In one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs, "Thumbing My Way," Eddie Vedder writes...
There's no wrong or right, but I'm sure there's good and bad. The questions linger overhead. No matter how cold the winter, there's a spring time ahead... I smile, but who am I kidding?
Taking on this principle, that I think of as everything is shades of gray, I have found a freedom from the heaviness placed upon my spirit by a society that values labeling everything so that constructs of conformity can be created to judge oneself, their social position, their righteousness, and their ability to succeed over the likelihood of failure. In other words, a view of people and situations, being defined as "positive" or "negative" in nature by the stories and principles which precede them, and therefore the experience you have of them following suit. So much of our lives are labeled along this dual spectrum before we even have the opportunity to fully experience it ourselves. It equates to us being told what to experience, how to react to it, and what we should feel about it. It can so muddy the way we access life, that many of us become dull or unsure of what we actually feel or enjoy. How do we know, if everything comes to us prepackaged, label applied?
To experience things labeled as "negative" has become so unacceptable in our culture that a space to process our feelings around those experiences, we inevitably have, is hard to find. To express feelings that are considered "negative" has become taboo. Frustration, under these conditions, if expressed, can result in our own label as a "negative" person. Our grief process suddenly has an arbitrary time limit, and it too is labeled "negative" as we're accused of dwelling and being unable to "just let go." Yet, in this human experience, to deny the importance of the entire gamut is to drown the possibility of anything to have significant meaning -- for us to better understand ourselves or others. How is a fullness to be experienced without access to the complete range of the spectrum?
There is no doubt that tragic life events mark us at times in irrevocable ways. Not all of them can be said to be advantageous to our own well being or even, perhaps, to those our wounded self encounters. For myself, multiple childhood traumas left me with reactionary patterns, physical and sexual shame, and social anxiety in particular situations that I've had to work very hard to accept or transform into something that gives me the space to have my fullest expression as an adult woman. These traumas were reinforced, changed, or exacerbated by several additional traumas I have experienced as an adult. Without going on about the details of those traumas, I want to express that to varying degrees, I understand trauma to be a universal experience. How we process the trauma, while following certain tendencies identified by science, is largely individual. What seems a minor occurrence to one individual may send another to the brink and vice versa. Neither individual is wrong in their experience of the occurrence. Many variables are at work, and it is unhelpful for us to classify another's reactions based upon our own or our analysis of what they should be, as we are outside players.
I am writing this during a pandemic where we have been asked to shelter in place, practicing physical distancing from non-household members as much as possible. Those in positions and careers deemed non-essential have been restricted from work and providing for their families with no tangible timeline for a return to anything resembling normalcy. Children are home from school and separated from friends. Some parents are juggling attempts to earn income from home while also helping their children complete school work there. This assumes every family has a laptop or other device that can be used and that there is enough time in the day for everyone to do their tasks on that device if there are not multiple of them. Essential workers and healthcare professionals feel more at risk for contracting and spreading the virus so much so that some are choosing to house themselves away from their families, causing further isolation and financial burden. Unemployment has been expanded to the self employed and small business owners, but computer systems have not caught up to the demand or new parameters, and some are being denied. Again, no real timeline. No idea of what we'll return to, and many unsure if the job they worked so hard to create for themselves will exist in our future.
I'm writing this at the hardest moment I've experienced in all this. A tornado like storm has taken out power for thousands of people in my area. Mine has been out for 3 days now. (It was out 5 total.) It's maybe 40 degrees Fahrenheit in my house. I'm sitting on my couch in my winter coat, under quilts, my hand is almost too cold to move my pen across the paper. I was once building my local yoga and movement clientele, living in a two income household - jobs which were built from the ground up so we could remain in our community where we were raised and contribute to creating whatever could be mustered in our economically struggling area. My philosophy had always been not to sell my soul to money and a rat race when I was free to build some version of a dream and come home from my work more fulfilled.
Now, no one in my household is allowed to work outside of the home. Our work, as it was known, may not exist for some time. The task is, now, to try to obtain unemployment, and create income that's possible from home, trying to sale online classes, artwork, editing services... something. Sales of anything in such an economically dire time is a shot in the dark.
In the last month, I have found myself needing to accept donations of food and money, worrying if I will need to relocate during a pandemic, concerned about the future for my children, distrusting information from most sources, playing out scenarios to earn money, unable to do anything aside from hours of yoga and physical movement, and now, being reminded of times when I was younger and entire days were spent trying to stay warm and find food.
There have been countless opinions written in the last weeks about how we should be spending this time. People telling us how we should be feeling. Most seem to be saying that we should be taking this time to replenish, reassess, and reevaluate. Recommendations are given to get creative, play, explore new hobbies, and enjoy time with the family. All of these things are worthy endeavors and may be accessible to some, but for others of us getting to a state where those things are mentally possible can feel rather impossible. For many of us, including myself, this time is the ultimate test of our resiliency and the tools we have worked so hard to obtain for our personal wholeness and growth. This is a trauma. A collective trauma, and with everything we have we are battling reverting to old ways of coping, of simply hoping to survive while discarding the goal of thriving for the time being. Keeping afloat is overwhelming enough.
