Writing My Way Home: Silas, Swago, and The Farm Dogs

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

1950s, Swago Farm, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. Standing, Dennie and Hunter McClintic. Seated far right, Betty McClintic.

I have very specific memories of the first time I ever saw certain people. It’s an odd phenomenon in that I don’t know any reason when I first lay eyes on these folks why the memory instantly becomes fixed. In each case, however, such people become important to my life. My husband is one of these “fixed memory” people. I can still see him, opening a glass door and striding across a lobby with a scowl on his face.

Silas House is a fixed memory person for me, too, but it a different way. It was not Mr. House in the flesh, but his written words that fascinated me, became fixed. His environmental column in the New York Times, “My Polluted Kentucky Home,” reads like a creative nonfiction essay to me, more so than a national column of an environmental activist. And yet I can’t fully defend that perception. It is clearly an activist’s narrative. But it’s edgy, tight with a barely contained rage. When I read it, I can feel Mr. House holding it together as it tries to bolt out his control. The emotions and the realities behind “My Polluted Kentucky Home” are so muscled and dangerous, only a master of the written word could begin to manage it.

Silas House is such a master.

I referenced the column in 2011 as an inspiration for essayists writing about place. Going back to the column, I am reminded that every section is a gut-punch. Still, the paragraph that knocked me out 3 years ago remains the one that gets me now:

As a child I once stood on a cedar-pocked ridge with my father, looking down on a strip mine near the place that had been our family cemetery. My great-aunt’s grave had been “accidentally” buried under about 50 feet of unwanted topsoil and low-grade coal; “overburden,” the industry calls it. My father took a long, deep breath. I feel that I’ve been holding it ever since.

 

This physical experience of prolonged generational grief with no end in sight resonated in my heart. It took up residence there and made sense out of something, or at least started to make sense of something, that haunts me. I am a native West Virginian. My family has lived in Appalachia for generations, and I have struggled to find words for the experience of a rupture with the land that feels like a problem in my body. And it is exactly as Mr. House says it is. It’s a kind of inheritance. It was passed to me. And as in his narrative, it was not passed with intention so much as without choice. Some people call this Appalachian fatalism. I am still trying to understand what I will call it.

When someone puts words to your problem, he often shines a light on the way out. At the very least he allows you to see your problem in a new way. I wanted to know more about Silas House, and discovered his online literary publication, Still: The Journal. In this space, I found more expression of the more complex elements of Appalachia. I found images and words and ideas that reflected some of the layers that I know from growing up there. Much material on Appalachia traffics in stereotypes and simplicities. Still explicitly is not interested in stereotypes or cliches. It has a mission to illuminate what is real, and truly human, and intricate about this mysterious and hard place some of us call our native home. So I recommend Still to you without reservation, both for seeing something you may never have seen about this part of the world, and for some lovely art.

My essay, “Farm Dogs, recently received a Judge’s Choice honor in the Still 2014 Contest for Creative Nonfiction. A narrative with early drafts about literal farm dogs, this essay became something more human and more reflective of my own life’s unanswered questions. I remember sharing a draft in my MFA workshop, and someone saying, “This is great and all, but I still don’t understand why you went to this farm. Why did your family go there? What is this all really about?”

I was amazed to realize I had no answer. Back to the drawing board.

After interviewing my parents who are in their late seventies and mid-eighties, I discovered a huge hole in this story, one I’d never truly known about or understood. The interviews filled that hole, in part. Perhaps there are always spaces left open in our life stories.

And perhaps that is as it should be.

Thank you to my professors Eric Waggoner, Richard Schmitt, Carter Sickels, and Jessie van Eerden for your constructive feedback on Farm Dogs. Thank you to my MFA workshop colleagues Lara Lillibridge, Christine Roth, and Benjamin Bolger for reading and critiquing early wonky drafts of the essay. Thanks to Jeremy Jones for teaching a wonderful seminar on how to interview relatives about family history. Thanks to Karen McElmurrary for falling in love with “Farm Dogs” at first sight, even when it was just a wonky draft and full of holes. And thank you, mom and dad, for being brave enough to fill in the empty spaces in this narrative about a part of our lives. I love you.

