outside of a child's world. I didn't play much with toys, choosing books, chemistry sets, long hikes, and arts/crafts instead. I wanted to hang around the adult table and listen to their stories and talk. As a mother, I have been present and attentive, but not the mother who sits in the floor and plays for hours with toys or watches many cartoons. I'm still the me I have always been. I'm a good mother just as I am. I have a good relationship with my children. They know I love them and find my lap home. They know my words, my food, my stories, and my songs. My lap and arms will always been their home.
I still ascribe to the dream of homesteading, homeschooling, and living off the land. It just isn't doable with small children as a solo project. So, my plans have had to adjust. There are so many ways a good life can look. There are countless forms of good parents. Each of us are unique and important. I have to be open to all the possibilities. I have to be willing to learn and change my ideas based on experience and new information. I have to see myself and my fulfillment as an important piece of what it takes to be a good mother and a good example of what a woman can do in her life for my daughters. I am me and I am their mother. That is fact.
What I also am is a capable, literate, educated, backwoods, mystical, yogi, mountain woman who loves to read, have long and meaningful conversations, philosophize, study the people of the world, and to listen and share stories. I have a contribution to make and the opportunity to do it with a great group of people in a place dedicated to making sure the stories never die. Taking this job sets our family on a new path. I am having to change everything about our life, and that is a little scary. It is the right decision though. I am making it from a place of hope and I will not feel failure or guilt for making it. It is a decision I am making as my heart has opened, come to understand, and forgiven my own mother. It is a decision I am making in honor of my paternal grandmother who was a proud working mother and reminded me not to martyr myself for an ideal that was not manifesting. This decision holds in memory my maternal grandmother from whom I first learned the feeling of nurture and who was a single working mother of three. She was also a working grandmother who provided a roof for many years for five adults and three grandchildren. They all were good mothers. They all loved their children and did their best. That is all we can do. Give it our all and move forward from a place of love.
I start full time next week. I have a lot to do to prepare. There's a great deal to be excited about. My efforts will allow us to begin the process of coming off of welfare, get a more reliable vehicle, find a home that has more space for our daughters to come into their own, travel more, not have to worry as much about money, and provide a well rounded education for the girls. I need to celebrate.
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?
At this point, I am angry. I want to feel like a 36 year old who exercises seven days a week, eats a clean, whole foods diet, eats no refined sugar, doesn't smoke or abuse substances, and generally tries to keep a good attitude. Why? That's who I am, but sometimes I wake up and feel like I don't want to wake up anymore. The pain from headaches, procedures on my foot that won't heal, a bum shoulder, a stomach that doesn't want to digest food, is wearing me out. Not to mention, I was told Monday that my insurance won't cover the procedure that would help my foot heal quickly. Nope, I have to a make three hours one way trip to the doctor every month and renewed pain with the treatment I receive until this is healed. Emotionally, while I try to hide it as best I can, I'm up and down. Anxiety and depression takes its toll as well. It's hard to admit you have either of those conditions when to the outside world you appear to be functioning fine. Some days, all I want is to be held by strong arms, smell damp earth, and feel the wind against my face. All day. I'm coping well though. Better than I was, and yoga is the reason. Fatigue is another big obstacle, but at the moment, I'm caffeinating strongly and taking iron to overcome my anemia as my body isn't absorbing nutrients from my food as it should.
I'm seeing three specialists (neurology, dermatology, and orthopedics) with 1-3 months between visits. I see my primary care physician at least once every 3 months for bloodwork, further testing based on prior test results, and medication updates. I have also started seeing my chiropractor regularly in hopes to spread out the visits to the orthopedic doctor. Honestly, it feels really stupid. Stupid. How did I end up here? Genetics is the simple answer. When I asked the girls pediatrician at their recent well visit if there was any way I could keep them from ending up here as well, she said, "Not really. The best we can do is watch for symptoms and catch it early."
Hover the cursor over photos for descriptions.