It's April. This morning, the temperature is cold for this far into spring. I'm wearing a flight jacket with Navy patches that belonged to my Papaw Hansel who served in the Korean War as a frogman, which he explained to me was a precursor to the Navy Seals. He once told me a story of standing on the deck of his ship in open ocean. Enemy planes had been circling overhead for hours and they were sitting vulnerable. He said that tension got so high many were locking themselves away below deck puking in fear. He chose to be there, on deck, watching the enemy and flipping them the bird. He told me sometimes they'd fly low enough that he could see the whites of their eyes and he smiled. All they could take from him at that point was his life, and he wanted them to see his smiling face. They eventually abandoned the intimidation tactics and flew away. Papaw died of bone cancer an octogenarian. No too long ago, but long enough.
Sometimes, though, smiling in the face of threat is not possible. Perhaps a greater good is to be considered and no one can agree on an approach despite working toward the same goal. My dad is a huge fan of the Webber and Rice rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. I grew up with it as a regular lullaby. He can sing every word to every song from beginning to end. Judas Iscariot opens the story and as much as it is the story of Jesus the Christ, I always felt more drawn to Judas. The empath in me felt his worry and his desperate attempts to preserve his friends and their ideas when the world seemed to be falling apart. What do you choose to save under those circumstances? What do you trust? Judas opens, "My mind is clearer now. At last, all too well, I can see where we all soon will be." He goes on to implore Jesus to listen, to remember they are the weaker underdog. That if they make too much noise, they'll be crushed, and that he is a man and will die, perhaps taking out the rest of them too. Judas asks his friend to remember his loyalty, saying, "Please remember that I want us to live, but its sad to see our chances weakening with every hour..." Judas did not want to betray Jesus. He wanted to live. He wanted the principles they were teaching to live. In his duress, the only way he saw to do this was to sale out his friend. "Our ideals die around us all because of you. And now, the saddest cut of all -- someone has to turn you in like a common criminal, like a wounded animal..." I cannot help but see this very scenario playing out with everyone spouting the results of their fears on social media.
My maternal grandmother, who I called Mimi, told me the story of the Judas Tree. The Judas Tree is another name for the redbud tree common in the eastern Kentucky hills. It blooms in early spring, right before the dogwood, heralding the coming relief of a break in the weather. Mimi said that when Judas decided to end his own life after ushering in the death of his friend, he chose to hang himself from a sturdy, tall tree with white blooms. The tree took the shame of Judas as he died, shriveling and gnarling. Its blooms shrank and blushed with the guilt and embarrassment. It became our beloved redbud tree. It grows in our hills alongside the dogwood who's blooms are known to tell the story of Christ. Judas still the dark harbinger of beauty and light. I always found it hauntingly comforting that the leaves of the redbud are heart shaped.
In Hermetic philosophy, the Principle of Polarity/Duality, is stated as follows: Everything is dual; everything has poles; everything has a pair of opposites; like and unalike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet, all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled." Everything existing on this plane that is experienced through individual perception is a spectrum, a double sided coin, no matter how seemingly concrete. Our existence is multifaceted, double jointed, layered, and told back to us in stories. In the bittersweet story of Judas and Jesus, the idea of duality is clearly illustrated. Even in the sequencing of the blooming trees that carry their tale, it is clear. Without Judas, Jesus is not possible. Their story plays out in a full spectrum of continuous love.
During the last argument between Jesus and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas delivers the lines -- "To think I admired you, for now I despise you!" Jesus answers, calling him a liar. Judas understands that Jesus realizes the necessity. Judas asks him what if he didn't betray his whereabouts, stayed, and ruined his ambitions. Jesus screams at him to go. Love and hate are the same in nature, only varying in degree. One can quickly appear to be the other, as the energy applied toward the feeling of it shifts.
It seems then, that on this plane of existence, that duality is necessary for us to make sense of ourselves and the lives we are living. Otherwise, would we even know we are alive? Would it matter? Have we become so adverse to the range of human experience that we are paralyzing ourselves to life until death stares us in the face and we have to pay attention? Are we so appalled by and fearful of death, we forget to live? How often does hardship become the impetus for the most beautiful growth?
I know, sometimes, within our awareness, nothing good comes of tragedy, especially that which we perceive as preventable. One of the things that happened to me repeatedly over the course of a few years when I was a small girl can be described as nothing but atrocious. I didn't ask for it. I was powerless. I didn't deserve it. I still wear its physical and mental scars. I cannot see anything good for me that has come of it. Yet, because of the experience, I feel I am more open to being present for the story of others. It has led me to a portion of my work, and perhaps, even the ability to write this piece. I wouldn't be the me that I am without it, the wounded animal that I am. Is that good? Bad? Does it matter? That event continues to impact me and those I encounter. When I listen to another's story without judgement, is the thing that happened to me made new and good?
I know this current experience is marking me. I know it is changing the story for all of us. We didn't get the trigger warning, and here we are. Dust made of many of our plans. All we have is now and the opportunity to interpret the conditions we are actually in, and decide to do one of three things -- accept them, change them, or wait for more information. The alternative is to wallow in the mire. But, the time to hesitate is through. Try now. We can only lose, and our love become a funeral pyre. Regardless, I am lighting my fire.
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.
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)
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