It's a marked and steady decline from my youth. It would take me an entire essay to explain to outsiders how living here is so unlike the urban American experience that it is as if you're from an entirely different country. Cultural norms, stereotypes, and etiquette are difficult to translate. It's a place that the developed world over still finds it politically correct to publicly and openly insult without most people thinking less of you for doing so. I've experienced it often firsthand, even from people I thought respected me. It may be worse from within our own state where whole swaths say, "We're not THAT Kentucky," when referring to the eastern part of the state.
This place, more so the landscape, is my home. It is the substance of my blood. It's a place you should experience with a guide. Not just any guide. Not a romanticized reframing narrative of how its quaint, enduring beauty has been falsely portrayed. Not the resiliency narrative of a people perpetually oppressed and misunderstood as if they were the butt crack of society. The scapegoats. While both hold merit and are important pieces of the story, they are glorifying oversimplifications. It's far more complicated and nuanced. In not taking the time to convey or discern the big picture, many efforts of revival here shoot off their own toes, spin wheels, and self sabotage.
As much as this place is a part of me and what I want to keep in my life, there is a significant aspect of me that feels stifled, put down, and silenced. Working on my own groundedness, I have realized that the place I call home has never fit outside of a few mossy rocks and rolling mountain streams. That part of me wants to go. I imagine some sort of balance where my permanent dwelling is here or another part of Appalachia and I travel for my work. I have both worlds in that scenario. I have my landscape. The microcosm that created my body and foundations, while at the same time finding a wider interpersonal community where I can contribute through sharing embodiment workshops, yoga, and my writing. I can share with people who are interested in my perspective and experience, while I learn from them and their offerings.
I have some beautiful opportunities to share some aspects of who I am here. Those chances keep me from feeling devastated. Yet, overall, I often feel a waste. I feel as if I am an odd peg with a chipped corner and one side swollen from getting wet. I belong to the set, but I don't fit well in the hole. The only time I don't feel awkward here is when I am teaching a yoga class. As soon as I end with "Sat Nam," the awkwardness floods back in. I have stopped being in public here aside from errands, school events for my children, teaching yoga, and wherever I can escape into the woods.
There are ghosts here to dodge. Eyes that have shared with you behind a screen like a confessional, but won't look at you in the grocery store. Ducking behind displays on aisle end-caps to avoid small talk that is only cordial. Empty store fronts of inaccessible, unsustainable opportunity. A community you love so much it breaks your heart, but has only so many tiny spaces where you can squeeze in for a moment if you can behave not pushing too many wrong buttons. I've pushed those buttons, and like a mouse in a scientific experiment, received the electric jolt to associate with the behavior. I use the word "afraid" a lot. I'm adverse to small town drama because it is no longer worth the consequences. I'm happy to risk when my heart is passionately led. Other than my personal work in my little room and teaching yoga privately and at my local library, I haven't felt passion in a very long time. I have not felt the space for it. I have not had what I need to add fuel to what burns in me. The burning turns to sadness unexpressed and dies there uncomfortable to breathe.
I don't know my answer. I want to trust that the opportunity comes where I find that balanced place I mentioned before to feed my soul. I know that it is becoming harder for me to accept as when I visit away from here, even conversation in the checkout lines feels so much warmer and genuine. There are more spaces for me than I have the ability to fill. Here, I find myself more insular and reclusive than is healthy for me, and I don't have much impetus to change that in the current configuration of home.
Maybe... just maybe... I haven't been home yet.
My family's story took a pretty big turn with The Indian Removal Act of 1830. President Andrew Jackson signed the act into law that allowed the Cherokee to be forcibly removed from their homes and lands in the Georgia foothills of the Appalachians to the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. Some of my family escaped into the North Carolina mountains and would help form what was later to become the Eastern Band of Cherokee and the rest were relocated to Oklahoma around what is today Sallisaw. The woman pictured below suffered through the separation that my family experienced through this heinous and violent act of the American government.
My great great grandmother Arizona was the child of some of the Cherokee that experienced the Trail of Tears firsthand. Here she's photographed in her backyard with her crutch. She had to leave home at 15 with a bad leg and walk from Calhoun/New Echota, GA to Dayton, TN to find a new life. There she married and she and her husband moved to Hazard, Kentucky so he could mine coal. He lost his life in the mines, and later she remarried a British man she met in Hazard. This is the first coal link in my tree that I am aware of.
The next comes with the building of coal towns and the mass advertising campaigns to people of all ethnicities, all over America for real jobs with real wages and real inclusion in the coal mines of eastern Kentucky.
There on the left is my mother's parents - Charles Leslie Mullins and Barbara Louise Johnson Mullins. My Pop did what I think a lot of coalfields men did who couldn't see themselves as a coal miner, or didn't believe it could be a secure job for them, he joined the service in the military as soon as he could. He was a member of the Golden Knights which is the Army Parachute Team. He served in Korea and Vietnam. He tried to serve in WWII by lying about his age as a young teen and his mother had to go gather him back home. He wasn't in my life much because of residue from the wars. He moved to Alabama at some point before my life or memory and I only saw him twice, though I talked to him on the phone some. My Mimi (Barbara) told me he had been a mortician in Letcher County or somewhere at one point.
And now, we have my dad - Mike Hansel. He came home from East Tennessee State University where we was hoping to become a Physical Education teacher and coach. He played every sport in school and was good at all of them. But, my mother required marrying, so he came home and did what men do who need to support a family with decent pay. He went to work as a miner. He's worked for so many companies in his career he cannot retire at age 63. He's followed the booms and busts miniature and gigantic in his 30 years as a miner. He worked his way up to what would be considered an environmental engineer position. Folks now get a college degree for that work.
