Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Expatriate Hillbilly Self-Delusion: Another Navel Gaze

Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass music, did not develop his signature style in the Kentucky hills where he was born and raised. His band formed in Akron, Ohio. He had gone there with his brother to work in an auto plant.

Thus it has been now for several generations of Appalachians. We may have been born in Appalachia, but we had to leave to find jobs. A fortunate few of us return, but those of us who don't still consider ourselves Appalachians. It's rather like considering yourself Irish even though you were born in the Bronx.

In my case I was born in Appalachia, and my happiest childhood hours were spent on my grandparents' mountainside property in Bedford County. One of the bright memories I've retained is the first night I actually got to sleep over with Grandma and Grandpa ... how my mother loaded Grandma down with instructions, and how the minute Mom left, Grandma said, "This is my house, and while you're here, you can do it my way!" And she let me stay up until I was actually sleepy instead of dumping me in bed while the sun was still high.

I worshiped my cousins, my great aunts and uncles, the farm animals and songbirds. As I grew I worshiped the woods, the magnificent vistas from the mountaintops and from Granddad's garden. I felt those mountains not only in my heart but also in my spine and my blood, in my feet and hands, the roots of my hair. Every season of the year was a wonder: the spring redbud and wildflowers, the summer swimming hole -- the big luna moths -- the autumn with its winds and wild colors, the icy grandeur of winter.

Then I went away to seek my fortune elsewhere. Both of my daughters were born in New Jersey. I've lived here in the flatlands for 22 years, and four years in Detroit before that.

Part of my coping mechanism, especially in the last 12 years, was to avoid the family farm altogether, rather as one would shun the possibility of running into an ex-lover. In this process I convinced myself that the farm wasn't important, that I could go to Four Quarters Farm or Berkeley Springs instead, that I could hike nearby in Cacapon, that I could do my Work at Terrapin Run, on another mountain. My uncle has lived on the farm since my grandfather's death, and Uncle purged almost all vestiges of my grandparents from the house and spent his days listening to Rush Limbaugh. Why go there? Pretend the place doesn't exist, and keep telling yourself that, and eventually you'll believe it -- or at least numb the desire to feel your blood's country under your feet.

Perhaps it was inevitable that I would be drawn back to the farm. Certainly it was inevitable that walking its grounds, if only a little, would cause my self-hypnosis to crash and burn.

My sister and my daughters (Heir and Spare) and I went to visit Uncle out of a sense of duty. This in itself was wrenching. At 83 he is a dessicated shell of his former self. Like him or not, he was a formidable man in his prime, standing more than six feet tall, able to hike the Appalachian trail with a backpack in his fifties. Before Limbaugh he was rather a bull horn who liked to hear his own voice, but it was okay ... you could just sit and nod and let your mind wander as he blabbed. After Limbaugh this passive resistance to his harangues became impossible ... and it's part of the reason I boycotted the farm.

Fortunately, Uncle has a caretaker ... one of those cousins I worshiped. It was no easier seeing the caretaker than the patient. More difficult, in fact.

But no one forced me to walk out along the mountainside and drink in the view, knowing that the farm will shortly go up for sale, and I don't have the money to buy it. I put my feet on that sacred ancestral ground again, and now I feel like some sorry little plant that got uprooted and shoved into a garden far, far from home.

Literally, when I returned to my house of 22 years, my little block of old-timey suburban New Jersey with its closely-spaced houses and proximity to mass transit, Panera Bread and Wegman's, I felt like I'd been caught violating parole and sent back to jail. Walking up the steps of my porch and into my house was like re-entering a prison. A person just shouldn't feel that way about where she lives, but if there are any Appalachian readers still following my posts, they will understand. The authentic Anne is a product of that mountain. Re-planted elsewhere she grows. She does not thrive. She watches in dismay as her older daughter professes love for New Jersey and her younger daughter indulges in all the excesses of city life. And she is homesick.

