Rooted

 

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My mother’s father was a coal miner—a hard-drinking man with rough hands who laughed easily and loved children. Mining was hard work, and sometimes dangerous, but it paid a fair wage. That was something a man with little education and a growing family in rural West Virginia could appreciate. His daddy farmed to feed his family; now that same land would give provision in a different way.

For my grandfather, this land where I now live was about more than making a living. It was a way of life. A way of life that has been slowly seeping away.

Mechanization in the 1950s and 60s changed the face of coal mining all across Appalachia. Thousands of miners lost their jobs and left the region. As the economy and industry shifted, the population declined further in the 1980s. Once-thriving mining communities became ghost towns as young families left in search of livelihood.

Bodies broken from years of hard labor became dependent on prescriptions to get through the day. Others self-medicated to forget the pain of their bodies and the emptiness of unemployment.

Gradually, the way of life the land gave us began to fade from our memories. Hollows once blossoming with carefully-tended homes and gardens became darker places. Lonely places.

But still, there are those who chose to stay. They stayed because they are rooted deeply here. Rooted deeply in a land that has given back to its people in more ways than can be named. And they remember the old ways.

My grandfather stayed. He stayed and pieced together a living as best he could. Life was different, but he was home. This land had been faithful to his family for generations.

In April of 2013, Harlan County, Kentucky, hosted a conference for people concerned about the changing economy in Appalachia. Attendees of the three-day Appalachia’s Bright Future gathering heard stories of people from other regions that have gone through similar economic transitions. One such person was Brendan Smith, a former cod fisherman from Newfoundland.

“Economic transition is about much more than bringing in jobs,” Smith said. “ … When the cod grounds shut down, what they did was offer us money. They’d send us a check, we’d beach our boats … We took the money but what we did was lose our sense of purpose. What you find in Newfoundland now is, a fisherman gets a check, buys a brand new beautiful truck and gets up at five in the morning to drive down to the docks and drink himself to death while he wishes he was out fishing.

“Work has to be about so much more than making a paycheck,” Smith went on to say. “Fishermen, coal miners, iron workers … we’re just proud of building, powering, feeding this whole country. So, just transition plans not only have to help us feed our families but also feed our souls.”

I think of my grandfather as I walk beside the creek with my children. I don’t know what it was about this land that fed his soul. The curves of these hills move differently inside of me. As I watch my boys skip rocks from the bridge, I wonder if Grandpa’s loyalty was not so much to the work of the land as it was to the slow pace of life this land engenders. To family and the deep relationships that grow in these hills.

I gaze down at swift-moving water slipping over smooth stones and wonder if my grandfather knew that his choice to stay would bring me where I am today … walking beside my two boys in a neighborhood that stands on a former cow pasture.

Home.

In this New York Times video, residents of McDowell County, W. Va., share memories and hopes for their rural community—in jeopardy because of high unemployment and an exodus of young people. Mobile users can view the video by clicking here.

Don’t forget to leave a comment on this post for a chance to win some great books!

This article originally appeared at The High Calling.

Exile

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This morning I awakened in the kind of pain that makes it difficult to move. I knew what it was, knew what was needed, and so for the second time in ten years, I called in to work to let them know I would be staying home today. I’ve been resting, using ice, and stretching. I am doing better—still moving gingerly, but better. My friend Shelly says that if we neglect our Sabbath time, sometimes we will enter into a time of forced Sabbath. I must admit this feels good—to stay in my PJs late into the morning, listen to my body and heed its call.

The truth is, work has been hard lately. Just yesterday I suffered a bit of disillusion after an exchange with some of my colleagues. Sometimes a system can feel too big to change unless we work together, and often the people we serve take the brunt of this kind of stagnation. Sometimes a system can feel so big that individuals get caught up in their own agendas and resist working together for change because it might require much. I feel myself being pulled toward this way. Yesterday, in a very small way, I felt like Jeremiah—my voice falling on empty ears. It was a hard place to be and I didn’t like it. So, this morning I am resting my tender heart, collecting the manna of this moment.

Eugene Peterson defines exile as “being where we don’t want to be with people we don’t want to be with.” Of course, he was speaking of the Jewish exiles in Babylon at first, but he is skillful to draw a quick parallel to our lives today. That’s how I felt yesterday. Like I was in exile.