My dad is a very intelligent man, and the "War On Coal" rhetoric, propaganda, and practices have done a number on him. In the years, when he should have been thinking of retirement, he was sent to Frankfort to educate and inform state government and protesting organizers on the realities of reclamation work and the environmental impact of coal mining as a representative of his company or the industry. In this position, a job that when you look at the pictures of the earliest miners instills awe and interest from most, my dad experienced violence against his person and property and such an extreme amount of stress that there were times when any mention of coal or anything that would remind him he'd go back to that on Monday, caused an explosion of strong emotion and words. Self defense.
"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
"You have a job that makes you so sick you can barely breath and almost impossible to talk. When asked "If you could go back to work would you?" And they answer yes, you know the American education system have failed." ~Tom Weartz
"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
"People like him voted for Trump based on his lie that he'd bring back coal mining jobs. They don't have my sympathy. Enjoy Trump cutting your healthcare and poisoning your air and water." ~Maria Goldberg
This morning, I got up early as always, did yoga, made breakfast, but when I got dressed, I put on casual wear. I had to go to Appalshop and meet with WMMT staff to settle the details on a position I applied for and received this month! I am the new Public Affairs Director at WMMT - Mountain Community Radio! It's a full time job and the first one I have had in a decade. I'm wonderfully excited to start. It is like I am finally getting the opportunity to do what I had always envisioned myself doing when I went to college for an English major. I'd work in writing and editing. This really is fulfilling a childhood dream.
When I was a kid, many of my core group of friends had parents who worked at Appalshop. Appalshop has been a part of the Whitesburg/Letcher County community for over 40 years and the radio station for 30. They have done tremendous work documenting, preserving, sharing, and promoting the life, news, arts, and culture of central Appalachia, I remember thinking as we hung around the building and played under the bridge how everyone seemed engaged and mostly satisfied there. The building smelled of old books and there were papers, videos, and books covering every desk. It was a dream like place for a girl like me - bookish and curious. I have always thought it would be an honor to work there.
“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint - it's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly... time-y wimey... stuff.” -Steven Moffat (for Doctor Who)
About a month ago, the first It's Good to be Young in the Mountains conference was held in Harlan, Kentucky. I was invited to attend and possibly blog about the event. I hadn't been clear if I was "young" enough to go, but that was cleared up as those of any age could attend in support of the young folk. Apparently, I am middle aged in the mountains - happily so. I made plans to go.
The title of the conference struck me by making me ask the question - Is it good to be young in the mountains? The main reason I ultimately decided to attend was to find out what our mountain youth are currently feeling about that question. As a parent raising children here, it is a question that I have posed to myself often, though worded in many different ways.
Will my daughters have opportunities to explore life in a myriad of ways living in southeastern, Kentucky?
Taking a look at the conference schedule excited me. They were offering workshops on everything from art to entrepreneurship. Activities included cultural exchanges, film screenings, music, and food. With a spread like that, I couldn't help but wonder what a freshly graduated me would do at a conference like this. How would I be connected and inspired? I felt a little jealous on behalf of my young self, but invigorated on behalf of my daughters. What will things be like here when they are ready to venture out from under my wings?
Upon arriving in Harlan and exiting the car, there on the pavement to greet us was an unopened box of Winchester ammunition. The song says you'll never leave Harlan alive, but you will if you have their ammo. Coming to a place to investigate the positive possibilities for our youth and finding bullets in a public parking lot reinforced what all of us who live here know. Our values and culture are our own and solidly ingrained in the make up of our bodies, minds, and spirits. Nothing will change that or should aside from our willingness to let go as a people and grow in ways that may benefit us more than a long held belief. As for gun ownership, I can guarantee that value will stay put for a good long while.
What the age of the internet has brought here is a way for the youth to connect with one another and organize in ways we couldn't do as readily when I was young. Throughout the summer, I have seen multiple examples of inspiring youth centered projects and events. While whether I will remain in the mountains for the entire duration of child-rearing or not is yet to be known. What I do know is that if we stay, my daughters are going to be ok. Just as our ancestors made-do with what they had, our young people are taking on the "do it yourself" attitude to create a more palatable environment for them here. What future do we have without the young people's investment? I urge all of us to support these efforts for all our sakes. It's good to be young in the mountains if we want it to be.
Every time I have expressed the fact that I am thinking of moving us out of the Confluence to anyone, the first response is typically - But, it's such a great (beautiful) place. This is true. It is the quietest most beautiful and obviously magical place I have ever lived. I will be very sad when I drive out of here for the last time. I came here for a dream that now I realize isn't mine to dream. That's okay. I've grieved the loss and have been making adjustments that will allow me to pursue the dreams I have always had - the dreams that are mine alone.
I don't know how many times I have had someone say to me that they would love to homestead and live this romanticized version of the Appalachian dream. The thought of it is so ideal. So beautiful. I wanted it too, and that is why we originally moved to this Lost Place, as my Ivy Pearl calls it. We were going to be property caregivers, travelling artists, and homesteaders.
After all, isn’t this movement away from us and toward independence the central goal of parenting? Isn’t this what sets parenting apart from gardening and cat ownership? That we want our children to leave us? That we don’t want to be number one in their lives forever?
I don’t feel guilty about sending my kid to daycare because he’s happy and his happiness is more important than my ego. I know that this separation is just one small step in his long journey away from reliance on his parents. But it is a step toward something great.
-Aubrey Hirsch, Why I Don't Have Working Mom Guilt
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.
Find Kelli on Instagram - @darkmoon_kelli