Because western medicine sees no cure for Hashimoto's and other autoimmune thyroid conditions, the approach is typically to manage a patient's symptoms as best as they can. For many patients, the management is not enough to allow them to live the life of a normal healthy individual. Unfortunately, as in other areas of medical breakthrough and dissemination of knowledge, most primary care physicians are not up to date on the latest information surrounding autoimmune diseases of the thyroid and a very many are not even aware of how to properly test for or diagnose them. Unless they specialize, doctors receive a basic understanding in medical school and not many take up further study in this area. Many people spend years with their disease worsening before they can even get a diagnosis. All the while, they are accused of being a hypochondriac or diagnosed with an array of issues that are not separate at all, but are related to the decline of their thyroid function. It is extremely frustrating for the patients and those close to them who know something more is wrong.
I didn't want to be in this place again. I am now overwhelmed while being in a familiar area. It reminds me of all the researching, writing, advocacy, and healthcare searching I did when trying to uncover why I had experienced unnecessary cesarean surgery and how I could go on to have a vaginal birth after cesarean. So, much of the information women need to make good decisions in pregnancy and birth is not transparent or shared among care providers and the women they serve. I had to become more involved in determining the kind of treatments and healthcare I would receive than those who were providing me that care. I had to take it upon myself to research, learn the science, and take the steps that I could to heal my body. All the while, I was sharing my journey with other mothers and becoming an advocate for the health of women and babies. When I stepped away from the career side of this advocacy, I thought that my focus would no longer have to be split between my passions and my healing. Yet, here I am again. Same thing, another issue. I'm tired.
Eventually, as I am choosing to do this one step at a time, I will be giving up many of my favorite foods and all things that I currently consider a treat - chocolate, dairy, all grain, corn, coffee, tomatoes and nightshades, nuts/seeds, soy, possibly eggs, all preservatives, and alcohol (which I have always had an aversion to). Eating out will be very difficult as will eating when friends and family cook meals. I have to be strict about the changes or it won't work. After 3 months to 2 years, depending on how my body responds, I will be able to reintroduce foods to see if I react poorly. If I don't react, I can continue to eat them if properly prepared for optimal nutritional absorption.
Another piece to this puzzle is medication and supplements. This is part of why I HAVE to adopt the diet and lifestyle pieces. I don't want to grow this mix. I want to reduce it. I will probably write more about that as I know what is helping me and what isn't. I really want to share this journey because Hashimoto's affects about 14 million Americans (along with the other health issues it causes) and no one seems to be having open discussions about it. It's another one of these dark areas where information is clouded and you can feel crazy and very alone.
I also have to make sure that I sleep at least seven hours a night, preferably 8-10+. It is recommended that Hashimoto's patients sleep until they naturally wake up and sleep until 8 or 9am as regularly as they can. This will be hard for me as I get a second wind in the night or I sleep restlessly, having wild dreams. My daughters get up at the first hint of daylight. The bodies of Hashimoto's patients need time to rebuild and to rest from the overburden.
Light exercise is also a must. It isn't recommended that we go for very intense exercise as that will cause further stress to our already taxed adrenals. I'm grateful I already have that under control with my yoga practice. I, now, practice 7 days a week and my favorite teachers have DVDs geared toward my health and fitness goals. Below are a few I'm using. I'm so thankful for my yoga!
The biggest thing I'm dealing with right now is needing to vent and not feeling like anyone wants to listen. I don't want to whine or seem as if I am whining. I'm a very proactive person and I'm not asking for pity or help. I want to be frustrated and have someone hear it, tell me I'm strong, tell me I'm a beautiful person, or simply feed me some positive about myself. Encouragement. I want pep talks. Or maybe I want my basketball coach back. The one that would make me mad in order to have me be fired up to play my hardest. Right now, I'm so worn out I don't want to fight. I just want to move on, whatever that means. It seems though that those with Hashimoto's have a hard time finding support and will often lose the support of friends and family. So, I'm going to blog for that reason too. Maybe I won't overburden those I love if I can let some of it out here.
In the meantime, I'm going to relentlessly pursue my dreams. I'm applying for jobs, seeing the girls into their new school, teaching yoga, cooking good food, and reading and writing a lot. Hopefully, spending times with friends and family will be added in there. I'm going to do my best, because I can.
That's the anger, overwhelm, and the plan.