When the Israelites are in Babylon, Jeremiah sends them a letter from Jerusalem. “Build houses and make yourselves at home,” he says. “Put in gardens and eat what grows in that country. Marry and have children. … Make yourselves at home there and work for the country’s welfare. Pray for Babylon’s well-being. If things go well for Babylon, things will go well for you.”

“The aim of a person of faith,” says Peterson, “is not to be as comfortable as possible but to live as deeply and thoroughly as possible—to deal with the reality of life, discover truth, create beauty, act out love.”

Today it feels like I am hiding from the reality of life. But tomorrow? I pray I will be able to jump back in, to “discover truth, create beauty, act out love.” I will continue in this discovery of what it means to belong to God in this place I do not want to be.

Exile.

 

Like Riding a Bike

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As I write, the little boy across the street is learning to ride his bike. From my desk I can see them through the window—his father holding onto the seat and running along beside as his boy pedals maniacally. When he lets go the man bellows, “Pedal! Pedal!” I hear a high pitched howl before boy and bike topple over into the soft grass. His sister and another little neighbor girl stand witness, cheering as he goes down time after time. But he keeps returning to the seat.

“I feel like my writing muscles have grown weak,” I joked with my friend last weekend at the poetry retreat. “Well,” she said. “It is a skill. If you don’t use it …” I recognized the truth in her words and felt a catch in my throat.

It doesn’t feel like “riding a bike,” this ebb and flow of the writing life. In some ways, though, it does feel like the learning to ride—all these bumps and crashes. I’m on a quest to rediscover the joy I used to find in words. Somewhere along the way, writing became something else, my voice muffled like a song under water.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls this quest “building a motherland.”

“This world is being made from our lives, our cries, our laughter, our bones. It is a world worth making, a world worth living in, a world in which there is a prevailing and decent wild sanity …” She goes on to say,

When we think of reclamation it may bring to mind bulldozers or carpenters, the restoration of and old structure, and that is the modern usage of the word. However, the older meaning is this: The word reclamation is derived from the old French reclaimer, meaning ‘to call back the hawk which has been let fly.’ Yes, to cause something of the wild to return when it is called. It is therefore by its meaning an excellent word for us. We are using the voices of our minds, our lives, and our souls to call back intuition, imagination; to call back the Wild Woman. And she comes.”

Last night I told a friend that I am learning I must fight to awaken my voice again—I mustn’t give up as easily as I have. This love of creating is a way of giving to the world and I feel like a part of myself is missing when I am silent. Like a psalm written on my bones, it is a core part of my being.

Across the street, my little neighbor friend gets back up on the seat of his bike again. I hear his sister and her friend lift up encouragement. I hear his father giving instruction. I have voices cheering me on as well. Some have held me until I can find my balance.

But the most essential part falls to me. I have to keep getting back up into the seat.

The winner of last week’s happy giveaway is … Julie Dodson! congratulations, Julie! I’ll be in touch.

A Gentle Return

 

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At dawn our little valley sleeps under a fog-threaded blanket, hidden in folds of white and gray. The hills surrounding my home drift in and out of sight, rolling over in their forested bed before opening to the day. I return from taking Bonnie out with dew-stained cheeks, kissed by the morning.

This past weekend I met up with a group of poets and writers—musicians, friends, beauty-givers—and am still mulling over our time together. We read poetry out loud, danced, and found a home inside words and laughter shared.  We were staying at a place once called the eighth wonder of the world and even the ground we walked on held stories. It was a safe place, though not always a comfortable place for this solitary spirit of mine, and I let the hard questions linger on the edge of my mind longer than I usually do. I had a tough conversation with a mentor, the woman who probably did more to help shape my writing voice than anyone. I left our talk unsettled, with no answers, only these: (1) the knowledge that sometimes life sets us in hard places and (2) the feeling that I had been seen. Wisdom challenges me to stop whining and start following my bliss in every moment. It sounds so simple, does it not? Perhaps it is when one is surrounded by artists and soul-friends. The bravery is carrying that inspiration into my every day.