The Legend of Paint Creek: A River Town Halloween Treat

Lillian let Hayden walk ahead of her. She liked to fall back sometimes, pretending she was looking at the autumn leaves or tracking the rustling of a squirrel behind a fallen tree. In truth, she wanted to look at him, watch the way he walked in the woods. It was different from the way he moved in River Town. In town he was tall, his shoulders squared, his hands hovering at his hips with open fingers. She knew about the knife he carried. Sometimes it made her feel safer, other times less so.

But in the woods, Hayden had a different energy and gait. His shoulders loosened. His hands seemed less poised to act. His long body was more at ease than Lillian ever saw it in town. She liked to see him in this different state of mind and body. It felt like a privilege, and she wondered if anyone else ever saw him like this.

In an instant, her calm shattered. There was a scream, a sound she had never heard before, like the devil himself had opened a gate in hell. The scream made the air vibrate, and Lillian felt the inside of her ears throb with pain.

“Hayden! What is that?!” She was running to catch up to him but there was no need. He’d already spun back to her and was at her side before the echoes stilled and the woods were void of sound. It was a chilling silence. No little creatures skittering, no leaves moving, no birds speaking. The quiet was thick and unsettling.

Hayden’s hand was on her arm now. “Lill, stay at my side. It’s going to be all right, but don’t leave me.” Lillian had no intention of leaving him. The scream had almost stopped her heart. Whatever else was with them in the woods wasn’t going to get her alone, she knew that much.

“Hayden, oh . . . Hayden, what was that?” her voice was a whisper.

“I know what it should be, but . . . .”

“But WHAT?” Lillian was moving from fear to annoyance. Her sharp mind didn’t tolerate not getting information quickly. She could tell Hayden knew something about the scream. Why was he waiting so long to tell her?

“It’s a paint. But she shouldn’t be out now. It’s the middle of the day.”

Lillian furrowed her brow so hard Hayden laughed in her face. “Your face looks like a plowed field.”

“What on earth is a ‘paint’?” asked Lillian, ignoring his mockery.

“Oh, right. You’re so society. You wouldn’t know that word. Paint, you know, like a panther. A mountain lion. There are plenty in these parts. If I’d known you didn’t know that I’d never have let you walk around in the woods with me.”

“Oh, hush,” said Lillian. I know about mountain lions. My father killed one once.”

Hayden stood back and looked at Lillian with what appeared to be new respect. “Not too shabby. I didn’t think the old man had it in him. I don’t know many bankers who can kill a paint.”

The sounds of the woods had returned to normal. Whatever it was had passed.

“Should we get home?” Lillian asked nervously.

“Not a bad idea,” said Hayden. “Still, that was really strange. Paints hunt and mate at night. It’s only after lunch.” Lillian’s face went hot. She felt embarrassed by talk of wild animals screaming and mating, but Hayden didn’t seem to notice. They walked on without speaking. Finally, Hayden said, “You know Paint Creek, right? It’s not that far from River Town.”

“I’ve heard of it,” said Lillian. “I never thought of where it got its name. From lions?”

“Well, yes and no,” said Hayden. “There’s a legend about it. It’s not something you probably should hear . . .” His voice trailed off and she saw him try to hide a smirk. They both knew the best way to get to her was to suggest she wasn’t smart enough or strong enough for a story.

“I most certainly should hear it!” she insisted, taking the bait. She had to know.

Hayden stopped smiling and looked at Lillian. “All right,” he said, “I’ll tell you. But if you can’t sleep later, don’t blame me.

Paint Creek in Ash Branch Park, Kanawha County WV

They say it was a long time ago, maybe fifty years or more. There weren’t that many white people living around here. Houses were really far apart. There was a man, he was called Anselm. Lived up on Paint Creek alone. Or so most people thought.”

Hayden paused. Lillian’s eyes were fixed on him. “What do you mean, so people thought? Did he or didn’t he live alone?”

“He said he did. But the story is that he would show up in town every few weeks, trying to get things that seemed odd. Like he wanted to barter for bolts of calico cloth and lavender water. That’s not what stinky old men are known to like, you know?”