Druidic practice always begins and ends with a call for peace from the Quarters. Most always I ask to be West. Sometimes I take another role, just in case someone else wants to face the sunset and salute wisdom and the wellspring from which growth occurs. Now it will be difficult for me to take any Quarter but West, because only by facing west can I direct my gaze toward the mountain where, as a sapling oak, I stood among the fine ancestral trees.

If I forget you, o mountain, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth. I petition the bored gods to give me water in this arid place. I ask Walt Whitman to remind me, by his proximity and his poetry, that every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with miracles, and that every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

It's just tough, you know?

10 comments:

Nettle said...

My own branch of the Appalachians is far north of yours, but I know precisely that of which you speak here. Returning to Philadelphia from visits home always feel like the cage doors slamming shut again, and while I try and try to appreciate the particular if sometimes elusive beauties of this place, it's always an effort.

I recently decided that it wasn't worthwhile fighting it anymore, and that my discontent and homesickness is itself divine. It's hard and it hurts, but I know where home is, and that's a beautiful thing.

Pom said...

It is tough - yes. Not the Appalachians for me but the Rockies. But yes all the same.

Aquila ka Hecate said...

Many hugs, Anne.
I knew there was a reason I couldn't sleep.

As someone who was dragged all over the world (including New Jersey!) as a child, I don't seem to have those roots you're feeling the loss of.

But I can say this: it's all holy.
All the love and all the grief, that's holy, too.
She lives within you as much as you live wiyhin her.
And mama Africa is only a vision-quest away.

Love,
Terri in Joburg

Debra She Who Seeks said...

A beautiful post. Wishing you heart's ease.

harmonyfb said...

I spent two months (before and after my father's death in June) back in my hometown. I drove out to look with longing at our property, which was sold soon after I married and moved away. It's been parceled and is being sold by developers to Yankees who want to live in "a rural setting" without inconvenient things like city water or nosy zoning laws. It hurt my heart.

And when I drove out to the old family cemetery where we buried Dad, I was appalled at the loss of all the family farms, and at the prices which mean I will never have the money to buy even an acre of it back.

I understand your longing and your pain.

Amanda said...

I feel your pain, but I lost Jersey, not the mountains. Doesn't matter how long you live somewhere else, going back to where you're from, where you know the rules, where you slip back into old speech patterns like you never left... Home is Home is Home.

And cut your daughters some slack for being Jersey girls. They'll find out soon enough that it ain't easy being from here. :)

YELLOWDOG GRANNY said...

I maybe in a retirement apt in texas...but I'm in texas...and I love my little town...so I know how lucky I am..

THE Michael said...

My ghost is Alaska, and I miss it terribly, but I can't go back because it's not the Alaska I left, thanks to global warming. I'm not even sure I know the people there anymore, what with a person like Sarah Palin being elected governor of such a jewel.

Pendragon Hold is NOT where I'd have planted it, but it's where it is, it's all I have, thus I make it home as best I can. This poor little acre of sand can't be blamed for where it was deposited.

Em said...

I don't have the bone-deep ache that you do, as I'm only an hour from my home. But I do understand the feeling of desolation, of homesickness. I'm a Jersey girl, born and raised; I used to live a half an hour from the Pine Barrens, where I was at peace, where my soul always felt easy. I could go and talk to the trees as often as I needed to recharge. Now, living a state away and working all the time, trips like that are a luxury. And whenever I have to leave, I feel the ache. I think that maybe, the hardest part of growing up is coming to understand that home changes even when we are not there. It won't stop being home, but it won't go on being the same. All we can do is carry the peace and the comfort of it in our hearts.

Buzzardbilly said...

I think Walt Whitman couldn't have met very many real people or his poetry would have been much darker. Don't get me wrong. I love his work, but I'm telling you when I spy a child throwing a tantrum at Kroger's right beside a woman who's shoving someone else out of her way to get that last box of Little Debbie Double-Stuffed Oatmeal Cakes, I have trouble seeing the miracle in that particular patch of earth. Ya dig me?