By the time July 2014 rolled around, I was finding that I could no longer keep up with the form of workouts I had chosen. I was doing CrossFit inspired and HIIT home workouts. I was really worried because no matter my physical size, I had always been athletic and capable of pushing myself to keep up with strenuous exercise. Not only this, but the migraine headaches that I had been having since age 13 had picked up in frequency and were becoming debilitating. I reluctantly went to my family doctor. That began a cascade of testing and seeing specialists. I have seen a neurologist (and will regularly, indefinitely), orthopedic specialist, gastroenterologist, ob/gyn, chiropractor, and a dermatologist. I've had bloodwork every 3 months, MRIs, CTs, x-rays, and cultures of various sorts. Then, the ER visits.
I had to begin taking medications that would significantly lower my heart-rate in order to help prevent the headaches that were interfering with day to day life. This meant that it was now physically impossible for me to keep up with the intense workouts. That is when I took back up with a daily yoga practice. I now practice Kundalini and Vinyasa yoga at least 6 days a week. I eat real food as well as I can manage, and I try to feed my family the same way. See, I wasn't giving up. I have three daughters to raise and provide an example for. If I gave up on myself, what would I be teaching them?
All that said, leads me to why I'm really writing this post today. This region of Kentucky is known as one of the sickest regions in the nation.
Kentucky is one of the sickest states in America, a place where too many people die too soon, and many who live endure decades of illness and pain.
I must say, that what I'm seeing in my neck of the woods, currently, around health and fitness, gives me a great hope for our future. As I research and find the resources I need to receive the healthcare and access the food that I need to live the best quality of life possible for me, I am finding other eastern Kentuckians doing the same. Not only are they taking charge of their health, but they are becoming the change that they want to see in the region.
People I went to school with who are in the medical field are offering free, daily health tips via Facebook and coming back to the region to serve their communities. When I make posts about health and fitness information, I get messages and replies asking for more information or making comments that offer me more information. Area residents seem more interested in local food options. Farmer's Markets are sprouting up all over, and people are learning more about wildcrafting. Yet, the thing that inspires me the most is what I'm seeing as an increased willingness of people to use and explore the capabilities of their own bodies in outside of the box ways. I have recently started teaching yoga in Hindman and Whitesburg and have been so pleased to have no fewer than two and as many as eleven in my classes! So many express interest and a desire to learn how to take responsibility for their health. This makes me hopeful for the health of our young people.
Nick is part owner (along with Stacie Beckett and Carrie Adkins) of the new CrossFit Experior in Williamson, and Cristin instructs and works from the box (gym). I asked Nick why he wanted to make this passion of his into a career, and his answer is so much a part of the solution I envision for the positive growth of our region.
I wanted to open a gym to make a difference in the community, to help people change for the better. I think people are more interested in a healthier lifestyle these days for many reasons, like a better quality of life, to be more physically capable, longevity of life, or maybe to prevent a future health crisis. People as a whole are learning and adapting. 80 years ago everybody smoked. It was the norm. We're at a time now where healthcare and technology make things well known. We know now smoking has many adverse health problems, eating fast food, and drinking soda everyday has adverse health reactions. - Nick Potter
Simply put. He wants to make a difference in his community. Nick and Cristin saw an issue that affected them personally and in their desire to change it for themselves, they are a part of changing it for the community at large. We live in an area that is so naturally beautiful. I see it as very possible that this region can be known for health and well-being in our future. That's part of my vision as I share yoga with those who come to my classes. I know Nick and Cristin are seeing it on a daily basis as they inspire people of all ages to good health.
Jane Austen wrote in Persuasion, "I am half agony, half hope." On the days when my body and emotions feel agony, I look to hope. I'm going to fight the good fight. Others are fighting the good fight. This is just one part of the puzzle that will be rebuilding eastern Kentucky, but it is this type of revolution that makes me not give up completely. It is a clear path to goodness.
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)
Today, we are preparing for another round of snow. There is the possibility of six inches. My car is in the shop for who knows how long. Yet, I feel okay with that. Me, who doesn't like to sit around the house, is okay with these moments here, just me and my girls. In our school time today, I found inspiration to write for the first time since the snow in my girls' enthusiasm for getting back to a normally structured homeschool day. I was inspired by the fact that even though we have had a rough patch, we have 122 attendance days completed as of the end of this week for the 2014-2015 school year. I was inspired that my house feels tidy enough in this moment. I can not feel like talking to people. I can only want to see a few folks. I can dream of travelling. I can be playfully envious of Anthony Bourdain and his job. I can get wrapped up in a good television story. I can grieve. I don't have to feel guilty about it, or lazy. I don't even have to accuse myself of being stagnant. I can be productive on my terms. I can be still and content right now as I am. Is this what contentment feels like, or is this the stillness of grief?