“No, that’s what a woman would want.” Lillian couldn’t take her eyes off Hayden. “What else?”

“One time he came into town near frantic, or so they say, crazy to find a doctor. Except he wasn’t hurt. He wasn’t ill. He wouldn’t say why he needed a doctor so bad. He never found the doc and went home wild eyed. Rumors started that old Anselm had a woman up there. Maybe more than one.” Hayden looked at Lillian. “Do you want to hear the rest?”

She said simply, “Yes. Yes I do.”

“Some of the women in town started bothering their husbands to go up to Anselm’s property to see what was going on. The men didn’t want to go, they figured they didn’t want anyone bothering them, why would Anselm want anybody bothering him. Live and let live. Then the screaming started.”

Lillian couldn’t breathe. She just nodded to Hayden to go on.

“In the middle of the day for three days in a row, people in town could hear paints screaming over by the creek. It was an awful sound, just like today. And no one had ever heard it before when the sun was up. The town women insisted something was not right up at Anselm’s. The men finally formed a group and went to see what was what.

When they got up to the house and banged on the door, no one answered. They decided to break down the door.”

Lillian, normally so composed, could not control herself. “What? What? What did they find?”

“They claimed to find several pieces of a woman’s clothing and a wooden cradle. But there was no one in the house. A door out the back of the house was ripped clean off, what looked like claw marks all over it. There was blood on the ground but not in the house, like something or someone had been dragged away. The men followed the trail until it disappeared into the creek.

No one ever knew what happened. Some people said the three days of screams must have been the three people in the house being attacked by paints, one after the other. Others claimed they saw human footprints near the drag marks, like it had to be a person who took the bodies. Others started a rumor that Anselm was a paint, changed at night and didn’t take too kindly to his woman locking him out, and ripped the door off with his claws.”

“That’s enough,” said Lillian, shuddering. “I don’t want to hear any more. That is horrible. The baby . . . ” She couldn’t continue  and looked away.

“It’s not good, that’s for sure,” said Hayden. “Though some tell the story that the dragged off body was Anselm’s and the woman was the paint, come to claim her baby and she finished the old man off and left his body to sink into the creek. The daytime screams are her victory cries. When you hear her during the day, she is reminding every man around who really owns these woods.”

Lillian smiled. “I like that version better. Let’s go with that.”

“I’ve always liked it best myself, too. I know better than to try to mess with a strong woman.”

The two friends walked on, their hands not touching but close together.

###

This tale is entirely fictional and inspired by the characters Lillian Conley and Hayden Lowe from the collection of short stories that make up River Town. Want to know more about Lillian, Hayden, and the many other characters who live in River Town? Cool! Check out this link as well as the links below: https://essediemblog.com/2013/08/14/river-town-buzznuggets/

You can hear some cougar screams and calls here. Many people believe that some of the more blood-curdling cries sound like a woman screaming.

Read about the real Paint Creek, West Virginia, here.

Buy and read River Town here. You can join Facebook fans of the book, too: River Town on Facebook

Happy Halloween!

Create West Virginia and “All of these people….”

In 2007, I helped write and publish a white paper about West Virginia’s economy; specifically, I wrote about the state’s need to transition strategically from an old-school, extraction economy to what author Richard Florida termed “the creative economy.” This new economy is one based on knowledge, innovation, creativity, social openness, and a strong sense of place.

From that original paper, an advocacy organization was born: Create West Virginia (www.createwv.org). CWV holds an annual conference, but this year’s event in Richwood, WV, was a bit different from anything the group had tried before. Rather than scout out a large community with well-defined conference facilities, the organization decided to put its money where its mouth is and show off the potential of a small, even modest, typical West Virginia community.

Hello, Richwood, Nicholas County.

Richwood’s population was 2,051 at the 2010 census. Once a thriving coal and lumber community, Richwood was once a town of nearly 10,000 people. When underground coal mines closed, so did much of the community. Residents left not only Richwood but West Virginia entirely in search of work. Richwood was the perfect place to showcase why the mission of Create West Virginia is important.

