out of harlan

I will lift up mine eyes unto the hill, whence cometh my help – Psalm 121

The mountains are calling, and I must go – John Muir

All you ever wanted was out of Harlan County

We left Harlan County on May 19, 1999. I’ve had a host of people say the above to me since then. And it didn’t take me long to realize that the people who ask me this – and who continue, although it’s slowed down to a trickle – don’t have a clue about me, my life, or what Harlan County means to me. Sometimes I sit here and wonder if some of these people – who bought Harlan County Horrors actually read my introduction. Of course I know most people don’t listen to me when I speak to them; this is normal; this has been normal for the course of my entire life. (Then there are people like Preston who can’t hear my voice because it falls outside their range of hearing, but that’s neither here nor there.)

From the introduction of Harlan County Horrors:

When I close my eyes and think of Harlan County, the first images to appear behind my eyelids are of Martins Fork Lake, the view from Raven Rock at Kingdom Come, the night sky at Camp Blanton, and the gazebo at Resthaven. Savage beauty draped in a cloak of savage darkness is the epitome of Harlan County. Ugliness, wastefulness, and scars caused by deep, strip, and mountaintop removal mining – and other things – have altered the lush, verdant landscape. The very beauty and abundant game that enticed the pioneers to remain there and evolve into rugged mountaineers would become their downfall….

At the brink of my own change and awakening within Harlan County, I moved to Loyall in October 1995. I can’t, in all honesty, make any sweeping proclamations about love at first sight, but I can say the county grew on me, tugged at some deep, hidden place within my soul. And I came to call that place “home.” I know I sit and talk about Harlan County enough to make peoples’ ears bleed, and my running joke is that I know more about Harlan County and love it more than some of its native people. In fact, I’m prone to – and known for – packing friends into a car to make the long drive down so I can share the county with them.

From the speech I wrote to give at The Morris Book Shop at the HCH release party in October 2009:

People often say ‘you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone’. Some clichés are clichés because they’ve become cliché. This cliché is cliché because it happens to be true….

I spent so much time wallowing in my angst and drama that I didn’t see the peace and beauty surrounding me when I lived there. Despite all my personal issues — real and perceived — Harlan County kept happening, and the gods kept creating. At my worst moments, I’d forget all the times I’d spend sitting on Raven Rock at Kingdom Come, or sitting beside a river or a stream, or sitting at Resthaven Cemetery. I’d forget all the times I’d drive out to Martins Fork Lake to swim or to sit somewhere in the park near the water. And rarely, rarely was I ever without my camera. I have picture boxes full and gigs on my laptop of nothing but different places in Harlan County — and of Cumberland Gap in Middlesborough and Cumberland Falls in Corbin.

The places I’d go, the places where I’d spent my time all have a raw, natural beauty. They all have a quiet peace. And they all have an underlying darkness.

You see where I’m going, right?

All you ever wanted was out of Harlan County

No. All I ever wanted was roots.

I was told that I had ‘roots’ – that I was loved while I was growing up. Thing is, even though I know better, I have always felt like I was grafted into our family. And I’ve thought for a long time that I reincarnated entirely too soon – in less than two years; yes, that’s too soon. I don’t belong ‘right here, right now’ but later. (Just ask anybody who knows me. I’m all the time trying to get current technology to do things it just can’t do. And above and beyond.)

But see, people don’t understand when I talk about ‘root’s and ‘home’ and ‘love’. Just because someone has a birth certificate with names on it, that doesn’t mean you have roots and know who you are. Just because someone lives in a house with someone else and they love each other, that doesn’t mean that place is a home.

Different kinds of love exist. And love comes in varying degrees. Most people try to refute this because they try so hard not believe it. This is why I don’t get along with most people – because I’m a realist and I face life with my eyes wide open. My faith taught me this, among other things. Like love. People like to say all love is unconditional. This is folly. We put conditions on everything. We’re human beings. This is what we do. “I’ll love you forever if…” Yes, we do put conditions on love whether we realize it or not. Step back and look.

The love we have for our parents is different from the love we have for our children. The love we have for our friends varies by how close we truly are. The love we have for our partners is different from any of these. And the way I learned things in Gwyddonics, the Love and rapport we share with our gods is far different from any of these.

Home isn’t where you hang your hat. Home is where you hang your heart. Home is where you are wanted, needed, and loved. Home is where your soul is warm and happy. Home is where you are safe and at peace. Home is sanctuary. Raevyn said, “Home means knowing that even someone is missing, his presence still fills the rooms.”

When I first moved in with Preston and his parents in October 1995, I was lost and afraid and in recovery (from many things in many ways). I must add that I moved to Harlan County because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. Now people are going to say, because they always do, “But everybody has somewhere to go.” No, they don’t. The belief that they do is another of those pretty delusions create for themselves. I had met Preston’s parents only once prior to this, and that had been three years before. But when I needed a place to go, they gave me one.

