Elemental

On the anniversary of the Freedom Industries chemical spill, I share this powerful post. Amen!

Cultural Slagheap

My dad, a lifelong firefighter, used to teach Hazardous Materials Response and Safety classes to first responders.  The first informational point he covered at the beginning of the course was how to read the classification marks on transportation tankers—the little diamond-shaped signs, usually mounted on the back of the tank, that announce via numerical code what kinds of chemicals are stored in those transport vehicles, and what levels and types of health risks would be associated with a spill in the case of a wreck.  The first homework assignment he gave was for the firefighters to go home and stand on the main cross street in their neighborhoods and home towns for about an hour, and write down the numbers on every tag they saw pass through that intersection, then go look up the numbers.  Dad said that the next week, when those students came back for class, invariably there’d…

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Retrospective Revelations

I’m not sure if it’s because of all the change I’ve been through in the past 18 months, or if it’s because I work with college students, but lately my introspection has been mixed with a sizable dose of retrospection. I’m looking in and looking back, at who I’ve been, what I’ve done, and how I’ve grown and changed. None of it is bad, though not all of it is good either. Mainly what strikes me is how unplanned so much of it was, and is, and how malleable my ideas for the future still are.

Right now a couple of things are really coming home to roost. Seeing those college students, I think of myself when I was that age. Everything that I thought was important then, isn’t important to me anymore. Some of the things that are important to me now, I couldn’t even fathom then!

Even the me of today has shifted priorities and plans compared to the me of just a few months ago. The book Hippie Homesteaders is partially to blame; I picked it up on my Tamarack trip because I wanted to know about my people (hippie non-natives) in my new home state. It is a marvelous book that weaves together individual stories to really examine the back to the land movement in the 1960s. It also opened my eyes about what is really possible when you choose a principled lifestyle as the impetus for your life.

I’ve recently found that my thinking about the future has shifted from what I want to DO with my life, to how I want my life to BE. On a daily basis; on an annual basis. I was thinking a lot about what to major in, now that my work affords me free tuition and I can finally get my degree. That I could focus on Environmental Studies, with a side of Sociology, Political Science, and Appalachian Studies. But where does that lead? To work that I could believe in, yes, but that has me in an office still, from 9 to 5 or maybe longer, or out in the field busting my butt in all conditions, probably for pay not much better than I make now.

Now I think it’d be nice to take up ceramics, to make something with my hands out of the Earth and offer it to the world.  It’d be nice to have some land, with woods and a log home and cats and a dog, and with fields to hold gardens and orchards, horses and goats and chickens and bees. To spend my days tending the animals, plying my craft, selling my wares online and through local shops. To have time and energy for my partner and tend the land with him. A daily rhythm as soothing and regular and meditative as the spinning of the pottery wheel. To have my year to tied more to the land and the seasons, punctuated with occasional trips, for leisure and study and work.

Some of this is a bit outlandish, I know. I haven’t touched clay since middle school, though I intend to enroll in a local class next month. But the inspiration has struck. My dreams are more earthy, humble, simple. I’m not sure what this means; perhaps that I no longer have anything to prove, to my parents, or my partner, or myself. But it feels good. I’m not ruling out college, just back in pondering mode. And I’m excited to get my hands in the mud and play.

Surreality

So, I’ve lived here for over six months, have had a real job for a few weeks, but yet, often this life doesn’t feel like it’s mine. Sometimes I still feel like this extended vacation from reality is ending soon, and I’ll be going back to my old life. I know it’ll take a while for a new sense of normality to take hold. Especially since there is still a lot to learn about my job, and since our apartment is really only a stop along the way to making a real home here.

I am very thankful for my spiritual practices and connections, as they have been lifesavers; providing a sense of continuity and groundedness that keeps me much more balanced than I could ever hope to be without them. This might surprise Neal, since he’s weathered more than a few bouts of my tears as I navigate all this change. That’s just how I roll, dear.

So I’ll just keep waking up and stepping outside to see mountains, until that feels normal to me. I’ll keep going to work at a charming private college until it feels normal to me. And I’ll keep bewildering my partner until it feels normal to him!

The Sorcery of Public Radio

One of the side effects of my moving to West Virginia was my discovery of public radio. Sure, I knew of its existence before, but faced with so many other choices, it wasn’t something I had explored. With less radio choices in WV, I finally gave public radio a chance.

And I totally loved it. Not just the NPR bits, though those are cool, but the regional and local coverage is awesome. Especially as someone new to the area, getting Appalachian and West Virginian news and culture has been so very precious to me. I love learning about my new home, and this lets me feel really connected.

The sense of connection permeates much of public radio coverage. I am frequently moved, to the point of laughter or tears, and I’ve never gotten that with any other news coverage or with any other radio station. I’m profoundly grateful and a faithful convert!

Once I landed my new job I noticed that my employer is also a sponsor, which is awesome. But hearing their ad also triggered a rather magical thought process. In my mind’s eye, I imagine that public radio listeners are generally well-educated and well-employed. I became a listener. I landed a job that is rewarding and challenging work with awesome fringe benefits, including a way to pursue my degree – letting me become well-educated and well-employed. Coincidence?