The promise at the October 2013 Richwood event was a bold one. Marketing claimed that attendees would gain strategies “to solve a big problem.” I was hooked. There really is no end to the big problems anyone who loves Appalachia can drag out of the bag. I wondered if CWV had let its mouth write some checks its planners couldn’t cash. I had to find out.

I relocated to Vermont this year, so it did not pencil out for me to go in person to Richwood to find out what happened. Yet this entity, this passion, this dream of building a new economy in my home state is still a bit of my offspring. A baby bird, if you will, that I have let others adopt, but still a fledgling I want to see learn to fly and, well, not get eaten by a cat before it has a chance to grow up at least a little. I decided to sit down in a digital living room with my friend, educator Mark Swiger of Wheeling, West Virginia. Mark is a teacher and the department chair of Social Studies for John Marshall High School in Glen Dale. He’s a straight shooter. His focus was naturally on the education track, and he told me that Create West Virginia did more than just provide strategies for attendees this year in Richwood. The conference, planners, facilitators, and panelists modeled for communities and individuals how to transform communities.

As an educator and a presenter, Mark used problem-based learning as a model to look at the achievement gap but also at what he called “a more devastating gap” — the engagement gap. He also attended the Entrepreneurship track where questions emerged about encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit in West Virginia communities and schools.

It was refreshing to see the state’s schools through the West Virginia Department in partnership with business, government, NGOs, and higher education being encouraged to contribute to the innovation economy through programmatic response to what education stakeholders have been saying for some time. Schools need to be encouraging student to plan to be in control of their own futures. CWV’s track discussions received good reviews from attendees and most admired how Richwood was utilized as a Create West Virginia laboratory for building creative communities in concert with local leaders and community members.

The most inspiring part of the event was just being in Richwood. He noted taking a conference of this magnitude to places like Richwood is risky. People might not want to come to a place without the usual luxuries of dining and shopping. The location was off the beaten path and not easy to access compared to a big venue just off the Interstate highway; but the CWV team is known for seeing the direct correlation between risk and reward. The organization’s leadership knows how to capitalize on the pioneering spirit of West Virginians: this is a state built by people who understand a rough road. Richwood’s community spirit is similar to other hamlets and cities in the state; people are proud of their place. “Create West Virginia is inspiring communities to be their own problem-solvers,” Mark told me.

He overheard an elderly couple walking through the streets of Richwood talking about this place, this has-been-might-could-be-again town. The woman said, “This reminds me of the town when we were young.” The man retorted, “Not really,” to which the woman said gently, “Not the buildings. The people. Look at all of these people . . . “

What if West Virginia had started diversifying its economy decades ago? Would people still be in Richwood? Would the generations lost to the “brain drain” have found rewarding careers in technology, research, science, art?

The people who brought Richwood back to life, if only for a few days, think it’s time to grab the reins and direct a new vision for West Virginia. I know many of these people, and I believe they represent the intellect and leadership to realize that vision. If you would like to get involved and learn more about the motivated, hard-working people of Create West Virginia, visit their contact page here. You’ll find a telephone number, email address, physical address as well as plenty of social media hook ups.

They invite you to “bring it,” and I hope you will!

 

River Town #buzznuggets

Concept cover for River Town

Concept cover for River Town

In the brave new world of self-publishing (and even of traditional publishing), writers carry more of the water than ever when it comes to promoting and supporting a book.

If one is shy, or fearful of seeming self-absorbed, this can be a daunting task; fortunately, I am not much of either these days.

Following are some of my favorite moments from the 6 stories that make up the new book in which I have some short fiction, River Town. It’s getting some nice word of mouth and social media energy. Any part readers of Esse Diem would like to play in that energy is more than welcome!

Hayden Lowe may or may not have killed a man out west. No one seems to know why he’s back in River Town, though his friend, Lillian Conley, is keeping a private journal full of clues. Will Captain JD Dawson lose his beloved sternwheeler, the Miss Jayne Marie, in a winner-takes-all bet? Julia Hubbard has a secret project, Andrew Wilson is plotting on the dusty streets of River Town, and what about that strange Dame Roxalana? There is more to Roxie than anyone is willing to say. The men in the coal mines around River Town seem to be developing a mysterious condition that no one can explain, yet everyone is whispering about it. Before all is said and done, each of these characters will intersect in unexpected ways. The resolutions are as suspenseful as they are satisfying. River Town is a collection of short stories set in 1890s West Virginia. The combined work of six different authors, the tales range from adventure to romance, from intrigue to fantasy. Each story stands alone, yet together they take readers to a time along the Kanawha River just after the Civil War when families were still struggling to recover and before the railroad came through the mountains. The river was the center of everything.