The first time the four of us sat down together to discuss our living arrangement, Jan pointed to the plaque hanging in her kitchen. (It’s still there, by the way) It says: This isn’t home sweet home. Adjust. I laughed until I ached. Have I ever mentioned how much I love Art’s and Jan’s sense of humor? They’re fantastic. During that first conversation, one of the biggest things we talked about was the size of the house.

Now, their house is small. Four rooms, a bathroom, and a back porch enclosed to make a laundry. The only way to get into the bathroom is through either of the bedrooms – one of which opens onto the living room, the other onto the kitchen. It gives whole new meaning to “May you live in interesting times.”

Art and Jan said: Our house is small. We can all be at each other’s throats, or we can all get along.

We all agreed we would do our best to get along with each other. In a house that small with four grown adults, we had our moments. But we all learned a lot and laughed a lot. Gods, we laughed a lot. By the time Preston and I moved out in May 1999, the three of us loved each other, and living three hours apart has been like missing a major body part.

See, what people don’t understand is this.

Harlan County wasn’t what I was trying to get away from.

When I first got there, yes, it was. But like I said, when I first got there, I was lost, confused, and a complete wreck. Over those four years, I changed. I grew. I saw things differently than I ever had.

The four of us would go out to eat as a family. We would go to Middlesborough to loaf as a family. We would go to movies as a family. Art and Jan would – and still d0 – introduce me to people as their daughter. They love Thomas and Tayler as if they were their own flesh and blood. We all got so close. And those five words are inadequate for what I’m trying to convey.

Living at home with ‘Mom & Dad’ is difficult when you’ve been away to school, gotten married, had two children, gotten divorced, and been through yet another abusive relationship. You know how to take care of yourself and don’t think you need ‘babied’ in any way, especially when you’ve been doing everything on your own for ten years. It’s also difficult receiving love and attention – and being included in conversation and decision-making – that you’ve never received before. Being included, being counted as an equal.

For me, the experience was suffocating.

I didn’t want to leave Harlan. I just wanted out.

I never did, the entire time I was there, get Preston or his parents to understand. They just didn’t have the proper frame of reference and had no way to.

I finally gave up and in a fit of…something…got a job, rented an apartment, hired a moving truck, and told Preston if he didn’t go with me, I was done.

So, we went.

Until we started having transportation problems some years ago, I went back to visit for as long as I could as often as I could. And Art and Jan always had the door open and the bedroom ready. Preston didn’t often go with me, and that’s okay. We’re not joined at the hip and don’t want or need to be.

Then in July 2000, my mother died. Preston didn’t know what to do to help me grieve. He ended up taking me to Loyall with the understanding that I would stay until the insurance I inherited cleared; then I would buy myself a car and drive myself back to Lexington. I ended up staying down there from the beginning of September until the end of October. Art and Jan largely left me alone. They both worked full time, so I had the house to myself those days. And they attended church, so I was alone then, too. This is the medicine I needed. Along with a trip to Cherokee, North Carolina, given to me by their neighbor and a dear friend of mine; she and I spent a long weekend down enjoying ourselves and learning.

While I was in Harlan during that time, I had use of Jan’s car when I wanted or needed it, or their neighbor would let me use her mini-van. I spent time out on my own. Not often, but enough. I would walk through the mall or sit on teh beach at the lake or sit on the riverside at the blue courts. I spent dime at the library, too, since I had never canceled my card. You get the picture. I explored. I explored Harlan and I explored myself. and I learned a lot about both I never would have otherwise.

This is when I started calling Harlan County home. This is when I knew what I had lost and left behind when Preston and I moved away.

Jan and I will talk to each other on the telephone and sit and cry because we miss each other so much. Over the time I had lived there, the house had begun like a well-oiled clock (does anybody even still understand what that means?). When she worked days, Jan came home at 4:30pm, and I would have dinner ready to fix and a pot of coffee ready to drink. We would sit at the table and have a nice unwind before we started dinner at 5pm. We both miss this something fierce. We both cry at Thanksgiving and Christmas because we’re not together to fix our big family dinners and to be together.

So when I’m going on about ‘roots’ and ‘home’, all of this is what I’m talking about. Not about four walls and a roof. Not about the names on a family tree (that’s another post!).

It’s not that difficult to understand, but I thought I would take the time to spell it out.

What I think, and what anybody thinks, isn’t going to change what is – Robert Steinegger

You can’t let other people tell you who you are. You have to decide that for yourself. – ?

Family ancestry is very important…even if I’m not friendly with my living relatives. – Laura Perry

[[edited march 15, 2011, to add:

mari you have made me so happy to know that you are my daughter and my friend. you have the ability to make me laugh and make me cry. and to long for the things that were and may be again. i know that you love some one because to miss them makes your heart ache. and right this moment my heart is aching terribly. i will keep this always and some day sit down with you over a cup of coffee and discuss how much loving you has meant to me after all besides wanting a baby boy i also wanted a baby girl. i love you jan]]