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?
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.
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.
First of all, I'm not a poet. I haven't fancied myself one since my sophomore year at Morehead State when I realized I needed more words on a page to convey the thoughts in my head than poetry allowed. From that time on, if I wrote a poem, I have mostly hoarded them away for myself to pass on to my daughters someday. I want them to have little bits of their mama's heart. I never share them with others. However, last week I had an amazing experience with fellow writers at the Appalachian Writers' Workshop in Hindman, Kentucky. I was so inspired, encouraged, and supported during the week that I used a whole ink pen worth of ink and worked up a raw spot on my finger. I am convicted to live the writer's life once again. My heart was filled to the brim, and I'd like to share a poem I wrote during the week, just because. (Ether in this poem refers to a fifth element not the chemical anesthetic.) Following the poem are some pictures from my week.
When Once Alive
Awake. Feel alive.
Remembered that being human is dynamic
with the reading of your words
the sound of your breath
Touch of your lips in a single moment forcefully rousing and sweet.
A mnemonic for the essence of my spirit.
Rush over the rock - the fall
just behind catch the mist
under and inside brings you to your knees.
Wind bending trees
scattering vultures across the sky like scraps of paper.
Miles become real distance
All the hurry forward and beyond creates a pull back.
Sleep. Sleep is familiar.
Known as skin on the back of hands.
Smell damp earth.
Take it up and in.
Make it part of every cell.
Scent my skin.
The decay of past moments bring a new life.
Grow. Let grow.
Ground dampen my ground.
Journeying and alive.
Fighting sleep with every breath in
Raging through lead.
Refine get gold.
Fire in the eyes.
Fire in the belly.
Sparks can ignite earth destined dry leaves.
With the remaining flicker comes
I have to stay awake.
Overdone. Over matched.
I want to be drawn up into the ether
like the crow lifts to the sky.
The ether will allow sleep
where awareness becomes arbitrary.
My step-dad, Wiley Amburgey Jr., worked for the Whitesburg Post Office, the majority of his tenure being at the downtown location when it was the post office and not the tourism building. When I was little, going to town with Wiley was exciting. Me being a holler girl, the change of scenery was nice. There were a few locally owned shops - Hoover's, Dawhare's, Quillen's, and Craft's. The quaint, happy little restaurant and authentically eastern Kentucky and world-centric gift shop (the Courthouse Cafe and Cozy Corner) that was a creation of one of my first best friends mother finished off the corner with class. There was something to see always. The library was downtown. If nothing else, I could go in there and smell old books. My dad's apartment was at one time downtown. Caroline's Diner was there.
By the time I was in middle and high school, walking to town after basketball practice was a regular thing. The old railroad tracks led from in front of my school to town. I'd walk those, crossing the North Fork of the Kentucky River wide-stepping over cross-ties. I'd walk to Madison Ave. to the Appalshop hoping I'd see a friend hanging out waiting on a parent or a ride home. Town was a reprieve to a teenager.
I'm always thinking about how Whitesburg used to be and I think of the other surrounding small eastern Kentucky towns that are like ghost towns compared to they way they were when I was young - Neon, Hindman, and Jenkins. I wonder how to create a new town in those forgotten buildings and streets. A town that will reprieve my daughters one day. I thought about it again when I took a trip to two rural, small Kentucky towns in the central and western part of the state.
My sister and I went to Dinosaur World in Cave City with our children this passed Sunday. We had a lot of fun and saw other things we would have done had we had the time, but for every neat thing, there were two or three novelty businesses closed down. Cave City is home to Mammoth Cave and you can tell at one time it was bustling with tourist attractions.
Later in the week, we were in Calvert City and Draffensville near Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. Again, I saw the emptiness. Many tourist driven businesses with closed doors. The shops that were open for the community seemed ran down and drab. For every business that appeared as if it were giving its best effort, there were as many more empty and deteriorating.
It brought me back to our little eastern Kentucky towns. A recent headline in our local newspaper The Mountain Eagle was "Coal employment down 70% here: 25 more lose jobs". With our local economy in swift decline and residents scrambling to make a life here or pack up and leave, it isn't a wonder that sometimes it feels like we are existing in the Twilight Zone when we walk down our main streets. Whitesburg can seem like a tiny oasis among the very small towns in the mountains. Adventurous folks are trying out new business. We are getting positive press (though it never seems to go beyond the "hey, look at this neat thing"). Yet, as many businesses on Main Street have closed doors as new doors are opened. The thing that the towns I visited had for them that we do not is they are off of major thoroughfares - easily accessible. Still, they are in major decline from the heyday.
I don't know if it is our collective American culture that is changing so that the interest in natural wonders and small town tourism isn't as wondrous as it was when I was small, or if it is our country's economic decline that is keeping people at home more. I consider that maybe the American spirit of entrepreneurship and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is becoming lost as we become more technology driven and commerce and communication is changing within that landscape. It's that change that is getting at the heart of our small, rural businesses. I also believe that the desire to appear equal with the outside world drives where our local people shop and seek their entertainment. There's more excitement about a possible Target coming to Pikeville than any of the unique specialty eateries opening in their downtown.
As I begin making changes in my lifestyle toward being a working mother in the mountains, sustainability and happiness are always in the back of my mind. How best can I serve this community whilst I'm in it? What is my place here, and how will my daughters settle into their own? What will spring forth and what will remain as the whole country moves more toward the urban lifestyle? There's so many questions and possibilities. It's a brave new world among ghostly streets, lots of efforting and imagination, and many risks.
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)
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!
The rains came washing the cold away, making all things new.
When we moved back to the mountains after seven years of being away, our ambitions were high. The plan was to homestead. John was going to paint and play music. We'd travel as a family to festivals to sell his wares and talents. It seemed a simple plan at the time. Implementing it was another thing all together.
Plans have changed now and yet things are slowly progressing toward the original vision. I handle most of the homesteading duties as I tend to homeschooling and homemaking. Our garden is not a huge plot with a bounty to sell at market. It is now several raised beds and lasagna beds in our side yard. It produces enough for our family for two seasons and a bit to can or freeze. The gardening doesn't take me away from the cabin and is manageable for the girls and I.
This week we put in strawberries, a variety of lettuces and salad greens, and spinach. We also joined a program in our region called Grow Appalachia that will support our efforts this season.
Gardening in your pjs is a technique we've mastered.
We also added two new farm friends to our two cats and twenty chickens. Snow White and Sunflower are Kiko/Boer mix nanny goats. They're less than two years old. Their breeds are good for both milk and meat, however, here they will be lawn care and pets. I'd love to have fresh, raw, goat milk, but I also dream of traveling. Asking a friend to milk your goats is a little more than I think we can pull off at this point. Trying to take it a step at a time. Thinking manageable.
Plans evolve. The spring rains wash away the heaviness of the winter and life moves forward into rebirth. The blessing is that we can adapt as our heart leads.
Kelli Hansel Haywood is the mother of three daughters living in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. She is a writer, weightlifter, yoga and movement instructor, chakra reader, and Reiki practitioner.