"The more quickly you empty your cup and open yourself to new ideas uncritically, the sooner you will see natural learning blossom." - Sandra Dodd, Deschooling for Parents
Confluence Academy (the name of our little homeschool) has been going full speed since beginning lessons after Christmas break. Going into the break, I was feeling a major burn out and questioning how I was going to keep us on track the rest of the year. I know it was in part my being overwhelmed from depression and my health crisis, but a big part of it was playing teacher and placing myself under arbitrary rules. My big experiment in letting go has also included school, and because of it, we are accomplishing much more during our attendance days than we were.
We have been attempting a Waldorf education for our girls off and on since we became parents. What Waldorf asks of us is so vastly different from anything I experienced while in school, and the lifestyle, if you are a purist, is far removed from the mainstream experience. The concepts that Waldorf expounds were anything but what I was asked to do while teaching public school and obtaining my Master's of Arts in Teaching. "Proper" Waldorf education in the home would mean that I would truly devote much of my life and time toward learning the philosophy, correct application of the concepts, and the activities of home life that support the education. Committing to this kind of study while in the middle of carrying out the principles ascribed, mothering, homemaking, and trying to work on the side, soon overwhelmed me and created a heart conflict. I didn't want to do all this studying. I wanted to use my free time for me time. Us mamas have so little me time. Yet, I wanted my girls to experience the beauty and the gentle guidance this method allows.
"Stop thinking schoolishly. Stop acting teacherishly. Stop talking about learning as though it’s separate from life." —Sandra Dodd
I've had to let go of the idea that we'd be a purist Waldorf home. There are many things we do that aren't in line with the stricter aspect of the philosophy. I'm a student though. I love being a student, and I'll do my work whether or not my heart is in it at all just to earn the A+ and say that I did it. As we all know, being a good student and learning are two totally different things. Being the student is all about performance, doing the work, and getting it right. It's a rewards based task. Learning is about understanding, taking a subject/topic in deep, and integrating it into one's repertoire. Learning is a life task. I was raised in a home of educators. My grandfather taught vocational school. My great grandmother taught English. My grandmother was a substitute and a secretary at the Board of Education. My dad began going to college to become a physical education teacher, but did not complete the degree. I earned my master's in teaching. You can imagine how our journey to homeschooling has been for me. I've been the "student" since I have memory. I have taken that attitude into my approach to homeschooling my daughters and have found for one of the few times in my life, it hasn't served me well.
"Deschooling is not just the child recovering from school damage. It's also the parents exploring their own school and childhood damage and proactively changing their thinking until the paradigm shift happens." - Robyn Coburn
These days, I'm working on deschooling me. I'm having to take it slow, because doing my "school" work is a way of life for me. Allowing myself to enjoy my free time while also keeping up with my responsibility to provide a well rounded education to my children, has been a weight off. I still study Waldorf methodology. I still participate in the support groups for my curriculum, and we are still right on track with our lessons. Nothing has slipped. The only change has been my expectations of what we are doing and my level of stress. I'm seeing the learning in every opportunity we take. Literally, how can you keep a child from learning? They are built to learn.
The education we are providing our girls is unique to our family. It meets our needs while expanding the world view of our girls, and supporting their choices for their individual life paths. It isn't a prescribed "Waldorf" education, but is very much inspired by the ideas. We are eclectic homeschoolers. I can relax and not follow exactly what the book lays out, but I can trust my instincts as a human being. I don't have to be a good student. I don't have to be a constant teacher. I just have to be a mother who supports learning. I can let go of my book work a little to allow the real learning and growth to begin. My daughters can know their mother and enjoy our lesson times - or at least be at ease in them most of the time. I am capable of my own accord to guide my children down the learning trail, and I can follow their lead. Let go, mama.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, spiritual explorer, avid yogi, reiki practitioner, and is living life with chronic illness. Connect with her @ Kelli Hansel - Writer & Spiritual/Yoga/Self Transformation Guide
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