Nowhere to Stop | a short essay on place

I prefer the road to the left after crossing the Kanawha River. Today a spiral staircase appears out of the rock face, and the last step drops just in front of my car.

My eyes have seen these delicate tiers, must have seen them, thousands of times. I was conceived in these hills. Only now on this autumn afternoon do the little elevations register.

Gorgeous golden sandstone, sculpted beyond pure function into art, I realize I have missed them all of my life because they are nearly one with the rock, tight to the white line of the road.

One has to have distance to see them.

I promise myself I will return, slow down, but when I go back I can’t pause. There are people behind me. They are pushing me along.

Next time, I will make it happen.

Next time, I will look for a place to pull over and take a photograph, but next time I realize there is no place to stop. One side is rock and one side is guard rail. There is no margin.

Who built you?

I drive this Appalachian road up from downtown Charleston because I can. There are other ways but I choose this one every time. It winds in unsurpassed beauty each season across water, over railroad tracks, gently up and up into layers of gracious homes and luscious trees. Every yard travelled pulls me more deeply into a sensed but barely visible past. At one turn there is a tiny set of graves. I must stop, unless turning right. If I turn right I may miss the dead, so focused I am on the Children’s Consignment Fair sign or the Old Colony Real Estate sign.

I promise myself this time, this time, I will focus. I will see those stairs to the top. I am sure they must no longer connect to anything, the mansion they once served long gone. I am certain the stairway’s connection has dissolved.

As I pass, unable to stop – there is nowhere to stop – I see where they lead.

They still climb to a house. I see young, contemporary dark wood in shocking contrast to the one hundred year old organic mineral steps; this is not their builder’s home, but I recognize this place. It is the home where my father’s friend lay dying for years, unable to live in this world and unable to find purchase in the next.

When I passed on the road above I would avert my eyes from this place. The pain was alternately dull and ripping to be outside looking in. I stopped looking. I stopped seeing. I stopped passing on the road above.

The road below brought me the staircase. I drive as carefully as I can, the visual distractions now equal between the captivating winding stairs and the dangers of looking too long.

There are others behind me, and nowhere to stop.

Writing About Place: “Where I’m From”

I am from pastel and oil, acrylic and watercolor, pencil and ink, wood and ruler, hammer and nail, chisel, chainsaw, miter, drill, screw.

I am from Mr. Rogers and Bob Marley, Uncle Wiggly and The Rainbow Goblins, The Monkey King and Thumbelina.

I am from a marriage and a divorce, love and its opposite, the familiar clang of the world at its end and at its beginning, splitting apart and then reformed, broken and whole, the consistency of two people working out their distances across town and across a river and across a home and across a little girl.

Fascinated?  Visit the Essays on Childhood website to read the entire piece of writing and to connect with writer Valley Haggard, the founder of Richmond Young Writers!

Many thanks go out to Valley for her generous permission to share her writing on Esse Diem and Essays on Childhood.

Essays on Childhood – The 2011 Project

The Essays on a West Virginia Childhood project was a complete joy for me.  I found the diversity, talent, honesty, and insight in each submission quite amazing, and worthy of ongoing development.

This year Esse Diem will continue the essay project, as well as maintain the theme of reflections on childhood.  The evolution will be to expand the pool beyond growing up in West Virginia to include any place where the writer spent his or her formative years.

What is unique about the place where you grew up?  How do you as a writer define a sense of place?  It might be a geographic definition (a region of a country, for example), but it might also be the house where you were raised, or even smaller, such as the room you occupied in that house as you grew up.  How has “place” influenced you as you grew into an adult person?

Essays submitted that focus on a West Virginia childhood will continue to be categorized as such; all additional essays will be categorized as Essays on Childhood: A Sense of Place.

Anyone having initial interest, please comment so I will have your e-mail address for future private correspondence as the project develops.  Interest at this early stage in no way obligates you to participation, though I surely hope you will consider it!  Please also share this opportunity with people you know who may have an interest in exploring his or her own writing and expression of childhood experience.

Image credit: 1001 Image


West Virginia lost a true believer this week.

He was my friend, and even if you did not know him you need to know that he was your friend.  He was your friend because he cared about the future health and well-being of the place we call home, and he was never afraid to stand up and fight for that future.

The founder of Create West Virginia said this:  “Jeff was always among the first to volunteer to speak or help.  He was an early and passionate member of our team.  He had such passion for West Virginia and its creative potential. I will miss his truth-telling, his fearless willingness to tell it like it is, and his sense of humor and caring.”

As for me, I see a special magic in the symmetry of this loss and the two stories on Esse Diem prior to this one.  The wood and wool goat figure in the garden came from Jeff’s business Stray Dog Antiques.  My husband brought it home as a surprise gift for our baby who was due just a few weeks later.  And Joe Strummer looked a reporter straight in the eye and said that when they wrote about him, to be sure to get his title right:  Joe Strummer, Punk Warlord.  “Warlord is all one word.”

Jeffrey Miller, Green World Warlord.

All one word.