I’ve never been much of a believer in coincidence. And social scientists of all flavors know that the “fake it until you make it” technique really works. So, while I won’t flat it call it sorcery (albeit rather unintentional on my part), I can definitely remain open to the possibility that I have benefited from the magic of public radio.

Check it out for yourself: West Virginia Public Radio and National Public Radio.

 

A Creature of Habit

I took a week off between jobs, to get my car serviced, my hair cut, and have a bit of fun besides. I’ve driven past Tamarack plenty of times, but always when in serious travel mode, so I never actually took the time to check it out. I did so in my downtime, and it’s really cool! It’s like a giant handmade in WV gift store. Some things are pricey (especially textiles and fine art), but lots of things are still affordable. I did the most damage in the book section (books about WV and/or written by West Virginians) and the WV food and drink section (locally made mead, score!). Their cafe also has yummy and affordable food for those on the road and tired of fast food.

A different day I found a cute little clothing store that is close to home, carries my size, and is affordable, a Holy Grail in this rural state. It was a nice little break from routine.

I’ve just finished up my first week at my new job. It may sound like I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, but the place is awesome! The perks I’m most enjoying and/or looking forward to are: no snack machine in my building (low willpower); a pretty, walkable, treed campus; the library; the fitness center (exercise equipment and yoga classes); the meditation chapel (24/7 quiet time, and a local Quaker Meeting uses this twice a month, I might check them out); the shorter commute; awesome paid time off; and the tuition waiver. As far as the actual work goes, it’s totally doable. I think I’ll blow their minds with my Excel skills (which I promise are only average, but I’m replacing someone who had NONE). I still have to learn the ropes though, figure out what needs doing when, and how. Overall I’m still geeked, and it all compensates for the underwhelming salary.

Having broken routine for a week, and still learning what my new one will be, my writing has gone by the wayside a bit. Once I get some more miles under my belt and figure out the new normal, I’ll be back to cranking out posts!

Audra State Park

Audra State Park

Every day of my commute I was passing a road that had a tiny sign pointing to a state park that lay to the north. I decided to look it up and saw that it was Audra State Park in the Buckhannon/Philippi area. One weekend when Neal and I felt like doing some hiking, I proposed checking out this park, since neither of us had visited it yet. I was especially interested in the Alum Cave trail and boardwalk.

First of all, it was farther off my commute route than I thought! But that’s OK; it was an adventure. Secondly, the park tends towards the smaller side, with the distinct feel of a community swimming hole. The Middle Fork River is the main attraction, and this stretch is wide and rocky. Aside from swimmers, you’ll find sunbathers on boulders, kids scrabbling over rocks, and folks with fishing poles trying their luck. It’s also a popular picnic spot.

The cave trail was a moderate hike, at least for a flatlander like me. It was definitely not what I am used to, featuring more rocks than dirt and steep slopes that are only sometimes safeguarded with railings. I wore my usual walking shoes, which are up for most hikes, but the uneven footing made me wish I went with my hiking boots instead. It’s a humbling experience to be going slow and careful in sensible shoes and be repeatedly passed by running kids in flip-flops! But Neal says he’s part mountain goat, and that I wasn’t doing too badly. (I suspect everyone who grew up in West Virginia and was outside a moderate amount is a mountain goat compared to me, but I’ll get there eventually.)

Check out this park if you are looking to take a dip, eat a sandwich, or stretch your legs. It can get crowded on warm, sunny days, so if you are looking for a quieter experience, try exploring it earlier in the spring or later in fall, or gamble by heading out on an overcast day. The park also permits kayaking (at your own risk) when the river level supports it, and has both a large picnic shelter and wooded campsites on the river available for rental.

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Saving West Virginia

I’ve already spoken a bit about how I fell in love with West Virginia. I’ve only lived here for a bit over 6 months, so I’m sure most would still consider me an outsider. Be that as it may, I can still see some hard truths about this beautiful place. The biggest one I can put my finger on is a serious pr problem.

When I mention West Virginia, what comes to mind? Dirty coal mines? Uneducated, impoverished hillbillies? Mining disasters and chemical spills? It might be uncomfortable to admit to these prejudices, but you wouldn’t be the only one. The government’s War on Poverty is what brought the Appalachian region to the attention of the rest of the nation’s attention. That created the foundation for many of the stereotypes that run rampant today.

It’s true that West Virginia is rich in natural resources. And yet, who is really profiting from this abundance? It’s not the everyday person, its giant corporations. Coal companies have sold the people a lie in that the region depends on them for work. Already there have been huge job losses due to automation and changes in mining techniques. They fight safety measures to protect their workers and wring there hands about unavoidable mining disasters. They pay people a decent wage but leave them to the dogs once they’ve contracted black lung and can no longer work. It’s heart breaking!

Even the green energy here, which could be leveraged in many more ways than it is now, isn’t used to the benefit of the state. It’s sold to Washington DC so the politicians can feel good about themselves. Laws that are meant to protect the environment are either lacking or laxly enforced. The land called me here, and part of what makes that call so sharp and potent is the pain involved.

Something is starting to happen here, though. People are standing up and saying, enough. And it’s time for my voice to join theirs. I want to share with you the other side of West Virginia, the parts that don’t always make the news but make this place amazing. I’ll be adding posts about my explorations and studies of my new home state and you might just fall in love with it, too.