WV Can’t Wait: This Ain’t No Foolin’ Around Redux

May 16, 2011, I wrote this in a blog post:

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.  

Hold that thought. I’ll get back to it, I promise. There’s a brief backstory.

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I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed a week ago yesterday, and up pops, “Mark Wolfe is live now.” I chuckle to myself thinking that man is nothing if not LIVE, and move along.

But every now and then I realize it’s still there. Mark Wolfe is still live now. I get suspicious. What’s this creative genius doing, anyway? (Yes, he designed my blog header and the masthead for Essays on Childhood, made art for the WV Land Trust and a revamped logo for the WV Alliance for Sustainable Families…..along with hundreds of other things. It’s good to know what Mark is doing at any given moment.)

I’m not 100% sure what is happening in this video, but then I see John Barrett. John is someone who has always impressed me with his sincere and affable demeanor, his quick mind, and his commitment to West Virginia. He was on the board of directors for the WV Land Trust when I worked for them. Just rock-solid, good governance, can-do, let’s-do-the-right-thing stuff flows from John.

Now I really have to know what’s going on, because whatever it is, my gut is telling me I want to be part of it.

And then there it was. It was the last thing I expected to hear.

I was being introduced through cyberspace to the next Governor of West Virginia.

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Stephen Smith (left), 38, who ran the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, announced he is running for governor as a Democrat in the 2020 elections. Photo accompanying Jake Zuckerman’s 11/28/2018 article the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “Community organizer launches 2020 gubernatorial bid as Democrat”

This can’t be real. But it is real.

And he’s not a coal baron. Or a lawyer. Or the 9th copy of the same family politician over generations.

He’s a dad. And a nonprofit executive. And a WV native. And a WV native who came back — to help.

He’s 38 years old. His relative youth is one of his greatest assets, and potentially also such for the state. When you’re 38 and running for elected office for the first time, you do not accept all the things the jaded Gollum-like creatures crawling out of their offices try to sell you. Extractive industry is not yet the precious.

I email with Stephen, we talk on the phone, and he’s real. He is a different brand — more informed by ideas of equality and partnership than most. He talked about his family, and his interest in building a movement that has legs to carry it apart from his candidacy.

He really listened to me, and he asked me questions about myself and clarifying questions about my ideas and observations.

He is not kidding when he talks about a movement that shifts power and resources from corporate outside interests and back into the hands of regular West Virginians. It will be very difficult, and as the effort progresses I am sure it will get a little bit scary. I’ve seen how established power brokers react to challenge. (Pro Tip: They are not nice about it.)

I’m excited about this, which has my attention because it’s been years upon years since I was excited about the potential to move the needle in West Virginia. I feel so strongly about this that I joined the campaign as a part of a leadership team making contacts with “ex-patriates” and trying to help make connections with friends in other states who might do the same where they are.

No matter how this goes, I believe supporting a candidate like this — the kind of candidate who rarely comes along — is a needle-moving opportunity in itself.

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I know what it’s like to believe and be disappointed, but this feels different. Maybe it’s different because I am different.  Two ideas about that:

  • It may feel different because, truly, West Virginia Can’t Wait. A lot of disillusioned people in my generation and beyond tried to build a life in WV and faced challenges we couldn’t overcome. And that is in fact on me; I decided the cost-benefit analysis didn’t work. That was my choice. But gosh darn it, it didn’t have to be that way. Life is challenging no matter where you are. I needed vocal people in leadership positions to care a lot more about the future for me and my family, and they were too few or too hard to find. It’s only gotten less friendly since I departed. I am astonished by the friends who have left, who are still in the process of leaving. It’s not a few. It was a core constituency of Create West Virginia at one time. The organization never wanted to go political, and I thought then and still think that was a mistake. I understand the concerns, but we are at a chance-against-a-certainty-stage now. We all have to take a risk. It’s true that a ragtag gang of believers in the knowledge economy were going to lose a street fight with extractive industry, but you don’t always fight to win the battle. Say it with me: You fight to win the war.
  • I’m over 15 years older than I was when I decided to move back to West Virginia. I was a few years younger than Stephen Smith is now. I had nothing but optimism and hope in my soul for helping my home state; at some point, I lost that hope. I was severely discouraged, and scared, and I left. The power structure in state government seemed stacked against my concerns. In hindsight I think I may have retreated to recover; for the first time in a long time, I am thinking about how to get back into this fight.