From Hayden’s Return by Katharine Armstrong Herndon

“All I hear is splashing,” he said, indicating the paddlewheel.

The Captain stopped at the rail and looked down into the churning darkness below them. “Son,” he said finally, “I know every sound this river makes, and that last splash wasn’t one of my favorites. Now suppose you tell me what sort of trouble you brought onto my boat.”

From They Hold Down the Dead by Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher

Hayden never returned to the Conley property, and though Lillian wondered if she would ever see him again she was comfortable with his disappearance. The strange event in the woods had frightened her into trying to forget about the heart stone entirely, and as Hayden was the only witness it was easy to pretend it had never happened.

From Racing Miss Jayne Marie by Eric Douglas

“Mr. Hamrick, I’ll take all the power you can give me now,” JD ordered into the brass tube while keeping a firm hand on the boat’s wheel. “And now for my last trick,” he said under his breath. 

From Being True in River Town by Jane Siers Wright

“It’s just hard — hard and scary — but I hear it. I hear my real life callin’ me . . . ”

From Hearing the Past  by Shawna Christos

Andrew moved restlessly in his chair as he bit his lip to remind his mouth to speak carefully. He knew things were changing, even here in this backwoods. Things were changing, but apparently being able to choose your own path wasn’t one of them.

From Wail by Geoffrey Cameron Fuller

He parts the lace to look across the river and down over River Town. Soon it will be filled with commerce, tugs loaded with coal, gravel, the last of the salt, all of it owned by Phillips and his people, being transported on his ships, and when they get the rail lines extended, a brand new game will be underway, and with the assistance of the Great Dark, that game will be even more lucrative.

(Thanks to Jeff James, Bob Coffield, and as I recall Mark Wolfe for “#buzznuggets.”)

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 3)

As inelegant as it is, here I must say that not all things are wrong. There are many hard and beautiful truths in a West Virginia life that other places may never know. I am reminded of the betrayals of a true love. Not much is lost when you never cared, but there is a unique pain in the infidelities of the one to whom you’ve given your heart.  West Virginia births and raises true loves. We don’t do things half-way or a little bit. We come out into this place like wires, connected, to a land of creeks and sky and hills. We hit the earth a part of it, and “mountain mama” is not just a line from a song. Whether we want to have this relationship or not, it is both a birthright and a burden.

I think again of my great-grandfather. What did Charles Edward grow up believing? I imagine he was like the rest of us. He grew up believing that that is a good place. He no doubt came into the world with a strong belief that the land around him was worth fighting for, that anyone who would disparage what West Virginia is would be easily and swiftly defeated. What he did not know, what none of us know at first, is that this place is a commodity to be traded, and that loyalty to this place is like falling in love with a hooker. That sounds terribly harsh, but I believe it is accurate.

Those in the know will tell you that despite the fantasy, no one sells their physical and spiritual self because they want to do it. They do it because the children are hungry. They do it for reasons that call out for solutions, and the way in which the terrible wants are met with resolution is not in question; at least not in the moment of decision and transaction. As a parent myself, I understand this on a fundamental level. There are some things I like to think I would never do, but I’ve held a screaming, hungry child. I know what it is to have every element of your responsibility and your future literally in your hands, and to have to make a decision about how to help. All morality and ethical consideration goes out the window, save the system you’ve inherited as a parent. That system says that the ends justify the means. Feeding and clothing and caring for your child is the only purpose you have, and the only bedrock principle of how you make decisions.