During one of our conversations this weekend I shared some thoughts about this TED talk. It’s one I frequently watch with the patients I counsel at the hospital where I work. The speaker is Aimee Mullins, a champion athlete, model, actress, and advocate, who just happens to be a double amputee. The talk is entitled “The Opportunity of Adversity.” In it, Aimee says, “Everyone has something rare and powerful to offer our society.” And,

… Implicit in this phrase of overcoming adversity is the idea that success or happiness is about emerging on the other side of a challenging experience unscathed or unmarked by the experience. As if my successes in life have come about from an ability to sidestep or circumnavigate the presumed pitfalls of a life with prosthetics or what other people perceive as my disability. When, in fact, we are changed. We are marked, of course, by a challenge. Whether it is physically, emotionally, or both. I’m going to suggest this is a good thing … Maybe the idea I want to put out there is not so much overcoming adversity, as it is opening ourselves up to it, embracing it, grappling with it … maybe even dancing with it …”

Times of sharing soul-thoughts and deep conversations have a way of tenderizing the heart, heightening the senses, and opening us up to possibility. This morning, the things I have chafed up against in this one wild and precious life feel less like obstacles and more like dancing partners. In the past couple years, we’ve navigated Major Depression, the loss of treasured work, sending our eldest son off to college, an increase in the demands of other work, the illness and subsequent death of a loved one, a book release, death of beloved family dog, and a change in career paths for the major bread winner in the family. Our life is not uncommon, but it is uncommonly ours. We have been changed. We have been marked. This morning I feel the truth of this settle into my skin as surely as the fog moistens my countenance. And I am opening my heart to the possibility that this is not a bad thing. I am beginning the first slow steps of the dance.

The way the fog slowly unveils the day feels good, a gentle return.

Everything Over the Sun

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Every morning I look out the kitchen window to the clearing in the meadow. I long for a glimpse of the spotted fawns we saw frolicking; I wonder about them: where are they? Are they safe? Will their spots disappear as quickly as the baby fat on my boys? Will they snack on the tenderettes in my garden tonight? I watch the golden rod bend over, heavy with nectar, and for the bazillionth time puzzle over how quickly time dissolves—like sugar in warm water—until all that is left is the memory of sweetness.

Last night, I took my son out shopping for some things he needs for his dorm. He begins his second year of college next week. Second year. When did that happen? I’ve grown used to having him home again. I’ve grown used to sweeping up his long red hair from the kitchen floor, to his shy smile greeting me when I return home from work in the evening.

So I wanted to buy him some better towels this year—fluffy towels to hug his body in softness when I cannot. He needs a new shower caddy and desk lamp, some underwear and perhaps a smarter pair of shoes—if I can talk him into it. So we set out on our quest only to be foiled by a terrible accident on the interstate. A semi hauling Resees cups east crossed the median and ran into another semi traveling west, erupting into a ball of flames. One truck driver was killed and several others injured. The interstate was closed for hours and traffic poured into our little valley—people trying to find an alternate way home. We were trapped in gridlock, stuck in a sea of vehicles along our little valley road. Instead of shopping, we pulled into a local restaurant and dined together, hoping the traffic would be cleared when we finished. As we ate, I prayed for the victims of the accident. I prayed for the truck drivers and their families, for those stuck in traffic. As I prayed silently, the sky opened up and rain thrummed the roof above us, poured down on the firefighters trying to extinguish the flames of burning diesel, on the people waiting in long streams of traffic, on our little valley that stood witness to it all.

We decided to try to find a shower caddy another day.

This morning, when I drove to work, all that was left of the accident was a mangled guard rail and some heavy equipment that must have been used to remove the debris. All along the interstate, for miles and miles, semi-trucks were parked along the side of the road—the drivers forced to sleep where they were due to a closed roadway. As I passed the site of the accident, trucks behind me and trucks before, I felt I was entering sacred ground. And these brother truck drivers stood sentinel, a testament to the fragility of our human lives.

In my Bible study this week, the author talks about how King Solomon uses the phrase “under the sun” a lot in the book of Ecclesiastes. As in “there is nothing new under the sun” or “the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.” Wiersbe says, “It defines the outlook of the writer as he looks at life from a human perspective and not necessarily from heaven’s point of view.” Solomon was so wise and gifted. And I wonder if he was really saying that it is only when we take account of that which is over the sun can we fully live into this life we are given.

So many things under the sun can discourage and disappoint. A tragic accident, the way time slips through my fingers, saying goodbye to my boy again … All of these things matter. The things that happen in this life matter. They matter to the world; they matter to God. This life matters. We are not simply here to wait for a better way. Scripture tells us Jesus came so that we might have abundant life. But this life is nestled into a bigger story. These hardships in this life, when taken in context of the bigger story, allow our hearts to be prospered—to grow richer and deeper and abundant in love. But only when I am able to keep an eternal perspective—to think on things over the sun—am I able to feel the fullness of the sadness but also of joy.

When life feels meaningless, I will remember. There is a bigger story. And I am a part of it.