Right now, that looks like serving on a leadership team to communicate with WV “ex-pats”  living in Virginia about how we can help leverage the movement for change.

If I can pass this spark to you, well, I would be delighted. Give the movement a look-see. Then consider emailing the campaign about how you can help.

There’s a place for you in this.

No foolin’ around.

 

The One with The Shepherd

Sheep are completely defenseless. They have no sharp teeth, or fierce claws, or fast legs to get away. When under attack by an enemy, a sheep has two choices; stay in a group or flee. Predators attack the ones separated from the flock – the old, the weak, the ill, and especially the young. In the group with the shepherd, the sheep are protected. The shepherd provides that protection. The rod and the staff are the shepherd’s tools to protect the sheep. — The Writing Sisters

To Everything, Turn.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.  – Ecclesiastes 3

My family said goodbye this week to our patriarch.

My grandfather was nearly 100 years old, and his presence in this life was powerful. He was loving and strict, easy to laugh and just as easy to eagle-eye you into a corner if he was concerned about your direction. He fought the Nazis. He gathered wildflowers. He ran businesses and raised a family. He loved life, and life loved him right back just as hard.

So saying goodbye has been a challenge. I spent the first week after his death in a weepy haze. I know it’s perfectly natural that a person this old should pass away, and yet I just didn’t really know how to let him go. He has presided over all of the most significant moments of my life to date, and thinking about how to anchor anything without his involvement has been difficult. I just kept thinking, “He’s gone.”

Then, it happened. At a 30-plus family member dinner on Saturday night, the cousins started dancing.

These were the little ones, ranging from 3 years old up to 10.  Some of them knew my grandfather, but many were too little and lived too far away to have any memory of him. I had been agonizing over the fact that they would never really know him, that without his guidance and influence our family couldn’t go on as it had been, that this gathering would be the last of the great family gatherings because without Poppa we would not really know who we were going forward.

“Look,” my husband said nudging me, “It’s a cousin conga line!”

All of the little ones had lined up and were kicking, dancing, and laughing their way through the restaurant we had reserved for the night. I can still see Jennings’ face. My first cousin once removed, he is a live wire and known to be the child who took Poppa’s death the hardest to heart. This was his first real family loss to death, and yet here he was, leading the party.

In that moment, I found myself looking away from the past and toward the future of my family. As The Byrds’ song suggested, I turned. Instead of seeing what was lost through heartbreak, I saw all that is dancing before me into the future.

Such moments are a rare gift. When I was younger I can remember older generations losing loved ones and me wanting to scream, “They are gone! I am right here!” Now I see the pivot point.

And now I turn.

(This piece first appeared on January 22, 2013, on The Mommyhood, a blog of The Charleston Daily Mail.)

 

The Best Prayer is “Thank You”

Anne Lamott writes in her book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith that the best prayers she knows are, “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I don’t argue too much with Lamott. About anything.

It took a little child to show me, however, just how true the concept of simplicity in prayer can be. I was raised in the Presbyterian Church and had my child baptized there. While I grew up with many beautiful and meaningful family traditions around spiritual observance, I admit I have been less than focused on how I want those traditions to be passed on to my child. I knew I wanted to begin introducing her to the idea that she can talk with God, that building that relationship between her soul and something bigger than the meanness of this world is very important.

But like many in my generation, I can be a tad jaded. We’ve lived and worked in more than one community. We’ve seen in living color the downfalls and moral failings of “holy” institutions and church leaders. We’ve pondered the dark side of many things once taken for granted as the good. Simply put, we struggle with how to help our children embrace faith without blindly following the absolutely certain failures of humanity.

Can you see how hard I like to make things?

They really aren’t that hard. We need to do more to let our children lead us sometimes.