If West Virginia were a parent, would she struggle so? I wonder when I personify this place if it would trade its streams, its mountains, its communities for food for its young? And as I even ask the question, I know the answer as clear as anything I’ve never known. It is as simple as not wanting to know. Yes, she has sacrificed all of that. And like real human children do, we have learned from our mother’s example. Give in, give up, justify. Do whatever you have to do so that your children don’t go hungry. Don’t obsess or worry about the now, or even about the consequences of the now. Save the little ones, and forget yourself. Your only real purpose is to keep them alive.

Charles Edward had ten children and a wife to keep alive. Did he ever even have the time to wonder about the effects of coal mining on anyone but himself? He was a miner back in the days when men bent low and stayed low in the dark from dawn until night, chipping away at the rock walls of the mine shafts with hammers and chisels. They loaded chunks of coal into rail cars that followed them into the dark and that carried their treasure safely out into the daylight; they continued to strike the hard earth, in the dark. At one time there weren’t many jobs for a young Fayette County man that would allow him to feed ten children and a spouse. Mining coal developed a reputation for being the only work worth doing that even approached paying enough to feed a large family.

Of course, the coal industry rarely paid actual money. Miners were paid in scrip, a form of artificial money that could only be used to cover expenses at company stores. I don’t know for sure if Charles Edward was paid in scrip, but I imagine that at least part of his compensation came in this form. This kind of control over the fruits of a worker’s labor is one of the most notorious and detested parts of the coal industry legacy in West Virginia. After days of mind-numbing hacking at stone walls and hour upon hour of breathing filthy and even toxic air, a man’s paycheck still was not a moment of freedom. Your compensation was something you were privileged to hand right back to the company that kept you in dangerous conditions underground, and you were supposed to be grateful that they would take it back from you for whatever they could spare.

You were supposed to be glad that you had a job at all, and while this trite outlook always has some genuine truth to it, the sentiment behind it has not served my people well in West Virginia. The gratitude philosophy just dead ends into a stone wall. There is never been much public discourse about deserving better, and I ask silently if that is because there hasn’t been much private speech about it, either. Somewhere along the line, articulating wanting and deserving more became corrupted into being selfish and disdainful of this place. Layered decades of a mono-economy made any words against the one thing everyone believed mattered, the coal industry, into dangerous hate speech.

Turning Point Images: The Girl in the Bathtub

Via EPA.gov

Since the invention of the camera, human beings have known turning point images.

These images capture moments denied to the outside world, but intimately connected to the realities of specific scenes of human suffering. Most often those scenes take place where no one wants to go. Photographers who document these places take great personal risk to bring remote, hidden pockets of pain into the daylight where we all can see.

And once you’ve seen, you can’t go back.

Consider the Vietnam conflict’s “Napalm Girl.” The iconic image turned 40 years old this week, and you can see the picture and read an interview with the woman who was that child in the photograph here.

(Nick) Ut’s editors made an exception to a policy preventing frontal nudity in photos and went ahead and published it. Known simply as “napalm girl”, the photo transcended the divisive debate about the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War and crystallized the barbarity of war.

Also in the news this week, a photograph of a five-year-old Kentucky girl made national headlines when it almost appeared in a U.S. Congressional hearing about mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining practices. The photograph shows the child sitting naked in bath water that appears to be contaminated with toxins and heavy metals from mining runoff. (Click here to view the photograph on Katie Falkenberg’s website: The Human Toll: Mountaintop Removal Mining.)

Note: The photographer removed the photo of the girl in the bathtub due to the controversy, but other powerful photos remain on this link.)

There is a lot going on in this news story, and it continues to evolve. There are accusations of child pornography, sham hearings, sleazy politics, and emotional manipulation. I’m not sure where it will end, but I feel confident we have reached our turning point image.

The girl is not running and screaming, like Kim Phuc in the napalm attack on her village. She sits still as a stone, her arms wrapped under her legs. Her head is down. She is a portrait of submission and vulnerability, and any adult looking at her knows she has no real knowledge of the insidious presence in her bath. She probably knows water is supposed to be clear, but she has no choice but to trust those who care for her and accept her surroundings.

We Appalachian people like to think ourselves hard to tame. The Hatfield McCoy feud movie was on The History Channel last week, and there was plenty of armchair whoopin’ and hollerin’ about how fierce our people can be. Big men, big guns, lots of chest puffing and tough talk. I wonder this week, as a little child shows who we really are in 2012, if we will own the truth.