My child recently announced we would be praying together before each meal. “Hands in your lap,” she says. We dutifully put our hands in our laps. “Now raise them up, slowly, like this,” she says as she directs us in assuming the traditional prayer hand press. “Now say this with me: God made the sun. God made the sea. God made the fishes, and God made me. Thank you for the sun, thank you for the sea, thank you for the fishes, and thank you for me. Amen.” There are little hand motions that go with each image of sun, fish, sea, and self.

Sun, fish, sea, and self. The hands of God nurturing you through the basic elements of the world, if you will only let it happen.

You know, I should have probably said, “Help me” a little sooner. Today, I say, “Thank you.”

(This piece first appeared on January 16, 2013, on The Mommyhood, a blog of The Charleston Daily Mail.)

 

Every Land Needs a God

The treasure box

My daughter and I made a treasure box yesterday from an old cardboard shipping container and some glittery “jewels,” marker, glue, and paint. It was all going as expected until she leaned back, tapped her chin and said very matter-of-factly:

There needs to be a god.

This is a child who doesn’t talk much about The Divine in traditional terms, so when I heard her articulate this instinct she had my full attention.

I believe that children are closer to truth and mystery than are we adults. We’ve had it all beaten right out of us, but those little ones…poets say children are still wet with Heaven. Whenever children want to talk about life, death, and the spirit I focus on their words. It’s always fascinating.

That’s interesting, sweetie. Why do you think there needs to be a god?

Because this is a land. Every land needs a god.

I like the god you’re making. Tell me about it.

It has a caterpillar body made of jewels, but it needs a face. Momma, will you draw a smile and eyes. No head, just put the smile and eyes in front.

I see this god is over the land. I like that.

It needs wings. Can you please add two wings.

Sure thing, baby.

So there you have it, friends. Every land needs a god. My child’s creation smiles over her land, sans a head that would house a mind as we know it. It shines and watches.

This is the day that her heart has made. I rejoice and am glad in it.

The President and the Children: Don’t Think First, Just Feel. Then Think.

There are pictures, and then there are photographs. And then photographs evolve to portraits, and portraits speak to identity and soul in ways that are irrefutable and powerful.

With every President of the United States, there emerges a portrait that speaks to the American people.  That portrait, that eternal visual of identity and soul, enters our collective consciousness and stays there.  It tells us who our President is, but also who we want and need him to be.

Marvin Eugene Smith recently shared this photograph of President Barack Obama on Faceboook, and added these personal thoughts:

See? We need more interaction like this between youth and their “stars.” Simple little gestures like this last a lifetime. Back in the day it was quite common. I’ve seen pics of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sammy Davis, the Temptations, Count Basie and many others doing the same exact thing. No need for bodyguards to brush the young people aside who genuinely love you.

Mr. Smith is an African American man living in Chicago, and the series of social media connections that brought the President’s photo to his attention and then to a friend and then to me was made up of other African American men.  Some of you reading this immediately will jump on the defensive and say it doesn’t matter that black men see a portrait here, but you would be wrong.  Yes, anyone can identify with this image (I do), but the fact that it resonates and brings to mind other African American men and women who became children’s role models and heroes is critically important.

Look at those children.  Look at that man. Let yourself feel what it means, what it can mean, that magic moment of connection that clearly flows both ways across the fence.  He understands what they don’t yet, that who they dream they can become and how fiercely they believe in that vision is the lifeblood of this nation.  They just touched a man who leads the free world and who, figuratively, could be their father, their uncle, their brother, themselves.

As a mother and a child advocate, I now call this my portrait of Barack Obama.

(We do not all share the same portrait as “The One” that explained things to us about who the person was or is, and how his individual identity becomes part of our national identity. But we all know “our” image when we see it.  Following are some of my favorites, what are some of yours, and why?)

This is my top Kennedy portrait (I like this one because of the youthful energy and optimism, as well as the Jackie element in the bottom corner): 

This is my top Lincoln portrait, or others showing him literally in the battlefields of the Civil War (though frankly, any great photograph of that awesome craggy face works, too):

The pain here in President Johnson speaks to me about the agony of Vietnam, and the grief of a man who wanted to lead domestic policy and found himself drawn into an entirely other world.