We are vulnerable. We are alone. We have trusted and we have hoped for the best. In many ways, I think we have remained deliberately ignorant about what is all around us.

Will we ever get up and run? And if we do, is it too late?

You can read the testimony by Boone County WV resident Maria Gunnoe on June 1, 2012, at the hearing titled “Obama Administrations Actions Against the Spruce Coal Mines: Canceled Permits, Lawsuits and Lost jobs” (sic) by clicking here.

This Ain’t No Foolin’ Around

Every politician in a rural state with an aging demographic wants to know The Answer to The Magic Question:

“How do we get young people to move here and stay here to start careers and families?”

I probably shouldn’t think this is funny, but for some reason I do.  The situation itself is not funny, but the bizarre machinations around constructing arguments to lure 20-somethings to rather than away from Appalachia are a little bit amusing.  Part of the problem looks like this:  We say we want young, talented, intelligent, educated, passionate people to want to call West Virginia home.

Fair enough.

But then we talk about the offer, and about the very people we want to attract, as if they are not wise enough to see what is written in flames about 50 feet tall.

This ain’t no party.  This ain’t no disco.  This ain’t no foolin’ around.  

True story, I had some dialogue with a public school employee in a neighboring county last week in which he disclosed he’s had 3 students talk about suicide as the school year winds down.  This seems unusual, right……aren’t most kids thrilled for school to be out?

No.  Not any more and not here.  For an increasing number of children the end of school means three months of food insecurity and the lack of physical protection that comes from reporting to a public place every day.  It means hunger, and fear of violence, and isolation.  For many kids, it means exposure to serious drug abuse like methamphetamines and to its associated crime.

It means too much time on your hands and not enough of anything else.

This is but one aspect of our situation.  We don’t want to lead with such misery for obvious reasons — Don’t smart ambitious young people want to be in hip urban centers with lots of good times and easy living?  That’s what it looks like on TV anyway.  The thing is, I don’t think these people are the ones we really want and need.  So why are we trying to get them anyway?  No offense Jersey Shore and Gossip Girl; you’re entertaining and all, but you are the last thing we need over here.

This ain’t no party.

I say we market what we have for real and get the most hard-core world-changers we can. No one needs self-absorbed “what’s in it for me” types right now.  I’m not falling for the idea that these people are part of any solution.

This ain’t no disco.

We need that piece of the 20-something puzzle that wants more.  They’ve already done the research and they know that PR efforts to market the great outdoors and low rent is a weak sales pitch.  I’m betting we are on the edge of a different attraction…..the nation has suffered several years now of throwing off the costumes of wealth and easy money, sexy start-ups and Internet-driven marketing schemes.  McMansions, gargantuan gas-guzzling vehicles, and extravagant parties are dwindling and even a source of embarrassment.  We see more clearly what that all was, how false and how wasteful.  No one wants to churn that back up, they want to build on what’s real.

This ain’t no foolin’ around.

I’m not sure what is more real than the opportunity to turn away from “all for me” and turn towards “all for the world.”  Our world of Appalachia is in peril, and that is nothing new, but what may be new is the chance to harness global concern about our local issues to attract the right young people who will change the future of this state and consequently the world.

Life is short.  There are people out there who want to tell the stories of their youth as grand adventures in engaging serious problems with  their whole hearts. These are not the same people who want to tell stories of bar-hopping and overspending and trips to casinos.  These are people who are modern journalists and water quality scientists and child advocates.  They are health care specialists and teachers and professors.  They are small business entrepreneurs and artists and historians and contractors.  They are responsible natural resource leaders and sustainability experts.  Despite popular belief, they are lawyers too.  They are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

They know right from wrong, they know giving from taking, and yes, they are 20-somethings.

I don’t think they want a sales pitch or a hand out.  I think they want us to get out of the way and allow their innovation, perspective, and talent to change the future of this place.

Will we?

2018 Update: WordPress won’t let me embed this  video anymore, but you can watch it and listen to The Talking Heads perform Life During Wartime on YouTube.  Over 7 years later, it still hits home for me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OVHNwBbkSj4